UPDATED: Confusion over ‘neutralization’ throws Giro into chaos

Race officials insist there was never any discussion of neutralizing the descent off the snowy Stelvio summit.

Photo: Tim De Waele

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VAL MARTELLO, Italy (VN) —  Confusion over whether the snowy descent off the Stelvio was neutralized created a post-stage “polemic” that lit up Tuesday’s already controversial 16th stage that tackled the snowbound summits of the Gavia and Stelvio.

As Dario Cataldo (Sky) neared the “Cima Coppi” of the Giro’s highest point at 2,758m with 69km to go, the Giro’s official Twitter account posted the following message: “Stelvio descent neutralized due to snow.”

Several minutes later, the message was erased, and replaced with an apology: “Wrong communication: no neutralization for the descent from the Passo dello Stelvio. Sorry for the wrong information. #giro”

By then, however, the message had gone viral on social media, but what exactly were sport directors told? What did teams know, and when did they know it?

Giro race director Mauro Vegni said there was never any official communication to teams about neutralizing the descent.

“There was never discussion of neutralizing the descent,” Vegni said on RAI after the stage. “With about three or four kilometers from the top of the Stelvio, a message went out on race radio advising about the danger of the descent. We said there would be a motorcycle with a red flag to lead the peloton down the upper switchbacks, but there was never a mention of neutralizing the descent.”

A replay of the race radio message reveals that officials indicated a motorcycle would be placed in front of each group after passing the Stelvio summit, and that riders should remain in their respective group without attacking, until the red flag is removed. The officials never said the entire Stelvio descent would be neutralized.

Vegni also said no sport director contacted any Giro officials or UCI commissaires indicating possible confusion, adding that, “sport directors know only to listen to race radio, not follow what is said on Twitter.”

There was confusion, however. Roberto Amadio (Cannondale) and Luca Guercilena (Trek Factory Racing) both told RAI that it was unclear whether the Stelvio descent would be neutralized.

Belgian broadcasters Sporza reported that Lotto-Belisol sport directors were never told of a neutralized descent. A Katusha official confirmed that their sport directors were also advised only of dangers on the Stelvio descent, but there was never confusion about a possible neutralization.

Gianni Savio, manager of Androni, told VeloNews the message was crystal clear on race radio.

“There was never any confusion. None,” Savio said. “They said a motorcycle would indicate if there was dangers on the descent with a red flag, but never, never, was there a mention of neutralizing the descent.”

Race radio is the official intra-race communication between officials and teams, but the late notice, so close to the Stelvio summit, in extreme conditions, contributed to misunderstanding among riders and sport directors.

The confusion became critical when eventual stage-winner and new race leader Nairo Quintana (Movistar) rapidly descended the twisting switchbacks off the Stelvio and opened up a decisive, 50-second gap to overnight leader Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) at 47km to go.

Did Quintana and Movistar teammate Gorka Izaguirre, who were part of a six-man chase group that had dropped Urán and the pink jersey group, somehow break a truce, and unfairly attack?

Quintana insisted he was following attacks from Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) coming off the Stelvio.

“I don’t understand why there is a polemic,” Quintana said. “I never received an order from the organization or my team about a neutralization. And we made up the decisive difference on the climb, not on the descent.”

Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) also said there was no confusion in the peloton: “What neutralization? I went down as fast as I could.”

Giro officials released a statement late Tuesday: “In consideration of audio recordings of instructions relayed to [team directors] during today’s stage, the directors of the Giro d’Italia would like to clarify that Race Radio provided an inaccurate interpretation of the indications stipulated by the directors. As previously stated, the intention was to guarantee rider safety during the first section of the descent (the first six hairpins, approximately 1500 m) of the Passo dello Stelvio, where visibility was restricted due to low cloud and fog. At no point did Race Radio or the Directors of the Giro make reference to the possible neutralization of any part of the descent.”

Tinkoff-Saxo’s Polish rider Rafał Majka fell from third overall to fifth, and posted on Facebook that he’d believed the stage had been neutralized.

