Sunday, July 6, 2014

Biased Blow-By-Blow, Tour de France 2014, Stage 2


Once again I’m delivering a live blow-by-blow report of the Tour de France, this time the second stage.  (Okay, it’s only live if you’re chatting online with me, which opportunity so few of you have availed yourselves of, but I try to post the final report before most Californians are even awake.)

Sure, you could watch replays of the race online, or read the cyclingnews report, but then you’d be missing my utterly frank commentary, the kind of commentary that responsible journalists aren’t allowed to make or which would be, for them, career-limiting moves.  Since bloggers can’t be fired, I’m going to call a spade “a filthy doping spade” and also make fun of any rider who I think deserves it.

I’ve noticed that the mobile version of my blog includes a thumbnail photo with each post, even before you select it, and I don’t want that first photo to give anything away.  So here’s a random photo of Tour legend Greg LeMond being interviewed after the race. 

 Biased Blow-By-Blow Report – 2014 Tour de France Stage Two

Not surprisingly, nothing much is happening yet with 90 kilometers to go in this stage.  There’s a small breakaway group about 2:30 ahead of the peloton.  They’re heading up the Côte de Ripponden, a category 3 climb, where they’ll duke it out for King of the Mountain (KOM) points.  I have joined the coverage far too late to see the riders on the Côte de Blubberhouses, and the amazing thing is that I didn’t make up that name.  It’s really called that in the listing I downloaded last night.  It’s a shame my kids aren’t here to giggle over “Blubberhouses,” or to enjoy a “teachable moment” as I explain to Alexa, who’s studying French in middle school, that it should be “Côte des Blubberhouses.”

I didn’t originally plan to cover this year’s Tour de France at all because last year’s race was such a travesty.  Christopher Froome (Team Sky) was so dominant in both time trialing and climbing, there was just no way for anything interesting to happen.  I can’t overstate how unrealistic it is for a tiny, scrawny pure-climber type to do so well in flat time trials.  Let me make a soccer analogy:  it would be like a player who can lead the offense but also be the goalie, at the same time.  He’d be running back and forth across the field, shooting on goal, passing, and then—in the goalie role—blocking shots and throwing the ball to himself, outrunning the thrown ball to take up the offense again.  The big problem with my analogy, of course, is that such a soccer game would actually be pretty fun to watch, unlike the Tour de France lately.

But today’s course is supposed to be pretty awesome.  It’s in England, on some very narrow roads, and it has a whole lot of short climbs, making it comparable to a spring classic.  (If you don’t know what a “classic” is in this context, you’ve come to the right place.  This blog caters to newbies and experts alike.  For my explanation of the classics, click here.)

In addition to the cool course, today promises some crazy action because it’s the Tour de France and this early in the three weeks everybody still has plenty of energy left.  Everybody tries to get to the front of the peloton at the same time, due to the race radios, and this creates a very dangerous situation.  What’s that, you ask?  Why do radios cause this phenomenon?  Well, I’m going to make a college dormitory analogy.  (Yeah, I know, that’s my answer to everything.)  Imagine that you’re a college kid, living in the dorms, and you’ve got this really helpful guidance counselor who speaks to you through a radio 24x7.  Imagine if your every move is dictated by this guy over that radio.  I mean, you don’t eat, you don’t sleep, you don’t even go to the bathroom without this guy telling you to.  And of course you’re not unique; every single student has the same arrangement.  And for some reason every counselor tells every student to go to the bathroom at the same time.  With all that synchronized flushing, of course the plumbing system is completely overwhelmed, which is the dorm equivalent of a pileup in the peloton.

Not that I’m hoping to see crashes, of course.  I wouldn’t wish any injury to anybody.  Whoah, speak of the devil!  Froomestrong’s eerily strong super-domestique Richie Porte has hit the deck.  (See?  I do actually plan on describing some of the racing here.)

Amazingly, after an incredibly slow bike change, Porte is chasing the peloton all by himself.  The storied Sky team, while the best in the business at doping (possibly even better than Postal back in the day), seems to be oddly poor at everything else, such as supporting a rider who a) is Froome’s best asset in the mountains, and b) is Sky’s second hope for the overall classification should anything happen to Froome.  They’re just letting the guy suffer by himself against the peloton.  (Don’t even get me started on the abject stupidity of excluding Bradley Wiggins, a former Tour winner, from the race simply because including him might scare Froome and/or bruise his ego.)

