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Pierre Rolland (Europcar) climbing at the Giro d'Italia
Frenchman moves up to 4th at Giro d'Italia
After entertaining – and impressive – cameos at Montecopiolo, Oropa and Montecampione, the Frenchman managed to tear up the script completely on stage 16 over the Gavia and Stelvio to Val Martello, helping to lead the potentially race-deciding break off the front in somewhat controversial circumstances.
The plot twist came on the long descent on the Stelvio, where low cloud and softly falling snow restricted visibility near the top and prompted an unusual instruction to be relayed over race radio – riders in the pink jersey group were ordered not to overtake the motorbikes assigned to guide them into the early hairpin bends.
Many in the group seemed to interpret the message as a temporary neutralisation of the stage. Rolland, however, did not. Along with teammate Romain Sicard, Nairo Quintana, Gorka Izaguirre (Movistar), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) and Matteo Rabottini (Neri Sottoli), he opened out a lead of a minute on maglia rosa Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) on the descent.
The polemics had already begun even before Quintana won the stage and moved into the overall lead. When Rolland reached the summit in third place, 1:13 later, he was quick to rule himself out as the villain of the piece.
Rolland rode into a scrum of reporters immediately on crossing the line, and when asked if he had been aware of any talk of neutralisation on the descent of the Stelvio, he was adamant: "No, not all. Some riders were talking about going up the Gavia at a steady pace alright but within a couple of kilometres there were some attacks. And from there on, the race had started."
Indeed, a line of Quintana's Movistar teammates had already begun forcing the pace on the upper slopes of the interminable haul up the Stelvio, stripping riders from the main group like slates from a roof. Rolland himself, meanwhile, made a tentative dig near the summit, before seizing his opportunity in full on the way down.
"Up there with the rain and the snow, it was like the conditions I have when I train in the Jura and that allowed me to do a good descent and get back up to the escapees," Rolland said.
Predictably, Quintana, Rolland and Hesjedal were the last three survivors from the break once the road began to climb in earnest towards Val Martello. Rolland was initially the more comfortable in resisting Quintana's forcing, but five kilometres from the top, he suddenly lost contact.
"I barely ate or drank anything all day, and in the end I just didn't have anything left in my legs," Rolland admitted. "It was a crazy stage: even this morning we didn't know what would happen. We were all afraid of the cold and the snow and it was very cold."
In spite of his travails in the finale, Rolland has now moved up to fourth place in the overall standings, 3:26 off the maglia rosa of Quintana, but just five seconds off Cadel Evans and a podium place.
Rolland's ambitions for this Giro have already progressed from winning a stage to claiming a place in the top 10 overall, but as he prepared to pick his way through the carnage of the finish area and ride back downhill to doping control, he was coy about any further rewrites to his script.
"Right now, I'm just thinking about recovering," Rolland said, already turning to leave. "After that, I'll take a look at the GC."