VALDEZCARAY, Spain (VN) — To wait or not to wait? That question once again became the center of an intense polémica in the closing hour of racing as the Vuelta a España descended into name-calling and finger-pointing.
Overnight race leader Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) crashed in the wake of an acceleration by Team Sky that provoked echelons with about 25km to go as Sahara-like winds blasted the peloton in stage 4.
With Valverde on the ground, Team Sky had already begun its surge in heavy crosswinds as the peloton neared the Category 1 climbing finish to the Valdezcaray ski area. Chaos soon unfolded as the pack split into four groups and Valverde fought to limit his losses.
Sky kept digging, getting help from Katusha and BMC in the ensuing confusion over who was there and who wasn’t. The race was on and it was obvious that no one was going to stop.
At the finish line, Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) wasn’t thrilled to inherit the race leader’s jersey after Valverde and No. 2 rider Beñat Inxausti, who sat up to try to help pace Valverde back into the front group, both tumbled down the GC.
Valverde lost 54 seconds to the main group of 22 GC favorites, but he also lost respect for Team Sky. The Spaniard, who slipped to ninth at 36 seconds back, insisted it was Team Sky who provoked the crash.
“This is anti-sporting,” an angry Valverde told Spanish radio at the line. “Sky went to cut the peloton, which is within their rights and I understand it, but what you cannot do is go to make an abanico and cross right in the middle of the road. What happened? They were the ones who caused the crash. And later they do not have the balls to stop.”
There was confusion within the Team Sky camp. Sport director Nicolas Portal said they did not realize it was Valverde who crashed when they accelerated at the front of the bunch.
Portal said what was obvious on TV — especially from helicopter shots that showed Valverde desperately chasing as the peloton fractured into four groups — was not so obvious in the heat of the battle.
“It was not clear what was happening. We knew there was a crash, but we didn’t know who was there. The TV in the team car was not working. I told the guys to ride but not ride full gas,” Portal told VeloNews.
“Then other teams pulled through. The race was on. It was not possible to stop at that point.”
Movistar sport director Eusebio Unzue eventually pulled up alongside the Team Sky car and had a few choice words with Portal, even accusing Sky of causing the crash and then attacking.
“Of course they should have stopped because they were the one that caused the crash when they accelerated,” Unzue said on Spanish television. “It would have been the fair thing to do, because 20 riders fell to the ground.”
Portal defended his position, saying that there were too many moving parts in the drama to stop riding.
“I feel bad. I raced with Valverde, he is a great guy, but we did not cause the crash,” Portal said. “It was not as if there was a crash and we attacked. We were making the race and there was a crash later. What (Unzue) said is almost like a joke. It was not like that.”
Juan Antonio Flecha was one of the main engines of the acceleration that blew the doors off the peloton. As a Spanish rider on Team Sky, he was immediately flanked by journalists after coming across the finish line at the summit.
“It was a dangerous situation. There were crosswinds and all the teams were worried. It’s better to take the initiative yourself rather than having to react to others and that’s what we did,” Flecha said.
“The crash didn’t happen before the attack. If that had happened, that would have been ugly. Was it ethical to keep riding? This is something to analyze. No one told me to stop and only later did I learn it was Valverde.”
Flecha, of course, was the center of his own drama at the 2011 Tour de France, when he and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) were both struck by a French TV car when they were closing in on a possible stage win, eventually won by Luis León Sánchez, with Thomas Voeckler taking yellow.
“People like to give speeches about ethics and morals, but I remember very well that no one waited for me and it was caused by something well beyond the race,” Flecha said. “There are always crashes. When do you stop? This is not the first time and it won’t be the last.”
Other teams followed the action discreetly. Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank protected its leader Alberto Contador, but did not openly collaborate with Sky’s aggression.
Nicholas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who later attacked to finish fifth in the stage at 55 seconds back and climb into eighth at 24 seconds back, found himself at the front group of about 20 riders when the pack split.
“It was a good place to be. It was not clear what was happening. When you’re at the front like that, everyone rides,” Roche told VeloNews. “There are crashes every day. When we go into the gutter, someone always crashes. We’re racing bikes and it’s a battle out there every day.
“OK, we do not want to be throwing punches to each other, but sometimes there is too much of this talk of waiting. I know it will be a big topic on Twitter tonight.”
Rodríguez’s Katusha team was seen taking pulls as the peloton fractured, but he insists he later called off his teammates when he realized it was the race leader who had crashed.
“I heard a big crash and I thought we were going to stop, but no one waited and there were echelons quickly forming,” he said. “We decided to collaborate because in the abanicos, it’s always to be better to be inside than out. Later, Intxausti came up to me and said that Valverde was back and that’s when I took the decision for our team not to collaborate. I do not criticize the decision of the others, but that’s what I decided to do.”
The controversy seemed to overshadow another explosive day of racing.
Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge) gave the Aussie team a huge stage win by fending off Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) to win out of the 2012 Vuelta’s first winning breakaway.
The escape seemed doomed when a 12-minute lead was quickly melted down to just three minutes with 7km to go as Chris Froome (Sky), Contador and the surprising Roche rode clear of the fractured GC group.
Strong winds changed directions during the course of the afternoon, and what were headwinds turned into tailwinds in the final kilometers of the long, winding climb to the ski area, giving wings to Martin and Wilson’s adventure.
The leading trio, meanwhile, were not making much leeway on the moderate, winding climb against the chasing front group. Roche went off on his own while Contador and Froome were absorbed by a group of 20 to fight for another day.
“The first part of the climb is the hardest and Alberto really set a hard tempo. I saw that if I was going to try to follow him, I would have been in trouble,” Rodríguez said. “I decided to stay calm and wait to see what happened.”
As the leaders regrouped, an angry Valverde churned madly at his pedals. What had been an incredible start for Movistar — with two wins in three stages and the leader’s jersey — ended bitterly on the Vuelta’s fourth stage.
As Flecha put it, this is neither the first time nor the last the question of “fair play” will be making headlines.