Stage 16: Ponte di Legno to Val Martello, 139km
Nairo Quintana conquered the Giro’s queen stage, defeating a punishing parcours, appalling weather and the entire GC field to displace compatriot Rigoberto Uran as the maglia rosa with a ride that will go down in cycling folklore.
Mere words do not do this stage justice. If you can, watch it in its entirety. Really.
In conditions reminiscent of last year’s Milan-San Remo, the peloton blew apart on the Gavia, with the bunch whittled down to around 40 riders.
On the Stelvio the weather was, if anything, even worse, Sky’s Dario Cataldo broke free to claim the Cima Coppi prize for being first over this year’s highest peak. With a combination of snow and freezing slush falling on the riders, and several pulling over to the roadside to pull on extra jackets and stuff newspapers down their front, the Giro’s Twitter account reported that the 48-hairpin descent would be neutralised.
That didn’t stop Cataldo from bombing downhill in a manner that was more ‘nutter’ than neutral. He built a four-minute lead, while in between a group containing Movistar’s Quintana, Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) had escaped the GC group.
Cue chaos and controversy. Social media was aflame with fans commenting on the rights and wrongs of a situation which nobody had full knowledge of – not least, it seems, the race organisers themselves, who promptly deleted the offending tweet and pretended it had never existed.
On the road, Quintana, Hesjedal and Rolland caught and dropped Cataldo on the lower reaches of the final, 22km Val Martello climb. The Colombian, suffering from an ear infection, was left to do all the work, with Rolland playing possum and Hesjedal barely hanging on. Even so, the trio first held off and then eased away from the chasers over the second half of the climb.
Rolland fell away and, although Hesjedal clung on doggedly, when the Colombian accelerated on the 14% section just before the flamme rouge the result was settled. Hesjedal and Rolland rolled in eight seconds and 1:13 down, leaping up to fourth and ninth on GC. (And remember that Hesjedal lost over three minutes after Dan Martin’s crash in the opening team time trial – discount that and he would be second overall tonight.)
It took a further two minutes for the other GC contenders to roll in: first the impressive Wilco Kelderman (Belkin), with the others dribbling across the line in ones and twos. Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was 4:11 down, while Cadel Evans (BMC) laboured home a further 37 seconds behind.
Quintana now leads by 1:41, having trailed by 2:40 this morning. Have we ever seen a more dramatic turnaround in cycling’s modern era? It must go down as one of the greatest individual rides of my lifetime – if not the greatest.
The mother of all queen stages
It’s unusual for a grand tour to have its queen stage so early in its final week, so let’s pause to consider what the riders had to contend with today. Barely passable roads. Freezing conditions. Confusing race direction. Significantly thinner air – the last thing a rider needs when he’s going into oxygen debt at the end of a long climb. The news of Taylor Phinney‘s (BMC) compound leg fracture on a fast, dry descent in the US National Championships road race last night wouldn’t have helped either.
In sheer numbers, here’s what the riders faced today:
If you only watched the concluding stages of the race, you might have wondered why there was so much talk about the weather, as Val Martello was dry and sunny. Have a look at these shots from the Gavia and Stelvio:
It’s easy on mountain stages to snigger at the sprinters who drag themselves across the line long after the leaders have finished. 100 out of 160 finishers today finished at least 35 minutes after Quintana, with seven more abandoning. But to me, they’re all heroes. Chapeau, gentlemen. To each and every one of you.
Safety versus spectacle
The day’s events again raised questions about rider safety, with conditions dangerous enough for the commissaires to neutralise the Stelvio descent. Or so we thought, as confusion reigned and the directive was quietly set aside, to become the subject of fevered political debate over the next day or two. Oops.
Neutralising the descent certainly made sense, although it speaks volumes for the ability of the riders to manage the race for themselves that there were no major crashes reported at all.
But should the stage have been allowed to run to its planned parcours? I’m sure there was an (understandable) desire to make it happen. After all, this was last year’s stage 19, which had to be cancelled altogether. But with snow falling on the barely passable Stelvio hours before the stage started, it was a marginal decision.
With hindsight, perhaps it would have been better to switch to the alternative route which would have bypassed Gavia and Stelvio for the lower Passo Tonale and Passo Castrin en route to Val Martello.
But that’s a moot point. The race ran as planned, and we were treated to a day that will live long in the memory. Thankfully any safety row that ensues is a result of ‘what might have beens’ rather than in the aftermath of a serious accident.
VeloVoices rider of the day
Put the neutralisation debate to one side, and it’s still easy to see why Nairo Quintana is my rider of the day. At the base of Val Martello, long after full-on racing had resumed, the gap between Quintana’s group and the one containing the other top riders was around 1:40.
At this point, Quintana was forced to do all the work, so it was essentially him against the entire GC pack. Halfway up the climb, the gap remained hovering around 1:40 – impressive in itself – but it then began to stretch out. By the final kilometre it was over three minutes and it was apparent he was riding himself into the pink jersey. Virtually single-handed. And by a distance.
This was not a case of a rider being allowed to go by an unconcerned GC group. This was a direct rival, with two accomplices who also stood to make major gains, taking on the race’s heads of state – and beating them hands down.
Never mind being Rider of the Day. If we see a better individual performance anywhere in pro cycling this year I will be (a) amazed and (b) privileged to have seen it.
Stage 16 result
1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) 4:42:35
2. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) +0:08
3. Pierre Rolland (Europcar) +1:13
4. Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) +3:32
5. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) +3:37
1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) 68:11:14
2. Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +1:41
3. Cadel Evans (BMC) +3:21
4. Pierre Rolland (Europcar) +3:26
5. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) +3:28
6. Fabio Aru (Astana) +3:34
7. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) +3:49
8. Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) +4:06
9. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) +4:16
10. Robert Kiserlovski (Trek) +8:02
Points leader: Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ).
Mountains classification: Julian Arredondo (Trek).
Best young rider: Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
Team classification: Ag2r La Mondiale.