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Wakeup call: Complacency on decline at Giro  

New incentives in professional cycling mean more interesting racing, and a thus-far unpredictable Giro d'Italia.

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I can’t during my time in the cycling game recall such a bizarre sequence of events as that which has punctuated the Giro d’Italia this week. 

As a journalist, you’re not meant to employ common sayings, it’s considered lazy, but the truth really has been stranger than fiction in the first grand tour of the season. 

Not even a wordsmith with the most vivid imagination could have conjured the sequence of events that forced Biniam Girmay — hours after becoming the first Black African rider to win a stage of the Giro — to abandon the race due to a cork. 

Not a muscle cork, but a projectile cork that exploded into the Eritrean’s face after he bent over a bottle of spumante placed in front of him to open it during the stage 10 post-race podium ceremony. It was a tragicomedy, the tragedy being that Girmay seriously injured his left eye, suffering from a hemorrhage in the anterior chamber, and was forced to withdraw before stage 11. 

Such was the widely recognised loss — and apparent safety risk – that Giro organisers reportedly enforced a so-called “prosecco protocol” the next day, removing the corks from the spumante bottles before the riders shook and sprayed the fizzy, yellow liquid inside all around. 

Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal in that aspect of a podium ceremony, the bubbles are usually cheap (no offence to sponsors), stinky and sticky. Why you’d want to be covered in that after a long, hot, hard day in the saddle I do not know. 

The cork call is big when you consider that Giro director Mauro Vegni has always been unashamedly committed to the aesthetic of his race. 

In 2018 when I asked his position on ‘podium girls’ — traditionally a glamourous, regular fixture at RCS Sport events — after F1 and darts in a #MeToo era retired the outdated role, Vegni was unmoved on the subject. 

“RCS Sport believe that in this specific moment it is more of a temporary trend to remove podium girls from sport events,” he told me via a translator. 

Girmay’s victory on stage 10 was a showcase for cycling. The 22-year-old put everyone on notice during the spring classics when he — in another history-making feat — won Gent-Wevelgem. No one coming into the Giro doubted his speed but some pundits during the first week questioned the strength, if not commitment, of his Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert team, as Girmay struggled with position and couldn’t get an open run at the finish in bunch kicks. 

He got that open run however on stage 10, pipping none other than Mathieu van der Poel, the Dutchman with a rich cycling family lineage and impressive palmares of his own, in a beautiful display. 

It was ‘new world’ cycling versus ‘old world’ cycling to which Van der Poel gave a thumbs up as he recognised defeat. 

There were other, significant observations that could be drawn from the result, too. 

BikeExchange-Jayco head sports director Matt White in an interview with me last year observed how the globalization of the sport and the globalization of teams had increased competition, arguing it was better to have a culturally diverse roster — as opposed to a predominately one-nation recruitment strategy — to discourage complacency. 

“French cycling, they’ve probably got too many teams for the amount of talent they have,” White observed. 

“For a half decent French rider, they can have a 10-year career without actually being that good, and you see it every year. They swap. They do three years at FDJ, two years at AG2R, another two years at Cofidis, somewhere else, then stop and they haven’t done anything. 

“I think the hunger and the fight it’s not there because it’s just too easy for them. If we had a team of just Australians, I don’t think that would be a good place to be. 

“You’ve got to pick the best people for those roles, and you’ve got to have the personalities. A team changes from one year to the next.” 

A similar conclusion could be drawn from the introduction of a promotion and relegation system this season. 

Take for example who Girmay and Van der Poel compete for. Girmay’s team only last year was granted top-tier WorldTour status. Van der Poel’s Alpecin-Fenix squad still competes under a second-tier Pro Continental licence. 

Under the new system, budgets, on paper at least, will no longer influence as much the status of teams and the marquee events they have entry to. No rider, no team, can now afford to be complacent with the safeguard of cash securing position in the pecking order. 

Maybe that’s why climbers in the last two days at the Giro have become the new lead-out specialists.  

With so much emphasis being placed on sprint trains at this time, the sight of general classification contenders Domenico Pozzovivo and Romain Bardet leading out Girmay and stage 11 victor Alberto Dainese (Team DSM), respectively, added to the Giro’s bizarre. 

Normally, you’d expect Pozzovivo and Bardet to stay safe, with their own goals in mind, not diving into the pointy end of an intimidating and feverish mass gallop to pilot a sprinter, as both did this week. 

Girmay, talent aside, I would have considered an outside shot at the Giro especially considering regularly touted sprint heavyweights Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Emirates) and Mark Cavendish (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), all fronted. Dainese was nowhere on my radar before Wednesday. His result again illustrated how much cycling is a team sport, even though only one person can win. That DSM changed its tact, switching from racing for Cees Bol to the Italian on the road and pulled off a win is testament to its teamwork. 

Stage 11 marked a quasi-end to the Giro for the sprinters, with Ewan exiting before the start of stage 12 following an uncharacteristic, winless run and increasing noise of general discontent at Lotto Soudal under general manager John Lelangue. 

The only predictable thing at the Giro right now is the unpredictable.