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New Polemica, Old Problems

Stage 16 of this year’s Giro, with back-to-back climbs of the Gavia and Stelvio, was intended to be a sweeping, memorable day with a serious GC impact — what might have been called an “epic” ride back when that word still had meaning. In many ways, it over-delivered.

While complaints that the stage was run in full (or even at all) abounded, most controversy surrounded an escape by Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, and several other riders, that took place on the Stelvio descent after race radio and Twitter announced — inaccurately but fairly unambiguously — that the race had been neutralized, and motos rode along in front of the bunch with the tiny red flags that indicate just that.

When the mayhem had settled, Quintana had taken the stage, given himself a commanding lead in the overall classification, and launched cycling’s latest topic of controversy — which you can refer to as a polemica if you want to pretend like you speak Italian.

Back in 1988, the Gavia played host to one of the more legendary days in the history of the sport — Andy Hampsten attacked in horrifically snowy conditions over the pass to effectively win that year’s Giro. Eyewitness accounts and video of the aftermath seem more akin to a combat field hospital than the finish of a bike race:

(footage of the post-finish carnage begins at 6:20 or so)

Memories of 1988 cast many aspects of Tuesday’s stage in a positive light. To be sure, riders spoke out against the conditions, but nearly all managed to get through the day more or less intact. Improved winter gear, warm busses, doctors chosen on physiological knowledge instead of pharmaceutical skill, and more humane treatment of riders since Hampsten’s era made any quotes about survival quite figurative by comparison.

Where Stage 16 was a debacle on par with 1988 was in the actions of race organizers communicating with the peloton. Granted, this is not an easy task, perhaps best exemplified by the chaos that ensued after ORICA-GreenEDGE’s bus became lodged under the finish gantry on the first stage of last year’s Tour:

Even in compact, well organized, and non-competitive events, like the upcoming Ride on Chicago, it takes the firm, consistent, and clear direction of a ride boss to make sure that everyone’s on the same page as far as directions, rest stops, and refueling go. If a wrong turn is made, it’s made as a group. No one gets lost, and the ride boss confirms the order and admits the mistake. This means that no one has to second-guess his or her intentions moving forward.

To a certain extent, the chaos of communication inherent to cycling is favorable to the competitive sport. One of the things that sets road cycling apart is that it takes place on open countryside and under variable conditions, where clear information isn’t always available. And for all of the arguing about how radios have ruined the sport, nearly every Spring Classic has at least a few minutes where no one has any idea what’s going on, and this uncertainty provides fertile ground for the sort of aggressive racing that makes April’s slate of one-day races the best part of the WorldTour calendar (in my eyes, anyway).

But some information, like neutralization, or other direct orders from race officials, cannot be unclear or open to interpretation. In the lung-searing, oxygen-deprived fury of a bike race, you’re either racing, or there’s an unmistakable roadblock declaring that, for the moment, hostilities have ceased. As soon as the Tweet and red flags went out, officials should have confirmed that the race was now fully neutralized, whether they’d intended it or not. If the consequences of ignoring authorities are high enough for an inadvertent whistle to stop 22 athletes jogging on grass, just imagine what’s at stake for 200 athletes roaring down a mountain on pavement.

But the Giro’s declaration that “Race Radio provided inaccurate interpretation of the indications stipulated by the Directors” seems to deny those risks entirely. Rather than step into the role of ride boss and accept responsibility for a mistake, the race organization has effectively said that riders and directors should now second-guess everything that they hear over race radio.

None of the teams protesting Tuesday’s GC times argue that Quintana succeeded because of the confusion. Indeed, if it weren’t for the polemica, we’d probably be discussing his performance that day as one of the great rides of the post-EPO era. Rather, the protesters demand that teams and riders be able to rely absolutely on the information that they receive, and that, accurate or otherwise, officials enforce it.

Changing the results now is counterproductive, but the officials owning up to the mistake, and indicating what the proper course of action would have been — stopping Quintana’s group at the bottom of the Stelvio until the gap at the top was restored, the same as if the bunch behind had been held up by a train — would go a long way toward fostering the understanding that authority and accountability go hand in hand. Instead, the Giro has powerfully endorsed the delusion that cycling’s governing structure has never done anything wrong — never, never, never.

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