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Controversy erupted at the Giro d’Italia Tuesday when one of professional cycling’s unwritten rules returned to the spotlight after it was disregarded in the heat of battle.
With 31.5km remaining on a stage that climbed the Mortirolo and the Stelvio twice, maglia rosa Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) drifted back from a group of major GC contenders at the bottom of the day’s final climb, swung off to the side of the road, took off his helmet and jersey, dropped down into a ditch, lowered his bib shorts, and moved his bowels.
Like Chris Froome running up Mont Ventoux last July, it was an unparalleled moment in modern Grand Tour racing, the GC leader in distress on a critical mountain stage for a most unusual reason.
Ahead, a GC group containing Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) continued on, with Zakarin attacking shortly thereafter.
Nibali went on to attack the GC group and win the stage, catching lone breakaway Mikel Landa (Team Sky) and out-sprinting him for Italy’s first stage win of this year’s race. Quintana placed third place on the day, 12 seconds behind Nibali and Landa, taking four seconds of time bonus.
Dumoulin rode the remainder of the stage alone, losing 2:10 to Quintana, though he retained the pink jersey by 31 seconds over the Colombian. Nibali moved into third overall, 1:12 behind the Dutchman.
Though he managed to hold on to the jersey, Dumoulin was visibly angry as he crossed the finish line.
“I had some problems,” Dumoulin said. “I needed to take a dump. I couldn’t hold it any more. It was after the first time on the Stelvio, I felt it on the downhill. I had to stop, it was not possible to continue any more. I decided to fight and fight and fight and I wanted to take conclusions after the finish, and that’s what I did. I’m very disappointed with today of course.”
While there is no official rule regarding when a rider can attack, a longtime “gentlemen’s rule” has mandated that when the GC leader pulls over for a nature break, racing is neutralized until he is back in the main bunch.
The issue was even more complicated given that Dumoulin asked the GC group to stop and wait for Quintana after the Colombian crashed on the descent of Miragolo San Salvatore on Stage 15 with 35km and one climb, the Selvino, remaining.
Asked about that decision, Dumoulin said Sunday, “I don’t want to take time on competitors because of a crash, or whatever. I don’t think that’s the way to do it. Sometimes the race goes on, but not at this moment. This was a good moment to wait for him.”
Asked, then, if he expected his rivals to wait for him if he had a mechanical, or another issue, Dumoulin answered, “It depends on the situation, but I don’t expect anything.”
Video: Tom Dumoulin talks about his decision to wait for Quintana on Stage 15
Further complicating things was the fact that Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) — 10th on GC, seven minutes down — was up the road, in a breakaway, and threatening to move up the classification.
Sportsmanship, or race etiquette, is of course subjective and not easily defined. However Dumoulin’s gesture on Sunday was clearly not reciprocated Tuesday on the Stelvio.
From live television pictures and post-race interviews, there was no indication as to whether Dumoulin had notified Quintana or Nibali of his situation before he pulled over — or how long it took that information to make it to the GC group.
What is also unclear is which riders, specifically, Dumoulin should direct his anger towards. Zakarin was first to attack, while Franco Pellizotti (Bahrain-Merida) set tempo. Nibali’s attack with 22km remaining forced others to respond, and further widened the gap back to the maglia rosa.
What is clear is that if the GC group had neutralized their pace, Nibali would almost certainly not have caught Landa on the descent and won the stage, or taken time back and moved up the classification standings.
“I can understand that they were riding, because Kruijswijk was in front,” Dumoulin said. “But it’s shit.”
@Eurosport_UK they should have all pulled over instantly then he would have got straight back on and the race could continue properly
— Sean Yates (@SeanYatesCoach) May 23, 2017
The issue of unwritten rules in stage races in a contentious one. While a race leader may have the authority to call for a neutralization early in a stage, for a nature break, that same authority tends to evaporate as the finish line draws closer. Where the line is drawn is nebulous, depending entirely on the situation.
During the Lance Armstrong era, there was a tenuous mutual respect between the American and his closest rival, German Jan Ullrich. Armstrong waited for Ullrich after he crashed descending the Col de Peyresourde at the 2001 Tour, while Ullrich (and Tyler Hamilton) slowed the group of GC favorites when Armstrong clipped a spectator and went down on the climb of Luz-Ardiden at the 2003 Tour. Ullrich was not wearing the yellow jersey when he crashed; Armstrong was when he did.
Those days, it appears, are becoming a thing of the past.
More recently, Alberto Contador caught grief when he did not wait for race leader Andy Schleck after Schleck attacked, and then dropped his chain, on the Port de Balès during the 2010 Tour de France. In the end, the margin between the two riders on the general classification was 39 seconds, the same amount of time Schleck lost to Contador due to his mechanical. (Contador was later stripped of his title, making Schleck a Tour de France winner.)
“The race was on, and maybe I made a mistake,” Contador said that night, in a video. “I’m sorry.”
There were no apologies being brought forth after Tuesday’s stage.
Behind the podium presentation, Eurosport presenter Juan Antonio Flecha said that no words were exchanged between Nibali and Dumoulin, and that the race leader stared only straight ahead.
In his post-race interview, Nibali did not address the issue of whether the GC contenders had exploited a bad moment, or if what had transpired was all part of racing for the classification. The two-time Giro winner benefited the most, but was far from the only GC rider to gain time.
“It’s the victory of a complete rider,” Nibali said. “I had to be consistent from start to finish in a long and difficult stage. At the end I had to be an aggressive climber, a good downhill rider and a sprinter. I’m very happy I won with the help of the team. I arrived really tired. I’m closer to Dumoulin on GC now. There are more difficult stages to come but Dumoulin also has a time trial to his advantage in Milan.”
Likewise, Quintana primarily said he wished he could have taken more time. “I would have liked to take five minutes, but the reality is that, the will and the power sometimes are not the same,” he said. “We are satisfied with what we have done today.”
Flecha later spoke with Dumoulin, who was angry, though he stopped short of directing his anger toward any specific riders.
“I’m very disappointed,” he said. “I’m very angry. I had good legs, but if you have a problem like this, there’s nothing else to do about it. I had cramps at the end, after my problem, because I couldn’t drink any more. I lost a lot of time, and that was not necessary today.”
Asked if he had thoughts of revenge, Dumoulin said it was too early to answer that question.
“I don’t want to go into that today,” he said.
A few hours later, Dumoulin posted to Twitter his thoughts on the day. “A day to quickly forget! Good legs, but very disappointed that I lost 2 min because nature called. Also very disappointed that they cancelled the downhill prize. I think I won it today going down [the] Stelvio. Oh, and I’m not angry or disappointed that other teams didn’t really wait. It was not the moment or the time in the race anymore to come to a complete shutdown because nature called me.”
It was not the moment or the time in the race anymore to come to a complete shutdown because nature called me.
— Tom Dumoulin (@tom_dumoulin) May 23, 2017
At the post-race press conference, Nibali told reporters that what had transpired was not out of the ordinary.
“I never expect anybody to wait for me when I have stopped. Many times, I’ve fallen or punctured and just set off again,” Nibali said. “I don’t know what to say. This is my opinion, even if many people might attack me for saying this. If we look at the history of cycling, go back through the record books, I think you’ll find that some very similar things have happened.”
Five stages remain in this year’s Giro d’Italia including two summit finishes and a 29km time trial to cap off the event Sunday in Milan.
Video: Stage 16 highlights