Francesco Chicchi (Quick Step) has admitted he took a tow from his team car on the slopes of Mount Etna but has claimed it was only for a few seconds and that he managed to finish the stage inside the time limit thanks to his own legs.
Photographs of Chicchi and several other riders hanging onto a Quick Step team car first appeared on the internet on Tuesday. They were spotted by the Italian media and the Tuttosport newspaper published one of them on Thursday. Chicchi can be seen holding onto the rear windscreen wiper and so was forced on the defensive.
"Everyone has seen the photographs where I was caught. Unfortunately I think everybody is making a big deal out of a pretty small thing," he said, doing his up most to play down the damning evidence.
"It's not like it seems in the photographs. If I panicked and took a tow, then I made a mistake. But in certain moments you don’t think about what you're doing. The car was there, I tried to get a tow but it was just for a few seconds because of the judge that was with us and only left us with four or five km to go."
Italia media suggested that it had been impossible for Chicchi and the other sprinters to make it to the finish on Mount Etna inside the time cut because they started the final climb of the volcano almost half an hour down. They were accused of getting a tow because they covered the climb just a minute slower than the best riders.
Chicchi picked at the evidence against him like an expert defence lawyer.
"The times they wrote in the press where wrong," he insisted. "They said we started the climb 25 minutes down and finished just 26 minutes down. But their timing must have been wrong. The cars that were with us said we were at the most 16 minutes down."
He concluded with a less than convincing final plea: "Everyone can think what they like but I know I rode up Etna with my own legs.
While most of the sprinters headed home after the last sprint stage in the Ravenna, the Quick Step team insisted that Chicchi will stay in the Giro and tackle the mountain stage to Grossglockner.
If Chicchi does stay in the Giro, the Austrian climb will perhaps tell the real truth about his climbing ability.