Okay, finally they’ve sent Danny Pate back to help Porte.  This is such bad timing for Porte... this early in the race he probably hasn’t even gotten a blood bag yet, and he looks to be really suffering.  (No, I don’t know for a fact that Sky is doing blood transfusions, but when Sky can routinely put four guys on the front of the lead group on a major climb and ratchet up the pace until honest-to-God GC contenders are being spat out the back, you have to assume they’re doing everything, perhaps including some stuff the other teams haven’t discovered yet.)

Sky has sent another rider back for Porte.  It’s Bernhard Eisel.  “More hands on the pump,” the Eurosport guy says, employing a charming metaphor in true British fashion.  That should help (the extra support rider, not the announcer’s metaphor), though these guys are climbing the Côte de Holme Moss, the hardest climb of the stage (a category 2) so the draft won’t help Porte too much.  Speaking of Moss—a different Moss this time, that being the supermodel Kate Moss—I was chatting with a pal the other day about how Froome is even thinner than Kate Moss, and how if she met him she’d say, “Dude, go eat half a sandwich or something!”  This got us thinking about how this new clothing that Sky wears, which is sheer and mesh and totally obscene, would look a lot better on Kate Moss than on Froomie.  Not that I’m a big fan of fashion models or anything; they’re too thin and should take a page from the playbook of the non-super models who adorn the hoods of muscle cars.  But anyway, the less predictable conclusion we came to is that if Kate Moss were put on the same doping program that Froome is on, she could probably win the Tour de France.  And that might be really good for the sport.

So, back to the Côte de Holme Moss:  Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar) is hammering and gaining on Blel Kadri (AG2R La Mondiale), hoping to pass him up by the summit and get the 5 KOM points on offer.  (If “Blel” is a typo, it’s not my typo.  That’s how it’s spelled in the start list.)  The Eurosport announcer has called Voeckler a “commando style” rider, and I’m not sure he (the announcer) knows what he’s saying.  My brothers and I always took “commando style” to mean “doing something while naked that is normally done while clothed,” such as working at a bike shop (full disclosure:  we wore aprons), but I think the general connotation of “commando style” is “not wearing underwear” in which case every rider in the peloton (and every peloton) would meet this description.

Froomie has dropped his chain!  That’s ridiculous.  This totally avoidable mechanical problem has become practically an epidemic.  I just don’t understand it.  He’s not panicking, though, despite this happening on a cat 2 climb, because he’s so much like Dash, the character in “The Incredibles” who due to his super-powers has to hold back in running races so as not to give himself away.  This particular comparison breaks down in that Froome isn’t as convincing as Dash; he keeps forgetting to soft-pedal and takes the lead too early and defends it without even having to breathe through his mouth.

Kadri has crushed Voeckler on the Côte de Holme Moss and gets top KOM points.  And now some Cofidis rider has passed Voeckler for the runner-up points.  It’s a glorious sprint!  Wow, Voeckler surged and looked like he had it but the other guy, Nicolas Edet, just totally spanked him.  Fine by me ... I’ve never liked Voeckler.  I don’t know why.

The yellow jersey, Marcel Kittel (Team Giant-Shimano), is way off the back.  His team somehow conjured up a yellow bike for him.  It’s not that surprising when an obvious GC contender has a yellow bike waiting for him in case he takes the overall lead, but it’s pretty surprising to anticipate, with such confidence, that your best sprinter will prevail in a chaotic flat stage.  Either the team mechanic just grabbed a can of yellow spray-paint, or the team made special arrangements.  That would sure put the pressure on a guy, though I guess it’d be a drop in the bucket for a Tour de France stage winner anyway.

Kadri is attempting to solo and has like 30 seconds on a small chase group comprising Voeckler, Edet, and Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).  If Kadri can hold this for a bit longer he’ll get KOM points on the Côte de Midhopestones, and if he lasts 13 km he’ll get the points for the Côte de Bradfield, a 1-km cat 4 climb, which would put him in the lead in the KOM competition.  And if he’s really good and can make it 7 km longer out front he’ll get the points for the 1.5-km cat 3 Côte d’Oughtibridge.  Those are pretty big ifs though.

