The Secret Pro: Dumoulin’s Giro, the Hammer Series, concussion and more

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It’s been a while since you last heard from me and there has been plenty going on during this period of radio silence. So let’s dig straight into it. And I’m warning you, it could be a long one.

Italians will be Italians

First up, that little Italian race. In its centenary edition, this year’s Giro d’Italia was always going to be a special race. Despite the significance there were still all the usual highs, lows and questionable organisation (I’ll get onto that in a moment) we’ve come to expect from the Giro. And how could we forget the most memorable ‘pit stop’ in recent times!

The first big news to break at the race was, unsurprisingly, that an Italian duo had tested positive in an out-of-competition control. Bardiani-CSF riders Stefano Pirazzi and Nicola Ruffoni had both returned positive results for GH-Releasing Peptides (GHRPs). Great stuff guys! Good start! Way to respect your home race and fellow teammates! And people wonder why Italian cycling is in the doldrums …

The Italian economy isn’t strong at the moment and when you add to that bad publicity scenarios like the Ruffoni and Pirazzi scandal it becomes clear why there are very few Italian sponsors who see an Italian WorldTour squad as a good investment.

The big question that people asked was if the team (Bardiani-CSF) should have been pulled from the race. The answers I heard were varied. In an ideal world, I feel that once a rider has tested positive to the A-sample, then doping authorities should conduct the B-sample test as soon as possible. I’m not sure how much work is involved in testing, but surely it can be done in a few days. If the B-sample returns with the same positive result then hell yeah, I vote you boot the whole team out of the race.

I know it’s not ideal and it opens up a can of worms, but from my experience the B-sample usually comes back the same as the A-sample. My point being that by doing it this way around you give the team a chance to do the honourable thing which could be anything from seriously reprimanding the riders to bowing out of the race entirely.

For the majority of the cycling world, the news of the Bardiani-CSF positive tests broke sometime after the Giro’s teams presentation. However, from what I heard inside the peloton, the UCI and the race organisers (RCS) both knew well before the team presentation got underway. These rumours suggest that they decided to withhold the announcement until after all glitz and glamour of the team presentation. If they did indeed choose to keep things quiet until the hype of the 100th Giro was at fever pitch, and then released the Bardiani-CSF information as soon as the circus was underway, that would be a little sly.

So in conclusion we saw no fines, no team disqualifications and no punitive measures from the race organisers as a result of the Bardiani-CSF scandal. Meanwhile, the UCI saw fit to make an example of Victor Campenaerts for “bringing the race into disrepute”.

Across the finish line of stage 10’s time trial, the Belgian ITT champ got his chest out to reveal, scrawled across it in marker pen, a proposal for a date with a lady he had his eye on. For the UCI this was a step too far and they reacted by fining him 100 Swiss francs and publicly shaming him for bringing the race into disrepute.

Come on … Really? What happened to making sure that this sport has some colour and characters? If I’m not mistaken, Italy used to have a certain flamboyant rider who did the odd, outlandish publicity stunt at the Giro and the Tour. Sure, he copped his fair share of fines too, but can’t we agree the sport was more exciting for Mario Cipollini’s antics?

Furthermore, it’s not like the Italians and RCS are known for being conservative when it comes to using sex as a sales tool. Have you seen those podium girls?

I can’t see what’s wrong with a rider having a laugh in the race if they’re not going for the win. From what I have heard the rider had even been told by his DS that he had to “take it easy” and just get home within the time limit. He obeyed team orders even when other teammates apparently ignored them by scraping into the top 20 on the stage. He was reprimanded by the team and I heard that they even toyed with the idea of sending him home.

I really feel sorry for him. It was all in good spirits, and he stuck to team orders. In my opinion, LottoNL-Jumbo should be happy — they certainly wouldn’t have gotten as much TV time that day if it wasn’t for him.

To add insult to injury I’ve seen pictures of riders taking beers during a time-trial before (and maybe even this year — if you google deep enough you’ll find them). Surely this behaviour, in comparison to asking for a date, is more detrimental to the reputation of the race? Who knows, maybe the UCI have taken a leaf out of Instagram’s rule book on nudity?

