Saturday, May 17, 2014

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Giro d’Italia 2014, Stage 8


The 2014 Giro d’Italia might be the most exciting grand tour of the year.  Clearly the Tour de France is going to be boring again, and you never know about the Vuelta a España.  Last year’s Giro winner, Vicenzo Nibali, is skipping this year’s Giro, kidding himself that he can top the über-doper, Christopher Froome, in the Tour.  Meanwhile, the BMC Racing Team kicked its most celebrated rider, Cadel Evans, down to the Giro, having become fed up with his tendency to lose the Tour de France.  So we’ve got Evans—a rider who very well may be clean—going up against last year’s second-place finisher, the uncannily strong Rigoberto Uran (then riding for the uncannily, suspiciously invincible Team Sky, now on Omega-Pharma-Quick Step), and Nairo Alexander Quintana Rojas, winner of the Young Rider classification in last year’s Tour de France, riding for the perennially lubed Movistar Team.

As you’ve gathered from that previous paragraph, I do not adhere to any standard of journalistic integrity in my race reports.  I figure if the racers can play fast and loose with Truth, why can’t I?  Besides, you’re probably tired of race commentators biting their tongues.  So in this report I’ll be calling a spade a spade, or sometimes “a filthy doping spade.”

Biased Blow-By-Blow – Giro d’Italia Stage 8

As I tune in to the coverage (via postcard-size Internet feed), I can’t tell what’s happening and am hanging on the announcer’s every word.  “The way he’s waving, it almost looks like a bird!” the announcer says delightedly.  I have no idea what he’s talking about until they show the super-slo-mo of a guy in the breakaway waving away the camera bike.  I can’t decide who’s sillier:  the racer with his flowery, effete waving, or the announcer with his bizarre simile.

So at the front of the race are three guys I’ve never heard of, attacking each other about 3K from the summit of a brutal climb, the Category 1 Cipo di Carpegna.  Going for KOM points.  It’s 38K to go with a gap of a few minutes, so they probably won’t stay away to the finish.

Okay, after a brief interlude I’m back.  You know, watching racers on climbs like this really moves me.  Not in any sentimental way, but it affects my bodily functions.  So strong is my empathy with these guys, watching them on a brutal climb makes me have to go to the bathroom.  As in, #2.  That’s when it’s great when there’s a breakaway, because their split time back to the peloton tells me how much time I have to take care of my business before the GC riders hit the climb.  I don’t want to miss any of the really important action but I also don’t want to soil myself.

One of the Eurosport announcers (I can’t keep track of their names because they always seem to change around, except Sean Kelly), just said, “I’m sorry to repeat the cliché, but it has to be said:  you can’t win the Giro on this stage, but you can lose it.”  This is somewhat remarkable because it’s the same thing said by another commentator, Christian Vande Velde, announcing the Tour of California.  Not just the “can’t win but can lose” bit, but also the apology for repeating a cliché.  I think this is an important step forward.  At least some of these clichés have now been recognized (though there are many others).  Surely there’s another way to put it that’s a bit fresher.  For example, “The final winner won’t be decided today, but the number of hopefuls will be whittled down.”

The leaders are over the climb.  It’s about 30K to go.  The peloton is about two minutes back.  One guy, Julian Arredondo of Trek Factory Racing, has distanced the rest of the break, with Perrig Quemeneur (Team Europcar) and Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani-CSF) struggling behind him.  I know what you’re thinking:  I just made those names up.  Well, “Perrig” does sound like something I made out of an unhelpful tray of Scrabble tiles, and “Pirazzi” is absurdly generic, but those are real rider names.

Pierre Rolland (Team Europcar) has attacked the peloton.  I remember him riding so well for his teammate Thomas Voeckler in a recent Tour de France stage that he ended up beating him.  I thought that was pretty great because for various reasons, I think Voeckler is a tool.

The peloton has passed over the summit of the Carpegna, and now Cadel Evans has attacked!  He’s been really good in this Giro so far, picking up handfuls of seconds wherever he can.  Being a good descender may be a help here because this is a pretty technical descent.

