Saturday, September 14, 2013

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Vuelta a España Stage 20


As I’ve blogged before, there’s a benefit to bike race coverage that doesn’t try to be unbiased or fair.  Sports fans have their favorites and so should commentators.  So read on if you want a blow-by-blow account of today’s final mountain stage in the Vuelta a España, where the American Chris Horner will try to defend his leader’s jersey on the brutal Alto de L’Angliru, the legendary “Esp” (especial?), as in beyond-category, summit finish.

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Vuelta a España Stage 20

“Welcome back, it’s just 46 more km of ... hell, really.”  So says Declan, the Eurosport announcer who should let his co-announcer, Sean Kelly, talk more.  But it’s not hell ... not yet.  They’re just pedaling along the flats, Euskaltel driving the pace on the front for no reason I can see. 

The photographer has chosen to film a hawk.  This must be a nod to my older daughter, an avid birder, but if so it’s in vain because I couldn’t convince her to watch this coverage.  Speaking of children, I’ll be late to my younger daughter’s soccer game for this, a slight that will probably come out twenty years from now on her therapist’s couch.  But come on, Horner’s in the lead!  And today finishes atop the legendary Alto de l’Angliru, which is a beast at 12.5 km (7.8 miles) at an average grade of 10%.  It’s even hard to say!  It’s easy to say “angry Lou,” but that’s unfortunately not how it’s pronounced.  It’s angli-rou, which wouldn’t be so hard except we can’t resist saying “angry Lou.”  It’s kind of like how we say “mars-ca-pone” when it’s “mas-car-pone,” dammit.  So, yeah, a brutal climb.

I guess Euskaltel is working to get Sanchez higher in the GC.  He’s all the way down in ninth, but only four minutes out of fifth.  It’s kind of amazing how tight the GC is so far.  Fourth place Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha, and gesundheit), or Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver if you want to give in to his greed and use all three of his names, is less than two minutes from the race lead.  Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Movistar) is only 1:06 down.  And of course Vincenzo Nibali (Astana, and Italian, thus only two names) is just three seconds back.  The parcours preview for this stage on started out, “After so many tough uphill finishes, it is hard to believe that the battle for the red jersey will still be close by this point.”  True enough, and yet here we are.

I reckon the race is approaching the category 1 Alto del Cordal, which looks pretty brutal.  I can’t imagine much will happen on it as far as the GC riders, since the Angliru is so fricking long.  I mean, why jump the gun?

Okay, I guess this is as good a time as any to have our uncomfortable conversation (or really an uncomfortable monologue since you’ve gone all quiet on me).  Yes, given that this is an unbiased blow-by-blow, ungoverned by normal journalistic standards, determined to call a spade a spade and sometimes calling a club a spade, I should broach the topic of whether Chris Horner is doping.  Certainly the normal debates have been raging on various websites, and the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport has calculated that Horner’s average ascent speed (rate of vertical gain) has broken all the old records.  Not bad for a guy who’s pushing forty-two years old and has only one top-ten grand tour result in his palmares.  On the other hand, he’s been a pro since 1995 and (to my knowledge) has never even been formally accused of doping.  Seemingly alone among his generation, he came through the USADA smackdown completely unscathed, never mentioned by any of the other guys who were singing like canaries about their own doping and everybody else’s.

I guess all I can say on the matter is that I’m able to enjoy this Vuelta without worrying so much about doping.  Maybe it’s because I’m still numb from the travesty that was the Tour de France this year.  Or maybe it’s because having given Nibali the benefit of the doubt during the Giro, I don’t mind extending the same courtesy to Horner.  Maybe it’s because Horner has raced for so fricking long, it doesn’t seem that unlikely that he’d finally be figuring this sport out (vs. a total upstart like Froome who comes out of nowhere to absolutely dominate the Tour).  Maybe it’s because Horner, who has become a true climber over the years, time trialed like a climber in this Vuelta—that is, really poorly—which is at least realistic.  Whatever the case, I’m not thinking too hard about it.  It’s kind of like when I’m at a decent, though not top-end, restaurant in a foreign town, and I’m thinking about getting a burger, and I know I should ask the waiter if it’s grass-fed, but I also kind of don’t want to ask because I really do feel like a burger and if it turns out to be grain-fed I might just get it anyway, so I kind of don’t want to know.  Of course I wouldn’t order a burger at a place like Jack in the Box (slogan:  “E. Coli at no extra charge!”) or Burger King (slogan:  “Razing Brazilian rain forests and passing the savings on to you!”), which would be analogous to cheering on a known doper like Valverde or Di Luca.  But in the case of Horner, as with Nibali, nothing egregious prevents me from being able to believe what I’m seeing.

