As we near the summit of the mountain the speed increases.
The peloton passes the one-kilometer to go sign, riders suddenly burst out of their saddles to hold the wheel in front, no longer able to maintain the speed while seated.
Over the race radio we are told the descent is dangerous and that we should race for the front of the peloton to avoid crashes and take fewer risks. Every director in the motorcade behind gives the same command, which lifts the pelotons’ speed and creates instantaneous nervousness in the group.
On descents with dozens of tight switch back corners, that snake down the mountainside, the riders at the tail-end of the group ride ten kilometers an hour faster just to maintain contact with the group. The peloton is elastic; the decelerations and accelerations are the fiercest in the tail of the snake we create. Few stages pass where I don’t think of the consequences of an error.
As we race down a mountain road at 80 km/h I look over the ledge for an instant and my stomach drops. I say a quick prayer for protection. We race through towns at 60 km/h, the peloton using the whole road and often the sidewalks. The riders in the front can see the road ahead but the 180 behind them trust in the leaders. Suddenly the middle of the bunch will jam on their brakes at the last minute to avoid a parked car, a traffic island, a spectator leaning into the road or a garbage dumpster.
Every rider in the race has a dozen stories he can tell in the bus after the race—most are of moments where he almost crashed. Cycling can be dangerous; we know it an accept it. Yet too often we accept what we shouldn’t: riding on courses that haven’t been cleared of cars or marked for their dangers. At the Giro, the courses are designed to ensure a spectacle. The finishes are tight, through small towns with dozens of corners in the last kilometers. There are often sharp narrow descents on poor asphalt kilometers from the line. With a finish line in sight and a possible victory ahead cyclists take risks. In those last few moments, seconds, meters, and then centimeters make all the difference between being first and fifteenth. To make up those differences we take risks.
Tired from hours of riding our bikes over mountains the fatigue results in errors, and crashes. It is irresponsible of the organization to design courses that put our lives at risk. I wouldn’t want my sons, out here, racing. Cyclists aren’t meek, lazy or weak. We don’t back down to a challenge and we persist through the toughest of conditions for hours, over mountains, and through ice-cold rain, just to reach a finish line. We quit only when we can no longer pedal. Days ago, Allan Davis rode at the back of the peloton for 200 km, vomiting and filling cycling caps with diarrhea. Despite his condition he continued to pedal, and finished with a hope that he might be better by the next day.
Cyclists are stoic individuals. The peloton is now spotted with riders bandaged from crashes, their limbs covered road rash. They persist. On Sunday, in Milan, the peloton uniformly decided the course was too dangerous for a race. We were scared. With tram tracks crossing the apex of a corner, parked cars on the streets, oncoming traffic driving towards us with a few cones in road to warm them not to crossover, and more tram tracks — some parallel — the course was designed to show the historic sites in Milan with little thought put into the safety of the course.
For our decision to parade through the first hours of the race, cautiously riding through the streets, we were called, “lazy” by the media, organizations and directors. How easy it is to make decisions that affect our lives from a car seat, behind a television or a grandstand? I thought of my boys at home, my wife and parents, and prayed I didn’t have to take the risks the organization and teams were asking of us. Riders have died in races I have ridden; not because of the risks they took but because of courses that didn’t protect the cyclists.
The stage prior to the circus in Milan, Pedro Horrillo, a veteran on Rabobank, tumbled 80 meters down a mountainside. Near the back of the peloton he was racing down the mountain to catch the front to help his team leader Denis Menchov. Minutes before he fell I had ridden past the same corner — two riders in front of me, skidding and sliding, stopped just as they reached the metal barrier that Pedro flew over.
The descent was abnormally technical and the organization understood the possible consequences of passing the race over the mountain as they had placed snow fences on the ‘dangerous’ corners in the hope that they might ‘catch’ a rider before he plummeted 100 meters. People were seen on the corners ready with ropes, to fish out fallen riders. Cycling is a spectacle that doesn’t need to become a circus to draw attention. And, when a race decides to increase the dangers to draw interest, we need to decide whether we are athletes or clowns.
Cycling is a beautiful sport. We race because we love riding our bikes not because we find thrill in danger. Hopefully, the spectators watch us because they want to see the heroism of the cyclist and not the tragedy of a crash.
Michael Barry is a member of Team Columbia-Highroad, husband of Olympic medalist Dede Barry and author of VeloPress’s “Inside the Postal Bus”
Barry also authored Fitness Cycling with his wife and Dr. Shannon Sovndal.