The non-Kelly announcer (or are there more than one of them?) just called this “the Tour d’Italia.”  That’s a new one.  Dude, pick a language and go with it.

So that looked like the hardest climb, on paper, of the day—but of course the final climb will be harder because it’s a mountaintop finish so nobody will be holding anything back.  The final climb, coming up soon, is the Eremo Madonna del Faggio, the name of which would make any NASCAR fan giggle if he were watching this, which I guarantee he isn’t, unless the batteries in his remote control have died and he has no choice.

So how hard is a Category 1 climb?  They can be pretty brutal.  For the Faggio to be a Cat 1 means it must be insanely steep, because it’s pretty short.  It comes right after the Category 2 Villaggio del Lago.  If Category 2 doesn’t sound bad, consider that the Col du Télégraphe in the Tour de France is only a Cat 2, and it’s plenty brutal enough.

While I have some time, before the GC contenders start climbing again, I’m going to fill you in on a strong bias that I will have throughout this Giro:  I’m really gunning for Cadel Evans.

Wait, what’s “gunning for” mean?  I thought everybody knew it meant “rooting for,” but I was embarrassed to discover this isn’t universally understood.  My embarrassment came at a Coors Classic reunion party in 2011, shortly after Evans won that year’s Tour, and I was chatting with BMC Team manager Jim Ochowicz.  I told Ochowicz I’d been gunning for Evans in the Tour, and he got really riled up.  “Why!?” he snapped.  I explained what I meant by “gunning for,” but this didn’t compeletely dispel the awkwardness.  Maybe Ochowicz thought I was just backpedaling.

So anyway, yeah, I hope Evans wins.  Why?  Well, in my book he’s the only credible Tour de France winner since, well, since Greg LeMond, actually.  Everybody else since then looked totally lubed.  Can I back this up with any facts, in the short time I have until the GC boys hit this next climb?

Suffice to say, if you look at the Tour winners’ rate of vertical gain on big climbs—that is, the data showing how fast these guys have been going—Evans had the worst numbers since, like, LeMond.  Evans was a fair bit slower than Contador had been, and Andy Schleck, and Lance, and all the rest.  The logic goes like this:  if we know Contador was doping, and Contador was setting a Lance-like pace on these climbs, and Schleck could keep up with him, than Schleck was doping.  Meanwhile, if Contador’s times were similar to Lance’s, which were similar to Pantani’s, than Contador’s positive test wasn’t tainted beef from Spain.

Evans won a Tour in which Contador was fried from riding the Giro (which he rode because he wasn’t sure he’d be riding the Tour due to his pending doping case), and Andy Schleck had already started his descent into psychological incompetence, perhaps spooked by his brother’s positive test.  (Maybe he’d been scared straight.)  Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, meanwhile, had crashed out. The 2011 Tour was a rare opportunity for a clean rider to win, and Evans did it (after falling short several times before and since).  Plus, Evans so often looks like he’s suffering, unlike, say, all of Team Sky’s riders, who never do.

No, of course I’m not sure Evans is clean.  But he loses so often—despite his form being fairly consistent, his tactical acumen being great, his bike handling superb, and his psyche very tough—that he really does seem possibly human (vs. the dope-fueled superhuman mutants he’s usually up against).  Either I take this leap of faith in him, or lose interest in grand tours altogether.

Several of my pals don’t like Evans because he seems to whine a lot.  Some of that is just his high-pitched voice.  Look, guys, with so many dopers in the peloton, we can’t afford to be too choosy about a rider’s freaking voice.  What, they gotta be D.J.-caliber now?  Should the guy who does movie preview voice-overs be recruited to the pro peloton?  And yes, it’s true that Evans has complained a lot after bike races, but so do my biking pals, after and during (hell, even before) training rides, and about a lot more trivial matters than you see in a three-week tour.

But then there’s the matter of Liongate.  This is the incident in which some journalist or spectator tried to take away Evans’ lion—the stuffed lion a Tour de France leader is awarded.  Evans angrily slapped the guy's hand away.  Given Evans’ reputation for whining, I guess this struck many as a comical instance of childishness, like he really loved the stuffed lion.

