Old Tommeke has been doing a little bit of moaning following the first stage of the 2016 Paris-Nice. According to a piece in Cycling News, 'Tornado' Tom Boonen told Sporza that yesterday's stage should have been shortened, or the route changed, under the UCI's extreme weather protocol.
I'm tempted to just yell "RULE NUMBER 5" and "HARDEN THE F*** UP" but first let me take a deep breath and consider whether Boonen has a point. The man is a true hardman of Flanders having taking out the Ronde Van Vlaanderen 3 times, Paris-Roubaix 4 times, as well as wins in E3, Ghent-Wevelgem and Paris-Brussels. In fact in 2012 he won all of those races. So when he says that perhaps the peloton should not have been racing, we really ought to at least listen.
Now for those watching the race on the TV it was definitely a case of 'of course it should have been raced'. It did look a little windy and miserable, but those conditions, particularly the former, contrived to make it an early contender for race of the season. Add in the slightly wet and filthy dirt road sections and you've also got riders covered in mud. The camera and the fans love to see that. A victory is one thing, but a victory when you are covered in mud takes on a much more legendary tone.
But the TV only showed the last 60km or so. It didn't show the first 135km of the stage, which were raced in some terrible conditions. Snow fell, it had accumulated on some parts of the road, and there was a delightful freezing rain for part of the stage. I know that we have to ride to work in these conditions, and we often ride through them on our club rides, but racing in them is a whole different game, especially when an accident can be the difference between a career defining spring classics campaign, and one spent trying to heal broken bones. For a less celebrated rider getting injured could be the difference between having and not having a job next year. Undoubtedly rider safety needs to be considered.
The UCI, to it's credit, has created the extreme weather protocol but who implements it? I've trie to find the answer but not even INRNG seems to know.
For argument’s sake, let’s imagine an informed rider union and enlightened UCI create rules that satisfy race organisers too. Unlikely but let’s continue. Picture a race afflicted by bad weather, is it for the commissaires to judge? If so do they have particular weather readings in their car? How can they resist pressure from the race organiser? What if the race organiser tells them there’s no obvious Plan B and its better to race on (“they would say that, wouldn’t they”)? In other words even if we could create written rules, practical implementation is another thing. See the existing UCI rules on riding off the road, on rain jackets, on getting drafts from team cars, on mechanics doing mobile repairs and so on. All are ignored.
So back to stage 1 of Paris-Nice, should the extreme weather protocol have come into play? I think the answer is to ask the riders. The riders have their own union, and the peloton on any given day is a union in itself. Did they want to stop or shorten the race? Only Boonen has spoken out and the way it was raced for the last 60km suggests that most riders and teams were happy to get stuck in. The peloton has become increasingly vocal about extreme conditions, and more power to them as they should not be put in increased danger, or have their livelihoods put at risk. So surely, as one of the most respected riders in the peloton, Tommeke could have spoken to the officials on behalf of the bunch. Sure there is pressure from advertisers, sponsors and television for the race to go ahead, and stopping a race when it's already rolling could be about as difficult as taking a hairpin bend in an oil tanker, but speaking after the event in this case will have little impact. Would Boonen have even said anything if he had won?
Dangerous or Epic?
I guess the question is when is a race too dangerous and when is it epic? Gent-Wevelgem in 2015 was one of the races of the year but could easily have been called off. Milan-San Remo in 2013 was shortened but was still raced in ridiculously bad weather, and was great to watch because of it. The complaints of the sensible riders who decide to quit these races will always be drowned out by the celebrations of those that win them. For me, this race wasn't even close to being as bad as either of the two I just mentioned, and both of them had winners.