After one of the most dramatic grand tour stages in recent memory on Thursday, when the race exploded on the Stelvio, the Giro d’Italia descended into complete farce 24 hours later as a rider revolt forced organisers to slash the 251km stage 19 in half, with the riders spending the first 118km on a bus.
The protest, against the conditions riders are being asked to endure in late October in the middle of a pandemic, led to plenty of confusion and no little bad blood, with the Giro’s race director Mauro Vegni warning that “someone would pay” for the insubordination. However, it ultimately had no effect on the race itself, with Britain’s Tao Geoghegan Hart [Ineos Grenadiers] finishing safely in the bunch to maintain his third place position on GC ahead of what should be a fascinating final weekend.
Czech rider Josef Cerny (CCC) won the shortened stage to Asti solo, clipping off the front of the breakaway with around 22km remaining. But his triumph was completely overshadowed by the morning’s controversy, which appeared to split the sport down the middle, with some sympathising with the riders and others labelling them ungrateful prima donnas.
Sir Bradley Wiggins was more in the latter camp, labelling the protest an embarrassing “shambles”.
“To ride your bike for 250km, whether in the rain or not, is a little bit disproportionate to what some people have to go out to do in the world – i.e. frontline in the army, working in the NHS in the current climate,” Wiggins said on Eurosport. “Lots of people sat in offices ride their bikes at weekends for passion and love for the sport, that’s why people fall in love with this sport because of what these riders have to go through.
“I tell you now - and it’s not even raining anymore - many people would love to be out there doing 250km all day on their bike, rather than sat behind a desk or, in some cases, not even working because of the current climate. We’re lucky to have a Giro d’Italia this year. Make the most of it. We’ve seen what it’s like when there’s no races.
He added: “They’ve made more of a stand today than they did for [French rider] Kevin Reza and the stand against racism at the Tour de France. The whole thing is just a shambles and I think everyone ends up looking stupid.”
Some riders defended their actions, although not all of them were prepared to do so publicly. One anonymous rider told Eurosport that he had “never seen riders this broken” and that they were all “on their knees”.
“6:30am starts last four days, seven hour stages, transfers,” said the rider. “To be honest, this is only because everybody is on their knees. I've never seen a Tour where people are this broken."
"The handling of the situation was really bad"@EiselBernhard reacts to the decision to shorten Stage 19 #Giro d'Italia - Stage 19
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📱💻 Uninterrupted coverage: https://t.co/SnX8fNcIJj pic.twitter.com/7no4AwWp1i
— Eurosport UK (@Eurosport_UK) October 23, 2020
One of the problems was the almost complete lack of communication early in the day around why the protest was happening or who was leading it. Bahrain-McLaren chief Rod Ellingworth said his team were not consulted and were happy to race.
It was a case of the sublime to the ridiculous after Thursday's wonderful stage, but organisers will hope the pendulum swings again this weekend with the race fascinatingly poised heading into the last two days.
Geoghagen Hart, 25, remains third overall, only 15 seconds behind the Dutchman Wilco Keldermen [Sunweb], who kept the maglia rosa after finishing with the peloton which crossed the line nearly 12 minutes behind Cerny, and only three seconds behind Kelderman’s teammate Jai Hindley.
Saturday's stage to Sestriere, while not as difficult as it was meant to be following the removal of the Agnello and Izoard cols due to Covid-19, should still provide plenty of opportunity for Ineos Grenadiers to try to isolate the Sunweb duo ahead of Sunday's final day time trial.
Geoghegan Hart, who had only ever won a couple of stages of the Tour of the Alps before this race, is attempting to become only the second British rider after Chris Froome in 2018 to win the Giro d’Italia.