(Rolland has overhauled Pirazzi, by the way.  They’re over the Villaggio.  Rolland is 1:15 behind Arredondo, with the peloton at 2:40.)

Getting back to Evans, I respect his defense of the lion.  He probably promised a niece or nephew or godson that he’d win a lion for him.  His wife probably said, “Don’t you come back here without one of those lions!”  I know I’ve bent over backwards to get swag for my kids—swag nowhere nearly as rare and cool as a Tour de France stuffed lion.

Pirazzi is going backward.  Poor guy.  Oh well, at least we’ve heard his name now.  He’s only 27; I’m sure we’ll see more from him as his career goes on.

Remarkably, Julian Arredondo, finishing the penultimate climb, is only 8K from the finish and still has two minutes.  He’s got the KOM jersey in the bag, and might just hold on for the stage win.

The peloton is strung out in a line even though they’re not on a very steep section.  They must be hammering.

Pierre Rolland is about 1:10 back from Arredondo.  His form is a bit jerky—not nearly as smooth as that of Wiggins, whom I’ve been watching in the Tour of California, and who I’m pretty sure is actually a robot.

Speaking of “not normal” performers, Michele Scarponi (Astana Pro Team) must have screwed up his pharma, because he’s way off the back today.  So we don’t have to worry about seeing him succeed here at the expense of riders who possibly deserve a fair, fighting chance.

Now Pirazzi crosses the summit, looking pretty fried and bobbing quite a bit.

Now Rolland is only 52 seconds behind Arredondo.  That’s what happens when the guy you’ve been chasing is descending while you’re still climbing.  This gap will shrink even more once Arredondo hits the Faggio (i.e., when Rolland is still descending), but that too will be an illusion.

I know nothing about Arredondo except that he’s Colombian and his name is kind of hard to type.  If he ends up replacing Andy Schleck as the Trek GC guy, maybe I’ll set up a macro or give him a nickname, to spare my hands.

Rolland is now only 37 seconds behind Arredondo and they’re both on the final climb.  This could be a real nail-biter, for those who bite their nails, which is a really disgusting habit and they should quit.  Find another nervous-energy tic, like drumming your fingers on the table, or drumming them on a keyboard like I am.

It’s 5K to go and Arredondo looks pretty beat.  He’s really straining.  Behind him, Rolland also looks pretty bad, his shoulders still rocking and his legs not quite turning over his gear.  To downshift might do more damage psychologically than struggling in too big a gear.  Man, how refreshing to see actual, visible suffering after seeing Wiggo spinning the pedals like his drivetrain was a desk fan plugged into a wall socket.  Someone needs to inflate that dude’s tires with water or something.

Arredondo is really grimacing.  He just spat, and it wasn’t blood, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.  Rolland is now 30 seconds back with 3.9K to go. 

Arredondo is now making a grimace that looks a lot like “the white man’s overbite”—the expression white men make while dancing.  That can’t be good.  He’s really, really suffering and he just shot a look over his shoulder.  I wish he could see how bad Rolland looks—that would buck him up a bit.

Back in the peloton, some BMC rider is hammering on the front.  Too big to be Evans, though I think I see Evans on the big dude’s wheel.

Oh man, 3.4K and Rolland is only 17 seconds behind Arredondo.  But Rolland looks so, so awful!  His butt is bouncing a bit on his saddle.  His legs look so jerky, like the longer, higher-compression pistons of a high-torque engine used for hauling big loads.  (Note to fellow race announcers:  you see how elegantly I avoided the cliché of calling him a “big diesel”?)

An ad for Bet 365 is obscuring my view but it looks like BMC is well placed at the front of the peloton.

Rolland has caught Arredondo!  Rolland still looks awful, his bike visibly wobbling even though he’s in the saddle.  Arredondo is sitting on his wheel.  Arredondo’s expression is that of a boarding school kid being paddled.  I’d say the peloton is within a minute of this leading duo.

