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Nairo Quintana (Movistar) won stage 16 at the Giro d’Italia on Tuesday, a brutal mountain stage that featured three massive climbs, cold and snowy weather, and confusion.
Quintana’s effort put him into the pink jersey, as Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) finished too far back to retain his lead. Quintana began the day trailing Uran by 2:40 but finished more than 4 minutes ahead of him on Tuesday.
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) finished eight seconds behind in second, while Pierre Rolland (Europcar) was 1:13 back in third.
The 139-kilometer stage from Ponte di Legno to Val Martello brought the peloton over three climbs — the Gavia and Stelvio, followed by the summit finish on Val Martello. The route featured 4,300 meters of climbing.
Uran is now 1:41 behind Quintana, in second overall.
Former race leader Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) arrived 4:48 after Quintana and is now third overall, 3:21 off the lead, and among five riders grouped within 27 seconds of each other in the overall standings.
“In the final, I started cramping,” Evans said. “I was limping on one leg all the way home. It is a pity. Normally I am reasonably good in these extreme conditions. But when I can’t see the road, I can’t descend down it. When I have to pedal with one leg, I can’t go uphill. So it was really a day of conservation and survival.”
Quintana found himself with Hesjedal, Rolland, and Dario Cataldo (Sky) at the base of the final climb, a 21km ascent with an average gradient of about 6.5 percent. The road featured several sections of over 10 percent.
Cataldo, who was the first one over the Stelvio midway through the stage, broke under the fast pace Quintana was setting at the front and fell behind the trio with 16km left. Quintana continued to push the pace, pulling both Rolland and Hesjedal up the slopes despite his repeated arm flicks that requested one of the others take a turn at the front.
Quintana seemed to float up the steep ramps, with Rolland staying close to his wheel and Hesjedal dropping back a few meters as he struggled to hang on. Meanwhile, the Uran group was several minutes down the road — and the gap was increasing.
With 7.5km remaining, Quintana rode away on a steep ramp and opened a lead over Hesjedal and Rolland, although the group came together once again half a kilometer later. With 5km to go, Rolland fell back for good and began to lose touch with Quintana and Hesjedal.
Hesjedal took a brief turn at the front with 3km remaining, giving Quintana a quick break from pulling the pair up the mountain. Two kilometers later, Quintana attacked one final time and shook Hesjedal from his wheel. Quintana pedaled his way up the final kilometer — which contained eight hairpin turns — and crossed the finish line exhausted but with the pink jersey nearly in his grasp. Minutes later when it was clear Uran would not finish within the gap Quintana had created, the Colombian officially became the race’s new leader.
Confusion on the Stelvio
With freezing temperatures and snow falling on the Stelvio, the climb was difficult for everyone in the peloton. But the bigger concern was the descent down the other side of the mountain, as the weather and road conditions made the descent dangerous.
It was initially reported that Giro organizers neutralized the descent and reports claimed that motos would ride ahead of the various groups on the road to keep their speeds safe. Even the race’s official Twitter feed made the announcement. But after Cataldo hit the summit first and grabbed a bottle of what was most likely a hot drink, he hit the descent hard and started to put more time between himself and the groups chasing him. There were race vehicles ahead of him, but neither was controlling his speed.
It then became known that organizers never called for the neutralization. The original Tweet from the race’s feed was deleted and a corrected one was posted: “Wrong communication: no neutralization for the descent from the Passo dello Stelvio. Sorry for the wrong information. #giro”
“It was raining a lot. We couldn’t see any motorcycle. We all knew it was very dangerous,” Quintana said. “We climbed the Stelvio together, and we all started to descend. There were four or five of us who pulled clear of the group. I went at my rhythm. I gave everything today. I was climbing well in the end.”
Later in the stage, a report on the race broadcast said the call for a neutralization never went out on race radio. Still, the decision to go on with Tuesday’s stage as planned, not to mention the Stelvio descent, was a controversial one. Several riders, teams, and others connected to the sport complained on Twitter during the stage.
“It was an incredible day. From the first rider to the last, they are champions,” Cannondale sport director Roberto Amadio said. “Today was on the limit of what was possible. The descent off the Stelvio was on the edge of being acceptable.”
The race resumes with Wednesday’s stage 17, a 204km route from Sarnonico to Vittorio Veneto with a bumpy profile that will give the GC contenders a break before the final push for pink.
Andrew Hood contributed to this report.