I watched today’s stage, Stage 11, of the Giro d’Italia, in line at the upravna enota in Celje, where I stood for no fewer than two hours in order to pick up my Slovenian residency visa. I’d been standing there so long in my own world that I forgot I was in public. When Tao Geoghegan Hart crashed, I let out a sound that probably resembled that which a dog makes when you step on its foot. I covered my mouth, first in embarrassment but then because Geoghegan Hart didn’t get up. One person moved ahead of me in the line, a monumental shift, mind you, and Geoghegan Hart still didn’t get up. Then the ambulance came. Meanwhile another rider crashed into a building. I stopped watching for a few minutes after that.
Geoghegan Hart wasn’t the only major contender that fell today. Roglič fell. Thomas fell. Someone in the line asked me what was wrong after seeing my face, and I said, Roglič je padel. Suddenly there was a group of people watching over my shoulder, but the company didn’t make things much better. My phone went off. A friend who is a cycling coach at one of the Slovenian continental teams exchanged a few messages with me about what could be done to assuage a level of danger that, by this point in the race, seemed to have gotten out of hand. He said something interesting, which is that while we have verifiable metrics for wind and rain and heat, we don’t have any for road slipperiness, which can linger far after the severe weather stops. Additionally, he made a point that these crashes also probably feel more profound because of all the abandons that have plagued the race, whether from COVID (which is or should be, arguably a manageable situation) or crashes (which are unpredictable). Both of these things are true, but I’m not sure what to make of either in a practical sense.
In a subjective sense, we have reached a threshold of carnage where even die hard fans are ready to tune out. The whole atmosphere of watching the Giro d’Italia feels slightly nauseous, as though we are now voyeurs to something uncomfortable and menacing. Twitter is an unpleasant place to be right now, with seemingly half of the people there arguing that the riders need to suck it up because this is a hard sport and crashes happen, an approach echoed in the displeasure expressed when Remco Evenepoel dropped out of the race due to COVID. He won the time trial, some argued, as though COVID were as benign as the common cold, and hence he should keep racing. Others, more uneasily, took a defensive tone —of course you should not force riders to race with COVID. Others still begged (and it did feel like begging) the question — at what point do we stop this thing? When, in a now-deleted tweet, I asked at what point are conditions too bad, I got yelled at because it wasn’t raining hard. But there is more to race conditions than just the weather.
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First, the COVID outbreak is thus that the obvious solution is to bring back at least some of the infrastructure necessary for mitigating the spread of the virus, even if that’s just masking and social distancing. How many of the old fenced-off media protocols are salvageable at this point I’m not personally sure. At the Tour de France last year, it was a kind of half-and-half approach for us journalists where we could enter the scrum instead of waiting in a media zone with mics attached to selfie sticks, but also we still had to adhere to finish line restrictions and wear masks. At Paris-Roubaix, my last in-person race, no one masked and there weren’t any COVID media protocols whatsoever. Some press conferences are online and some are in person. There is little to no clarity as far as I can tell and the enforcement of even ad-hoc rules is debatable. This, to me, is a very obvious shambles — COVID is not so memory-holed that a contingency plan is no longer necessary, whether enacted by teams or organizers.
Second, athletes are human beings. They are not put on this earth for our entertainment. They are not some mule you can beat for your daily dose of machismo hardman bullshit. If they feel unsafe or at risk, that is not them being a pussy, it’s them experiencing the same kind of workplace hazards we ourselves are often subjected to. Our sport’s superhuman feats come from grand battles on the slopes of mountains and in the surges of sprints. They do not come from riding with COVID or from surviving situations, which, like yesterday’s, are best described as “sketchy.” At some point, crashes are based on bad luck. But when the roads are so saturated with moisture, when there is already so much nervousness in the peloton, the line between luck and risk—necessary and unnecessary—is blurred. Was what happened to Tao Geoghegan Hart today worth it?
Meanwhile, what this means for the race, I am not sure. I feel bad watching it. Whoever wins will have a big asterisk by his name because of everything that has happened in the past eleven days. I don’t necessarily think that’s fair. I think surviving this shitshow is worth a trophy in and of itself, and that trophy is absolutely earned. But I will say that I find it upsetting that there’s been so much carnage from illness and injury without much real backlash. Indeed, it feels as though the men riding the Giro have been subjected to it rather than are eager participants. Gone are the 2021 days of self-neutralizing the race or instigating a slow-down in protest of dangerous conditions. I’m not sure where that fire went but I’d like to see it back.
Everyone says to me: you can’t control the weather. And yes, it is true that Italy is seeing an abnormal amount of rain for this time of year, just as it was true last year at the Tour de France that the drought was such that the leaves died on the trees lining the Champs de Elysée. This is the reality of climate change. It is not a reality that is going away. It is time to start talking about making the institutions of cycling resilient to weather events such as these, which, of course, means changing how cycling works, when it takes place, and what protocols to use. The best time for these discussions was years ago, but now’s as good a time as any to start having them.
Regardless, I mourn the loss of Geoghegan Hart. I truly believed he could have won this Giro, even without the asterisk. I think he could have outlasted Remco and Roglič in the high mountains. I believed that this was his year of vengeance against the naysayers who mocked him when he didn’t repeat his 2020 feat as though that were a sign of some great weakness or failure instead of the relatively normal progression of a man’s life in sport. Now he’s in a hospital somewhere severely injured, watching the action unfold with a morphine drip. Who’s fault, in the grand scheme of things, is that?
I think it’s worth asking.
An F1 friend of mine asked why the cyclists are not allowed to use special tires in the rain and I’m personally interested in such an approach because we allow such modifications for things like Paris Roubaix.
I completely agree, I just can't take any pleasure in watching the Giro at this point. At the same time, I feel obligated to honour the surviving riders who are still taking the risks.
For some reason, Italian roads often seem to be unusually slippery. Remember that year there was soap or something at the finish and practically the whole peloton slid across the line? That time there was oil coming off the Stockeu at LBL was a little different: deplorable, but explicable.
I don't believe the UCI has any rules about tire width in road races and they certainly don't have rules against tire compounds. As the other commenters have noted, tread is not relevant for thin, high-pressure road tires which are not subject to aquaplaning. In F1, you have special tires for different conditions because the rain tires wear faster, and tires don't last for the whole event. More tire changes mean slower times, so you have to balance the increased speed possible with better grip against the time lost to changes. That doesn't apply in cycling, where there is no reason not to use your best gripping tires all the time, every race. Who cares if they wear a little faster? Maybe teams aren't using optimal tire sizes and pressures on rainy days, but if so that's just custom, not rules.
regarding rain tyres:
in motor racing, they are needed because of aquaplaning, where the water cannot move out of the way of the tyre fast enough. For an F1 cars slick tyres the aquaplane speed is very low- something like 40 or 50mph. The large grooves and the tread pattern in the tyre increase that to speeds above those that an F1 car can achieve. The rubber compound is also different- softer, it would wear out very rapidly if used on a dry track but because of the water tyres stay cooler.
The aquaplane speed even of a slick bicycle tyre- even if it was mountain bike width- is in the hundreds of miles per hour. So really you don't want tread, you want slick. Because that way you're getting maximum rubber in contact with asphalt, and every bit of tread pattern you have reduces that contact. But maybe there's a need for softer, stickier, rubber in the rain. Of course that'll be slower when you don't need the grip, and on a changeable day will wear quickly, it'll increase drag and as the tyre wears will increase punctures.
It isn't a bad question though, and on stage 6 (I think?) Remco was spotted using what might be a development "rain tyre" at some parts of the day. There's definitely nothing stopping this from happening.