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Riders, teams and fans are divided over a controversial situation at the Giro d’Italia which influenced the outcome of Tuesday’s stage at the race and which could well end up influencing the final podium of the event.
The matter arose as the riders faced a dangerous descent down the Stelvio, with snow, wet roads and freezing conditions making things difficult.
According to many, notice was given by the race organisers that the descent would be neutralised, and a large number of riders stopped to put on extra clothing.
However others, including the Colombian Nairo Quintana (Movistar), former race winner Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin Sharp) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) pushed on and quickly gained a gap. Quintana’s team-mates worked hard to increase the advantage.
The trio started the final climb approximately one minute and 40 seconds ahead of race leader Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma Quick Step), and raced hard to the summit, where Quintana finished eight seconds clear of Hesjedal and one minute 13 seconds up on Rolland.
More significantly, the Colombian took over three minutes out of Wilco Kelderman (Belkin Pro Cycling Team), Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R La Mondiale) and Fabio Aru (Astana Pro Team), and more than four out of Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), Sebastian Henao (Sky), Uran and Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team).
The time gained put Quintana in the pink jersey by one minute 41 seconds and dropped Evans from second to third overall.
Debate raged during the stage, with many pointing out that the Giro d’Italia’s own Twitter account had said that a slow-down would take place. “Stelvio descent neutralised due to snow,” it stated.
That tweet was deleted soon afterwards, with another one backtracking on that subsequently being posted. “Wrong communication: no neutralization for the descent from the Passo dello Stelvio. Sorry for the wrong information,” it stated.
Tinkoff Saxo owner Oleg Tinkoff used twitter to express his dissatisfaction; his rider Rafal Majka was one of those to lose out, placing seventh, four minutes eight seconds back. “What a poor #giro organization! They said neutralized descend [descent – ed.] and Quintana attacked. Is there any fair play in cycling?” he stated.
The debates raged after the finish of the stage, with a range of opinions being expressed. Some of them are as follows:
Nairo Quintana (Movistar – stage winner and new race leader): “The peloton was compact until the ascent of the Stelvio. Then the attacks started: there was a rider with Team Colombia, two riders from of AG2R, one from Sky. They started to descend fast. I just stayed on a team-mate’s wheel. I didn’t hear anything about the descent being neutralised. Nor did my team-mates: we were just going to cover up well for the descent.
“We came down at some speed, and at the foot of the descent I realised that there were six of us in a group behind the breakaway. In any case, the time I gained on my rivals was mostly made on the final climb. I don’t see any grounds for controversy.”
Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma Quick Step – ninth on stage, former race leader and now second overall): “On the Stelvio I heard from Davide Bramati that the downhill will be controlled by motos with a red flag for the safety of the riders, and that we could have maintained our position on the descent without attacking. He told me to put on my rain jacket and pay attention in any case.
“At 300 or 400 meters I got my jacket from one of our masseurs. I managed to wear my jacket before the top so at that point I didn’t stop at the top like a few of my colleagues did. I then started descending, but I didn’t see any motorbike. During the descent riders came around me. I saw Majka and other guys but I didn’t realize Quintana wasn’t there. I only did a few kilometers when Bramati told me the gap was already at one minute. So, we then organized our chase. That is how it went. I think in normal circumstances the story of the race probably could have been different.”
Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team – tenth on stage, drops from second to third overall): “Today’s stage was…crazy… Even in good weather it would have been nuts, but in bad weather, it was close to unbelievable. I couldn’t handle the conditions as well as some of my competitors so it was not an enjoyable day for me. Not being able to see on the first descent. Stopping for a jacket on the second descent under the impression that we would have a neutralised descent…”
Wilco Kelderman (Belkin Pro Cycling, fourth on stage and now eighth overall): “While climbing the Stelvio, I warmed up again. At the top, I took my time to put on a raincoat as the jury had announced that the downhill would be neutralised. When I made my way back to the main group, however, Quintana, Hesjedal and Rolland were gone.
“Looking back on that, it’s a bit unfair because I wouldn’t have stopped if I hadn’t heard about the neutralisation. Rolland is now ahead of me in the overall. Normally, I think I could have followed him.”
Lars Michaelsen (Tinkoff Saxo sports director): “We clearly heard over the race radio that the race jury asked us to transmit to our riders that the red flag would be raised for the riders on the descent. The red flag is indecisive and means that it’s not allowed to attack from the group.
“We told our riders that they were asked by RCS to take it slow on the descent from Stelvio. So we stopped on the top to make sure that they had the proper clothing for a slow and cold descent. But Movistar and Quintana attacked and Hesjedal and Rolland followed.”
Michaelsen added that even if Movistar didn’t hear the race radio announcement, the fact that Garmin Sharp and Europcar also followed made it unlikely that none of those three teams had been aware of what was on race radio.
“If you suddenly have two minutes just after the descent, there is probably something that isn’t right. And I think that there are some teams that probably know that what they did on the stage was questionable.
“Today was unacceptable. I’ve always been a strong advocate for the fact that crashes, weather and punctures are a part of cycling. But when an organizer steps in to control the race as a final option they need to have the finesse and skills to do it properly. Their intentions were good but the execution was horrible.
“They sent an apology on their official media platform but won’t take the full responsibility either”.
RCS Sport, Giro d’Italia organisers (statement announced several hours after race concluded): “In consideration of audio recordings of instructions relayed to Directeurs sportifs during today’s stage, the Directors of the Giro d’Italia would like to clarify that Race Radio provided an inaccurate interpretation of the indications stipulated by the Directors.
“As previously stated, the intention was to guarantee rider safety during the first section of the descent (the first six hairpins, approximately 1500 m) of the Passo dello Stelvio, where visibility was restricted due to low cloud and fog.
“At no point did Race Radio or the Directors of the Giro make reference to the possible neutralisation of any part of the descent.”
Jered Gruber (Pro photographer, was shooting on the descent of the Stelvio): “We saw tons of motorbikes with red flags – that means neutralized, yes?”
As of the time of writing, the UCI had not yet commented on the matter.
Wednesday morning should make it more clear how teams and riders will decide to act. For those who feel aggrieved, a protest before the start may be one option they decide to take. The teams who insist no wrong was done will simply want to get on with things.
As for Uran and the other riders who lost time, they will be keen to try to battle back in the remaining days of the Giro d’Italia. The damage may well have been done, however, with the gaps concerned being considerable.