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THE REAL STELVIO QUESTION: TO RACE OR NOT TO RACE?

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John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

When the 97th Giro d’Italia finishes this Sunday in Trieste, with the likely victory of Nairo Quintana over Colombian compatriot Rigoberto Urán, many of those who lost the race (along with a good section of the media) will still be debating the Stelvio Affair. No, thankfully, it’s not a doping scandal. It’s the “did they, didn’t they?” discussion over claims that the race director and/or the UCI commissaires (or neither) said over Radio Tour that racing would be neutralized on the descent of the Passo dello Stelvio on stage 16 because of inclement weather.

That discussion will likely continue for years to come, so it’s not my intention to judge what actually happened. There was obviously much confusion, with television images showing some riders stopping (and some not) at the Stelvio’s 9,000-foot summit to put on extra or dry clothing. A crackly recording in Italian of the Radio Tour announcement made shortly before the peloton went over the top seems to say that a moto showing a red (for danger) flag would warn riders of treacherous conditions on the opening switchbacks of the descent, but the word “neutralizzare” does not appear to have been used.

All the team directors would have heard that announcement in their follow cars and some decided to relay their version of the information to their riders via their own race-radio earpieces; others clearly did not. Hence the confusion. But anyone who rides a bike in the mountains knows that when it’s raining, particularly when they see that it’s turning to wet snow at the summit of a pass, that the decent is probably going to be sketchy. Further down this page, I’m quoting some words I wrote 26 years ago when I witnessed the Giro crossing the Passo di Gávia in similar (but worse) conditions—it was colder, heavier snow, thicker fog, and mostly raced on dirt roads!

But, first, let’s see what some of today’s Giro racers said about the Stelvio descent—which is a wide, well-engineered road with a good surface and predictable turns. There are 48 hairpins in the first 14 kilometers of downhill to the valley town of Trafoi (that’s approximately one turn every 250 to 300 meters), and so it’s not in an inherently dangerous descent. And except for a brief section of cloud over the summit, visibility through the falling rain was not particularly difficult.

What was apparent from the TV images was that the first rider over the Stelvio, Team Sky’s Dario Cataldo, who’d been in the day’s early breakaway (the Stelvio came exactly halfway through the 139-kilometer stage), never slowed his effort or gave a hint of stopping. The other remnants of the breakaway also went over the top normally. Then came a strung-out peloton of about 30 riders including all the GC contenders.

“I was among the first riders over the Stelvio with [my teammate] Romain Sicard,” Europcar’s Pierre Rolland told L’Équipe. “We began the flooded descent in the mist and melting snow. The advice, I think, was to not take too many risks. At one moment, Quintana suddenly appeared from behind, going full gas, and came past us. I took his wheel with Sicard, then Hesjedal came up to us [much later].”

And what about the moto with a red flag? “What moto?” Rolland said. “I only saw Quintana, the snow, the cold, the switchbacks that came one after the other…. It was only in the evening that I learned about all this polemic. But it makes no sense! I didn’t see a moto or a commissaire come to tell us to sit up in the valley.” And what about racing in those conditions? “You don’t stop the race once it is started,” he added. “To neutralize it, you’d have to pull a tape [across the road] at the Stelvio summit and stop everyone.”

As for Ryder Hesjedal, Garmin-Sharp’s Canadian leader, who was the only man to stick with stage winner (and new race leader) Quintana till the summit finish at Val Martello, he told reporters: “I just rode the descent [normally]. I was basically on my own for the whole descent. I connected with those guys [Quintana, Rolland and Sicard] at the bottom.” Hesjedal added that he was more focused on getting down safely than putting time into his those behind (including then race leader Urán). “At that moment, you’re just trying to stay safe and get through it,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about anything except my wellbeing and riding down the hill.”

HAMPSTEN AT THE 1988 GIRO

Circumstances were not dissimilar for another North American, Andy Hampsten, in his bid to win the Giro’s maglia rosa over the Gávia in 1988. What was different—besides the more hazardous condition and unsurfaced roads—was the riders’ clothing. Warm Polyamide and Polyester jackets, effective shoe covers or padded helmets didn’t exist and eyewear was rudimentary. And, of course, there were no two-way radios. The riders were on their own except for occasional shouted instructions from the team car or back-up personnel on the roadside.

