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18th Giro Della Toscana 2013


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                             Stage 4     

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Stage 4

Lucca Firenze 104.9km

Strike represents an historic day for women's professional peloton

This is not a race report, this is a piece by CJ Farquharson - an outline of the events of the week leading up to the protest and an opinion upon it.

The women's professional peloton did itself significant favours today in Lucca, despite what may initially be assumed, especially by the organisers of the Giro della Toscana. For many years, this race has had a reputation for chaotic stages, often characterised by public cars breaking onto the course during the stages. Almost anyone who has experienced it would agree with a one word description of the race, which the Italians are fond of for such chaotic situations, "casino". 

In my opinion, the traffic conditions were even worse this year, making the race even more dangerous than ever. 

It is true, the organisation has slowly heeded and changed some things within its direct control. There used to be evening road / massed start stages here, often with delayed starts which meant the riders finished in near-darkness. In 2007 or 2008, I remember Australian, Olivia Gollan, from the Italian Menikini team and representative of the riders on a group convened by the UCI, being thrown off the race for leading a protest about safety and the conditions suffered in the evening stages. There has not been a massed start evening stage since, Gollan's effort was not in vain, although the spectacle of the evening time trial has continued, despite the dangers of riders competing in the dark on a course which is not completely blocked off to pedestrians.

The 2013 event has shocked me, moreso than other years, in terms of the traffic conditions encountered. Maybe, but unlikely, I have had the misfortune to consistently pick places from which to photograph the race where the traffic was particularly badly managed by police and race security or, as I believe, traffic management was ineffective this year as a whole. The 'envelope' in front of the race of pre-race vehicles seemed very short compared to other races and did not seem to give time for officials to stop traffic and ensure it stayed stopped. Other races have police and security motorbikes further ahead, but which slow briefly at a line of traffic and signal or speak to drivers not to move until directed. 

I saw police motorbike riders riding through oncoming traffic with the police siren on, but not giving any hand signals for vehicles to stop. There was also a considerable number of cars and trucks which stopped when commanded by the police who did give hand signals, only to continue towards the race when the police had passed. Where there were breaks in the peloton, that is groups of riders not the complete peloton, traffic continued against the course of the race, between groups despite police and security motorbikes driving at the head of these groups. In other situations, where there were too many splits, groups of riders were left unaccompanied on the road with traffic coming towards them. More than once, riders told me that they approached junctions and corners and braked simply because they could not be sure that the course ahead would be clear. Several times, riders were forced to ride in the centre of the road, with stopped traffic on both sides. Vehicles had been driven onto the course between the lead cars, motorbikes and police escort. The final kilometres leading to the minor group sprint on Stage 1 were full of cars in both directions, the road was open to traffic.

It was not until after the unfortunate crash (click here) after the finish on Stage 2, which claimed but thankfully did not seriously injure Chloe Hosking, that the protocol there was enforced. A relaxed attitude to access at the finish has, for many years, meant that people without any need to be there, nor a role to fulfil, have watched the finish from the area just behind the finish line, in some cases, in front of (but to the side of) the photographers' line, but on the road nonetheless. Sadly, it took Chloe's crash for this to be organised properly, so at least on Stage 4, there were only accredited and essential people on the road at the finish line. It is disappointing that responsibility was not taken earlier on to sort this out and nothing short of huge good fortune that no incident more serious has occurred before now. Attempts to point out the danger in the past by various people, including me, have been met with either an attitude that there is no danger - what would people like me know?, or that this is the way the race is always run - without problems before so why change?

The traditional finish in Firenze, at Piazza della Republica, in the centre is always a grand spectacle. It is also a scary proposition for the riders. Firstly, beyond anyone's control, more often than not, it is often wet and the final kilometres are slick cobblestones, worn down by millions of pedestrians each year. Secondly, the course in Firenze snakes through narrow lanes; lanes which are pedestrian-only or which are lined with parked cars and scooters and motorbikes. Tourists visiting the sights of the city suddenly find themselves spectating at close quarter and without anything to stop them stepping into the path of, the fast moving spectacle of the bunch accelerating and organising for the finale.

