May 25 2006
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
When this year’s Giro course was announced, I was pretty freakin’ psyched. I mean, an opening week on the on the cobbles and bergs of Belgium, some seriously rugged mountain-top finishes, and, mirable visu, a final day split-stage that looked potentially race-changing (uphill TT) without being unduly demanding (120k total) for the riders. What an excellent backdrop upon which to cast what has been the most exciting grand tour in recent years.
Sadly, though, there was resistance from day one, as Petacchi whined about a lack of “sprinters’ stages”, and even the irrepressible Jens Voight (whose epic conditions mantra is “Excellent! Others less motivated!”) bristled at the idea of race organizers foisting a split-stage upon the peloton in a modern Grand Tour. As the race date grew closer, Giro organizers RCS caved to pressure from the riders’ union and the UCI, and cut the Ghisallo time trial, and then yesterday, despite massive efforts to properly bowdlerize the final climb to Kronplatz, organizers chopped the brutal last muddy pitches from the race route, further proving that in cycling, nobody rages anymore.
Now, I’m not saying that the shortening of yesterday’s stage had no justification- unquestionably, it saved the riders tons of pain and everyone else tons of hassle – but think back to the stage before last, when everyone took a moment to remember Charly Gaul’s epic ride up that same hill half-a-century earlier. When they climb the Plan de Corones 50 years from now, think they’re gonna look back and say “remember Piepoli’s win here in aught-six? When the organizers shortened the course due to bad road conditions? Man, that was awesome.” Hard races in abominable conditions are what makes cycling great. And lest you claim such epic rides are relics of a bygone age, consider Andy Hampsten’s peformance on Passo Gavia in 1988, a date I consider well within the bounds of cycling’s “modern era”.
It should be noted it’s not a no-holds-barred return to the sepia-toned days of split-stages, with riders going hell for leather ’til they dropped lifeless at the side of the road, that I’m advocating here. I’d just like to see the race organizers take some risks and shake things up every now and then. It’s a great thing if done correctly. Tour of Flanders’ Koppenberg climb was axed from the race course for over a decade, having been deemed “a lottery from the past”. But who wasn’t glued the screen this past April, as a pack of race favorites scrambled up it cleat-on-cobble to chase Tom Boonen down? And Armstrong’s heart-stopping cross-country dive on Stage 9 of the ’03 Tour would have never happened had organizers cut the stage off early due to the melting tarmac.
Wha gives me additional pause is that frequently-occuring entropic events, such as chance mechanicals and idiot tifosi, tend to strike one rider unfairly, yet are shrugged off as just “part of the sport”. At the same time, universally chaotic occurances, which spoon out roughly equal disadvantage to all parties (things like, oh, I dunno, ugly weather, or two races in a day) are avoided like the plague. Its curiousity is only furthered by the fact that, historically speaking, a rider’s ability to conquer this vilified broad-spectrum adversity is what seperates (Merckx v. Ocana in the ’71 Tour, Armstrong v. Ullrich in ’03) the truly great from the merely good.
Personally, as both a spectator and an amateur racer, I love the fact that the potential for immesurable chaos comes part and parcel with a race dossard, be it something as mundane as a wind shift or surreal as a snowstorm. In many ways, the whole sport of cycling is a testament to humanity’s futile and ever-running battle against the Second Law of Thermodynamics; why must race organizers belittle that conflict by robbing our doomed heroes of a sufficiently epic adversary?