This extract from the story I wrote begins when Hampsten is nearing the Gávia summit, having dropped main rivals, Dutchman Erik Breukink and Italian race leader Franco Chioccioli, while early breakaway, Dutchman Johan Van der Velde, was still ahead:

“I was going really hard on the climb,” Hampsten said, “but the summit wasn’t my goal. I was just thinking, ‘Stay in control.’ I tried to shut out everything and [said to myself], try to put some clothes on and make it down the descent.”

In view of the dreadful conditions, I persuaded my French colleague Claude Droussent to stop our press car just before the top, saying, “We’ll never see anything like this again, Claude. This is gonna be a true epic.” As we stood in front of banks of snow, the vicious wind at this near-9,000-foot elevation made it hard to stay upright. First to appear through the blizzard was the amazing Van der Velde. Without gloves and bare-armed, he was still riding strongly on the short paved section preceding the summit. Hampsten, who’d just been handed his bag of dry clothes, followed at half a minute.

“After [7-Eleven team manager] Jim [Ochowicz] gave me the musette, I managed to get on a balaclava, a wool hat, and a plastic rain jacket,” said Hampsten, who had to brush a crust of snow from his hair before donning the headwear and then struggled getting his greasy neoprene gloves into the jacket’s sleeves. “It was windy and I was pretty uncoordinated and clumsy, and it was hard riding. I lost a lot of time trying to put it all on and Breukink caught me. But [the extra clothes] absolutely saved me.”

Breukink, who was wearing arm warmers and shoe covers, said he also tried to put on a rain jacket before starting the dreaded descent. “But I couldn’t manage it because my fingers were so cold, and I threw it away,” he said. “So I rode through the blizzard with only my arm warmers, but it was okay. I was able to go on.”

Behind Van der Velde, Hampsten and Breukink, we watched the other riders appear through the storm in ones and twos, struggling against the heavy snow that was being blown into their faces by the fierce crosswind. Waiting for them at the bleak summit, where tire marks in the wet snow were a couple inches deep, was 7-Eleven’s Californian soigneur Shelley Verses and some of her European counterparts. “We did an emergency feed at the top,” Verses explained.  “All the soigneurs decided to feed each others’ riders. Hypothermia had set in…and we poured hot tea into the riders’ mouths, which didn’t move.”

With such drama being played out on this Italian mountaintop, it was hard to remember that the Giro would be won and lost on the long, danger-filled downhill to the day’s finish in Bormio. Hampsten said, “I caught Van der Velde just when the descent started, with Breukink. The three of us were together for a while. Then Van der Velde disappeared. I think he pulled over. He had nothing on. It was insane.”

With our press car back on the road, driving through the blowing snow, we soon passed Van der Velde’s GIS-Ecoflam team car parked on the right side of the narrow road, which had changed back to dirt. We could see the tall, gaunt Dutchman sitting in the back seat. Later, we learned that Van der Velde had come to a slow-motion halt, unable to move. Team officials carried him into the vehicle, stripped off his ice-stiffened clothing and helped him on with a dry uniform. After being revived with hot drinks and the car’s heater, Van der Velde eventually continued…and finished the stage almost 47 minutes in arrears!

Ahead, Hampsten quickly took command. “I knew the descent would be the race,” he said. “I was behind Breukink for maybe 500 meters at the beginning, even drafting with him, and I was thinking, ‘This is great, maybe we can work together and put on some time.’ But right away I wanted to get ahead of him. I was pedaling as hard as I could just to get my legs moving [and to stop the gears icing up]. And after those 500 meters I forgot about him. I left him behind. It was every man for himself. I didn’t want to fall prey to one of his mistakes.”

While Hampsten and Breukink were risking their lives on the descent, others were battling for survival many minutes behind. In the mid section of the downhill, where a dozen hairpins take the road down the steep side of a deep valley, we came across the former Giro winner Roberto Visentini coasting down the hill like a rag doll at a quarter the speed he would normally descend. He stopped three times, once to don a padded ski jacket, another to drink hot tea, and then to have his frozen muscles rubbed back to life before he could continue.

