The rain that poured down on the peloton ahead of what was meant to the be longest stage of the Giro was heavy but nothing out of the ordinary – just as the temperature of 13°C in Morbegno was chilly, but hardly Arctic.

All 133 of the remaining riders would have ridden in worse conditions not just in their careers but probably this season. They may have even done so without wearing gloves.

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They might have accepted it in any normal year – and indeed many of them did accept it even in this most challenging of years – but with the spectre of the pandemic, and the ongoing concern about race bubbles off the back of three gruelling days in the mountains and a series of long transfers, they said enough was enough.

And so the riders maximized their leverage and protested on the morning of Stage 19, forcing the curtailing of the race not before the start, but eight kilometres into it – causing race organiser Mauro Vegni maximum embarrassment in the process. Packed into their team buses, the riders could dry off in the comfort of their team buses, which drove them the opening 130km of the day, the rain having washed away their desire to do what they're paid handsomely to do.

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For many viewers at home or armchair critics brandishing a smartphone and a social media account, this was rider power gone mad. But everything about this Giro is unprecedented and this is no ordinary season – as the colour of the leaves and the date on the calendar attests.

One anonymous rider told Orla Chennaoui during this unexpected break on the bus that the riders were "on their knees" and that he'd "never seen a Tour where people are this broken". This came after what new race leader Wilco Kelderman had described as "the hardest day of my life".

Thursday's showdown on the Stelvio completed a 600km trio of stages with a combined total of over 15,000m of climbing. Stage 18 – a stage for the ages where the GC battle exploded on the Stelvio – featured more elevation (5,542m) than any Grand Tour stage this decade; a day earlier, Stage 17 boasted the fourth most elevation, at 5,315m.

Since the second rest day, each stage has been completed in an average time of over six hours – and they have been followed by long transfers and the accompanying stresses that come hand in hand with trying to maintain social distancing while respecting the myriad coronavirus protocols.

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This Giro has not been a stroll in the park. And while the organisers were not to know about the pandemic when they came up with the route, having eight stages in excess of 200km so late in the season has hardly helped matters.

Following online criticism that the riders did not put on a show during Wednesday's stage to Madonna di Campiglio, Jacopo Guarnieri spoke up on Twitter, explaining how the previous day had gone down for him and his Groupama teammates:

So, in summary, 1 hour 30 by bus this morning, 6 hour 30 by bike and ends with another 2 hour 30 by bus. At least you have an idea why we don't make fire and flames from km 0.

Guarnieri had a point.

After struggling to beat the time cut on Thursday after the drama of the Stelvio, many riders had another two hours in their buses before they could eat, relax and sleep – ahead of a 6:30am wake-up call for a stage on Friday whose length always seemed acutely preposterous.

When they learned that a further 5km had been added to Stage 19 due to a bridge collapse, it was easy to imagine their collective dismay. The heavy rain was the straw that broke the camel's back. Tackling a seven-hour stage in wet conditions would only weaken already suppressed immune systems during a pandemic which has seen a host of top names leave the race after testing positive.

All this helps explain why Adam Hansen, as the CPA union rider representative, pushed for a shortening of the stage. But what about the other side of the argument?

If this Giro is so hard then why did TT powerhouse Rohan Dennis set a climbing record on the legendary Passo dello Stelvio? And how is his Ineos Grenadier teammate, the sprinter-by-trade Ben Swift, currently in the top 20 of the general classification, with the team's Plan B for GC just 15 seconds away from pink? How come a 22-year-old Grand Tour debutant most fans had never heard of led the race for 15 days?

Curtailing a long stage and refusing to do what is essentially the job of a pro rider because of a little rain sets a dangerous precedent – especially, as Bradley Wiggins put it so well during the race commentary, many people will be watching from home, unable to do their own jobs. The peloton, said Wiggo, took more of a stand against a bit of rain than it did against racism during the Black Lives Matter protests earlier in the summer.

Every team and every rider would have known, if not about the weather, then about the length of Friday's stage well in advance of the Giro. And while most people view long sprint stages as boring, such a stage – placed between two key mountain tests – play a role in a three-week race.

Not least, there needed to be something left in the race to keep the fast men and maglia ciclamino rivals interested – what with Stage 21 being a time trial, not the usual city centre circuit race. There is also the argument that Saturday's final day in the mountains – even the watered-down version we are getting to Sestriere – would have been affected by what preceded it.

Grand Tours are designed for a reason, each twist and turn, each climb and chapter serving a purpose in the whole narrative arc. And the ability to recover is part of the armoury that makes a successful Grand Tour rider.

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Perhaps it was Vegni's intention for the GC favourites to have felt the extra 258km in their legs before a day which should have featured the Colle dell'Agnello?

It's for this reason, presumably, why Ineos Grenadiers were against the shortening of the stage – for it gave Sunweb duo Wilco Kelderman and Jai Hindley one fewer thing to worry about, and another day to recover. Bora-Hansgrohe, likewise – for the stage provided them the last chance for Peter Sagan to overturn his rival Arnaud Demare's lead in the points classification.

If you put yourself in Vegni's shoes, it's easy to see why he was so angered by the protest. While being admittedly a bit blinkered at times, he's moved heaven and earth to ensure the race makes it to Milan in this most testing of years.

After everything Vegni has done to keep this race going – including calls from one team manager to end the race after two weeks – to be hit with a protest of this sort must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

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