“Everything collapsed up on the Passo dello Stelvio,” he wrote. “My teammates were setting a high pace for me, and we almost caught the breakaway. At the top of the Cime Coppi there were about 40 riders , including Urán and Evans. We all stopped at the top, because by the radio we were informed that the downhill is to be neutralized due to snowfall. So we dressed up so as not to get sick during the cold junction. In the meantime, however, Quintana, Hesjedal, and Rolland went away and did 2.5 minutes difference on the downhill. The race was to begin after the Stelvio downhill, and in the meantime the rules were not the same for everyone. A lot of teams , including of course, Tinkoff-Saxo, made a protest to the organizers. I’ll see what happens, but either way I still want to prove that the Giro is not over for me.”

The notion of officially neutralizing a descent due to weather conditions is extremely rare. Even in the worst conditions, the race typically continues, or is cancelled outright. Last year’s Milano-Sanremo was stopped due to heavy snow and cold, and later re-started at a lower elevation.

According to Giro officials, there was never any discussion. It was snowing quite heavily at the Stelvio summit, and the road was wet, but did not appear overly slippery. More worrisome was the cold and rain.

Also, there were several riders already off the front of the main pack, so it would be difficult to somehow neutralize a descent, and then re-establish the same time differences.

However all that wasn’t enough for Omega Pharma-Quick Step team manager Patrick Lefevre, whose rider likely lost the Giro overall on Tuesday. Lefevre told Sporza, “We lose the Giro by an error of the organization,” adding, “At one time it was the radio exchange and on Twitter reported that the descent of the Stelvio would be neutralized. Why did so many riders stop at the top? To put on warmer clothes… We would never have let Quintana ride if the descent wasn’t neutralized.”

Urán also issued a statement, with his version of events. “On the Stelvio I heard from Davide Bramati that the downhill will be controlled by motos with a red flag for the safety of the riders, and that we could have maintained our position on the descent without attacking,” Urán said. “He told me to put on my rain jacket and pay attention in any case. At 300 or 400 meters I had my jacket from one of our masseurs. I managed to wear my jacket before the top so at that point I didn’t stop at the top like a few of my colleagues did. I then started descending, but I didn’t see any motorbike. During the descent riders came around me. I saw Majka and other guys but I didn’t realize Quintana wasn’t there. I only did a few kilometers when Bramati told me the gap was already at one minute. So, we then organized our chase. That is how it went. I think in normal circumstances the story of the race probably could have been different. Now I am 1:41 down from Quintana in the overall classification. But the Giro is not finished yet. We will keep going, we will try to take back the Maglia Rosa. We are not done fighting for pink.”

Garmin-Sharp sport director Charly Wegelius had a front-row seat to the ensuing confusion. He said a message came across race radio near the summit of the Stelvio.

“We heard a message near the top that said there would be a motorcycle with red flags, and that there would be no attacks until it was deemed safe,” Wegelius told VeloNews. “I radioed that to Ryder, and I don’t know if he heard it or not, but lucky enough, he followed the race as it was going on. I didn’t know where Ryder was until we hit the bottom of the descent. I asked a commissaire on a motorcycle what was going on, and he said he didn’t know.”

Wegelius said the confusion only confirms the notion that there needs to be clearer rules and communication during decisive moments of the race.

“That we are even having this discussion reveals that we need clear rules, that they are applied fairly,” Wegelius continued.

Belkin director Frans Maassen was in his car during the stage and also witnessed the chaos. “The organisation told the sports directors that the descent of the Stelvio would be neutralised, but now they’re claiming that the message was only meant to warn us of the descent,” he said.

Belkin rider Wilco Kelderman, who dropped from seventh to eighth overall, was also upset, saying, “While climbing the Stelvio, I warmed up. At the top, I took my time to put on a raincoat as the jury had announced that the downhill would be neutralised. When I made my way back to the main group, however, Quintana, Hesjedal and Rolland were gone. Looking back on that, it’s a bit unfair because I wouldn’t have stopped if I hadn’t heard about the neutralisation. Rolland is now ahead of me in the overall. Normally, I think I could have followed him.”

The brewing controversy also confirmed the increasing influence of Twitter on the pro peloton. More and more fans and journalists are using the social media as an information source, but the real-time nature of Twitter can also result in blunders. In the real-time events unfolding on the road, two-way radio remains the only reliable information source for the race caravan.

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