So, if you missed yesterday’s stage, there were to my mind two really noteworthy things about it.  First, Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) tried to shoot through a gap that didn’t really exist, and crashed really hard, taking down Simon Gerrans (Orica Greenedge) in the process.  Cav is out of the Tour with a separated shoulder, which is a great shame because a) it’s a shame when anybody crashes out, b) he’s a formidable rider who always makes the sprint finishes more exciting, and c) he gives pretty interesting interviews because he wins so often he probably practices his speeches in front of the mirror. 

The other notable thing about yesterday’s stage is that, despite it being a flat stage specifically designed for sprinters, Froome finished in sixth place.  Again, it’s very difficult to express how absurd it is that Froome can seemingly do it all.  There have been decent climbers who could duke it out in field sprints, such as Heinrich Haussler (this year riding for IAM Cycling), but they’re only KOM-style climbers—the kind who do fine on shorter climbs and have the punch to finish first over them.  But Froome is a real Grand Tour climber who does well on the long climbs because he’s so small and light, he’s practically doing no work so it’s like a motorcycle dropping a semi.  No true pocket-climber has ever done anything in a final sprint on this kind of Tour stage and in fact wouldn’t even bother trying.  It would be no less astonishing if a jockey, rounding the final bend in a horse race, decided to jump off his horse and run the rest of the way in himself.

Porte is back in the main bunch, by the way, and Kadri has been caught.  The riders now have 35 km to go and have crested the Côte de Midhopestones.  Wow, the race reshuffled when I wasn’t looking.  It looks like a couple of Garmin guys are on the front now.  Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Pro Team) is in there, rocking the Italian national champion jersey.  One of the Garmin guys is Andrew Talansky, the American who won the Critérium du Dauphiné recently.  That race started out really boring, with Froomie absolutely crushing everybody on an early mountain stage, but then Froome crashed in a later stage and was hurt badly enough to relinquish his lead and make the race worth watching.

Man, Garmin is just sitting on the front, hammering the pace.  They’re approaching the Côte de Bradfield.  Wow, Kittel is only just finishing the Côte de Midhopestones.  He’s over 7 minutes back now.  I doubt he cares that much since surely he’s mainly interested in the green points jersey (for best sprinter), and wants to be fresh for future sprint stages.  He could lose this stage by seven feet or seven minutes and there wouldn’t be any difference to him.

This Côte de Bradfield climb hasn’t ended up being very exciting.  Perhaps the pace is too high for any KOM contender to try anything.  They’re over it now without a sprint.  It was only worth one point anyway.

So all the main GC contenders and most of the green jersey contenders are still together.  They’re snaking through a little town that looks very charming.  I have to confess, I do enjoy the scenery in these European stage races.  America has plenty of wilderness, which I really appreciate, but so many of our little towns just look like strip malls with tract houses attached.

The peloton is on the Côte d’Oughtibridge.  It’s a cat 3 due to only being 1.5 km long, but it’s a 9% grade.  These climbs never look as steep on TV.  The camera angles just seem to flatten everything out.  It’s scary to think that the camera also adds five pounds.

Alexander Kristoff (Team Katusha), winner of this year’s Milan-San Remo, goes off the back.  Serves him right because his helmet  is so fricking ugly.  It’s the same dome-like thing that was sitting crooked on his head during his victory salute in San Remo. 

Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and some AG2R bloke are off the front at the moment.  It’s 14 km to go.  Not sure what the gap is at this point, or what the point is either.

Rolland is soloing!  He’s obviously going uphill but it’s not a named climb.  Pretty decent gap but then, it’s a huge group behind him with all the sprinters’ teams.

Cannondale is swarming at the front, making sure Peter Sagan is in great position.  Oddly, Rolland is holding them off.  I don’t know what he’s after unless it’s the single KOM point at the top of the Côte de Jenkin Road.  Funny climb names, these.  This is England, after all, where they surely don’t say “Côte” unless it’s French affectation, which the Brits aren’t known for.  I guess this handy little chart I found on the Internet has been Franco-fied.  I wonder how they’d have tweaked “Blubberhouses.”  Côte de Maison de Blubbér?  Anyway, it’s 5 km until that final climb ... is there any way Rolland could hang on that long?