During the first week, the main gossip beyond the Bardini situation was about Bora-Hansgrohe rider Matteo Pelucchi and his serious lack of form. We all wondered why the hell he’d been chosen to ride the Giro? On the very first hill he was out of back and then as soon as the first time trial came around, and he didn’t have a peloton to draft inside, he was eliminated for being outside the time cut. Apart from that the Giro was business as usual.

Riding with the pros

The Giro is still my preferred Grand Tour even with the poor organisation that comes with it. You’d think that the police would know that riders and staff need to get to their hotels as quickly as possible after a stage. We have massages to get, bikes that need cleaning or repair, food to be scoffed and we want to get these transfers out of the way as quickly as possible — even the short ones.

However, so many times this year we were held up because the police decided it would be wise to let every Tom, Dick and Harry onto the road at the same time, after the stage finish. Descending off some of the mountains in a team bus, stuck behind a steady stream of fans on bikes, in cars and in campers, isn’t the ideal preparation for the following days of racing.

It wasn’t just while descending from mountain-top finishes in the bus that fans hindered our progress. On a few occasions, I noticed fans jumping in with gruppetto on descents. We were joined by a handful of heroes who thought it was wise and safe to tag along. There’s getting close while watching the race (that’s bad enough), but this was just taking the piss.

Bike racing isn’t a safe sport; it’s a sport that demands we take risks in the hope of glory. We are willing to take the risks that are inherent to the sport because they’re well advertised in the job description. However, there are some risks that we shouldn’t be exposed to, and overzealous fans mingling with riders on treacherous descents is a prime example of this.

By comparison, at the Tour de France, you always know where you have to be and where you have to go — the TDF organisation is slick, and that generally includes getting off mountains. At the Giro this year, after a TT stage, I found myself wondering if I’d ever get back to my team bus.

Road signs were scarce and after 3km of pedalling in the direction of the start I was getting concerned. Eventually I made it back to the sanctuary of the team bus via a maze of backroads, barriers and generally following my nose. I dread to think how the guys with poor navigational skills got on that day. It’s situations like these that compound the stress levels during a three-week stage race.

Unwinding after a slow transfer and a severe stage is never easy either. People always seem to think that we get put up in great hotels during the race. I’ve said it before, but just to cement the fact that we aren’t living in luxury, there was even a hotel this year that had no hot water. Lovely. Just what you want after a 200km stage and a delayed bus trip.

On the good side though, the transfers between the islands of Sardinia and Sicily went smoothly. Even the morning we headed from Sicily to the mainland went well. Bizarrely, we all stayed on our team bus and tucked in to breakfast as the ferry chugged the short distance across the sea. Another positive from the Giro was that, for the first time in my career, I didn’t need to reach for my wet weather jacket once! Can you believe that? Let’s just hope the weather at the Tour is equally as beautiful.

Craps not hats

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Needing to “lighten the load” mid-race. Tom Dumoulin’s toilet stop on stage 16 definitely caused a stir and made the race that little bit more exciting.

Going for a number two mid-race is not always the easiest option. There are some guys, and I don’t want to name names, who seem to use the loo more than others before a race. There’s one guy on my team who will go at least six times before the flag drops.

If you are ‘caught short’ mid-race it’s not always a major deal. If the peloton isn’t tanking along you can either jump into a cafe in a small town for a quick evacuation or, as Peter Sagan (and Dumoulin himself) did at last year’s Tour, find an amenable roadside fan with a luxury camper and leave a souvenir in the camper’s khazi.

I’ve heard some horror stories as well. Some riders have been known to head to the back of the convoy, away from prying eyes, and, with a teammate propping them up, evacuate their bowels. The whole exercise involves cooperation from teammates to make sure you’re keeping a straight line. Then with their shorts whipped down, another teammate must be ready with a cloth cap held out in anticipation of the ‘deposit’. Once the deed is done the cap is slung to the roadside.

