Giro d'Italia 2021 - Shortening Stage 16 did little to dampen the spectacle – not that we could see it
On balance, the race organisers were probably right to shorten Stage 16 as a precaution – even if it meant fans missing out on potential early fireworks on the Passo Fedaia and Passo Pordoi. But given the absence of live TV images owing to the adverse weather, that was perhaps no bad thing.
Highlights: Bernal 'on another planet' as he charges to Stage 16 glory
Egan Bernal has certainly carved out a niche of being the primary beneficiary of key Grand Tour mountain stages curtailed or shortened due to bad weather.
Two years after he took the yellow jersey on that apocalyptic Stage 19 in the Alps, the Colombian, this time already firmly in the race leader’s pink jersey, strengthened his grip on the 104th edition of the Giro d’Italia as the whole world watched. Or didn’t watch, as it transpired.
For no sooner had the 24-year-old put in his decisive dig on the Passo Giau to leave all his GC rivals in his wake, than the bad weather which had already brought about the shortening of the queen stage caused the live transmission to wipe out. Fans were left to imagine Bernal picking off the remaining riders from the break before cresting the top of the race’s de facto highest point before safely descending to Cortina d’Ampezzo.
Here, once Bernal came into view of the stationary cameras mounted at the finish, the world really was able to see the champion elect not push for every second possible – but do the classy (and hugely confident) thing of removing his rain jacket in time to celebrate his first victory of the race in the pink jersey (a week after his maiden Grand Tour stage win at Campo Felice saw him take over the maglia rosa).
This frustrating televisual blackout meant that not only did fans have to imagine the final 22km following Bernal’s blistering attack, not to mention most of the famous 29 hairpin bends of the Passo Giau, they were also left with the overwhelming notion of what if – that’s to say, what if the race hadn’t been shortened and it had run for the full 212km as first planned, including the mouthwatering dual ascents of the Passo Fedaia and the Passo Pordoi?
Would it have been any different if Stage 16 was 212km?
Hugh Carthy certainly woke up in the morning feeling like the terrain and the weather could be his ticket to Giro glory. If the Briton was miffed enough while the status of the stage was still up in the air ahead of the delayed start, he clearly still felt motivated enough to give it his best shot once the race approached the Giau.
Carthy’s EF Education-Nippo team successfully managed to break up the Ineos Grenadiers train of Bernal, and were also responsible for the hefty tempo that saw Belgian tyro Remco Evenepoel shelled out on the Colle Santa Lucia before the Passo Giau had even got going.
‘I prepared for 212km’ – Carthy on shortened Stage 16
Had the American team been able to do this earlier – on either the Fedaia or Pordoi – would it have made any difference? It perhaps would not have stopped Bernal from winning, but it could have seen some of Carthy’s rivals for the podium lose more time than they already did.
Simon Yates, for instance. Carthy’s fellow Lancastrian had a shocker in the cold and wet conditions, the Team BikeExchange rider tailed off by the pace-setting of his namesake Simon Carr at the start of the Giau. Yates eventually finished over two and a half minutes back to surrender his second place and drop to fifth, a whopping 4’20” down – his unfinished business with the Giro set to go on for at least another year.
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"It was a difficult day, a little bit less difficult because we didn't run the full stage, and luckily, we didn't," Yates admitted after the stage.
"It was cold enough today and if we'd have run the full stage today – I think they made the correct decision – if we'd have gone over those two other passes in those temperatures, we'd have seen even bigger gaps. It was the best decision for the riders' safety.”
Yates may have benefited from the stage being shortened, but the likes of Romain Bardet and Damiano Caruso (second and third on the day, up to seventh and second on GC respectively) would perhaps have relished the prospect of more climbs (and testing descents) to have put time into their rivals.
There was certainly some levels of animosity towards the decision to shorten the stage from keyboard warriors on social media, plus even some broadcasters – with RAI, the Italian host broadcaster, showing images of how the Fedaia and Pordoi looked around the time the peloton should have been going over. The inference being that they were just as rideable as the Giau and final descent to Cortina were.
After all, the only rider who seemed to have lost a tussle against the elements was the Spaniard Gorka Izagirre, who overcooked a corner on the descent of the Santa Lucia and almost rode into a parked van on the side of the road. Then again, we had no images of the final descent - so who's to know how many near misses were encountered by riders there.
‘Well held!’ – Izagirre almost crashes into van in scary near-miss
As it stood, the two climbs were cancelled on a “what if” premise – what if the bad weather turned worse, and rain turned to sleet or snow. Even Mauro Vegni, the race director, admitted as much prior to the stage - the Italian making it known that he was probably against the shortening of the stage, but felt he had no other option in light of previous events - such as Stage 19 last year, or the snow-curtained 2013 edition of Milan-Sanremo.
"I think the whole thing – even the final descent – is completely doable," Vegni told Eurosport's Bernie Eisel before the stage. "But the conditions mean we have to take two climbs out to keep the race going – so we still have a real race.
"What we really wanted was not a go-slow but a proper race. By eliminating the problems, we hope to have a proper race. Hopefully we’ve made everyone happy with the decision. We didn’t need to speak to the riders because we took the decision ourselves – there was no protest. I’m still angry about what happened last year in Stage 19, which wasn’t respectful to the race. So this year we’re making the decision ourselves to respect the fans."
Bernal ‘has sewn up the Giro today’ – Wiggins
In the event, the weather – which was already no picnic to ride in – did not deteriorate, which certainly raised the retrospective possibility that perhaps the decision was too precautionary.
The stage winner himself, when asked whether he would have preferred to ride the original 212km or the shortened 153km stage, said: "Both stages were hard. For me, to give more show, it was better the stage with the original route."
Then again, he would have said that, wouldn’t he?
The bottom line is that, while the weather may have not put the riders in jeopardy even had they been sent over two more climbs, it certainly was still bad enough to put the TV transmission out of action. And what is pro cycling if there are no images of the race?
The dreaded “Images from the finish line” tag ended up defining Stage 16 of the Giro more than Bernal’s race-winning attack. Fans – even Colombian ones – could not have put up with two extra climbs where all we saw were pictures of the rain pounding down on the masked population of Cortina d’Ampezzo.
Yes, it sets a dangerous precedent of stages being shortened in anticipation of potential bad weather that may never materialise. But Vegni clearly learned a lesson from last year's debacle during Stage 19 when that rider protest caused the peloton to put on a go-slow while the entire world watched.
Better a spectacle that no one can see rather than a damp squib we all have to endure.