Protest threats, group chats, and endless rain – inside the Vuelta a España controversies

How the riders started to rally after the TTT and how negotiations played out over stage 2 neutralisation

Clock09:02, Monday 28th August 2023
Jonas Vingegaard was particularly active in rider discussions on stage 2

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Jonas Vingegaard was particularly active in rider discussions on stage 2

Two days into the Vuelta a España, and the story of the race has not been, well, the racing. Instead, the Barcelona start has been overshadowed by the weather, and in turn by the complex web that is the issue of rider safety.

With phone calls stretching into the early hours, messages pinging around on a variety of platforms, and riders rushing around at a stage start to hold impromptu in-person negotiations, the peloton has been a hive of communication over the past 24 hours.

The controversy began with the opening-day team time trial in Barcelona, which was plunged into an early dusk by a thunderstorm, leaving the late starters to race in near-total darkness. As if that wasn’t farcical enough, the Vuelta rocked up to Mataró for the start of stage 2 under a deluge, with weather forecasts and rider concerns leading the arrangements for the finish to be changed not once, but twice - the latter barely 10 minutes before the roll-out.

GCN understands that some riders were even on the brink of staging a protest, with a possible refusal to start.

"We’re just pawns in the game, aren’t we?” lamented Geraint Thomas, carrying the torch from Remco Evenepoel, who the previous night used the term “circus monkeys”.

As the circus rolled up in Mataró, the previous night’s events were top of the agenda, with race director of 15 years Javier Guillén rolled out before the media to answer “one question” about the controversy.

“It’s not like we have a button to stop the rain. It’s not that we can blow harder to get rid of the clouds,” he said. “I don’t mean to be flippant, but everyone understands that we control as much as we can control, and yesterday was out of our control.”

It’s safe to say his response will have failed to satisfy the riders, and may well have had the opposite effect. “There was no sort of apology or anything,” Thomas noted. “I think we deserve a little more respect, but it seems like they don't want to listen to us,” Evenepoel added.

By then, it was already onto the next controversy and, if anything, Saturday’s farce only accelerated calls for an alteration to stage 2, with concerns over the finishing circuit on the twisting, hilly, and now slippery roads of Parc Montjuic.

The official communication timeline from the race organisers was as follows: an hour before the start, it was said that the times for general classification would be taken at the top of the final climb 3.6km from the line; after the riders had rolled out, it was announced that GC times would instead be taken 9km out, on entry to the Parc.

The conversations that led to those outcomes underlined just how difficult it is to get so many different parties - one of which itself counts 176 people - on the same page.

The riders start to rally

Adam Hansen, president of the CPA riders’ union, helped explain to GCN how it all played out.

“The first thing is that stage 1 really annoyed the riders. From the very beginning, the riders were pissed, and you could see that they were starting to take things into their own hands.”

There’s a CPA Telegram group for such concerns. Ahead of the Vuelta it counted 21 members - by Saturday night there were 45 in there. Hansen also said he received numerous private messages from riders cautious about speaking out publicly, which he then relayed to the group.

Hansen and Iker Camaño, an ex-pro but one of the two designated CPA delegates for the Vuelta, then both reached out late at night to the organisers of the Vuelta, whose point of contact was not Guillén but the technical director Kiko García.

“I showed him some of the messages to make him aware of the general feeling,” said Hansen, while Camaño set out a more concrete roadmap for stage 2. “From Saturday night, the riders had already pretty much set out their position, so we put that in front of the organisers,” Camaño told GCN.

At that point, it was too late to reach a decision, although Hansen said he continued to receive messages from riders beyond midnight, the last being Laurens De Plus from his hospital bed at 1:23am.

The next morning

The messages fired up again early the next morning, and once at the start, the proper discussions could begin. Broadly speaking, there are four parties present in such a pre-race meeting:

  • The riders (represented by the CPA, specifically Camaño here)
  • The teams (represented by one team at each race, this one being Ineos Grenadiers and specifically their director Christian Knees)
  • The race organisers (García being the point of contact and Guillén with the final say)
  • The UCI (the jury/officials present on the race)

The UCI has the final say on any rule alterations, but largely accepts what organisers decide, while the teams as a collective rarely make significant demands. That’s left to the riders themselves, although the involvement of the teams appears to have created some of the confusion on Sunday.

“The plan to take GC times 3.6km from the finish… the teams agreed to that,” Hansen said. “But the riders didn’t.”

