Primož Roglič has compared himself to the fictitious heavyweight champion 'Rocky' Balboa as he fights the pain of another crash and the daily battles out on the roads of the Giro d'Italia.
Everyone in the Corsa Rosa is rolling with the punches and fighting to stay upright in some way or another after a tough first half of the race.
Riders, teams and race organisers have faced repeated days of cold rain and multiple cases of COVID-19. The riders have been soaked by rain on 10 of the 12 stages raced so far, with no one ever recalling such a wet and weather-miserable Italian May.
Only 136 riders are left in the peloton, with 40 already heading home due to illness, crashes or the return of COVID-19 in the peloton. Remco Evenepoel was the biggest name to catch COVID-19 but a dozen teams have faced at least one case amongst riders and staff, with Evenepoel’s Soudal-QuickStep team down to just three riders.
The Giro d’Italia social media described Tao Geoghegan Hart’s crash as a ‘punch to the stomach’. Everyone could see the Ineos Grenadiers rider was in pain when he crashed and realised how cruel professional cycling and Grand Tour racing can be.
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A cloud of pessimism has slowly gathered over the Giro d’Italia, the only ray of sunshine being the aggressive racing on each stage and the enthusiasm for the final showdown for overall in the high mountains starting on Friday.
Race director Mauro Vegni has been working hard to keep the Giro d’Italia rolling despite the numerous difficulties and daily problems. He has tried to appease the riders and teams while also fighting back against the pessimism.
The risk of avalanches on the Col du Grand Saint-Bernard during Friday's stage means the riders will pass below the summit via a long tunnel but Vegni has confirmed the race will climb the subsequent Croix de Coeur climb, despite concerns about the rough descent.
Snow is forecast for Saturday’s ride back into Italy as the riders climb the Passo del Sempione but Vegni is praying to the weather gods that the stage can go ahead as planned.
More stringent anti-COVID-19 measures appear to have controlled the cases in the peloton, with the riders now protected in a bubble, with face mask obligatory for anyone in close contact with them at starts and finishes.
Vegni and the riders know they have been fortunate compared to the residents of Emilia Romagna that have been hit by floods in recent days. The Giro d’Italia was in the area for Saturday’s time trial but avoided the worst of the extreme weather.
“What’s happened has happened, and I just want to focus on getting the Giro to Rome,” Vegni said with his trademark grit and determination.
“I’m sorry about the loss of Evenepoel and more recently Geoghegan Hart. We’ve had a number of COVID-19 cases too but now I’m much more concerned about the weather in the mountains. We’re working to ensure we can race every stage.”
Rain means more crashes, more illness, more COVID-19 cases
The constant bad weather, COVID-19 cases and crashes have combined to raise the tension in the race, making the Giro d’Italia harder for everyone, even before the important mountain stages.
“I think the weather has been a big factor to be honest. Almost every day we’ve had rain,” Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) said before stage 12.
“Everybody is taking advantage of every situation and pushing in certain areas, so anywhere can be a risk now. Yesterday it was predicted that we’d have no rain but then we had some rain and it led to the slippery descent and people leaving the race.
"So many riders are afraid of the downhills that there’s a massive fight to the top of these climbs to arrive at the front for the downhill. And that’s leading to crashes.”
The repeated days of rain are leaving riders, more fatigued and more open to illness, including COVID-19.
“You have a lot of riders ill. I think that if you had good weather, the COVID-19 cases would also be lower,” Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Marc Reef told Cyclingnews.
“The weather will also play a role in the upcoming days and in the upcoming week, because the forecast isn’t too great at the moment.”
Roglič and Matthews inspired to fight on
Roglič has crashed three times so far in this year’s Giro d’Italia, and numerous times during his career. He has learnt to adapt a 'Rocky' mentality and just keeps fighting on and smiling at every adversity.
"You need to survive. In the end, you have to get through," Roglič said on Wednesday. "It's like how Rocky said, it's not how much you can hit but how much you can get hit. We're still here and we go on."
Michael Matthews of Jayco AlUla is also a fighter after facing so much adversity in his career. He won stage 3 to Melfi, achieving his goal for the race but went on the attack again on Wednesday.
He is now suffering as the second half of racing nears but is still inspired by the emotions of racing rather than succumbing to any air of sadness and defeat.
“In pro cycling you have to accept that you're not always going to be at your best, you have to find a focus and fight on. That’s what I’m doing and what we’re doing as a team,” Matthews told Cyclingnews, epitomizing so many in the sport.
“I keep going thanks to my love for the sport. I've been through so many ups and downs already, even this year, but I still love what I do.
“After my Tour of Flanders crash, I really thought it was over for me. I was over with the sport all after all the bad luck. But then you have a few days off the bike and you see other people racing, it makes you miss it so much. So I got back to work and did what I needed to be good for the first week here.
“For us as a team we're still super positive and upbeat. We lost Callum Scotson with COVID-19 but we're keeping our spirits really high. We've got a stage win already and we have Eddie Dunbar seventh on GC. Like so many people in life, we feel fortunate to have nothing to be sad about. We're fully focused on the goal at hand and racing on in the Giro, whatever the race throws at us.”
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