I’ve heard that both Mario Cipollini and Jan Ulrich used this process on occasion. I just feel sorry for the poor unexpecting fan who lunges for the used cap. Then there’s Jan Bakelants who had his shorts cut once to have a clean out. The things we have to go through … or should that be “the things that go through us”?!

Should the peloton have waited for Tom? I don’t think so, and I don’t think Tom would have waited either — it was the queen stage after all. This just reinforces how classy Tom is; holding on for the win even when he couldn’t hold on on stage 16. The way he handled this situation meant that a large percentage of the peloton wanted to see Dumoulin win over Vincenzo Nibali or Nairo Quintana. When you’re a nice guy with few enemies, it can come in handy. I think I’ll leave the Giro news on that little note.

Hammer time

We’ve just had the first Hammer Series race, and it looked as if it went down really well. It’s an odd one and really fucking hard — there was plenty of pain on offer. The sad thing is that there didn’t seem to be huge crowds lining the race route.

It’s certainly an interesting concept, for both the fans and the riders. The peloton as a whole is behind the series. We’d much prefer to be involved in races like this as opposed to some of the races that the ASO or the UCI have conjured up in far-flung places, like the Tour of Beijing.

In my opinion, for the Hammer Series to succeed, there needs to be more races in the year. Sadly, from what I’ve heard, it’s not going as smoothly as one might have hoped. There was talk that there was supposed to be a Hammer Series race in Cape Town, but it looks as though that won’t be going ahead now. The series needs to be bigger to be viable and the fact that the second host city has dropped out doesn’t bode well.

Races like the Abu Dhabi Tour could take the concept and play with it. The short, exciting style of racing (that at times resembles junior racing) is perfect for places like Abu Dhabi. If Holland can have a climbing stage then so can pretty much anywhere.

If it does grow and become a successful series, it will result in the emergence of a new kind of rider. In order to excel in this format we wouldn’t need to train for five-hour races; we’d need to train for short, sharp efforts. As it stands, I think we all need more experience racing the format to really get a handle on how to approach the stages, especially the sprint challenge.

In summary, I’m excited about it. It’s new and hopefully it will bring new fans who want non-stop action. With a smaller bunch and closed circuit it’s also much safer than normal racing. Let’s hope it has a future.

I don’t even mind having a camera on the team bus, as long as it’s not there all the time — you won’t want to see us get changed. Showing teams talk tactics also educates viewers, and that can’t be a bad thing. That along with in-car footage and race statistics sure beats commentators talking about the region or the chateau we’ve just ridden past.

Concussion

You’ve probably seen the footage of Toms Skujins picking himself up after crashing hard on stage 2 of the Tour of California. He looked dazed and confused and was fumbling about before carrying on. People were shouting that he should have been stopped sooner and in this instance it was quite obvious he wasn’t quite right — the footage is shocking.

As professional cyclists, we’re hard-wired to jump back up and get going again. It’s in our DNA to just shake off an injury and carry on. There’s time to assess the damage from a crash later in the team bus. It may not be right but that’s the mentality of a cyclist. If this wasn’t in our DNA I guess we’d be more like footballers.

Hats off to Cannondale-Drapac, though, for stopping Skujins soon after. Our race instinct can at times be detrimental to our own health. I draw the line however at the suggestion of race ‘judges’ whose responsibility it would be to decide if we should carry on after a crash.

Firstly that would mean more motos in the race, and that’s one thing we definitely do not need. Secondly, where do you place these judges? We aren’t in a confined space like soccer or rugby. It just isn’t possible. We have to trust in our teammates, managers and directors sportif. As we always have. If a judge was deciding whether a rider can carry on or not then the whole dynamic of a race could be altered. We’ve seen guys pick themselves up from crashes and do amazing things.

Well, that’s about it from me. The next time I write, I will hopefully be at the big one: the Tour de France. And I may very well be on a new bike, a disc-equipped bike. Even now as a pro I still get excited about new kit, be it a bike, a helmet or even some cool new shoes. And yep, we do geek out in the peloton, comparing and chatting about what we do and don’t like about each item.

Until next time, thanks for reading.

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