NAPLES, Italy (VN) — Given the countless crashes, which left several riders requiring medical attention after Saturday’s opening stage of the Giro d’Italia, it’s fair to question whether the sinuous circuit through Naples was unnecessarily dangerous.
With 207 sets of fresh legs, and the dream of a maglia rosa on the line for the stage winner, the massive peloton snaked along coastal roads with a variety of surfaces, from slippery basalt slabs to rough and rocky sanpietrini bricks. The course also delivered tricky obstacles such as tight hairpin turns, sewer grates, and at least one stray dog in the road.
Crashes came early and often, starting on the first of 12 circuits, when FDJ’s Laurent Pichon crashed on the circuit’s main descent, landing on his face, his bike flying across the road. He broke two teeth and required stitches in his chin and upper lip.
Pichon’s crash was the first of nearly a dozen incidents involving riders meeting tarmac, including one pileup inside the final 2km that split the front of the race. Only nine other riders finished with stage winner Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) — though the field was all given the same time as Cavendish, as the crash happened inside the final 3km.
Garmin-Sharp’s David Millar was one of the unlucky ones to go down there; though he finished, his bike was broken, a shoulder and buttock scraped and “bruised to hell.”
Defending champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) was positioned just beside Pichon’s early crash. Yet Hesjedal said the circuitous course was not the reason for the carnage on the road.
“Ultimately it’s the riders that decide how to behave out there,” Hesjedal said. “A lot of people were excited — they’ve been cooped up in hotel rooms for four days, with the sun shining out, the pink jersey is on the line today, all of those things boiled together. I survived it.
“I had a close call, coming off the descent, when [Pichon] crashed, all by himself, at full speed. I avoided his flying bike, I was right beside it. That will get you switched on in a hurry.”
With several hairpin turns on the course forcing riders to slow and then surge, the massive peloton constricted and contracted through the city streets. With 10km remaining and the day’s lone breakaway, Cameron Wurf (Cannondale) reeled in, the peloton stretched so long that the time gap from the front to the back was 21 seconds.
Orica-GreenEdge sprinter Leigh Howard was ahead of the day’s final crash, riding lead-out for teammate Matt Goss. He escaped the carnage, finishing eighth, with Goss fifth. Like Hesjedal, Howard didn’t blame the circuit, but rather the combination of high stakes and taut nerves.
“A late crash was always bound to happen, I think,” Howard said. “I think there are good things and bad things about starting a grand tour with a road race. It’s good because everyone can dream about a maglia rosa — you win, you take it, simple as that — whereas if you start with a time trial or prologue, it’s the safer way to do it, for sure, then you have one team controlling it the next day.”
The first few days of any grand tour “are always going to be nervous,” he added.
“The roads today were very slippery, I think that’s where the accidents happened, but all in all it wasn’t quite as hectic as I thought it was going to be. I honestly expected it to be an all-out bullfight out there, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t an easy fight for the line, but it wasn’t a demolition derby, either.”
American Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) rode lead-out for teammate Adam Blythe, finishing 23rd; Blythe finished seventh.
“It wasn’t quite as stressful as I thought it was going to be,” Phinney said. “It was less stressful than [the opening stage] last year in Denmark — of course, last year I had the pink jersey, so I was already super nervous anyways.
“We knew it was going to be a crazy course here in Napoli, with manholes a few inches below the street, and some cobblestones, but I think most of us came out of it alive. And from here on out I think it will be more relaxed now that we have the first day out of the way.”
Aussie Rory Sutherland (Saxo-Tinkoff) also avoided crashing, and said he wouldn’t blame course conditions for the crashes.
“You can make dangerous courses, but it’s determined by the riders,” Sutherland said. “Someone is always going to take a risk, but I don’t think it was the course. It’s a grand tour, it’s important, and it was a chance for a lot of sprinters to take a leader’s jersey when there’s no prologue or time trial, which doesn’t happen that often.
“Realistically, it was kind of to be expected. Look, the circuit was hard, it sucked, I didn’t enjoy myself, and a lot of other people didn’t enjoy themselves, either. It was kind of an unnecessarily hard race, but the riders did that to themselves.
“You just have to be lucky where you are, and it also comes down to how much risk you want to take on the first day. Our director said to us, ‘Listen, if it’s between crashing or losing 20 seconds today, it’s better to lose 20 seconds.’”
The rider who had the least to complain about on the stage was the day’s winner, Cavendish. He acknowledged that circuits are more dangerous than straightforward road stages, but said there will always be crashes in the opening stages of a grand tour.
“There were a lot of hairpin turns, a lot of surges in the peloton, a lot of sprinting to corners, which can cause some problems,” Cavendish said. “You saw [teammate Jérome Pinot] crashed in the first corner. In a circuit race there’s always going to be more crashes, but I think it was a nice circuit.
“It was nice for the fans, and I really enjoyed it.”