Giro d'Italia
Katusha drove the pace, trying to move its team...

Astana, Katusha say they didn’t know Contador flatted

Astana and Katusha say they didn't know Alberto Contador flatted leading into a decisive climb in Tuesday's stage 16

Polemics engulfed Tuesday’s epic stage over the Mortirolo, and the “wait or race” debate kicked back into gear at the Giro d’Italia as pink jersey holder Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) punctured at a key moment.

With a relatively easy day on the horizon for Wednesday’s 17th stage, many were revisiting exactly what happened on the descent off the Aprica, and whether or not rivals unfairly piled on the pink jersey when he punctured coming down the technical descent.

Officials from both Katusha and Astana denied they knew Contador had punctured on the Aprica descent, and each insisted they were simply racing their race as events unfolded at breakneck speed.

According to Tinkoff staffers, Contador punctured on sweeping switchbacks above an even narrower, more technical descent that leads to the valley below the approach to the Mortirolo. Riding within the protective cocoon of his teammates, Contador quickly swapped out a back wheel with teammate Ivan Basso, who also rode with the same 34×30 gearing as Contador, so the wheel change was as swift as it could be.

Because Contador’s wheel change was so fast, it evidently was not spotted by in-race commissaires, and, as a result, apparently was not called out on race radio per the custom when a rider punctures.

Astana boss Giuseppe Martinelli confirmed that version of events in comments to La Gazzetta dello Sport.

“On the descent of the Aprica, Contador’s puncture was never communicated,” Martinelli was quoted as saying after the stage. “Katusha had already started to pull, and I didn’t know why Contador wasn’t there, but it was at that point that I told my team to pull.”

Katusha sport director Dimitri Konyshev also denied knowing that Contador had punctured, and he had already ordered his troops to the front of the peloton on the Aprica descent to keep Yuri Trofimov in good position heading toward the Mortirolo.

Revisiting TV images of the Aprica descent, it’s unclear exactly what happened. During the race, announcers on RAI were reporting that Contador was involved with a crash with an Astana rider who swept out in a switchback. It was only at the finish line that Contador was able to confirm that it was a puncture, not an accident, that caused him to lose contact on the decisive descent.

What might have been clear to viewers on TV is rarely the case for racers in the heat of the battle, especially when they are barreling down a high-speed descent at full throttle.

Once teams were on the flats on the approach to the Mortirolo, it became evident that Contador was gapped out, and he was desperately chasing back with the help of his teammates.

Could the peloton have eased up? At that point of the race, the base of the Mortirolo was less than 10km away and it was full-gas to the base of the decisive climb. Teams at the front of the race say it would have been all but impossible to stop the gathering inertia of the leading pack.

Eventual stage winner Mikel Landa (Astana) admitted the peloton realized Contador wasn’t there once they hit the flats, and collaborated to widen the gap to the powerful Spanish climber, but he did not know what had happened.

The rapidly unfolding dynamics once again prompted the “wait or race” debate. It’s one thing if Contador had flatted with 100km to go, but it’s quite something else coming off a tricky descent and heading toward the most decisive climb of the 2015 Giro.

The general consensus within the peloton is that “when the race is on,” there is no waiting. To each his own fate.

“We were in the middle of the descent, chasing Katusha, who were working for Trofimov. Radio Tour didn’t say anything about a flat for anybody, and it was another 5 or 6km of chasing Katusha full-gas before we figured out what happened,” Astana sport director Alexandre Shefer said. “What are we supposed to do, stop and wait, and let Trofimov get a head-start up the Mortirolo?”

Of course, everyone inside the Tinkoff bus didn’t see things that way.

Tinkoff sport director Lars Michaelsen also questioned the opposing teams’ tactics, hinting that their only chance was to try to take out Contador when he was down.

“I don’t think it’s honorable toward the leader’s jersey [to attack] when he has a problem. If they want to fight him, they should fight him in a sporting way, not like this,” Michaelsen said. “On the flat part of 9km [before Mortirolo], everybody could see they went full, full, full … which would not be normal.”

Contador refused to enter into the debate, and used the tactical play to fuel his ambition up the punishing climb. He erased a nearly one-minute deficit at the base of the Mortirolo, and ended up tightening his grip on the pink jersey, shedding pink jersey rival Fabio Aru perhaps for good.

The Giro just isn’t the Giro without a good polemic. And with most of these debates, it all depends on who you ask.