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Cycling

The Giro d’Italia Has Turned Into A Hazardous Slog

5:39 PM EDT on May 22, 2023

The clip that most accurately captures the vibe of the 2023 Giro d'Italia was taken during Stage 10, as the peloton descended the Passo delle Radici. Riders and organizers nearly elected to shorten the stage by 70 kilometers, on account of near-freezing temperatures, high winds, and unrelenting rainfall, but they went ahead with the second-highest point of the race and the nasty, violent stage that accompanied it. Warren Barguil crashed on the descent, along with Lukas Pöstlberger and Michel Ries. While a staff member scrambled across the road to attend to Pöstlberger, he accidentally ran directly in front of Italian rider Alberto Bettiol, who fell. A total of four riders didn't finish Stage 10, and nine more weren't able to start Stage 11.

The physical, mental, and gastrointestinal tolls of racing 3,489 kilometers over 21 stages meant that there was no way all 176 riders who started the 2023 Giro would make it to Rome. But while a certain number of abandonments are priced in to every Grand Tour, the expectation is that amid the carnage, some actual racing happens at some point. This year's edition of the race has distinguished itself as especially leaden. With only one week left of racing, the remaining favorites haven't done much besides look at each other and wait for someone else to make the first move. Surviving, not racing, has been the only priority.

The detente atop the general classification standings isn't the riders' fault. This year's Giro is taking place amid some epochal weather. The northern region of Emilia-Romagna has been pounded by floods that have killed at least 13 and displaced more than 23,000 people. The first series of floods hit four days before the Giro started, and almost every stage of the race thus far has been wet and windy, which became more of a problem as the race grew steeper. Everyone's been crashing; 2021 champion Tao Geoghegan Hart fell and broke his hip on a descent on Stage 11. Two days later, conditions were so bad that organizers were forced to shorten a long mountain stage by 100 kilometers, and the teams had to scramble to make it to the new start line minutes before the stage began. On top of all that, riders still had to make the perilous descent down the icy Croix de Coeur.

Stage 13, a truncated fiasco, was only held because organizers were forced to concede to the riders' demands. Geraint Thomas revealed that riders were prepared to go on strike if their voices weren't heard, and based on everything riders union president Adam Hansen has said, there's considerable tension between organizers and riders as the race reaches its final week.

Only two of the 22 teams that began the race still have their full retinue of eight riders, though most of the dropouts have had nothing to do with the weather. Rather, the highest-profile abandonments—like then-race leader and mega-favorite Remco Evenepoel, accomplished Italian rider Filippo Ganna, and diminutive 40-year-old fan favorite Domenico Pozzovivo—have been caused by a COVID outbreak ripping through the peloton. A total of 16 riders have abandoned due to COVID, former world champion Mads Pedersen abandoned with tracheitis, and more riders left with undisclosed illnesses, bringing the total to 44.

The day before he was forced out of the race, Evenepoel had won his second stage and retaken the race's overall lead with a 45-second cushion on Thomas and the other contenders. The current world champ was clearly the best rider in the peloton, and the dynamics of the general classification race took shape around his presence. With him out of the race, everything is extremely muddled. French journeyman Bruno Armirail earned the race leader's maglia rosa from the breakaway after Stage 14—more accurately, Thomas gave it to him because he was too weary to keep defending it. Armirail's unexpected two days in the lead is a nice story, as his career almost ended after one bad year with the French Army's official racing team, but it will almost certainly end soon once we get into the last week of racing. The question is, who will take it from him?

Thomas holds a slim lead over the three other serious contenders: two seconds on Primoz Roglic, 22 seconds on Joao Pedro Almeida, and 42 on Andreas Leknessund. The quartet has finished together in each of the last five stages, and nobody has really attacked each other, largely because the nasty headwinds would waylay anyone brave enough to make a solo effort. As Thomas pointed out, the conditions haven't been amenable to entertaining cycling, and the 2022 Giro showcased exactly why bravery at the wrong time is so often punished.

"Last year [2019 Giro winner Richard] Carapaz made a crazy attack on the Turin stage and that lost him the Giro because of the energy he lost there," Thomas said on Monday. "All the talk of the last week is part of it too. I want to race but I don't just want to attack for entertainment, blow up and someone else profits from it."

The race has had its moments—the emergence of humongous Italian sprinter Jonathan Milan, Brandon McNulty's breakthrough win, Geraint Thomas's photo of a dreadful toilet—and with a week left, the podium is still pretty unpredictable. That unpredictability hasn't translated to a compelling race, but instead has emphasized the nastiness of the conditions. With three summit finishes and a mountain time trial in the final week, the attacks will inevitably happen, but it'll take a lot to redeem this ugly edition.

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