Riders refuse to race in protest over safety issues: Giro Toscana 2013

Today should have been the final stage of the 2013 Giro della Toscana, the last women's stage race of the 2013 season. It was going to be a bittersweet day for a lot of riders - for many, it would have been the last time they rode with their 2013 team-mates; for others, like Janneke Busser Kanis, it was her final race ever before she retires. It had looked to be an exciting stage, with a beautiful finish in Florence - but this race has been dogged by controversy, with riders and teams complaining about multiple safety issues. So riders met the race organisers before the stage started to get confirmation that these would be addressed.... Here's what happened next

The Giro Toscana has a reputation for chaos, with stages being neutralised by riders in protest at least twice, most recently in last year's final stage, where a catalogue of errors caused the peloton to refuse to contest the race, so it was always surprising that it was granted .HC status by the UCI, the newly-introduced highest category for women's stage racing.  As the other .HC races this year were either cancelled or lowered their status, it ended up as the only race at this level, but surely that would mean that the issues from previous years would be addressed?

Well, apparently not.  My previous Toscana post outlines the issues the riders had to face, in Stages 1 and 2, including multiple instances of traffic on the course, riders being misdirected and left with no police protection to get through the traffic.  Apparently the riders were told that only the front group would have a police escort, so if the race split, any riders behind were on their own.  On top of this, finishing zones were badly organised, with inexperienced press, culminating in Chloe Hosking crashing into a photographer at the end of Stage 2.

Teams had been raising issues throughout the race, but with the final stage, ending in Florence, using the same route as last year's final stage, they wanted to know that their concerns had been addressed.  Italian rider Elisa Longo Borghini, as rider representative on the ACCPI, the Italian cyclists' association made this statement:

"We all agree, we cannot race under these conditions. In recent days we were lucky because none of us were hurt, but we took too many risks. Our sports directors and our representatives have asked Brunello Fanini to take measures, but the situation has not changed. If we do not see a sufficient number of motorcycle marshalls to ensure that the race is run completely safely, we will take a decision together and if there is no other way to stay safe, grudgingly we will cancel the stage in the same way as we did last year"

Longo Borghini was supported by some formidable riders - Marianne Vos (Rabobank-Liv/Giant), the Olympic and World Champion, who sits on the UCI athletes' committee, and who was leading the General Classification with one stage to go; 2010 and 2011 World Champion Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle Honda) and Emma Johansson (ORICA-AIS) who was second in GC, and wanted to battle Vos right to the end for the maglia rosa.  They called a meeting with the race organisers, and CJ Farqharson, who has been reporting on and photographing the women's peloton for years, has a great statement where she described what happens.  I recommend you read it! And there's a must-read statement and description of what happened from Marv Barras, the ORICA-AIS DS, who was present at the meeting, and was very unhappy with what he saw - you should definitely read that too, it shows how the organisers were apporaching the issues and trying to dismiss the riders and includes:

No one likes missing out on a race, particularly the riders. But our female riders always seem to find themselves in the position that they have to feel thankful for getting substandard conditions. I overheard an official earlier in the week, commenting about the safety: "These are good enough conditions for the women." One point made in today’s meeting was "if you don’t race today, there will be no race next year!"

The upshot was that most of the riders and teams decided that there was only one option - they needed to take a stand, and the only way they could be safe was to refuse to ride.  The majority of the peloton, including the biggest teams in the race, and eight of the riders in the top 10 on the GC after Stage 3, withdrew from the race.  The biggest teams, Rabobank, Wiggle Honda, ORICA-AIS, Specialized-lululemon, Hitec Products UCK, pulled out completely.  The Italian teams obviously had more issues with sponsors or team managers wanting them to compete - Michela Fanini Rox, the team run by Brunello Fanini, who also runs the race, obviously had to race, while MCipollini-Giordana competed, without 2009 World Champion Tatiana Guderzo, who'd been 9th on GC, and Team Tibco, whose Claudia Häusler was 5th on GC, started without Chantal Blaak. Only 49 riders finished, compared with 112 the day before - and the race was neutralised to some extent, with Aude Biannic leading the six Michela Fanini riders over the line together, before the rest. Häusler was declared the winner of the race.

The decision to pull out of the race was not taken lightly at all.  Vos has ridden a reduced schedule of road races this year, and had to miss the Boels Rental Ladies Tour because of back pain.   She had led the race since the prologue, and never gives up opportunities to win.  And for the Italian riders, the chance to win in Florence, where the World Championships will be held from next week, and in front of home crowds is a huge thing.  And of course, with the transfer season upon us, riders looking to move teams need every opportunity to shine.  The riders who took the decision to finish the last stage race of the season this way did so because for them there was no other option.

One aspect that was particularly worrying was the role of the UCI in this. First, they had given the race the highest classification, and then, when it was so dangerous, they didn't seem to intervene - in fact they seem to have been firmly on the side of the race. Of course, having a race being cancelled by riders, especially one in Toscana, so close to Worlds, would cause bad publicity, but surely they should be thinking about rider safety?

This is the fourth UCI race where safety has a been a major concern this year - in the Vuelta El Salvador, a whole team was hit by a car during the Team Time Trial; a stage of the Energiewacht Tour was stopped by riders in protest of vehicles on the road and misdirection; both Rabobank and Boels pulled out of the Tour de Languedoc Roussillon, after organisers cancelled and then reinstated the race with under 24 hours to go, because of inadequate policing, and treated the peloton very badly; and now this.  Cycling is a serious business, an the riders are passionate about it - especially the women, who don't have the salaries or luxuries the men's teams do - but safety absolutely has to come first.

Rider and team reactions

As you can imagine, there were a lot of reactions from the teams and riders on twitter.  I'll start with those from riders who pulled out of the race, beginning with Vos, who had the most to lose:

You can also see the statement on her website

Statements from Elisa Longo Borghini on Tuttobici and on Cicloweb.