It’s starting to rain, and according to these Eurosport blokes the Angliru is known for terrible weather.  (The summit is over 5,000 feet.)  Clearly Nibali doesn’t mind bad weather (his performance in the rain- and snow-saturated Giro was downright studly) but Horner prefers the heat.

“Nicholas Roche has unzipped his jersey, showing his bare chest, and he’s a big man as well,” Declan declares.  Hmmm, I think he may have a thing for Roche!  A little subplot in the Eurosport coverage?  Well, nothing I have the time to delve into.  “He’s running hot today,” Declan continues.  Criminy, I need to stop tracking this, because I still haven’t managed even to spot Nibali in the peloton.  It was easy when he was in the red leader’s jersey, at which point I had trouble keeping track of Horner because he was in the blue polka-dot climber’s jersey for awhile and then this white jersey whose meaning I never figured out.  (Normally it’s the best young rider’s jersey, but obviously that’s not the case here unless the race promoters are having a little joke.)

Horner is riding really assertively, reeling in some Euskaltel boys himself.  It’s almost disconcerting how confident he is.  Interviewed after yesterday’s stage, he said, “It’s fantastic to put the red jersey on again, although I wasn’t expecting it until tomorrow...  I feel like I’m in good shape and I expect to win this Vuelta.”  I guess I’ve read too many Greek plays to hear such things without thinking of hubris.  But then, Horner really does look amazingly strong and I like how frank he is.  Lance Armstrong’s false modesty was never convincing to me.  He’d be interviewed with three stages to go in the Tour, and he’d be leading by like eight minutes, and yet he’d go on saying, “The race isn’t over yet.  It’s still a long way to Paris.”  Yeah, right.  But today is different, with four riders within two minutes of the lead.  So much could happen.  Nobody can afford to be too confident.

So it’s a pretty small lead group at this point.  Two riders are up the road, almost five minutes ahead:  Kenny Elissonde (Francais des Jeux) and Paolo Tiralongo (Astana).  Behind them are a few other guys about half a minute back.  If their lead seems to hold, maybe I’ll figure out who the other guys are, but five minutes on a climb like this really isn’t much.

The race is well onto the Angliru now, with the leaders about 10 kilometers from the finish.  Nibali is staying right on Horner.  The pace must be pretty high because Michele Scarponi (Lampre) has just been dropped, and he looked pretty good yesterday.

The GC group is under the 10K banner.  Katusha is pushing the pace at the front, obviously looking to set up Joaquim Rodriguez.  I wonder what bothers him more:  people calling him Joaquin (with an “n”), or people calling him J-Rod?  Maybe this is what fuels his outbursts.

Speaking of names, as I seem to be doing, it’s worth pointing out that Lance and Levi nicknamed Horner “the redneck.”  I’m not exactly sure why they’d call him that; I imagine Bend is sort of like the Austin of Oregon.  Bend has more microbreweries per capita, or perhaps period, than any place I’ve ever been.  It strikes me as less redneck a place than Boulder, actually.  That said, I can easily picture Horner behind the wheel of a big pickup truck, looking out the window and saying, “Are you boys lost?”

Wow, the grade is 17% on the section the leaders are riding.  They—the announcers, not the leaders—are saying most riders are rocking a 34x28 or 36x28 today.  (No, the fact that these pros are riding compacts doesn’t make me feel better about having one.)

Nibali has attacked!  So far, Horner hasn’t responded.  This could be dangerous because Tiralongo (Nibali’s teammate) is up the road and could drop back to help.  No footage of Horner at this point.  Wow, Nibali has some pretty big balls ... figuratively speaking.  I don’t think anybody expected a move like this since he has seemed so vulnerable the last few days.

There’s Horner, dragging Valverde and J-Rod, and maybe not looking so good.  But then, who would on this kind of grade?  It’s about 6 km to go for the leaders ... not sure what that means for this group because I don’t know the gap anymore.

Nibali looks pretty good.  He’s on a 21% grade riding in the saddle.  Horner seems a tiny bit overgeared, riding out of the saddle.  J-Rod goes around Valverde to get Horner’s wheel.  You can tell they’re all dying.

Elissonde is now leading the race.  Presumably Tiralongo is dropping back for Nibali.

