The mountains were covered in cloud but the last stage of the Giro has been equally marked the “fog of war” following uncertainty over the Stelvio descent with claim and counter-claim about safety measures on the the descent.
As a recap the conditions were grim and the race organisers were checking the forecast all morning to see if the race could go ahead. Once underway the riders ascended the Gavia pass in rain and thick fog and for the Passo dello Stelvio rain had turned to snow higher up with fresh snow falling just as the race was coming up the pass.
What happened next is the source of confusion but let’s punt that out of the way for a moment. When a race has safety concerns there are different possible actions. The UCI rulebook has a variety of bits on safety but the most relevant part seems to be Chapter 2’s 2.2.029:
The same rule is also part of Article 3 of the Giro’s rulebook. The second bullet point is the one – was the stage temporarily neutralised?
Lost in translation
Let’s leave the rulebook for the real world and back to the Stelvio. The simple question is whether the stage was “temporarily neutralised” but the answer seems complicated. There’s audio from the race radio and in a broadcast to all team managers it says they’re inserting race motos with red flags in between the groups. Note radio-tour is a one way broadcast from the commissaire’s car to the convoy, instructions are not there to be discussed
- At 30 seconds it says “to avoid attacks… on the descent”
- At 50 seconds “pay attention to safety, do not pass the red flag”
There’s no mention of “temporary neutralisation” as a formal term but commentator Daniel Lloyd tweeted it was used in English/French. Indeed motos with red flags to prevent attacks on the descent sounds a lot like the equivalent.
— Jered Gruber (@jeredgruber) May 27, 2014
As you can see there’s a red flag in front of Nairo Quintana. It’s now down to whether the Colombian passed the flag. If not, was the motorbike driver trying to slow things or were they merely acting as a safety outrider and not making any signals about speed or otherwise? As for the others, cyclingnews.com’s Stephen Farrand has a useful round-up of opinion from the team car to Mauro Vegni, race director.
By now we’re into specifics and risk getting bogged down in debate over words such as “neutralisation” – the irony – and it’s reminiscent of what the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz called “the fog of war”, the idea that the battlefield is full of complex scenarios and difficult human reactions. Von Clausewitz toiled for years on his book, so much so that it was published posthumously and perhaps there’s a lesson in this, as if trying to write up the chain of events in battle can be time-consuming.
Race neutralised, are you sure? As a racer there’s only one way to be sure and that’s to mark your rivals and ensure the word has reached everyone. Back to von Clausewitz and imagine a battlefield with a ceasefire, one side clambers out of the trench… and is mowed down by gunfire. Clearly upon a ceasefire the first movements into the open need to be cautious. The same on the Stelvio, even if you’ve heard something about temporary neutralisation then should you see two GC candidates in Nairo Quintana and Pierre Rolland riding away then patently there’s no cessation in hostilities, the race is on. Indeed Quintana said he went because he saw rider after another jumping away.
As we saw on the stage to Bari – when riders were falling like pins in a bowling alley – it took time for the bunch to agree what to do. Remember all these communications are very difficult. We’re talking multiple nationalities, different languages, competing teams and most of all, almost 200 men in lycra at speed in the wet. It’d be hard to reach a consensus in minutes if the bunch was seated in a warm conference hall so achieving it in the bunch is a big ask – and why a patron often imposes the law. Which is why it seems odd for some in the bunch to let others go down the road. Perhaps the firm solution for the bunch would have been to make it a binary scenario: either chase at speed just in case; or stop collectively saying “we were told the race had been stopped”. I’m not advising after the event what riders should have done, rather trying to illustrate the difficulty of the situation where only extreme outcomes probably could have worked: chase or stop and make a show of it, hoping to force the commissaires.
“Quintana was going to win anyway”
Nairo Quintana had two minutes after the descent but extended this on the final climb, so he was always going to win right? Maybe but that’s not the question we should be asking. To ask questions like that is to determine the “moral winner” when this is meant to be a safety issue. It’s not about second-guessing results or performances, nor running counter-factual scenarios or whether Quintana and Rolland were sporting in attacking – did they know or not? It’s about safety, not the identity of the rider up the road or the time margin.
We should note the race safely navigated the descent of the Stelvio through the clouds but the confusion was not who attacked where or when but the statements from the race directors transmitted via radio tour.
The RCS Result
— Renaat Schotte (@wielerman) May 27, 2014
That’s a statement from the race. As you can see the radio operator is getting a bit of the blame which seems unreasonable because if a message goes out, the teams can only act on it rather than play the parlour game telefono senza fili. What we learn is that the safety aspect was only related to a short section of the descent, the tricky hairpins which are so famous. This is a firm statement and suggests there’s no going back, a message repeated in La Gazzetta Dello Sport.
A misty mountain top and the fog of war. If the first 1,500m of the descent were to be ridden behind the red flag it seems the communication over the radio was ambiguous and the Italian audio isn’t specific with the terms nor the duration. Some teams took it as a message that the race was being neutralised when apparently the flags came out for safety reasons.
But did a rider from any group attempt to pass a red flag? If so that’s a potential breach of the rules but not specific and with it there’s uncertainty and confusion, claim and counter-claim. The debate will run and run because this is a murky topic with no hard rules to apply.