As tweeted earlier today the Giro d’Italia rulebook includes a novelty for 2017: the best descender prize. Some on social media thought it was a joke but it’s black and white in the race rulebook. Here’s a quick explainer on the prize and some thoughts on it too.
Update: the competition and prize has been dropped by RCS. The descents will still be timed and the data made public.
The first thing to note is that this is not a big prize. The Giro has many prizes up for grabs every day and if you just watch on TV then chances are you think the four jersey wearers and the stage winner go to the podium each day. In fact there are many more like the Breakaway Prize, the Intermediate Sprint prize, the Fighting Spirit prize plus three separate, distinct team prizes Super Team, the Winning Team and the Fairplay Team. Added to this comes the Best Descender Prize so the first thing to note is that this is an ancillary competition among others rather than the Big New Race.
It’s sponsored by Pirelli,
an Italian a Chinese tyre company. Here’s the rule copy-pasted:
A special classification has been set out to assess the best downhill rider of the 100th Giro d’Italia. Times will be recorded along the following downhill stretches:
- Stage 8: Monte Sant’Angelo
- Stage 9: Chieti
- Stage 11: Monte Fumaiolo
- Stage 12: Colla di Cassaglia
- Stage 15: Selvino
- Stage 16: Passo dello Stelvio
- Stage 17: Passo del Tonale
- Stage 18: Passo Pordoi
- Stage 19: Sella Chianzutan
- Stage 20: Monte Grappa
The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th fastest riders covering the timed downhill stretches above will be awarded with 8, 5, 3, 2 and 1 points, respectively. For each timed downhill stretch, the fastest rider will be awarded with a prize of €500.
At the end of the Giro, the general classification will be issued, based on the sum of the points achieved by each rider, and the following prizes will be awarded: 1st €5,000; 2nd €3,000; 3rd €2,000
Reading the rule closely it appears these are timed segments rather than logging the first rider to reach the foot of a descent. This means riders won’t necessarily know who they are competing against during a particular segment, it could be the riders at the front of the race trying to win the stage or challenge for the overall descend the fastest but it is actually more likely to be someone in the gruppetto, the group of dropped riders collaborating to stay in the race. Since they’re not climbers they’re often forced to descend fast to make up for lost time. In fact it is conceivable that a rider sits up before a descent and then leap frog the team cars and race convoy on the way down, profiting from the vehicular slipstreams to record the fastest time. Possibly unintentionally… possibly deliberately.
But what if riders race for this prize? As mentioned it’s an ancillary competition but just as Napoleon remarked that “a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon“, then a pro cyclist, especially one on a team that needs publicity and podium photo calls, will take risks to get this. Of course riders are already racing, to win the Giro is to master descents at the kind of speed that would have most of us applying the brown chamois cream. Descending is an essential skill and it can be argued last year’s Giro was decided down the Colle dell’Agnello.
But this prize is different because it creates a race within the race. Perhaps you’ve been out on a group ride when suddenly someone surges for no apparent reason, only to later explain they were chasing a virtual Strava segment. Now imagine this on a group ride of close to 200 riders and during a descent? As you can see this is risky to put it mildly, even among able pros. There might be other competitions during the race like riders going for an intermediate sprint but these contests are far more obvious. With these timed segments riders won’t be able to measure themselves against others in the moment.
It’s also a risky venture for the sponsor Pirelli, as soon as a rider crashes out of the Giro on a selected descent there will be questions whether they were racing for this prize even if they weren’t.
There’s also the other incentives, would a rider – and it’s not forbidden – jump on a specially-weighted bike for a descent? We’re quickly on a slippery slope here metaphorically and potentially literally. Would a rider in contention for the overall descender prize in Milan forgo a flapping rain jacket in order to hurtle down the Stelvio only to freeze? There’s skill and there’s stupidity and this prize may not be discerning enough.
If this blog found the new competition sitting in the rulebook it’s curious that it hasn’t been announced officially, like, for example the switch from the red jersey to the ciclamino purple version for 2017 that was announced in a press release and relayed across the usual cycling news sites. It’s possible that rider protest and their CPA union leans on Giro owners RCS to back down, there are already numerous expressions of incredulity and frustration from the peloton on social media and the US arm of the rider union has already spoken out about it. RCS will find it awkward to tell Pirelli who are sponsoring the Giro for the first time (or at least returning as a sponsor after an absence) that the new competition is going to be scratched.
It’s not the first time this has been done. Loyal readers will know that Paris-Nice had a meilleur descendeur prize in 1968 but it was abandoned: too dangerous or the ski maker who sponsored it changed their mind isn’t known. The Giro has had its moments too, for example the downhill time trial on the Poggio in 1987.
It’s a new prize for 2017 but just that, a small side competition. Still judging by the interest on social media it’s more attention-grabbing than the annual Fairplay or Breakaway prizes and for obvious reasons of risk and speed.
Descending is an essential skill and seeing this measured and rewarded is interesting in an abstract manner, in theory we really will be able to settle the question of who is the fastest rider downhill. However in practice this prize is fraught with risk.