As the Giro d’Italia reached its midpoint on the Adriatic coast on Wednesday, it was still unclear if the planned finish in Milan was on its horizon, but a year of flux like this was never likely to end with much certainty. The Giro, like everybody else, is living from day to day. Not for the first time, sport reflects society.
For Nathan Haas, the Giro hasn’t been altogether different from any other bike race during this almost surreal season. The spectre of the COVID-19 pandemic, both within and without the peloton, casts doubt on whether the race can proceed, but it has been so since competition resumed in August and it will continue to be so until the campaign ends, whenever that is.
“Everything has been day-to-day this year,” Haas told Cyclingnews in Porto Sant’Elpidio on Wednesday. “I think your guess is as good as mine on if the Giro will reach Milan. One of my passions is studying health science and I’ve got a lot of thoughts about it, but for this interview, I’m a bike rider and I’m here to keep racing.
“Rather than sit in an apartment for ten weeks [in lockdown], I’d rather be racing, but if the Giro ends up called short for public health, then I’m 100 per cent behind that. But if we find a way to continue doing this safely, then I’m equally interested in that.”
The end of the Giro d’Italia seemed to draw a little closer on Tuesday morning when Mitchelton-Scott and Jumbo-Visma withdrew from the race after reporting confirmed coronavirus cases during testing on the first rest day. Three other teams with single coronavirus cases – Sunweb, Ineos and AG2R La Mondiale – opted to remain in the Giro.
That afternoon, a riotous stage broke out on the road to Tortoreto Lido, where a sizeable constituency in the maglia rosa group seemed to dispense with the caution one would normally expect at this point of a Grand Tour. There were suggestions that riders, unsure of when the music would stop, were effectively racing as if there were no tomorrow, but Haas is less convinced of the theory.
“I think people are trying to find meaning where there isn’t,” he said. “It’s the Giro, there’s a stage win up for grabs, it’s one of the biggest things a rider can do in their career and people are hungry for success. People are always hungrier after a rest day because they’re recovered and got their mindset again after days of suffering in the rain.”
Even so, Haas acknowledged that doubt has permeated the gruppo as to whether this Giro can complete its full course, be it due to the weather conditions in the high mountains in the third week or the rising number of coronavirus cases being reported across Italy. Whether the race finishes on October 25 or on some unspecified date before then, however, the hope is that a Giro champion can be properly crowned.
“I think the overriding feeling in the peloton is that we’d like to see the Giro come to a conclusion where there’s a real winner, so it’s not in dispute,” Haas said. “I’d like to see it get to Milan but if not, there are definitely whispers in the peloton about what riders are thinking. We’re not the ones who get to decide things, so we’re just riding, and we’ll keep racing hard as long as we can.”
Haas arrived at this Giro d’Italia at the end of a turbulent debut season at Cofidis. His began his year with a string of strong displays on home roads in Australia, but his campaign was interrupted at the UAE Tour, where he was among the riders marooned in quarantine in an Abu Dhabi hotel for over a week. On his return to Europe, he was again in lockdown, with Spain enforcing some strict measures to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus. All told, he spent the bones of ten weeks indoors.
“It affected me more emotionally than I thought, and by the time I could actually get out and ride, I just physically felt I couldn’t, because my headspace was in a ball of spaghetti,” Haas said. “It was that typical athlete thing where you just maybe push things too hard, too soon.”
The 31-year-old returned to action at the Tour de Pologne, where he was an eyewitness to Fabio Jakobsen’s horrific crash on the opening stage. “I thought he was dead when I saw him on the floor, and it took quite a bit of work for me to get back into actually trying in finals of races again,” Haas said. “For me, it was a project to be in the final again and then try to push through.”
Haas worked through that process on his way to the Giro, but by the time he arrived at the corsa rosa, he was paying the price for a year with a long hiatus but little rest. Although he didn’t race from February to August, the uncertainty over the resumption of the season made it difficult to switch off.
“It feels that we haven’t had a break this year, physically and especially mentally,” Haas said. “As riders, we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to that, but I’ve felt I’ve been chasing my tail this season. It’s been great to be in the Cofidis team. They’ve been awesome and super supportive, but I’ve got to do a little bit of work on myself to get to the start of next year. It’s about putting this one behind me now.”
Before then, Haas and his Cofidis teammates will try to pilot fellow new arrival Elia Viviani to his maiden victory with the team. The Italian has struggled since the season resumed in August, and he endured further misfortune on Wednesday when he was brought down by a motorcycle during stage 12. There are perhaps two more opportunities for the fast men on this Giro, but thoughts are already turning to next year.
“Since lockdown, five teams have won everything and then there are 13 picking up scraps. It’s hard doing that this year,” Haas said. “We’re seeing this Giro as the start of 2021. It’s a project. I feel a really good energy in this team and I really like all the people involved. It’s just been a really, really arduous year for everyone.”