Valverde is dropped!  Horner is drilling it.  He’s got Nibali in his sights.  Assuming he closes the gap, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Rodriguez counterattacks as soon as they make contact.  He’d love another stage win, of course; moreover, though he probably couldn’t take enough time to win, he could make it to the podium by taking 51 seconds out of Valverde.

Well, I’m no oracle.  Horner and J-Rod have caught Nibali and Horner, not J-Rod, countered (albeit tentatively) and now Nibali has neutralized it.  And now J-Rod goes!  He didn’t launch himself ballistically like he did yesterday though ... they easily get his wheel.

They’ve caught Tiralongo (at least I think it’s Tiralongo).  Valverde continues to suck wind off the back.  The lone leader, Elissonde, has 4km to go ... gap is under two minutes.

This could come down to the time bonuses.  Horner either needs to drop Nibali or be really sure he can take him in the sprint.  Traditionally, Nibali is the more explosive rider, but this has been a weird Vuelta.

Horner has so much to lose here.  No American has ever won the Vuelta, of course, and according to, Horner doesn’t even have a contract for next year.  I read yesterday:  “Horner may feel like his value will increase if he wins the Vuelta. That’s that always the case.”  No, that extra “that” is not my typo.  It’s cyclingnews’s.  I can’t tell whether they meant “That’s always the case” or “That’s not always the case.”  Anyway, Joop Zoetemelk won the World Championship road race at age 38—it was supposed to be his last race before retirement—and subsequently got the best contract he’d had in many years, possibly ever.

Nibali is attacking again!  Horner is right on him.  Nibali’s shoulders are rocking ... he looks a bit less strong than Horner.

Tiralongo has been dropped.  It’s just Horner, Nibali, and Rodriguez.  Whoah, there goes Nibali!  He’s really drilling it!  Horner is coming right back though.  Now it’s just the two of them.

And now Nibali goes again!  He’s really grimacing.  But he’s getting a pretty decent gap!  This could be the defining moment!  Man, imagine attacking on a grade like that when every fiber of your body is saying “Survive, survive.”

Between this spotty video and all the spectators with their flags and such, I can’t see anything.  It’s really foggy, too.  Screen keeps freezing.  Nibali and Horner are together again.  At least, that’s what Kelly is saying.  The screen is as pixilated as an Atari video game.  They keep showing Valverde, off the back.  Is it because he’s Spanish, or he’s all the camera crew can get footage of?

The camera bike has ground to a halt on the grade!  We’ve lost the footage completely.

New camera; now we’re looking at Elissonde, still in the lead with just under 2k to go.  Oh, man, he’s dying.  It’s “only” 16% here but he’s bent over the bars in agony.  He’s weaving on the road.  My daughter has just offered me a piece of dried seaweed.  She doesn’t care about the Vuelta.

The camera bike is running again and frantically chasing down the GC riders.  He’s passed Valverde.  Threading through the crowd and finally he’s back up to Horner, leading Nibali.  Now a screen-eclipsing ad.  Curses!

Nibali is now dropped!  It’s probably too early to say for sure, but a big gap has opened up.  Horner passes a couple more stragglers!  He’s drilling it!  His cadence is still not so very high and it’s painful to watch.  But he’s really going well, rocking the bike with those crazy-wide bars.  Yesterday Declan said of those handlebars, “Incidentally, just look at how wide his handlebars are. Apparently they were put on by mistake a couple years ago and he liked the feel of them.  Looks like a little man trying to look like a big man.”  Does this aside bother you?  Good!  It’s working!  This is called “building suspense.”

Ellisonde has a minute on Horner ... he’ll probably make it to the finish as the winner.  But man he’s suffering, head down, looking over his shoulder. Fortunately for him there’s a bit of downhill just before the finish.

Now he’s zipping up his jersey.  It’s so foggy, visibility is like 30 feet.  He blows a little kiss to nobody.  And he’s got the win!

Horner is hammering, on the drops now.  He finishes the stage!  Ahead of Nibali!  He’s got this Vuelta in the bag!

Nibali is approaching the line, and Valverde passes him for the third-place time bonus.  Horner is on the ground now.  Man, he really looks old.  My online correspondent writes, “Horner needs a haircut.”

I’d love to stick around and watch the podium festivities, but I’ve got to run and catch my daughter’s soccer game.  Suffice to say, Horner appears to have this Vuelta locked up, despite being old enough to be my brother!

No comments:

Post a Comment