Ivan Basso (Cannondale) is near the front of the peloton, right on Evans’ wheel.  Either he’s been training in the winter like Christopher Froome, or he’s back on the lube after a number of very lean years.

Oh my, the peloton is only 24 seconds back.  Who says “oh my” anymore?  I think these British announcers are influencing me.  Whoah, Arredondo just blew sky-high!

This peloton is too large.  They need to step it up to better entertain me.  Don’t they know I’m trying to write a really exciting report?  What’s wrong with these people?

Rolland is hanging on very impressively.  With 1.2K to go he’s holding the gap at 19 seconds.

Some Astana guy just attacked.  He was quickly caught so I don’t have to bother learning his name.  Looks like Evans himself is right on the front.  He’ll be in pink today because the current race leader, Michael Matthews (Orica-GreedEdge), is off the back.

It looks like Rolland is going to hang on!  He’s 450 meters from the finish.  The peloton is in sight!  But man, it’s a very steep finish stretch.  Danny Moreno (Katusha) is going after him—and he’s got him!  But the pack is right there, too.  It’s amazing!  The deck of cards has been scattered, like at the end of “Alice in Wonderland”!  I can’t tell who’s coming up on Moreno, it’s some Lampre guy, Fellici or something. 

Man, it’s all over and I never got that guy’s name!  The Lampre dude passed Moreno just before the line.  But it wasn’t even Moreno, it was some other guy who was shot from the front of the exploding peloton like a bit of shrapnel!  Total chaos and I’m just not quick enough to have made any sense of it.

Okay, the winner is Diego Ulissi, snatching the victory away from Trek’s Roberto Kiserlovski who came out of nowhere in that finale.

Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) materialized out of thin air for third.

Cadel Evans has got the pink jersey because Matthews was dropped today, as had been predicted.  Evans was just interviewed but it wasn’t that interesting.  He didn’t whine or anything, and there was no stuffed animal to clutch.  He did have a towel around his shoulders ... I wonder if the haters will mock him for that.

I love these super-slo-mos.  Here’s Ulissi giving Kiserlovski “the look” in the final meters of the race, as if to say, “Too late, bub, I got this!”

The announcer is saying this is Evans’ first pink jersey since 2002.  That’s simply not true.  He wore it briefly in 2010.  The bar is set pretty low for accuracy in covering this sport; just look at how many guys said Lance Armstrong was the first cyclist to appear on the Wheaties box, when that honor actually went to Doug Smith many years before.

Man, it looks like the coverage is over.  For some reason, Eurosport doesn’t allot any time for the podium celebrations anymore.  It’s a shame, because while I don’t want to go on record as saying I approve of the barbaric practice of having pretty women kissing the winners, I will admit that, due to irrepressible characteristics of my brain stem, I do enjoy watching the ceremony.  It can be pretty funny, like if the winner is some tiny Colombian and the podium girls have to stoop way down, or if the winner is a tall and gangly Dutchman and has to work very hard not to accidentally elbow one of the podium girls in the face. 

After an endless series of ads, after which I hoped maybe they’d return to Giro coverage, Eurosport has gone into a top-10 “Obstacles on the Road” countdown, showing massive crashes caused by—wow, here’s one with a cow!  I’m not joking!  Now there’s that T-Mobile guy piling into a spectator during his final run for a Tour stage—I remember that.  And now some spectator getting nailed on a descent at like 40 or more.  Man, this is grisly!  I know I should be posting my Giro report to my blog, but I can’t help watching!  Another guy just hit something furry—a badger?  Oh, man, a low road sign on a median and this dude flips over it at like 30.  And there’s Hoogerland getting run into a barbed wire fence by a pace car.  We’re down to number one.  Ah, yes, a final sprint in a Tour stage and a sprinter has his head down and piles into a referee.  Geez, after all that my pulse is racing.  These Eurosport broadcasters—they’re crazy!  Maybe somebody complained about podium girls and this was their idea of a joke.  (“Is this civilized enough for you?!”)  Anyway, it’s 8:26 a.m. and I am TOTALLY WIRED.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this Giro stage coverage.

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