In fact, there was an agreement of sorts. Camaño came back with the message that that the organisers' 3.6km compromise was the only option on the table, and that the 9km request had been flatly rejected. Likewise, they also declined a proposal from Knees to avoid any neutralisation by cutting the climb and descent in Montjuic and heading straight for the line from 6.5km out.

And so a statement was issued by the organisers, while riders turned up to the sign-on podium still unhappy. “It doesn’t change anything. I don’t think it’s any compromise at all,” said Thomas, while Primož Roglič insisted it was “no safer”.

A possible protest

It soon became clear that it was not case closed, and this is where things became chaotic, moving perilously close to a protest.

Hansen asked García once more to apply the 9km option, but it was rejected again. Less than half an hour from the start, riders started rallying frantically. Vingegaard appeared to be the ring-leader, visiting riders at multiple team buses, and even stepping inside Movistar’s to clinch the support of Spaniard Enric Mas. With Roglič also outspoken and team director Merijn Zeeman attempting to grab a word with Guillén near the start line, Jumbo-Visma were clearly keen to act.

It wasn’t just Jumbo-Visma, though. Thomas and Evenepoel were well on board, while home favourites Mas and Juan Ayuso were both critical of the TTT and also granted their support. Between them, the teams of all the big GC favourites were covered - incidentally it was Jumbo-Visma, Ineos and UAE Team Emirates who had originally formed a select group to cook up the non-neutralisation option that was tabled and rejected.

“It’s mostly the GC teams,” Lotto Dstny’s Thomas De Gendt told GCN. “For us it’s not a problem as we don’t have a GC rider, so we are not in the discussions.”

There may have been some indifference, but there has been no indication as yet that anyone stood in the way. “Sometimes it’s hard to get every team on the same page but after what happened yesterday everyone was pretty much on the same page,” Jayco-AlUla’s Eddie Dunbar told GCN.

Still, some felt strongly enough about it that they started to mobilise towards a protest, with talk of a demonstration both in-person and via mobile messages. This could well have taken the form of a refusal to start the stage. It was tricky to organise, as the CPA was adamant that unity and unanimity was required - rather than some protesting and some racing. And so, with 22 teams in the event, it was a scramble to get 12 on the same page so as to form a majority stance.

It is unclear quite how many were on board, and to what extent any protest plan took any detailed form. That’s because, at the last minute, the organisers suddenly backed down. No one has stated what the precise trigger for this was. In any case, with minutes to spare, the riders took to the start line with a new plan in place, and the show could go on.

“It never got to that stage,” Thomas told GCN and Het Laaste Nieuws about a possible protest. “The organisers suggested one thing that I believed would have made it worse, but luckily it didn’t have to come to that.”

The dust settles

In the end, it was far from smooth sailing out on the road. There were a spate of crashes on the approach to Barcelona, with Thomas and Roglič slipping out on the same roundabout with 30km to go. Soon after, the peloton’s united front seemed to fall apart, as Vingegaard, his teammate Dylan van Baarle, and also Evenepoel, remonstrated wildly with some teams to ease off, effectively enforcing a go-slow.

When the true neutralisation came about, 30 or so riders went ahead to race the finale, while the rest of the peloton rolled in several minutes down. It’s safe to say it was not the spectacle the organisers and Barcelona - which had invested heavily in hosting the race - had envisaged. Race officials reportedly had to ask fans who had crested the final climb first in order to hand out the bonus seconds, and to top it off it had even stopped raining by the time they hit Montjuic, although it did start chucking it down again 15 minutes after the finish.

The whole episode only highlighted the sheer complexity and the myriad moving parts when it comes to bringing about action over rider safety, and by design the imperfection of compromise. In the end, it may be seen as a small victory that action was taken at all - that riders soon may not see themselves as pawns or circus monkeys. “Slowly but surely, things are getting better,” said Dunbar.

Meanwhile, those who had been most vocal in their criticism of the race so far largely attempted to draw a line under the matter as they prepared to head back to their hotels, with some reconciliation - publicly at least - between riders and organisation.

"The organisers listened, and I think it was for the best," said Thomas. "It was totally the right decision.”

Perhaps now the racing can take centre stage.

If you head to our Vuelta a España landing page, you will find everything you need to know ahead of the race, including our race preview, the route, start list and individual stage previews. Check it out for all that and more.

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