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After stage 16 debacle at Giro, are Stelvio, Gavia passes worth the trouble?

LEVICO TERME, Italy (VN) — The Stelvio and Gavia passes have brought more problems than celebrations for the Giro d’Italia in recent years. With such difficulties, cancellations and red flag controversy, some wonder if the race will return to these fabled mountain passes anytime soon.

“Those snowy passes make for great pictures, but no one wants to see the image of a rider who’s crashed,” Sky’s Bernhard Eisel told VeloNews. “Or worse yet, what if a cyclist was to slip off the road and goes missing in the snow?”

Bad weather hit the Giro d’Italia hard in 2013. Organizer RCS Sport had to modify the Galibier and Tre Cime di Lavaredo stages, and completely cancel the Val Martello stage.

Keeping in mind the local organizing committee, which paid for the 2013 stage, RCS went back to Val Martello this year. It programmed the exact same route over the Gavia at 2618 meters and the Stelvio at 2758 – the first time cycling’s famous duo appeared on the same stage. It didn’t go well.

Heavy snow mid-way up convinced race director, Mauro Vegni to escort the different groups down the backside with motorbikes. The day exploded into controversy, though, when Nairo Quintana (Movistar) shot clear in a group with Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar). Riders said they failed to respect Vegni’s order and unfairly gained their time. The Passo dello Stelvio, which has history dating back to its debut in 1953 with Fausto Coppi’s race-winning ride, left a bitter taste in the organizer’s mouth.

“These climbs have their place in the Giro d’Italia, without a doubt,” Garmin sports director, Charly Wegelius said. “There are certain places and certain roads in cycling that are so much a part of the history that you’d be a fool not to embrace them: Koppenberg, Kwaremont, Poggio, Stelvio, Gavia… If you look at Alpe d’Huez, for example, it’s probably not the hardest climb in the world, but if you win a stage in the Tour de France there, you just don’t win a stage, you the Alpe d’Huez stage. Those things have an added value and it’s an important part of the sport.”

BMC’s general manager, Jim Ochowicz, agreed, saying, “The Gavia and Stelvio are historic, you have to have them in cycling the same as you need the certain sections of pavé in Paris-Roubaix, otherwise it’s not Paris-Roubaix. We need certain climbs in certain races in order to put a stamp of authority on a course for that year. Not all of the big climbs, but one or two of the special climbs need to be on the parcours. It’s the difference between a mid-size race and a real race.”

The Tour de France runs in July and the Vuelta a España at the end of August through the beginning of September, when the sun’s rays hit Europe with much more strength. In May in Italy, the high passes are still closed. Only from the time the Passo dello Stelvio opened, through World War 1, did the Austrian Emperor keep it open year around for a safe route from Vienna to Milan. Now, workers only clear it from June through August.

“If the weather’s nice, it’s one of the greatest climbs,” Eisel added. “I told the other riders that it’s amazing when you ride here in the sun and you look down at all the switchbacks below. It’s one of the nicest climbs you can ride.”

Since  RCS Sport cannot predict weather accurately, insiders say that race needs a solution in order to keep using the passes. Eisel, who represents the riders with cycling’s governing body (UCI), suggested working to create a rule that is clear. If the weather worsens to a certain point, then the race must take an alternative route. RCS Sport, for example, had a backup plan that took stage 16 over the lower Tonale and Castrin passes to reach the Martello Valley.

“It’d be enough to have clear rules,” Wegelius added. “To say at X degrees at X meters above sea level, with an X-kilometer descent, you don’t race. Rules that can be applied without prejudice and that put the riders’ health first. However, we shouldn’t rule out the Gavia and Stelvio.”