Hampsten raced alone in the lead through the snow-induced fog, out of everyone’s sight. “I was controlling my speed with the brakes, but I wasn’t really [using them much],” he said. “I was looking for road signs and marshals. Everything was fairly blurred together. I couldn’t see where the road was going to go until maybe 50 meters before me. I was looking for road signs. So every time it said tornante [switchback], and every time it had a radical arrow, I would slow down.

“My bike was working beautifully. I let the bike go, just led it, and really went on automatic. I didn’t have the vision to look for potholes, even though it was a gravel road with rocks all over. It’s hard for me to say, but maybe I didn’t go that fast. But nothing passed me. It was really weird. For a while I thought I was on the wrong road because there were no lead vehicles. There was no frame of reference. Everything was stationary. There were no clues that there was a race….

“I remember a Carrera team-support person with a pair of wheels on the gravel part of the descent in a parka. He was just walking up the road against the storm. I was going by spectators with umbrellas just walking down the middle of the road. They didn’t know I was in the race. I was passing policemen on motorcycles going 10 kilometers and hour. I was just going—whoosh!—past them.”

I asked Hampsten how much his clear-lens, goggles-style glasses helped him on the descent. “They really saved me,” he stated. “Whenever I dared—when the road wasn’t too bumpy—I’d wipe the crust of snow off. And then I’d have to pull them away from my face a bit so they wouldn’t fog up so much. The balaclava I had on caused the heat to rise.

“Once I thought maybe I shouldn’t wear them and I pulled them down. And the snow just sandblasted me. My glasses were fogged over on the side, which I couldn’t clean. They had grease from my gloves, which were greasy from my legs. There was a terrible film on them, so everything was a blur.”

The glasses helped his vision, but Hampsten, unlike Breukink, didn’t have shoe covers. “I took those off on the bottom of the climb,” he said. “My feet were cold on the way up. And on the way down I remember on one of the hairpins in the snow—before it turned to rain—I looked down at my legs. I couldn’t get a clear idea of what they were like. I knew they were going around, and that they stung a bit, which I knew was good. They weren’t totally numb.

“But they were bright red and they had chunks of ice everywhere. Just that one glance terrified me. I’d never seen my body look like that and I refused to look down after that. I remember coming out of a hairpin—I couldn’t feel my feet at all—but I flipped my ankles as I was pumping my gears out of the comer just to make sure they weren’t locked shut. I really had no idea what had happened to my lower body.”

THE RACE GOES ON

Journalists this week tried to compare the 2014 Giro’s trip over the Gávia and Stelvio climbs with what happened 26 years ago. But from Hampsten’s vivid description (he was talking to me the morning after the Gávia stage), it’s clear that there can be no comparison. Back then, the riders knew there’d be snow over the mountain and treacherous conditions on the descent, but they just got on with it. The 7-Eleven team was best prepared with changes of clothing and hot drinks waiting for them at the top of the Gávia; but there was never any hint from the organizers of stopping the stage (or putting red flags on motos). Cold, wet weather in the high mountains is not fun to race in, but the race was on, and race it they did!

Looking at how the riders coped with the conditions on this past Tuesday’s stage, there were a few hints of how some of the riders had a hard time. Quintana’s Movistar teammate Gorka Izagirre apparently told his Basque Country’s radio station that Quintana wanted to abandon the Giro after descending the frigid Gávia descent, and that he had to shove food into Quintana’s mouth to keep him going. And the stage winner at Rifugio di Panarotto on Thursday, Trek Factory Racing’s Colombian climber Julian Arrendondo, described how his Spanish coach Josu Larrazabal “had to put me in the car over the Stelvio to warm me up.”

The claims and counterclaims of exactly what happened on stage 16 of the 97th Giro d’Italia will continue for decades. One message to the riders is to follow their instincts and not always listen to what team directors shout into their earpieces. Perhaps the calmest voice this past week was that of Tinkoff-Saxo Bank’s Danish sports director Lars Michaelsen, a pro racer for 14 years before retiring in 2007. He said this on his team website: “I’ve always been a strong advocate for the fact that crashes, weather and punctures are a part of cycling. But when an organizer steps in to control the race as a final option they need to have the finesse and skills to do it properly. Their intentions were good [on the Stelvio] but the execution was horrible.”

You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson

Click here for a gallery of images from the last ten years on the Stevlio and Gavia.