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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.