The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
A couple of images have stayed with me since Marcel Kittel’s astonishing sprint victory in Dublin on Sunday night.
One was a photo I saw on Twitter with about 100m to go, with Kittel’s bike hardly in the frame. The other was seeing the super-powered German collapsing to the ground from his efforts over the final few metres.
To watch Kittel win in the early hours of Monday morning was to see something almost beyond description, which for a writer is not a good thing.
Could anyone else have done that? As I can’t remember seeing a win like that before, I’m not sure Andre Greipel could’ve managed to come from so far back, or even the Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish.
Imagine how Ben Swift felt, poised for victory only to see Kittel roar past him to win by half a wheel.
It was a scary display of power, and suggested that any other sprinter at the Giro had just seen their dreams of winning a stage evaporate.
Kittel looked set to dominate the Giro, as Cav did last year with his five stage wins, but now of course we’ll never know as the German pulled out ahead of the start of Stage 4 due to illness.
Maybe that’s why he lay sprawled on the road just after crossing the finish line in Dublin. Or maybe it was just Ireland’s atrocious weather: rain and a wind-chill factor of six degrees probably gave Kittel the fever that so abruptly ended his Giro campaign.
“Two days ago, after the third stage he already indicated that he did not feel 100 per cent. Yesterday morning he said that he felt better,” said team coach Marc Reef in a team statement.
“But this morning at breakfast he had the same complaints and after a few check-ups with our team physician we saw that the fever had deteriorated and so we made the decision together that he should not continue.”
Only part of me is disappointed that he isn’t there. Yes, it’s brilliant to watch an athlete at the top of their game, but I soon tire of a watching a procession, which is exactly what Kittel was threatening to do with the Giro’s four remaining sprint-friendly stages.
Chances are we wouldn’t have seen Kittel finish the race in Trieste anyway – given the typically ridiculous climbs this race usually features – and the looming spectre of Le Tour, which is often responsible for sprinters pulling out to save themselves for July.
So with Kittel bidding auf wiedersehn, who is most likely to capitalise?
Last night’s stage should’ve given us an indication but the wet weather is following the Giro. Not that it was wet compared to what we witnessed in Ireland, but racing was effectively neutralised in the circuit around Bari in Italy’s south.
Initially it seemed that the peloton was as one, with the Orica-GreenEDGE squad leading the race casually around the calm, flat streets of this coastal town. But as the stage entered its final 50 kilometres, it was obvious not everyone was happy to have another rest day.
Manuel Quinziato from BMC was one of the most vocal opponents of the go-slow and Sky’s Bernie Eisel didn’t look pleased either. But what’s the best option? Racing or risk?
Cycling isn’t a safe sport, but three days into a Grand Tour, on a slippery, technical circuit with numerous tight corners, made dangerous by the relatively rare Bari rainfall, the majority of the peloton decided safety was paramount.
You might say that races like last year’s Milan-San Remo were more dangerous, but that’s a one-day race.
You might say that the Giro has had worse conditions than we saw in Bari last night, but who wants to risk their chances so early?
Could it be that the tragic death of Wouter Weylandt is also playing on riders’ minds? Who knows, but even though it was wet for most of the race, by the final 20 kilometres the conditions looked pretty dry to me.
Predictably, social media wasn’t a happy place, although the mood picked up when we saw an intermediate sprint at 33kms to go, with Elia Viviani (Cannondale) and Robert Ferrari (Lampre-Merida) prominent. Adding to the farce, at that point we didn’t even know for sure whether there were time bonuses on offer or if they’d been cancelled for the day.
Ultimately there were no time bonuses, but for a long time we saw the Commissaires in numerous conversations with senior riders like Alessandro Petacchi, Paulo Tiralongo and Cadel Evans. The decision, if it was given, was never made clear to those watching and it’s arguable whether the peloton knew either.
That intermediate sprint at least gave us something to cheer, as it brought out the contenders to replace Kittel – led by Viviani and Ferrari.
In just his third Grand Tour, Elia Viviani has yet to win a stage, with a second place at the 2013 Giro and 2012 Vuelta the closest he’s come. Two wins and two seconds at the recent Tour of Turkey, claiming second on the points classification, gives him the best recent form guide.
He’ll feel inspired in front of his home crowds, but will he be there in Trieste? I’m not so sure, and that’s why Ben Swift (Sky) is my favourite.
Sky don’t do things by halves and with no real general classification contender, the sprints would let them salvage something from a race that until recently Richie Porte was planning to win.
Rain had the final say in Bari, returning in the final few kilometres and bringing down a number of riders. Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) made the most of the situation, sprinting to his first Grand Tour victory ahead of Giacomo Nizzolo (TFR), Tom Veelers (GIA), Ferrari and Viviani. To many that justified the decision by the peloton not to race hard but it was a shame for those who stayed up late.
I wonder how Bouhanni feels though? Do you reckon he really feels like a stage winner?
Watching the politics of a peloton under duress did make for a fascinating night of sport. Let’s not do it again though boys, you’re paid to race and the decision should really come down to the commissaires.
If you don’t want to race because it’s dangerous, make an individual decision, and let those who want to take the risk do exactly that.