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Giro d'Italia

Giro peloton remains divided in aftermath of Stelvio controversy

The morning after a controversial descent of the Stelvio, riders and teams at the Giro are still wondering how to solve the issue

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Editor’s note: To close out the year, we are counting down the top 14 stories of 2014. VeloNews and Velo magazine’s editorial staff voted this piece as one of our favorite articles of the year.

SARNONICO, Italy (VN) — The Giro d’Italia peloton struggled Wednesday to come to grips with the fallout of the Stelvio descent controversy that cast a pall over the fight for the pink jersey.

Sunny skies Wednesday morning were in sharp contrast to the snow and confusion that engulfed the Giro on the Stelvio less than 24 hours before.

Sport directors and team managers huddled in a pre-race meeting ahead of stage 17 to try to reach a consensus on a brewing controversy that revealed deep fractures within the peloton. Tempers flared, but there was no clear compromise.

On one side, there was talk of readjusting times out of fairness to riders who lost time in the confusion over whether or not the snowy, slippery Stelvio descent would be neutralized.

Others cried foul, saying the race was on, and that anyone who lost position on the descent should have been at the front of the race regardless of what was being announced over race radio.

“If you were serious about the race, especially if you’re in the pink jersey, you should have been at the head of the affair, end of story,” Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) said at the start. “If you’re serious about the race, you need to be at the front of the race.

“I was just following guys that were ahead of me in the GC. I just rode the descent. I was mostly by myself on the descent. There was stuff and people everywhere. It was sketchy. At that moment, you’re just trying to stay safe and get through it.”

The 2012 Giro winner was among six riders who slipped away on the long, twisting Stelvio descent to open a decisive gap on the pink jersey group.

As the majority of riders, many under the assumption that the descent was neutralized, stopped at the Stelvio summit to put on extra layers of clothes and take hot drinks, others pushed on.

Hesjedal linked up with Pierre Rolland (Europcar), eventual stage winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Quintana’s teammate Gorka Iguirre, and two others. Midway down the twisting descent, the gap was up to 50 seconds. At the base of the valley, it was hovering near two minutes.

Giro officials made an announcement near the snowbound Stelvio summit that motorcycles with red flags would guide the peloton through the upper switchbacks, and that no rider should attack under the red flag. As one team official said, it was a gesture of good intention, but with bad, and eventually costly, consequences.

In the ensuing confusion, there were varying interpretations of what exactly that meant. Was the entire descent neutralized? Were riders not allowed to race?

What is obvious is that Giro descended into a disarray that the race was still trying to dig itself out of Wednesday morning.

Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) was one of the day’s top GC victims of the confusion. The young Polish rider said he was under the assumption that there would be no attacks on the descent, and said he cautiously dropped down the Stelvio with the group containing overnight leader Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).

“I know for sure Quintana is strong, and maybe now he will win, but you have to also respect the other guys. I think the organizers are to blame,” Majka said Wednesday morning. “We have three hard stages, so we try to win something there. I am still close for the top three. Now [the GC] is decided because riders like Rolland or Ryder are coming up from behind, and they got the time on this descent.”

One big question Wednesday morning was whether or not Quintana and others passed a motorcycle with a red flag in the raised position.

There are images taken from the RAI broadcast that show Movistar riders slipping past a motorcycle with a red flag still in the vertical position. What’s unclear was if there were other motorcycles ahead of them at that moment.

Hesjedal, who had a front row seat to the descent, said there were motorcycles at different positions along the descent.

“They just make things up as they go in this race. At the end of the day, I’ve never been on a neutralized downhill, if in fact it was, in a grand tour, so what does that even mean?” Hesjedal said. “What does that even mean? Everyone just stops and has a tea party?”

Movistar officials did not comment Wednesday morning, yet team manager Eusebio Unzué confirmed teams were considering readjusting times on the six leading riders who hit the bottom of the descent ahead of the pink jersey group, a notion he characterized as “absurd.”

Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) told VeloNews contributor Gregor Brown that he was trailing behind Quintana when he claims he saw the Colombian ride past motorcycles with red flags.

“I was behind them and I saw them ride past a motorcycle,” Pozzovivo said. “In the end, it won’t matter anyway. Nairo is going to ride away from everyone again in the mountains. He showed he was the strongest in the climb.”

Omega Pharma officials did not comment before Wednesday’s start, but general manager Patrick Lefevere was enraged following the botched handling of the Stelvio descent, and expressed his outrage with comments on Twitter.

Tempers were already flaring Tuesday morning when organizers decided to push on with the Gavia-Stelvio double despite the likelihood it could be snowing at the high summit. Many grumbled that an alternative route approved Monday evening should have been used instead.

So by the time the call came across race radio just shy of the Stelvio summit, nerves were already frazzled.

“Conditions were extreme at the Stelvio summit. Riders were struggling to stay safe, to keep warm,” said Garmin-Sharp sport director Charly Wegelius. “It was very confusing, and I think if I had told my riders that they had won a lottery for $150 million, they would not have understand what I meant.”

It would be unprecedented if the six riders saw time penalties, and even more so if Quintana was temporarily stripped of his pink jersey.

Quintana insisted Tuesday he made the decisive gaps on the final climb to Val Martello. So if times were adjusted, what would be the appropriate amount? From which point? That controversial debate remains unresolved, and a statement about the matter could be coming as soon as by the end of Wednesday’s stage.

While many agree Quintana looks to be the strongest in the peloton, any possible time penalties would have huge implications on the GC.

As it stands now, at 1:41 back, Urán is almost out of pink jersey range. But if Quintana was penalized, he could be right on his heels or even back in pink.

The impact would be even bigger for the podium. Hesjedal vaulted back into podium contention, now ninth at 4:16 back, less than a minute out of the top three. Take that away, and Hesjedal is not even in the top 10.

At the start of Wednesday’s stage 17, no one was happy.

“There is one simple solution, to have clear regulations with regards to extreme weather conditions,” said Tinkoff-Saxo’s Michael Rogers at the start. “How many times have we seen this in racing before? In rain, cold, snow? In the heat as well. We need to make a clear regulation that everyone understands.”

When pressed if it was fair that riders like Quintana and Hesjedal should be penalized, Rogers only shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t think that’s the solution,” he said. “If we had rules, we’d know what to do. I don’t have the answer to that.”

The Association Internationales Groupe des Cyclistes Professionnels (AIGCP) issued a statement Wednesday, demanding a neutralization of the time differences at the bottom of the Stelvio descent.

“On behalf of all teams, the AIGCP has specifically demanded a neutralization of the time differences at the bottom of the descent of the Stelvio of yesterday’s stage. The UCI has declined this demand and stated that the results would remain unchanged. Putting procedures above fair-sportsmanship is simply unacceptable and very disappointing. In respect to the fans and cycling as a whole, teams decided to start the stage.

“In bike races,” the AIGCP statement continued, “teams depend on the information provided by ‘Radio Tour’, from which the essential information is being forwarded by two-way radio’s to the riders. In difficult conditions, this flow of information becomes even more important. Therefore, the information should be consistent, clear and should not leave any doubt. Teams should rely on that all information should have the consent of the UCI chief commissaire.

“Yesterday, when the circumstances were the most difficult, the quality of the information went below the minimum level. Following the crucial announcement, both the organiser and the commissaires remained absent to correct the situation, where there was still enough time to do so. When asked by the AIGCP, the UCI commissaires have specifically denied to have heard the instructions ‘not to attack in the descent’ broadcasted on Radio Tour. In order to have fair cycling, teams need a regulator that applies the rules in a transparent, consistent and fair way. The complete absence of the ability to regulate the race to correct the mistakes, lead to a significant influence on the results in the race yesterday and until the end of the Giro. That should never happen.”

Matthew Beaudin contributed to this report.