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CRESTED BUTTE, Colorado (VN) — There was no question about it, the race was on. Up and over the dirt roads of Kebler Pass, BMC Racing had it lit up, and was bearing down on the last remaining breakaway rider, Robin Carpenter.
The weather had done, was doing, its worst. Curtain-thick rain fell. Thunderstorms dimpled the air. Lightning creased a sullen sky. Water greased the dirt roads.
The stage was in its waning miles, and the mud-speckled peloton was barreling into Crested Butte and toward the first uphill finish of this young USA Pro Challenge. The sharp end was now.
And then, the riders stopped.
Rather, they were stopped, by race officials, about seven miles from the finish at Mt. Crested Butte, in a swift, and controversial, neutralization. Reports from a person close to the call paint a confusing picture, where a call to neutralize was made atop the climb but failed to reach the riders, who flat-out raced the wet dirt descent.
By the time the riders reached the pavement they were stopped, cold and growing colder, and not pleased about any of it.
“There was lighting and a hail storm on that descent. At that time, the decision was made to neutralize the race the safety of the riders,” race director Jim Birrell said in a statement. “We held them there for the time gap for 45 seconds, which was the gap between Carpenter and the last chase group.”
Carpenter (Hincapie Sportswear) was allowed to start about 45 seconds ahead of the field, the shrapnel of seconds remaining from his break. By the time the group started chasing in earnest, the young rider was about 1:20 up the road, with a short climb to the finish awaiting. He held to win on by seven seconds.
Reviews among riders did not appear to be mixed.
“Bullshit!” a BMC rider yelled, while other racers shivered.
“I certainly support the decision to neutralize the race. As the weather continued to deteriorate, so did our communication,” Birrell said. “Not everyone got to hear the message over the neutralization because of the loss of communication.”
The general sentiment was that the neutralization came too late, and that the race was in the clear by that point anyway; the dirt was over, and there was seven miles of road left to the line. Riders who were dropped came back and lined up next to those who had been out front, like aggressor Tejay van Garderen, who was visibly, and verbally, annoyed with the stoppage.
Van Garderen won a finish here, and his BMC team worked on the long climb up Kebler to make the race rough. BMC’s Michael Shär argued with the official, but to no avail. The racehorses were bridled now, kicking and stomping. A group that was whittled to some 25 riders was at 60 again.
“Again our livelihood & hard work affected by incompetence of officials. Chief comm should be sent home NOW…” BMC’s Brent Bookwalter tweeted. Shär wondered if an official could be sent home in the middle of the race. Gamin-Sharp rider Ben King even made a “not” joke on Twitter.
“Really cool that we ride through an insane thunderstorm on muddy roads and then get neutralized with ten km to go after all the danger. Not,” King tweeted.
“I wasn’t personally in the situation to make that final call, as our Chief Commissarie was,” Birrell said. “Whatever resources and data she was collecting gave her insight to green light the race pause, the delay of which was about two minutes.”
When the stage was over, BMC appeared to be both clear winner (van Garderen finished third on the day and moved into third overall) but also could have taken more had the gas stayed on.
“It went well,” van Garderen said after the stage. “We had a plan to make it hard up Kebler Pass and the boys did an amazing job. I think everyone was on the limit. Lots of guys were dropped. Obviously there was that big confusion with us stopping on the wet and cold rainy downhill after we had done all the dirt … we were out to make something happen on this stage. Mission accomplished.”
For all his calm, the defending champ was also put off by the call.
“If you were gonna neutralize it because of how dangerous the race was you need to do that before the dirt. But we had already ridden all the dangerous sections and we had 10k to go all on pavement and then they just stop us in the middle of the road,” he said. “And the rain was coming down hard and we’re out there in lycra. When you stop, moving like that, you get pretty cold. We were out there shivering and freezing. We wanted to keep going.”
Some riders, he said, wanted to quit racing completely. That didn’t make sense to the BMC rider, either. Carpenter could have taken minutes.
“He’s gonna go and take 10 minutes and run away with the race. Second of all, we had a plan from the beginning and we were riding all day,” van Garderen said. “I think it was fair, because all the GC guys still came to the base of the climb on the same time, and it was obvious we were still racing.”
This is not the first controversial stoppage — or attempt — this season, even, nor will it be the last. At this season’s chilly Giro d’Italia, race organizers badly botched an attempt to neutralize the race, resulting in days of angst among the peloton and Rigoberto Uran’s (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) pink jersey vanished.
Frequently, weather conditions draw the ire of riders and those associated with the teams, and, frequently, people point toward the lack of established benchmarks in regard to starting, or finishing, a race, be it heat, cold, or, in this case, rain and lightning. All told, there is a lack of organization at the top of the sport, as noted by Bookwalter, on his Twitter account.
“One thing is CLEAR… The CPA, AIGCP, AIOCC, and UCI must create a new protocol for Stage Neutralization/Cancellation/Modification,” he wrote.
The USA Pro Challenge resumes Wednesday, from Gunnison to a finish up Monarch Pass.