Traffic and turmoil in Toscana

It's the Giro della Toscana this week, and all over twitter, the riders have been talking about how the first two stages felt physically dangerous, with "surprise" cars in the road. This is the only .HC race on the women's calendar, supposedly the highest-ranked stage race there is, so it's especially bad to hear all these stories. This is important beyond women's racing, because this is where the Worlds are taking place very soon. So, what's been happening? And what can be done?

UPDATE: Because these issues weren't resolved, most of the peloton refused to start the last stage, in protest. I'll write more about that once we know more, but in the mean time, we're collecting tweets and team statements in the comments.

***

Stage 1

They started with the night-time prologue on Wednesday, and this was chaotic, and riders didn't get back to the hotels until after 1am - but Toscana is known for chaos, so that was laughed off. And then stage one, where it was obvious from twitter there had been some hairy moments with traffic actually in the race. Marv Barras, the ORICA-AIS DS, tells the story in his report from stages 1 and 2:

This stage was run through some of the worst traffic I have ever witnessed in a race. We come to expect this here every year but it is a small miracle everyday that we get through without getting the body bags out. That the Giro della Toscana is awarded the highest rating the UCI can bestow on an event is puzzling, to be polite.

On the other hand, we lost Sungeun [Gu]. She broke her bike at the 20km mark and made her way back in the bunch just as it was starting the first climb up La Molina. She got dropped again and the group she was in was pulled out of the race at the 75 km mark as the traffic made it too dangerous for them to continue. You get that around here!

And Annemiek van Vleuten on the traffic, and other chaos, on her website (in Dutch and via google translate)

So you'd think that with teams and riders complaining about traffic, something might be done.....  but then...

Stage 2

If anything, this sounded even worse, as CJ Farquharson confirms in her Stage report:

The finish itself was challenging and very fast. A technical road was not the riders only issue, the riders were faced with oncoming traffic which constantly caused them to be cautious. The bunch stayed together until the very last lap, riders were over cautious particularly at corners. The course ran down an overpass at 300m to go, took a slightly off camber right turn at full tilt to then end up on a wide straight to the finish. Vos, one of the best tacticians in the peloton, made a daring and technically difficult move on the inside of the final turn and it paid off.

and from Marv in his report again

Then there was the eternally bad traffic. Thankfully the bunch stayed together until the very last lap, which helped to keep all safe. Riders are telling us they are afraid to ride into corners at speed, as they do not know what awaits them around the corner. I had a word with the officials before the race and, apparently, they are aware there is a problem. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that one.

Wait, what, they're aware there's a problem, and....?

This is worrying - is this an issue with the Tuscan police and traffic?  In which case, what does that mean for the World Championships in the region?  Or will Worlds be fine, and this is about the race doing things on the cheap, with not enough marshals etc?  But why has it been given the .HC categorisation?  The race is set up in memory of Michela Fanini, an Italian rider who was killed in a car accident when she was just 21 - so you'd think the race organisers, which include Michela's father, would be more sensitive to traffic danger.

BUT!  That's not all that happened in Stage 2

CJ is a photographer with many years of experience of working at races, so I wasn't surprised CJ had very strong feelings about this.  She tells the story:

Safety at the finish line is always a concern at any race. Space is limited and only those photographers with the official vest permitting access should technically be on course, this had not been the case on stage 1 and it seemed that the organisation faced more issues of a different kind on stage 2. After the finish line. Chloe Hosking (Hitec Products UCK) hit at full speed a video camerawoman who was standing on the road after having rushed off her motorbike to get footage to promote the race. Incredibly, Hosking suffered only minor injuries, the camerawoman was more seriously injured.

Any crash caused by a member of the official team is never acceptable. WCN's photographer CJ Farquharson can attest to that. She was notably angered by the incident and the behaviour of some others at the finish line before the arrival. An argument had ensued with another video camerman who wanted to sit in the road to do his job. He angrily capitulated, but insisted it was  his right. Further, Farquharson had to lift a relatively inexperienced photographer from his knees by the collar of his shirt and out of the way of the bunch as they finished; "otherwise, it would have been him, not the video woman", she explained. "Common practice at a bunch sprint is to take the photo and then move to the barriers to clear the road for the riders. That does not even seem to be in some people's consciousness here". An after race crash is completely unacceptable. riders face dangers everyday. In this race, they have had to endure more than their fair share of issues, it is after all a 2.HC category race. Safety of the riders and those accredited to be on the race, must always be the highest priority over sponsorship and coverage. This incident is unacceptable and reflects badly on the race, Italian Federation and the UCI for allowing it to be categorised so highly when conditions in Toscana have been similar for several years.

So, what needs to happen?  I have tweeted and emailed the UCI to see what action they will take about this.  I don't want to see the race punished, necessarily, but I want to know how the UCI will ensure that these situations do not happen again.  This isn't the first race where riders have had to be racing in traffic - the most shocking incident was in the 2.1 category (the second highest level) Vuelta El Salvador (warning, the video is shocking to watch - the riders had some injuries, but it seems miraculous that no one was more badly damaged)

***

It's understood that cycling can be a dangerous sport.  We all remember Wouter Weyalndt's death in the 2011 Giro, and riders will crash and get seriously injured in the racing - that's a risk they take.  But it is the job of race organisers to ensure they have minimised the dangers, and they should know that issues like turning corners into oncoming traffic are unacceptable.  The UCI, too, has a responsibility to set standards for races.  I would have thought that because there's a common refrain about Toscana being chaotic every year (last year, for example, the final stage was neutralised by the peloton in protest for multiple misdirections and issues), the UCI would have asked for assurances that the "usual" problems would be solved, before making it the highest-ranked stage race of the year.

The .HC category has been a bit of a disaster anyway - Toscana is the only one of the races that were initially given the status that ran with it, the Exergy Tour being cancelled (and it was always surprising that was .HC anyway, given the issues of Exergy and USA cycling), and Thüringen Rundfahrt moving down to 2.1.  It was always clear that .HC is not related to the importance of the race - the Giro Rosa, for example, will always be the race everyone wants to win, regardless of the 2.1 status, and Thüringen's category change didn't make a difference in how the peloton viewed it.

If we have a .HC category, it should be for races with high standards - it shouldn't mean "Has Cars".  I very much hope that these problems have been solved, and that riders are safe for the rest of the race.

***

For another take on the issues in Toscana, read Cicloweb, in Italian or in English.  Follow the race on the Café, for all the news, photos and videos we find as the race progresses, in our race thread.

UPDATE 14/9/13: More commentary on the situation, in Spanish (or google translated to English) on El Pelotón.

UPDATE 15/9/13: The peloton are deeply unhappy about this, and have protested to the race organisers, saying they won't start the final stage unless their safety is guaranteed.  Very proud of them all.

UPDATE 15/9/13: The biggest teams in the race, including Rabobank-Liv/Giant, ORICA-AIS, Wiggle Honda, Hitec Products UCK and Specialized-lululemon have all refused to start Stage 4.  This is a very big deal - Marianne Vos, for Rabo, was leading the GC, with Emma Johansson for ORICA just 38" behind her - and Giorgia Bronzini would have loved to have won the final sprint in Florence, especially so close to the Road World Championships.  But rider safety has to come first, and those teams have the clout and the power to protest, so I'm very, very pleased to see them take this step.  Racing is important, but not at the cost of safety, and team organisers need to know this - and the UCI needs to take action.

UPDATE 15/9/13: Here's the full story of what happened on the final stage, with rider and team reactions

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