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Il Giro d’Italia 2014 – Stage 16; Ponte di Legno – Val Martello/Martelltal, 139 km. Snow on the Stelvio

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Giro d'Italia logo

“Within 10 minutes of the finish, I was up on the podium. The pink jersey felt good. I slipped it on and all my doubts went away.

“The TV interviews began and I remember saying ‘Incredible, I have never seen conditions like this, even in Colorado. Today it was not sport, it was something beyond sport.'”

The words of Andy Hampsten describing that momentous day in the 1988 Giro when he broke away in a savage snow storm over the Passo Gavia to take the pink jersey, which he would hold until the finish to become the United States first – and to date only – Giro d’Italia winner.

He created a legend that day, one which I’m still writing about a third of a century later.

Stage 16 of this year’s Giro will enter legend too – Quintana’s long distance attack to take pink was straight out of the top drawer.

Stelvio
Quintana won the stage and took the lead – but did he knowingly ignore the red flag? Photo©Gian Mattia D’Alberto

There is a big ‘but,’ however.

And that is the confusion created by the Giro organisation with their much debated radio announcement to the teams regarding the dangerous descent of the Stelvio Pass.

Many teams interpreted the communication as an instruction to neutralise the descent but Messrs. Hesjedal (Garmin), Rolland (Europcar) and Quintana did not and rode hard to an advantage approaching two minutes by the time the valley floor was reached – never to be seen again.

Stelvio
Quintana and Hesjedal on the day’s final climb, where the snow disappeared and sun came out. Photo©Fabio Ferrari

On the one hand there’s Hesjedal’s argument;

“I don’t know what happened. I just stayed out of trouble, rode with the guys I was with and we came off the bottom with a lead.

“I think on a day like this, I just hope that everyone got through it OK. It was insane out there.

“We went over those passes and it turned into full survival mode. The radios work at best half the time. I was focused on staying up right and staying warm.”

Stelvio
The race heads into the snowfall toward the Stelvio summit. Photo©Fabio Ferrari

But even Hesjedal’s manager, Jonathan Vaughters isn’t happy that the race went ahead as it did, given the treacherous road conditions, Tweeting;

Once again, cycling fails to protect it’s own athletes. Finance and interests precede riders’ wellbeing.

Unsurprisingly, deposed maglia rosa Rigoberto Uran’s QuickStep manager, Patrick Lefevre and main sponsor, Marc Coucke are incensed, making the justifiable point that if Quintana hadn’t had two minutes at the bottom of the Stelvio then it would have been a different day’s racing.

A faction of VeloVeritas‘s hard core pundit panel say that Uran and the other complainants should have ‘just got on with it’ and worried about the arguments later. But if Uran and the rest were under the impression that the race was neutralised and couldn’t see that Quintana and Co. were driving then they’re frustration is justified.

Stelvio
Uran descended the Stelvio with care and unaware some rivals were putting time into him. Photo©Fabio Ferrari

And chum of VeloVeritas, photog Jered Gruber did Tweet a picture of the three desperados riding behind a race organisation motor bike which is clearly displaying a red flag – a flag the breakaways ignored.

Former pro and Italian TT Champion Marco Velo who drives the safety moto Tweeted; ‘my red flag up, Quintana pass me.

Here at VeloVeritas we’ve had a look at the UCI rules and as you might expect, a red flag means danger – a rider down or the road blocked.

But it’s not a thing we’ve come across in a race situation like this and the escapees can probably get away with claiming they thought it just meant, ‘danger.’

Stelvio
Front runner Robinson Chalapud takes the wet and slippy bends with caution. Photo©Fabio Ferrari

Lefevre’s man in the maglia rosa, Rigobero Uran was less outspoken than his boss but very disappointed nonetheless at how things had gone;

“On the Stelvio I heard from Davide Bramati (DS) 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 had 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 kilometres when Bramati told me the gap was already significant.

“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.”

There were disappointed noises too from Belkin’s Dutch race revelation, Wilco Kelderman;

“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.”

Stelvio
Tinkoff-Saxo put in a fair bit of work at the head of the bunch. Photo©Fabio Ferrari

And Saxo’s press release quoted their DS Lars Michaelsen;

“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 emphasized that the message about the neutralization went out to 22 teams and 44 sport directors.

Michaelsen admits that there is the possibility that Movistar didn’t get the radio announcement but with Garmin and Europcar following the attack the chances of nobody in the front group having received the message seems slim.

“I mean, if you suddenly have 2 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.

“Quintana was the big favourite for the stage win today, but he wouldn’t have been in pink if it wasn’t for what happened on Stelvio.”

Jim Ochowicz meanwhile, for BMC said:

“We take no position against the three riders that rode together to the finish.

‘However, the UCI and race organiser RCS have a responsibility to maintain fair racing conditions, which we believe did not take place.”

Stelvio
Once again, the Giro organisers took a gamble on the Stelvio, only this time it caused the talking points they didn’t wish for. Photo©Fabio Ferrari

Meanwhile the Giro Organisation issued a statement which was supposed to clarify things and absolve them:

‘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 6 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.”

But to those who see themselves as wronged it was just hot air; and if it was the case then why did they later Tweet this apology?

The sad thing for us here at VeloVeritas is that it looks very much like Uran’s chrono strength has been found at the expense of his climbing and Quintana’s eventually pulling on off the pink jersey was becoming increasingly inevitable.

But as Rabbie Burns said; ‘the best-laid plans o’ mice an men gang aft aglay.’ and yesterday’s events were against the natural development of the race.

Last word and a possible solution from Roberto Amadio the Cannondale boss;

“It’s shameful – and I can say that without any real vested interest. Give Quintana the win but cancel time gaps.”

Breakaway stage tomorrow – and lots of ranting…

Stelvio
Quintana now in the lead, deservedly or not. Photo©Gian Mattia D’Alberto

Ed Hood
Ed's been involved in cycling for over 45 years. In that time he's been a successful time triallist, team manager, and sponsor of several teams and clubs. He's also a respected and successful coach, and during the winter months can often be found working in the cabins at the Six Days. Ed remains a massive fan of the sport and couples his extensive contacts with an inexhaustable enthusiasm for the minutiae and the history of our sport.

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