Ian O’Riordan: Crash on the Giro (Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan birthday salute)

A hard rain’s not the only thing that’s fallen on this gruelling circuit

The plan was to reread Chronicles, Volume One this week, before we bow down to him on Monday, salute him when his birthday comes, then steal an intro for some thoughts on my favourite Italian bike race, never expecting it would come as effortlessly as this.

Because not long in – this obviously being Bob Dylan’s quasi-autobiographical memoir from 2004 – he neatly chronicles the importance of moving in order to think straight, or in his case write a good song.

“You can write a song anywhere, in a railroad compartment, on a boat, on horseback,” Bob says, when still a young man of 63. “It helps to be moving. Sometimes people who have the greatest talent for writing songs never write any because they are not moving.”

This always made sense to me, although it may not work for everyone. Truman Capote always regarded himself as a completely static and horizontal writer: “I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping.”


Trouble can come at you from all directions in a bike race, no matter how fast or how slow it's moving

Ernest Hemingway was different again, considering himself a completely vertical writer; as George Plimpton found out when interviewing him in 1958, Hemingway liked to write standing up: “He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu – the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.”

I could have stood up or lay down here for an hour staring at this laptop screen and written five words about the Giro d’Italia; or, I could head out on an hour’s run or cycle and come back with 500 words in my head ready to go. As a matter of fact, what you’re reading from here on was effectively written on the out-and-back run in the driving rain to Knockree.

No time to think

I asked Dan Martin one time what does he think about during those Grand Tour stages that – temporarily at least – end up freewheeling over bridges and past fountains, and he more or less said there is no time to think. Trouble can come at you from all directions in a bike race, no matter how fast or how slow it’s moving, so most of the time he’s concentrating on where exactly he is in the peloton, at the same trying to avoid any crashes.

There was ample evidence of this on Stage 11, Wednesday’s 162.2km ride from Perugia up to Montalcino, in four parts over the dusty gravel trails that crisscross this region of Tuscan wine country. At the start of the day, Martin was sitting just 52 seconds behind race leader Egan Bernal, eighth overall on GC; by the end of the day, he’d conceded over six minutes to Bernal, dropping to 18th on GC, his race for a podium position as good as over.

Turns out Martin had other things to think about. “I told my wife this morning that I won’t crash, so for me personally cycling is not worth the risk,” he said afterwards. “I had guys crashing all around me on the first section [of gravel] so I just did my own pace, I nearly came back but my licence is road cycling, so it’s not my thing. Fair play to the guys who are at the front, but I just didn’t want to take the risk today and that’s it.”

Friday’s pancake-flat ride from Ravenna to Verona – staged in part to mark the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death by linking the two cities of his exile – brought some relief from the mostly hellish race so far. Still, consider what’s to come: eight more stages, five properly mountainous, including the Zoncolan on Saturday, plus Monday’s queen stage, which features 5,700m of climbing in the Dolomites.

Everything about this 104th edition of the Giro has been unabashed in labelling itself one of the toughest to date (including the wait until after stage 10 for the first rest day). Those who do make it to Milan for next Sunday’s final time trial will have completed 47,000m of climbing – essentially 5½ times up Mount Everest on a bicycle. The maglia rosa, celebrating its 90th anniversary, has also been inscribed with the last line from Dante’s Purgatory: “disposto a salire a le stelle” (prepared to climb to the stars). Touching.

Taking risks

Martin touched on something else, though: how long riders are prepared to keep taking risks that they do, before they find themselves knocking on heaven’s door. Friday’s stage 13 was a relief too in that all 164 riders who started made it to the finish (and definitely a relief for Italian stage winner Giacomo Nizzolo as he ended his run of 11 second places in the Giro).

Before the end of the second week, 20 riders from the 184 starters had already crashed out, or else withdrawn with illness or injury. Beginning with Israel Start-Up Nation rider Krists Neilands, who crashed on his way back from the opening time trial, the high-profile casualties have included Spanish rider Mikel Landa, who hit a traffic island at high speed on stage 5, ending his race. The winner of stage 4, the American Joe Dombrowski, also withdrew after failing the concussion protocol.

Given the series of brutally hard and treacherous stages to come, it will be a miracle if more riders don't crash out

On stage 6, Ineos Grenadiers lost their co-leader Pavel Sivakov, after he was pushed wide on a straight road and hit a tree, and, on stage 9, Slovenian Matej Mohoric suffered a horrible crash while descending from the Passo Godi, later swearing he’d be dead only for his helmet.

It was worse again early on stage 12, the Italian Alessandro De Marchi, who wore pink jersey on stage 5, coming off his bike hard, sustaining a broken collarbone, six broken ribs and two broken thoracic vertebrae. De Marchi suffered a similar exit from the 2019 Tour de France, crashing out on stage 9 and suffering a head wound as well as a broken collarbone, ribs, and a collapsed lung. Stage 12 also saw another top Spaniard, Marc Soler, exit after a crash. God knows what it must be like making that first call home: “It’s alright, Ma, I’m only bleeding.”

Given the series of brutally hard and treacherous stages to come, it will be something of a miracle if more riders don’t crash out, all of which may be just part and parcel of Grand Tour racing. So far the Giro has also been mercifully spared any bunch sprint crash.

Still, this comes in the same season that the international governing body, the UCI, have been making a big song and dance about improving race safety, introducing a ban on the supertuck position (favoured by some riders on the descents), the placing of forearms on handlebars (considered by most to offer an aerodynamic advantage) and the random discarding of the bidon (in case a rider behind slips on it).

Maybe more should be done to engage with the Grand Tour organisers, to accept race safety sometimes extends to stage brutality, before – like Martin – more riders suddenly realise it’s all over now, baby blue.