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The Giro just avoids Italy’s deadly floods – but cycling is now feeling impact of climate change

The consequences of extreme weather are increasingly affecting races, and worse may be to come

Yesterday morning, as discussions were being held about whether to shorten the tenth stage of the Giro d’Italia due to the rain and cold temperatures facing the riders on the day’s main climb of the Passo delle Radici in northwest Tuscany, less than 200km away on the other side of the Apennines the city of Cesena, which less than 48 hours earlier had welcomed the finish of stage nine’s time trial, was being hit by deadly flooding.

Much of the city, which lies 10km inland from the Adriatic coast, now lies underwater with the disaster engulfing Emilia-Romagna, plus the neighbouring Marche region to the south, claiming eight lives to date, and causing thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes.

Photos from an Italian Air Force helicopter posted to Twitter by the Ministero della Difesa show the extent of the devastation around Cesena and Forli.

While it may have been a matter of sheer luck that the race had departed the area by the time the floods came, it does highlight how natural disasters and climate change are impacting the sport, and raises questions about how well equipped it is to respond to them.

It’s exactly 12 months ago today that the Giro d’Italia passed through the area of Emilia-Romagna currently hit by flooding, with a stage from Santarcangelo di Romagna near Rimini to Reggio Emilia, after racing had resumed following the first rest day in Pescara in the Marche, racing resuming there on the Tuesday with a stage to Jesi.

Needless to say, had those stages been on the parcours of this year’s race instead of the 2022 edition, they would not have taken place. Equally, had the deluge been a little to the west and fallen on the Tyrrhenian side of the Apennine watershed, it seems inconceivable that yesterday and today’s Giro d’Italia stages would have gone ahead.

That’s not just down to the obvious disruption to the route of the race, but also because of the demands that would be placed on the emergency services, not so much those who accompany the Giro, but the local units that support it as it passes through their territory.

Indeed, it was to enable police, firefighters and medical staff to focus on the disaster recovery operations and helping those in need, as much as damage to the track and circuit facilities, that was cited as a prime factor in the decision announced at lunchtime today to cancel this weekend’s F1 Grand Prix at Imola, near Bologna.

The latest flooding comes just a fortnight after what was described as a “once in a century” downpour in Cesena and neighbouring cities claimed two lives, and little more than seven months since Storm Ana wreaked havoc in Emilia-Romagna and the Marche last September, with 12 people killed – and while that toll renders sport insignificant, the floods also resulted in the cancellation of that weekend’s Memorial Marco Pantani one-day race based around his home city, Cesenatico.

Extreme weather becoming more common – and cycling is not exempt from its effects

The fact is, in recent years extreme weather events, and the natural events they trigger such as landslides, flooding and wildfires, are becoming more common around the world due to climate change – and sport, including cycling, is not immune from their impact.

Just to take a few examples from the past four years, in 2019 a key stage of the Tour de France to Tignes in the High Pyrenees was shortened as a hailstorm led to ice forming on the descent from the Col d’Iseran, with a subsequent landslide rendering the route impassable, the stage timings instead taken at the top of the climb with eventual winner Egan Bernal taking the yellow jersey from Julian Alaphilippe.

At the end of that year, it seemed as though the crucial Poggio climb would be dropped from the following year’s Milan-San Remo due to landslides caused by heavy rainfall – though with the race postponed from March to August due to the COVID-19 pandemic, repairs had been made by the time the race took place.

Bush fires in early January 2020 threatened the Tour Down Under, not for the first time, with the race eventually going ahead as planned as the South Australian government took a ‘business as usual’ approach as the state began its recovery from the disaster, and with organisers and sponsors raising money for victims.  

2020 Tour Down Under peloton rides through bushfire-affected area (Zac Williams/

The 2020 Tour Down Under peloton passes a house destroyed by bush fires (Zac Williams/

In July last year, the UCI’s Extreme Weather Protocol was invoked for stage 15 of the Tour de France from Rodez to Carcassonne as temperatures went above 40 degrees Celsius, with firefighters also using hoses to cool the road surface to prevent it from melting, while in March this year, a stage of Paris-Nice was cancelled due to the prospect of “exceptionally violent winds” above 100km/h.

Returning to the Giro d’Italia, in recent years a number of high mountain stages have been shortened or had their routes changed due to the prospect of snow or heavy rain.

Even two of the remaining stages of this year’s race have had to be revised, with the riders now skipping the Great Saint Bernard Pass, the highest point it was due to visit, while fan numbers will be restricted on the penultimate day’s mountain time trial, and barred from some sections of the route altogether, following recent rock falls.

And while the focus in Italy at the moment is on snow, rainfall and flooding, elsewhere in Europe we are witnessing the opposite extreme, with temperatures in Spain in recent weeks in excess of 40 degrees Celsius.

The UCI’s Extreme Weather Protocol

It was the rising occurrence of such widely varying conditions that in 2016 led to the UCI introducing its Extreme Weather Protocol, which among other things provides for changes to rules surrounding taking on food and drink, as well as providing for increased time limits at the finish, with invocation of the protocol undertaken following a meeting involving stakeholders including race organisers and representatives of teams and riders.

Defined in Annex B to the UCI Road Racing Regulations, the protocol defines “the extreme weather conditions that could lead to such a meeting” as including:

Freezing rain
Accumulation of snow on the road
Strong wind
Extreme temperatures
Poor visibility and
Air pollution.

It also applies to “an issue regarding the course or the organisation of the event or stage represents a risk to the riders’ safety,” including, for example, “Failings relating to the safety of the course (surfaces, obstacles, protective measures and barriers, signage, lighting, descents, narrow roads, bridges, etc.).”

Swift action will be needed to respond to effects

While some of those issues – strong winds, snowfall, extreme temperatures and the like – can be forecast with some accuracy ahead of a stage, their consequences, such as flash flooding, or landslides such as those witnessed on the Col d’Iseran during the 2019 Tour de France, can by their very nature happen with no warning and while racing is underway.

We suspect it’s an issue that will increasingly tax both world cycling’s governing body and race organisers in the years ahead – and one that when incidents do inevitably occur, will require a swift, decisive response to ensure the safety of riders, spectators, and all involved in the race.

It’s a feature of bike racing, of course, that once the event is over and the race crew have taken down the barriers, the portable buildings and other infrastructure making up the finish area, life quickly returns to normal in the location concerned – the race moves on at an astonishing pace, and a few hours after the riders have crossed the line, normal traffic has resumed and other than balloons and other decorations outside shops and bars, there’s little sign that the race took place at all.

But for the people of Cesena and nearby towns and cities yesterday and today, the visit of the Giro d’Italia at the weekend must now seem a very distant memory indeed as they start counting the cost to people and property of an extreme weather event that is now becoming far too regular an occurrence.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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