Sunday, May 17, 2009

Protest: Justified or a farce?

The ninth stage of the 2009 Giro d'Italia in the centre of Milan should have celebrated the first edition of the race starting in the city exactly a hundred years ago. Instead, due to errors by both the riders and the race organisers, the stage almost became a farce.

Mark Cavendish's victory in the final sprint was the only good moment of the day, with both riders and organisers heading off for the first rest day tomorrow blaming each other.

The 190 riders in the Giro were already angry after the tricky finishes in Mayrhofen and Chiavenna in the last few days and Pedro Horrillo's crash on Saturday heightened their fears. When they saw the twisting circuit in Milan, saw the park cars on the course, the lack of barriers and people crossing the road, the cobbled corners and then tram tracks running parallel to the road, it was the final straw.

Race organisers clearly had not done enough to guarantee the riders' safety and some say admitted it by agreeing to neutralise the stage and not take times for the overall standing.

That seemed enough to appease the riders in the early laps but then as the riders talked and rode the course several times, their anger grew. Lance Armstrong talked to pink jersey Danilo Di Luca, who spoke to other team leader such as Ivan Basso as the average speed fell below 33km/h.

Just after halfway through the 165km stage the bunch stopped on the finish line and Di Luca explained the reasons for their go slow. "We're sorry for the public but the circuit isn't safe. We don't want to risk anything. We hope the fans understand,” he said before the bunch set off again.

The riders eventually upped the speed and those who wanted to sprint, took some high-speed risks and fought it out. Those who didn't want to risk their necks, sat up and rode in at their own pace. Some at just a few seconds, others, including Armstrong, at several minutes.

Some of the Italian media described the stage as a joke, most criticised the riders for their disorganised, half-cocked protest. The only winner was Mark Cavendish and his Columbia team mates but even their celebrations were soured.

“After the first lap, even Lance said this circuit shouldn't be raced on,” Filippo Pozzato told Italian television.

“In the end the protest turned into a big mess. Decisions like that shouldn't be made during the race but before. Often when you make decisions during the race you make mistakes.”

"We saw in the first lap that the course wasn't safe," Di Luca said.

"There were cars parked in the middle of the road, traffic islands and tram lines. We asked the organizers to annul the times and we're happy that they granted our request."

Race director Angelo Zomegnan is know for showing little pity whenever riders complain and was fuming that they had ruined the centenary celebrations.

“When a race starts it has to finish. People stop when they don't know where they're going. They've betrayed the fans,” he said.

“We agreed to neutralise the times to avoid more adrenaline in the sprint. It was a good decision, especially after what happened yesterday, where I was the first to cancel all the celebrations at the finish in Bergamo after Horrillo's crash.

“If this circuit is dangerous then the Amstel Gold Race and Ghent-Wevelgem should be cancelled too.”

Zomegnan threatened to take action against the riders but no sanctions were confirmed after the stage. Instead he seemed to have a go at Lance Armstrong, who was amongst the ringleaders of the protest.

“This circuit required explosive bursts. It required riders to get their butts up off the seats of their bikes, and some riders who are not so young anymore apparently don't feel like doing that,” Zomegnan said on Italian television.

“It seems that as some riders get older, their legs became shorter and their tongues longer.”

Armstrong signed autographs after the stage but did not talk about the protests or his now fragile relationship with the man who convinced him to ride the Giro. He said on Twitter: “Unfortunately not the best day for the fans OR the riders. We (the peloton) collectively took the decision to neutralize most of the race due to circuit. Tram tracks running same direction as the course, parked cars on the roads, etc. Anyhow, it lit up at the end.”

“Cavendish got another stage win. Good for him, great kid. Rest day tomorrow then the 'real' Giro starts...”

Hopefully the real Giro will be on the road, with the rider's safety the biggest priority.

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