Riders scatter to the tarmac. A few squeak through unharmed. There’s only a moment to react. Wait or race? It’s a debate as old as bike racing itself.
That eternal question flared up again Thursday in the Giro d’Italia when at least two simultaneous crashes near a traffic circle on rain-slicked roads fractured the peloton with about 11 kilometers to go in the 257km stage, which ended atop the 8km climb to Montecassino.
Only eight riders sneaked through unharmed: race leader and eventual stage winner Michael Matthews and Orica-GreenEdge teammates Luke Durbridge and Ivan Santaromita, Tim Wellens (Lotto-Belisol), Matteo Rabottini (Neri Sottoli), and BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans, Steve Morabito, and Daniel Oss.
Behind them was chaos. Several pre-Giro GC contenders went down hard, with Janez Brajkovic (Astana) and Giampaolo Caruso and Angel Vicioso (Katusha) among four riders who did not finish. Others bled time, including perennial grand tour hope Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), who lost more than seven minutes, and will not start Friday’s stage. A chase group featuring most of the big names chased desperately, but they eventually crossed the line 49 seconds back.
As the leading eight hit the base of the twisting, moderately steep climb up Montecassino, it was obvious the group wasn’t waiting for anyone.
“The communication in the final isn’t clear, and to make rational decisions for such an unexpected situation isn’t easy,” Evans said. “Our job is to race, and to race to the finish. That’s the first thing on our mind. What happened behind, I really have no idea. I didn’t see it. Unfortunately, it has been a very bad day for some of the riders.”
Some fans and pundits believe riders should wait when a rival hits the deck, and the old adage goes that a true champion never attacks a rival when he’s crashed.
Fair enough, but the harsh reality of the peloton is very different. In fact, it’s rare that the peloton does wait for a fallen rival, especially in decisive moments of the race. It’s one thing to wait when someone crashes with 100km to go; it’s quite something else with stage victories and leader’s jerseys in play.
There have been a few high-profile instances when the peloton did slow — such as in the 2010 Tour de France when Fabian Cancellara waved down the peloton on a wet descent made worse by oil spilled on the road, or in the 2003 Tour, when Tyler Hamilton and Jan Ullrich slowed to wait for Lance Armstrong after he tangled his handlebars in a fan’s bag — but those gestures were the exceptions, not the rule.
On Thursday, with 11km to go in the Giro’s longest stage, the race was on, full-throttle. No one was going to wait.
It was difficult to determine from television images what caused a second, larger and more costly crash near a traffic circle. A few riders crashed on the left side of the road in the middle part of the peloton, but TV cameras missed the second crash, which disrupted the main pack as the road narrowed going into the roundabout.
The peloton was roaring along at nearly 70 kph after the day’s main breakaway was reeled in. It had just started to rain. As riders pointed out last weekend, in Ireland, where it rains almost every day, roads are washed clean of oil and dust. But in southern Italy, where rain is infrequent, the roads turn slippery as the road grime mixes with water. Teams targeting the overall were jostling to put their GC riders into good position heading toward Montecassino. A crash was all but inevitable.
“Everyone wanted to be in the front because of the wet conditions,” said Matthews, who won the stage. “If you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, you’re OK. That’s racing these days. It’s all about positioning.”
Some suggested that Thursday was different, and that the leaders could have waited. First, they were not yet on the Montecassino climb. Second, nearly the entire peloton was on the ground or caught up behind. A sporting gesture would have been welcomed.
But who says waiting is fair? Orica and BMC had their riders in the right place at the right time, so why should they be penalized by racing into good position?
Waiting would have cost Matthews a chance to win the stage. And BMC certainly wasn’t going to wait, not with Evans riding away from his GC rivals, and time bonuses waiting at the line.
In fact, while social media was alight with the “wait or race” debate, most sport directors and riders didn’t even seem to consider it an issue. Crashing is simply part of racing.
“Is it fair play? Yeah, they are thinking about the win, they don’t know who’s behind and what’s happening,” Orica general manager Shayne Bannan told Cycling Weekly. “It’s the last 10km, and your adrenaline is going, you’re thinking about winning the Giro, and you keep going.”
There are certainly no hard rules. In the 2012 Tour, Sky slowed the peloton when it became apparent that someone had thrown tacks on the road, causing an outbreak of punctures, with Evans being one of the benefactors of the team’s good deed.
In contrast, just weeks later, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), not racing in this year’s Giro, was on the receiving end of cruel peloton justice in stage 4 at the Vuelta a España. Valverde crashed just as Sky was attacking in heavy crosswinds 25km from an uphill finish. No one waited, and Valverde lost the leader’s jersey, and most likely a chance to win the Vuelta.
Evans has been on the receiving end of a few incidents, most infamously in the 2009 Vuelta a España, when he punctured near the top of the penultimate climb at Sierra Nevada. As he struggled with a wheel change, his Spanish rivals attacked on the descent, and eliminated him as a GC threat.
And who says waiting is fair to the fans waiting at the side of the road? They deserve a real race. Should the group ride tempo until everyone has dusted themselves off and rejoined the pack? Just two days earlier, many were complaining that the peloton didn’t race when it deemed a finishing circuit in Bari too dangerous.
But crashes are part of racing. The pros accept this, and move on.
“We were in the right position to avoid the crash with most of our guys, but we obviously know that there’s also a degree of luck involved,” said Orica sport director Matt White. “We had a couple of our guys involved as well. No one likes to see races impacted this way by crashes.”
When the race is “on,” no one waits. That’s the law of the peloton, and that’s what happened Thursday. End of debate.