Giro d’italia #specialjerseyaward: the timekeepers
The second Castelli special jersey, La seconda maglia speciale Castelli, the one dedicateted to the Wine Stage Rimini-San Marino goes to the Giro d’Italia timekeepers. Almost invisible people to us, yet crucial throughout all the corsa rosa and especially during time trial stages. Here’s why we decided to award them.
At the start of a time trial, every rider is surrounded. An apparent contradiction for a race that sees its primary significance in solitude. And yet there’s always a great deal of traffic in the start house. Even when he’s on the saddle, ready to dive down the ramp and begin to challenge his destiny, every rider is forced to share that moment with others.
First, there’s the race official behind him who keeps him upright with a steady hand under the saddle, waiting to release his hold at the moment of the start. A single individual, one hand between whose fingers the destinies of more than 160 riders pass. Then there’s another hand, the one that appears in all the television images while marking the countdown with five fingers. Usually it’s a man seen in three-quarter view, with his back to the camera and his hand extended. In less hospitable conditions, like the downpour during the Riccione–San Marino stage, he takes shelter and is more hidden, but his role is always the same: 3, 2, 1, beep.
Stage races are a continuous challenge against time and could not exist without the precise hands of the timekeepers. Mythical and silent figures, the timekeepers complement the race jury: the latter shape space, the former time. Today timekeepers are changing. In fact, the timekeepers of modern cycling are machines, but behind the machines there are always humans. The finish-line truck that houses the timekeepers in the flesh shimmers with screens and LEDs that are reflected on the faces of the technicians: individuals trained to make the machines work, to set the data, to follow the operation second by second. Rather, every thousandth of a second.
To describe it, the timing system would seem rather simple. But follow the cables that transmit the timing data of the individual riders and it soon becomes clear how easy it is to get tangled up. The times of each rider are recorded by photocells on the start and finish lines. These timing systems are protected from any possible glitch — or almost. Because there’s a direct connection between the sensors and the TV signal in major races, a false signal can never be completely ruled out: all it takes is for someone to carelessly touch a photocell and register an anomalous passage. For this reason the timekeepers have only one place to defend like a sanctuary: the line. The more the line is protected, kept clear, safeguarded, the more reliable the data will be.
The problem is that sometimes the line doesn’t exist, at least physically. If the finish line is in and of itself an abstract construction, the intermediate lines almost border on the unreal. Mostly imaginary lines that affect the reality of the race. At the 2019 Giro it happens with the Gran Premio della Montagna: in all three races against clock there’s a timed climb that assigns points for the climbers’ ranking. This is a novelty, an additional measurement, a time measured within a time. A complexity that is added to what are already critical days for the timekeepers. And when the machines are wrong for some reason, there’s only one backup: another hand. In every bike race, including the most important time trials of the season, there’s still a person at the finish with a stopwatch in hand, a finger that “clicks” like always. Manual recording is the safety net for the timekeepers: it won’t be accurate to a thousandth of a second — it records tenths at best — but it’s just as real.
When we watch a time trial on television, we focus on the riders’ pedal strokes, on the trajectories, on the numbers scrolling in the corner indicating the relative times. Our observation moves in one direction like the race, yet it could also proceed in reverse: go back up the cables, jump between the cells, recompose each number representing a succession of the tiniest units of time. It would be a different time trial, which would begin and end at the fingertips of the timekeepers, of those who devote their time to the measurement of time. Luciano De Crescenzo dedicated himself to this hidden profession, serving in his youth as a timekeeper for track and field events. In recalling his own experience, he wrote: “Being a timekeeper influenced my life: whatever I did, I always had the impression that it lasted too long.” Click.