Europcar's Pierre Rolland denied any wrongdoing after the controversial stage 16 at the Giro d'Italia over the Gavia and Stelvio passes to Val Martello on Tuesday.
The Frenchman has become increasingly recognised with each passing mountain stage despite not being among the pre-race picks.
After impressive performances at Montecopiolo, Oropa and Montecampione, Rolland went one step further when involved in a race-changing breakaway in controversial and confusing circumstances.
The turnaround happened on the descent from the feared Stelvio pass, clouded in snow and hampered by restricted visibility, when the organisers seemingly communicated instructions over race radio.
Riders in the leading group were ordered to stay behind motorbikes carrying red flags, which were assigned to guide them through the early bends.
Several of the riders in the group apparently interpreted the message as a temporary neutralisation of the stage. Rolland did not, however, and along with his teammate Romain Sicard, Movistar's Nairo Quintana and Gorka Izaguirre, Garmin Sharp's Ryder Hesjedal and Matteo Rabottini (Neri Sottoli) he used the descent to open up a time-gap of more than a minute on leader Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma – QuickStep).
Already before Quintana reached the finish line to take the pink jersey off Uran, several team leaders were already questioning the way the stage had been concluded. Rolland came third, 1:13 down on the Colombian and quickly ruled himself out as the villain.
Facing the reporters immediately after finishing the Frenchman was adamant he had not been aware of any neutralisation on the descent.
"No, not all,” he said. “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."
Quintana's Movistar train started pushing the pace on the climb to Stelvio, causing several riders to fall out the tail of the leading group, while Rolland himself tried a hesitant attack near the summit and then taking his chance on the way back 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.
Only Quintana, Rolland and Hesjedal remained in the leading group when the climb to Val Martello got serious. Rolland had looked good throughout but suddenly lost contact five kilometres out because of Quintana's acceleration.
"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."
As a result of his performances in the mountains, not least on stage 16, Rolland has advanced to fourth in the general classification. He trails Quintana by 3:26 but sits just five seconds behind former leader Cadel Evans (BMC) and a podium finish is now a realistic possibility.
His ambitions have surely progressed since the start but the Europcar rider was cautious when asked about his chances now the end of the Italian grand tour looms large.
"Right now, I'm just thinking about recovering," Rolland said, already turning to leave. "After that, I'll take a look at the GC."
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