Tirreno-Adriatico eye witness: the race to survive beyond the windswept finish line of Sassotetto
Seconds after Primož Roglič crossed the finish line at Sassotetto, a new race began amongst the riders at Tirreno-Adriatico. Not for every second against the clock or for the glory of a prestigious stage victory, but a race against the cold, against the risk of illness and against the pain from racing 166.6km in extreme weather conditions.
The finish had been moved down the mountain some two kilometres to avoid the worst of the weather at the summit. However, the finish was now in a narrow rocky gully. The galeforce westerly wind blew over the top of the Apennines and was channelled down the gully towards the riders as they made a final sprint to the line.
“The racing was really on and off, and the wind was blowing down the mountain at us,” Tao Geoghegan Hart told me, sensing that the weather gods were perhaps angry with the riders at Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico on Friday.
The wind made the Sassotetto climb harder than the gradient suggested, with riders huddling together like penguins to survive in the headwind. Only Damiano Caruso dared to make a solo attack and picked a moment when there was a brief tailwind section.
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The race exploded in the final 1.5 kilometres when Enric Mas (Movistar) surged away, throwing caution to the wind. He forced a selection, but riding into the wind in the final five hundred metres was like racing in treacle. Other riders tried their hand but were blown back. Primoz Roglič was again impeccable with his timing, emerging at the very end to win by a bike length from Ciccone and Geoghegan Hart.
As soon as he crossed the line, the second race began. Roglič was bundled off to a warm room in a nearby concrete building that also served as a covered podium.
Everyone else had to fend for themselves out on the road beyond the finish area. It was dark as the sun set on the other side of the mountain, cold due to the wind and 1,286-metre altitude and wet due to the rain that came in gusts. After climbing in the wind and rain for 12.5km, the riders cruelly had to descend on the same road.
The riders stopped fifty metres or so beyond the finish, their soigneurs holding their hands in the air directing their riders to the left or right side of the road and chasing after those who they missed.
It was a truly apocalyptic scene, with riders fatigued, wet and dirty from the hard stage and mountain finish, yet also rushing to strip off and put on dry clothing as if they were trying to catch the last helicopter out of Saigon.
They were hot and sweaty after going deep in the climb but knew better that they had to quickly change and wrap up for the descent to their team buses, which were parked at the bottom of the 12.5km climb.
There was an option to take a ride in a team car, but the evacuation from the finish would only start after the last rider finished the stage. It was better to go quickly, to try to hold onto their inner heat and perhaps get a shower on the team bus before the hot water ran out.
Tao Geoghegan Hart was shivering as he undressed, but the cold mountain air dried his body in seconds. With the help of the Ineos soigneurs, he pulled on a thermal underlayer and put on a clean jersey, a jacket, leg warmers and thick gloves for the descent. He spoke to Cyclingnews as he dressed but was rightly in no mood to hang around.
He left before several teammates had even reached the finish, passing other riders and the gruppetto as he descended, and they were still climbing to the finish.
Tom Pidcock arrived soon after. He had tried to stay with the group as long as possible, perhaps as a test of his form but also as a way of staying warm on the climb so he could hope to retain the body heat for the descent.
Mathieu van der Poel seemed to do the same, only being dropped with six kilometres to climb. Maybe the Dutch rider is used to the cold of cyclocross, but he did not seem to be suffering. He pulled on a jacket, put a towel around his neck and headed down the descent with his legs still exposed to the cold. A true hard rider of the sport.
Julian Alaphilippe also rode in the group for as long as he could. He almost fell over in a gust of wind at one point but held it up and kept riding hard to the finish.
In a sign that the Frenchman is finding his mojo and morale once again, he seemed happy to race in the extreme conditions.
"It was magnifique, a lovely stage,” he joked in French. “There was a lot of wind, especially on the final climb. It was a little dangerous at times, but it went well in the end.”
Toms Skujiņš (Trek-Segafredo) finished 56th after riding to help Ciccone during the stage. He climbed to the finish at a steady pace, well ahead of the rest of the field and the two big gruppetto that came in after 22:33 and 23:15.
“It’s not extreme weather. It was -26C in Latvia this morning. This is nothing! It’s not even snowing…” Skujiņš joked to Cyclingnews as covered up for the descent.
“To race, you need a strong mind every day, but especially on a day like today, that makes the difference,” he added, highlighting the true strength of every professional rider.