Is the 2023 Giro d’Italia Cursed?

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

There may have been more disastrous Grand Tour weeks than the first week of the 2023 Giro d’Italia, but I cannot recall one. It was surely a fitting climax to the week’s series of calamities when race leader Remco Evenepoel (Soudal–Quick-Step) announced on Sunday, shortly after retaking the maglia rosa, that he had tested positive for Covid and would no longer participate in the race.

A sensitive reader of tea leaves and portents may have already suspected that the Giro was under the curse of a malocchio, or evil eye, long before the Dutch rider told reporters that he had been suffering from a stuffy nose ahead of the stage 9 time trial, and added: “Let’s touch wood that it’s not a virus. I don’t want to say the [name of the] virus, that would not be good luck. We will see.”

But the Giro’s bad run of fortune began before the race even kicked off when on the eve of the stage 1 ITT, Jumbo-Visma’s Jan Tratnik and Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ) were in accidents while training. Molard was able to start the race but Tratnik was not. And that was just the beginning for Jumbo-Visma. The team then announced that two of its riders, Tobias Foss and Robert Gesink, had tested positive for Covid and would be replaced by Jos van Emden and Rohan Dennis. Two days later, the Dutch team had to replace one of its replacements, van Emden who had also come down with Covid. Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) and Gino Mäder (Bahrain Victorious) also tested positive and so were also unable to line up for stage 1.

More bad luck was to come, starting with stage 1. Following the ITT, race organizers put Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates) in the blue King of the Mountains jersey because he had recorded the fastest time on the stage’s only climb, a modest ascent of 2.8 km. He had been timed at 3 min 51 sec, or 12 seconds faster than anyone else. Suspicions were quickly raised in the media, forcing organizers to have another look. And, sure enough, there had been a timing error and organizers took the blue jersey off McNulty’s shoulders and gave it to Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) before the start of stage 2.

A close look at the results sheet would have revealed the error. “To begin with, the official results have McNulty down in 103rd place for the opening 9.8-km segment, some 1:17 down on Evenepoel’s top time there. To reach the finish line just 47 seconds down, that would mean pulling half a minute back on the second half of the course, a preposterous idea given how the Belgian smashed all opposition.”

More misfortune followed, much of it not the fault of the organizers – because what could they have done about the weather? Rainfall affected many of the first week’s nine stages, but none as much as stage 5, which was run in a lashing downpour and plagued by numerous crashes. Evenepoel hit the asphalt twice, the first time when a small dog crossed the road and caused his teammate Davide Ballerini to brake suddenly and skid, which led to a ripple effect that also brought down Evenepoel. The 23-year-old Dutchman then hit the ground again near the finish, when he collided with another rider. In the chaotic sprint that followed, Mark Cavendish (Astana-Qazaqstan) crashed heavily when Alberto Dainese (Team DSM) cut in front of him. But the plucky Cavendish managed to hold on to the handlebars as he slid across the finish line, and finished fourth.

Covid has continued to decimate the peloton, with a total of nine riders, including those who were unable to start the Giro because of the virus, forced to withdraw. In all, 19 riders (again counting those who withdrew before stage 1) have so far dropped out of the race because of injury or illness, an impressive number when you consider that in last year’s Giro, 27 riders abandoned over the entire three weeks. Given the nature of the coronavirus, we can unfortunately expect more positives and therefore more withdrawals before the race reaches Rome.

But that is out of the hands of the organizers – and it would be churlish to criticize them for not taking more drastic hygienic measures at a time when the WHO announced that Covid was no longer an emergency. But what about that helicopter controversy?

On the morning of Saturday, May 13, cycling’s ruling body the UCI issued a statement condemning the use of helicopters by some teams to return to their hotels following Friday’s stage 7, which had a mountaintop finish in the Gran Sasso. The use of helicopters, the UCI statement read, “constitutes an advantage that goes against the principles of fair play and the regulatory provisions for ensuring equal treatment for transfer of teams to their hotels. In addition, some riders’ use of helicopter transport for this purpose goes against the principle of carbon footprint reduction, as stated in the UCI WorldTour organizer specifications.” The organization added that it would take “necessary measures and sanctions” to make sure that this does not occur again.

It is thought that race organizers offered the helicopter option to all teams willing to pay for it. The others were forced to take crowded cable cars off the mountain with the general public, which involved waits of at least 30 minutes. And that was then followed by a two-hour bus ride to the hotel. No wonder that several teams, including Soudal–Quick-Step, availed themselves of a whirlybird. A photo shows a grinning Evenepoel on a helicopter surrounded by teammates and, presumably, a pilot. Is that where he contracted Covid? That would be just too ironic.

Let’s hope that all the bad luck has run its course and that the rest of the Giro will be sunny and free of crashes, Covid and illicit air journeys. But don’t bet on it.