After the four previous stages which have been endured this year, the riders and their managers knew that something needed to be done. At the start area in Lucca this morning, the riders prepared themselves as usual whilst their directeurs sportif visited each other's team cars and held discussions in growing impromptu clusters. It was clear that there was disquiet and they arranged to meet with the commissaires and organisation to discuss matters. At the same time, riders were also talking to each other. The peloton's hierarchy, World Champion and Olympic Champion and race leader, Marianne Vos, former World Champion, Giorgia Bronzini, prominent Italians, Noemi Cantele and Elisa Longo Borghini, important riders and those high on general classification, Emma Johansson, Anna van der Breggen and more were all involved in talking to their team-mates and non-team compatriots about what should be done. All were clear that they wished to demonstrate to the organisers that the preceding stages had been unacceptable.

The meeting between the directeurs sportif, commissaires and organisation was held, attended by some rider representatives. It continued long beyond the cut-off time for sign-on; at which point, the sheet was completely devoid of any rider's signature. Then, Vos and Johansson exited the meeting and walked back to their team buses and cars. It was still unclear what would happen, some teams wished to continue, some would not start at all. The option to ride neutralised all of the way to Firenze in protest had been rejected. A similar action last year had been largely unheeded by the organisation in many people's opinion. 

A few minutes after the riders returned, the team managers exited and returned to their teams. The organisation and the police and motorbike security, despite having been unable to provide a secure race parcours for the previous stages, had promised that the situation would be under control for this stage to Firenze. Some managers dictated that their teams would start, some gave their riders the choice. There were discussions within and between teams. Riders ready to go, with numbers pinned on their jerseys and congregating in groups, some sitting on their bikes spoke amongst themselves. After a few minutes there was a double consensus; a split in opinion and it was almost completely Italian / non-Italian in its nature. The Italian teams would start, with the addition of the German National team and Tibco. The remaining non-Italian teams would not start - Rabo Women, Orica-AIS, Sengers, Specialized-lululemon, Boels, Wiggle, USA, Optum, Argos-Shimano, Hitec Products, and also Italian team, BePink.

Eventually, the diminished peloton rolled out for the neutral section of the stage quarter of an hour late. The roll out was watched by most of those who had decided not to ride; there was an audible "boo" from some as the group passed. Then, once the procession was on its way, an impromptu cheer and some clapping from those who had made their stand.

The fact that not all riders joined in with the protest is disappointing. However, that the major teams and the race leader chose not to participate adds strength to their argument, so too, the absence of Bronzini and Longo Borghini. The future of this race is now apparently in doubt. But the question must be asked whether it worth protecting a race which for so many years has not got right, or has not had the right attitude to rider safety and security? The shrinking race calendar is a concern to all, but for too long, riders have overlooked their own safety in order to support events which do not necessarily reciprocate their respectful action. 

A powerful and important message has been sent to not just this race organiser, but to all race organisers today. A relaxed attitude to safety, or ineffective security and unacceptable conditions on races will not be accepted. The women's peloton has voiced its disquiet and shown its strength today. Despite their concern for the hard work of this organisation (and those I spoke to appreciate the amount of effort put into running the event for them), they felt that they had put up with too much this week. It is not a light, nor easy decision for riders to decide to stop a race and the lack of support for the protest by the teams who chose to ride today gives evidence to that fact. Marianne Vos gave up an almost certain overall victory, podium positions were conceded by Johansson and van der Breggen and some riders, such as Janneke Busser knew this was to have been their last day in the saddle on a stage race before retirement. They all and everybody who did not start gave that up for the greater good. All of those who did not ride made a statement for the whole peloton. 

I sincerely hope that this day is significant in the history of women's professional cycling and I am proud to have been a witness to it. I support wholeheartedly the action of the riders and teams and add my own protest too - I sit here in the hotel writing this article. I decided to add my own, albeit small action, despite some client expectations, I chose not to travel to Firenze to take photographs of the finish and the 'final' podium. For me too, the race finished yesterday evening in Capannori.  

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