More reactions from Tiffany Cromwell, Chantal Blaak, Lucinda Brand, Evelyn StevensChristel Ferrier-Bruneau, Annemiek van Vleuten's blog, Rabobank-Liv/Giant's team statement, a statement from the French National Team DS, Anna van der Breggen , Janneke Busser Kanis and Chloe Hosking.

This one was particularly upsetting - a reminder that riders, who need to pay their rent, don't always have free choice, and can't always follow their hearts.

From the other side

Of course, there are other opinions on the race.

Tibco's DS, Manel Lacambra, sent me this statement to explain why his team didn't race:

Before the stage I noticed that all the Director Sportifs and some of the riders would have a meeting to discuss if we would start the last stage of the Giro Toscana or not.   At the meeting Cantele, Borghini and Bronzini exposed some of the issues of the safety during the race and they asked if the organiser could guarantee that the race will be safe.

The organiser explained why they had some issues and that we had today more motos. Then the chief of the police explained to us that we had 4 more Police motos and more police on the junctions, especially in the big towns.   At this point only two or three DSs talked and I was one of them and in front of everyone I said that the safety was the most important and that the girls had my full support with the protest. It was important to do this protest for the future of women's cycling.

Then the jury decided that the race will start because the safety was guaranteed by the police. And also they said that if they saw any issues they would stop the race. I said if everyone decided not to start I would not start. But if other teams started I will do it too.

Why not give the chance to the organiser, sponsors, public, and police and try to race when the UCI commissaire doesn't cancel the race?

When I saw other teams on the start line I told my girls to race and if the race was not safe, to stop.  The stage was the most safe stage without any issues. The Fanini team lead the whole race 45-50km/h until the finish line where everyone arrived together.

We are not happy with our win and our prize money from the GC and the last stage will go to the Women's Cycling Association to continue to work to improve Women's Cycling.

Claudia spoke to the public on the podium after the race and said:

"I still think I am the 5th on the GC. But someone needed to finish this race. I hope next year we can guarantee the safety in this race and in all the other ones because this is the most import. The UCI commissarie and the police decided that the safety was guaranteed and I trusted them."

and there's a press release about why they raced from MCipollini-Giordana:

"We wanted to honor the race" the Sporting Director of Cipollini - Giordana - Galassia team, Luisiana Pegoraro explains with theses words the reasons that led her athletes to line up at the start of last stage of Giro della Toscana. A stage that has seen only 58 athletes on the starting grid: the others have decided not to start, to protest for the lack of security of the race. "The reasons could be right, not the time" - Luisiana Pegoraro says - "poor security had emerged in the first stage, but the race continued. This morning the meeting with the organization and the judges reassured about the situation and for UCI's judges the stage could start. At that point I thought that it was righ to honor the race." At the start of today stage there were all the #YELLOWFLUO with the only exception of Tatiana Guderzo, but her absence was motivated by different reasons and has benne decided since yesterday because of a muscolar problem.

The general classification of the race says Hausler 1s , 2nd Antoshina, Cauz 3rd, 4th Scandolara .

"We did well in all the stages, I'm happy for Tatiana Antoshina and Valentina Scandolara, for their good performance during the whole race. It is obvious, however, that for the day of today and the way in which these placements are arrived, we are happy , but we certainly don't celebrate these results" says Louisiana Pegoraro .

And then, of course, the race perspective, kindly translated by Saul:

The statement of the Cyclists Association, lead by Elisa Longo Borghini, Giorgia Bronizi and Marianne Vos, claimed "there weren’t the necessary safety conditions". After that, other big riders such as Cantele and Guderzo decided not to start. Rossella Ratto, who did start the race, retired before the finish.

The race continued anyway (and safely!). Too bad to have such an ending because the Piazza della Republicca was full of people, who felt a little bit sad about what happened.

"The race was totally controlled", says the organiser Brunello Fanini, "so the protest was out of place and specious. The jury stated the stage was valid and there wasn’t any problem. Today the so-called big of cycling and women in general have lost something".

This particularly annoys me.  Of course the final stage was safer, because it was a reduced peloton, riding together.  To suggest that riders were looking for an excuse not to race is completely false - these riders, but especially Marianne Vos, are well-known for loving racing, while Emma Johansson would never give up the opportunity to beat Vos. In the full statement, the organisers have hinted that because of the protest, the race won't go ahead next year - however, I firmly believe that while I love women's racing, and have talked a lot about the problems of losing races, if it's a choice between a dangerous race, or none at all, I'd choose no race, every time.

Finally, a reminder why road safety is so important - at the same time as this was breaking, this tweet came though. My thoughts with all the riders, I hope people weren't too badly hurt

***

More reporting on this on Velonation, the BBC Sport Website and Cyclingnews.  We'll add any more reactions and information to the comments as we see it.

***

UPDATE 15/9/13: I've been seeing people on twitter suggesting that because some riders chose to race, everyone should have raced, and that riders were somehow wrong to protest if not everyone was protesting. I personally disagree with this stance – starting from the point that the Michela Fanini team is owned by the race organisers, so they’d always have to race, and there never could have been 100% consensus here.

We’ve seen that some riders had to ride against their will, because of team pressures. I really strongly believe that the riders’ genuine safety and other concerns should trump another team’s will – there’s no way that eg Rabo should be expected to work on a “all agree not to race, or none” basis!  I do wish more riders hadn’t raced, but I recognise that not all of them had a choice here.  I wish more riders had had a free choice, but the whole “they should have stood together” argument seems too simplistic to me.

***

UPDATE 16/9/13: Claudia Häusler sent us a statement on why she rode, and I recommend you read it,

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