Sprinters quit the Giro d’Italia

Friday, 20 May 2011

Cavendish

Finished line

Yesterday saw the last flat stage for the sprinters in the Giro and predictably Mark Cavendish won. Perhaps equally predictably several sprinters have left the race overnight, Cavendish included. Every single remaining stage of the Giro now contains some serious climbing… except the final time trial stage in Milan.

Blunt truth
What’s most surprising for me is not the departure but the open way riders talked about this. Sprinters are unsuited to the high mountains in the same way mountain climbers struggle with cobbles. But there’s long been a tradition of waiting to be eliminated by the broom wagon or, whisper it, citing illness or injury. The TV interviews with Cavendish and Alessandro Petacchi were quite different with both saying “I’m going home this evening”.Many fans seem disturbed by this. Bailing out just because you’ve had your fun doesn’t seem sporting, after all we don’t see climbers rolling up just for the final week. Plus it’s an honour to race the Giro d’Italia.

Pro
But a pro rider is just that: professional. Modern day athletes are paid to win, not to drag themselves anonymously over mountain passes. As a result, quitting the race today means they’ll be fresher for upcoming races. Don’t forget they’ve already done more mileage than, say, the entire Tour de Suisse. You could argue Alessandro Petacchi might be of help to Michele Scarponi a bit given he’s able to cope with some climbing but Mark Cavendish just won’t be able to shelter Marco Pinotti and Kanstantsin Siutsou that much.

But not everyone has this luxury. If Cavendish, Petacchi, Ventoso, Renshaw and others are a DNS today then many other sprinters are staying in the race.

Catabolic
The third week of any grand tour is the hardest and by some way. If a few days of racing are exhausting, after 15 days the body begins to shut down. Hormone production drops off, precious red blood cells vanish and already lean riders struggle to retain body weight. The body simply starts to break down.

On top of this there’s other risks to come in the mountains, whether illness from the colder temperatures – there’s still snow in places – as well as some tricky descents. Set against all this and the benefits to riding on seem small.

Incentives
Blame is the wrong word but for me the organiser has some responsibility here. There’s simply no reason for a sprinter to do the final week. The “bait” of one flat stage might encourage some stay in the race. So would a points competition and jersey that rewarded sprinters ahead of climbers, despite the summit finishes. With no more flat stages, nor chances to secure a “sprint” jersey, there’s little reason to stay in the race. Petacchi was leading the points competition but now Alberto Contador will be in the lead should presumably rack up more points over the coming days, meaning the other sprinters won’t get a chance.

Precedent
Let’s no kid ourselves, sprinters leave the Tour de France in the mountains, Italian legend Mario Cipollini never made it to Paris and several times quit the race before he got eliminated, boasting he was off to the beach. Massive one day races like the Tour of Flanders can be treated as preparation for other events. Or look at the Vuelta where numerous riders take the start with the aim of training for the Worlds; here’s a grand tour that’s used by many as a training race.

Voiture balai

Struggling on to the bitter end

Summary
It’s not great to see riders openly walking out on the race. The struggle is very much part of the sport, history is full of imagery of a rider enduring agony just to finish. Unlike other sports, we often celebrate the slowest, the lanterne rouge.

So it’s a surprise to see some openly announcing their departure rather than waiting for the broom wagon to sweep them away. Yet their departure is entirely rational, there is little reason to haul themselves over the mountains, indeed many would probably be eliminated. Many would like to see riders slog on but the small finishing medal waiting in Milan just isn’t enough to motivate riders.

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{ 11 comments }

mark rushton May 20, 2011 at 10:03 am

Same Ventoso who complained that Cavendish was holding on to a car?

Gadi May 20, 2011 at 10:48 am

I dig that you still must have something in your legs to be a (pure) sprinter ,but can’t help wondering what is the correlation between empty box above the shoulders and these guys .
It’s just disgusting that they are (all) talking about it freely and publicly but looking at Mr. Cav speaking to the media after he wins , not to say , losing I find myself simply not watching all these “special sprinters stages” – who really cares for sprinters anyway.

Mark May 20, 2011 at 11:06 am

I don’t like to see sprinters leaving the race like this but for me the balance in the Giro is wrong , too few flatish stages and too many mountain stages . If organisers have a race like this they surely know what will happen . No chance of even winning the ‘sprinters’ jersey or even a sprint in the final stage so no incentive at all to drag themselves over those mountains .

StevenCP May 20, 2011 at 12:19 pm

It’s a shame, but entirely reasonable. Who can expect the sprinters to stay the course just for the sake of it. Not in the spirit of sport, sure, but so early in the season it has to be expected.

You are quite right though, riding a Grand Tour is an honour – finishing one, more so. I remember Kimmage’s brilliant passage on being swept up by the broom wagon at the Tour. Anyone who read the despair he felt at that moment – at losing his chance in a Grand Tour – would surely think twice about just dropping out willy nilly. To many, just finishing is a big deal.

Ultimately though, as has been said above, it is the organisers who are to blame. When you’re the first big race of the year, is it really sensible to organise it in such a lop-sided fashion? Don’t blame the sprinters, blame them instead.

Ben May 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm

I’m very accepting of Cavendish leaving in particular, because he has already stated that all 3 grand tours are amongst his goals for the season. Surely no one can expect Cavendish to race all 3 to the end, along with plenty of other race days throughout the season (along with big objectives like Milan-San Remo and the Worlds, sprinters also have to rack up the win count in smaller races), and be competitive in each and every sprint he participates in. I expect he will leave the Vuelta early too, but I think given he is racing all 3, it’s more honourable to the races that he arrives at each in top form, than fight to finish all 3.

Angelo May 20, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Cipollini wasn’t invited back to the TdF just for that (heading to the beach).

Guadzilla May 20, 2011 at 5:59 pm

So no comments about honoring the sanctity of the race and making an effort to try to atleast complete it? :)

LeBurger May 20, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Many cycling fans like sprint finishes, but most don’t I think.
Me included, I don’t really give a s***.
sprints from a group:ok
But bunch sprints:meh

Even king stages in the TDF lack action compared to many(even second class) one day races

bikecellar May 20, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Giro organisers got the balance wrong, with regard to the sprint stages, time for the sprinters to recuperate for the next job do not forget that’s what it is, a job Sanctity of the race? get real.

benDE May 20, 2011 at 11:00 pm

The giro in particular goes for the hard, harder, hardest approach to grab attention. It plays out differently however. The pecking order is usually well established half way in and the ever increasing levels of agony for the peleton leads only to defensive riding by the strongest riders and teams in the last week. The Giro has a lot going for it. It would be better served by a design that would keep as many characters to the end as possible. e.g. last week with many hilly stages in MSR style where there is always a chance for the sprint. Lastly, end the bugger in ROME for god sakes!!!

benDE May 20, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Oh, sorry, one more thing . . . to spice up grand tours for a couple of years reverse the reversal on Contador. This guy will dominate all three for years. Why couldn’t he have been born 10 years earlier? n0w THAT would have been interesting!!

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