Rider protest halves day's stage
Unfortunately, the story that dominated stage 18 of the 2020 Giro d'Italia was one that didn't involve racing, or more specifically, less of it.
A rider protest saw the 258km course cut in half, with team buses frantically turning around to come back and collect their riders, the Movistar bus then breaking down and the Spanish team jumping into their assortment of team cars, taking them to the halfway point of the day that would become the new kilometre zero.
In the bus on the transfer over, riders fired off tweets explaining the decision. Adam Hansen, who acts as the riders' representative for the CPA riders' union, said proposals to shorten the stage had been discussed yesterday, which race director Mauro Vegni said he was not aware of, and RCS Sport's refusal apparently led to the strike.
Ag2r La Mondiale's Larry Warbasse then said all teams had been involved in the decision to strike, but Bahrain McLaren's Rod Ellingworth appeared on Eurosport hours later saying his team wasn't aware of any strike until his riders arrived on the start line. Both riders' tweets were hastily deleted - as tweets often are - and Vegni was whipped further and further into a frenzy in television interviews as the day wore on. In other words, just another normal day at a Grand Tour!
Wilco Kelderman to benefit from the shortened day
One man who will likely have benefitted the most from the reduced kilometres is new race leader Wilco Kelderman.
The Sunweb man cut an odd figure over the final 50km of the Stelvio stage the previous day, suffering and losing time to Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos) and team-mate Jai Hindley, while also riding himself into the maglia rosa as João Almeida (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) finally yielded the overall lead.
Kelderman looked far from smooth, however, having somehow avoided being frozen solid despite riding the decent without a jacket on, and 258km in the cold rain would have provided a punishing recovery ride.
"Weather this morning was terrible, also for the immune system these cold temperatures are a risk for the riders," Kelderman told RAI Sport after the finish of stage 19. "Us as riders wanted the stage to be shortened and we are grateful to RCS for taking this decision."
Grateful is quite the understatement. How much Ineos and Geoghegan Hart could have made Kelderman suffer on the Sestriere tomorrow after 258km today we'll never know. It may become a similar question to the one asked at the 2019 Tour de France when Egan Bernal went into yellow after that stage 19 was curtailed due to a landslide.
Josef Černý takes likely final victory for CCC
One person who will remember today for more wholesome reasons other than office politics is Josef Černý. The Czech rider attacked his breakaway companions with just over 20km to go and soloed to the line.
It was the biggest win so far of the 27-year-old's career, and the emotion and disbelief at what he'd achieved began to sink in as he rolled up to the finish line, hand over mouth. Moments like this made you forget about all the melodrama that can overpower Grand Tours on days like today, and for a second you could just appreciate and savour Černý's achievement.
It was also the first WorldTour victory for CCC this season and likely their last ever, with Jim Ochowicz's outfit folding at the end of the year and a breakaway unlikely to succeed on the final mountain day tomorrow, and then impossible on the stage 21 time trial. While many team staff and riders will likely have been working through this Giro under the shadow of prospective unemployment, a victory was very much deserved.
Strike fallout likely to rumble on as Vegni promises vengeance
Černý rolling across the line first will not be putting the story of stage 19 to bed, with ramifications from the action, or lack of it, at the start of the day likely to rumble on over the final weekend of the race.
At the time of writing, confusion still reigns as to how exactly the decision came about to not race half of the stage, with Mauro Vegni promising that "somebody will pay" for what he saw happen at his race.
The supposed collective organisation of the peloton quickly fell apart upon further investigation, Rod Ellingworth saying his team had no idea a strike would be taking place and Vegni telling the media up to 40 riders were waiting ready to go and asking him why the stage hadn't started yet.
Former pro Daniele Bennati said today's incident sets a "dangerous precedent", speaking on RAI Sport after the stage, asking what happens the next time it's 12 degrees and raining outside before a race? On that point, temperatures are likely to be around nine degrees on the Sestriere tomorrow...
Three ascents of the Sestriere should put our minds back on the racing
With the Colle dell'Agnello and trip into France for the Col d'Izoard removed due to coronavirus restrictions across the border, riders will instead tackle the Sestriere three times in what should be a final uphill test for the GC contenders before the Milan time trial on stage 21.
Wilco Kelderman went faster than Tao Geoghegan in both of the time trials we've had so far in the race, crucially in the opening one, which was similar in length to the pan-flat offering in Milan on Sunday. Jai Hindley also went quicker than his team-mate, but then lost chunks of time on the stage 14 race against the clock. All of these facts are pretty much meaningless, however, because as we saw at the recent Tour de France, 2020 has made even time trialling unpredictable.
With all three riders within 15 seconds of each other on the GC, Geoghegan Hart will likely not want to wait for the ITT to make his last ditch bid for the maglia rosa, having already successfully dislodged Kelderman up the Stelvio, and if Rohan Dennis has recovered his legs after his monster effort yesterday, Ineos will prove formidable opposition to Sunweb's quest for glory.
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