Answer:  no.  He’s already caught with 8 km to the finish.

So, Jenkins road could be very exciting.  It’s in about 3 km and is just under 1 km long, but it’s a 10.8% grade.  Perfect for Sagan, who climbs better than the sprinters.  A few years ago Sagan seemed equal to the fastest sprinters in the world, but that’s changed.  Fortunately for him, Simon Gerrans, one of the best sprinters in the race, has just been dropped.  So Gerrans, Kristoff, and Kittel are all dropped and Cav is out of the race, so Sagan’s chances are pretty good.

Nibali attacks!  Pretty awesome!  But here comes Contador, or “Lubrador” as my online correspondent called him earlier.  Oddly this was in the context of my pal hoping, as I do, that Contador is well lubed for this race.  We used to hate all dopers, but anything is better than Froome totally dominating.  It’s pretty sad when we’re rooting for a known doper, and liar (using the “tainted imported beef” excuse that oddly enough actually worked for one rider), especially one who, as his victory salute, pantomimes shooting a gun.  Yes, as annoying as all that is, it’s better than watching Froome mock everybody with his grotesquely awkward riding style and smug grin.

Speak of the devil!  Froome totally attacks!  He takes the KOM point, but more to the point shows his would-be rivals that he’s totally recovered from his Dauphiné crash.

Sagan hits the front!  He’s in a full tuck on this descent.  It’s 4 km to go.  Sagan is absolutely murdering it.  But at this speed, slipstreams are very long and he hasn’t shed the peloton yet—or what’s left of it.  Dudes are strung out in a long line, big gaps developing here and there.

Some Astana guys attacks and a BMC is right on him—I think it’s Tejay van Gardaren.  It’s 2.3 km to go.  Now they’re slowing up and watching each other and I hear the hackneyed phrase “cat and mouse” for the third time today.

Wow, Nibali launches a supersonic attack up the side of the road!  He’s trying to solo!  Just a tremendous boost of speed.  It’s kind of incredible how big a gap he’s opened up in such short time.  It’s a slight uphill which certainly serves him.  Criminy, he’s on fire.  The peloton has broken in two with a group of maybe twenty splint off from the rest. 

Only 800 meters for Nibali!  I think he’s got it!  But wait, the pack is absolutely drilling it!  Sagan is leading the effort.  But now he looks back, lays off the pedals, and suddenly everybody is watching each other again.  It’s slightly uphill and 250 meters to go ... will Nibali hold out?  And will my Internet feed hold out!?  Nibali looks back, he’s out of the saddle, the group swarming behind him, and DAMN!  He’s got it!  What a badass!  Balls like King Kong!

I don’t know if Nibali is just lucky or really, really smart because I sure wouldn’t have predicted the sprinters would screw up so badly, all looking at each other instead of just going for the line.  It’s like when you’re playing volleyball and the ball come arching over the net, its trajectory obvious, its speed low, and yet everybody just stands there, figuring somebody else will get it, and BONK!  It’s on the ground.

Van Garderen was 9th, Talansky 7th, so a pretty impressive showing by the U.S.  I sort of have to say that because I’ve been feeling guilty lately for not supporting our economy better.

So Nibali took 2 seconds out of the rest, and is the new race leader!  If I’m not mistaken, that’s his first-ever yellow jersey enough though he’s often a GC contender in this race. 

Nibali is being interviewed and says, “Everybody thinks I suck so I knew they’d let me go.”  At least, that’s what I think he said—I got distracted for a second.  It’s what I hope he said.

Eurosport is showing some highlights.  But now my feed is blocked by an ad for a beautiful girl who’s “Looking for a boyfriend.”  Her name is Liz.  Poor Liz.  It’s showing a snapshot of her chat and nobody is responding!  She’s just waiting for some nice Internet user to notice her!  But I don’t care.  I’d rather hear what LeMond has to say about the race.  He’s questioning Sky’s stupidity in taking so long to send riders back to help Porte.

Now LeMond is on to discussing the race in general.  “I’m not very optimistic about the Americans’ chances,” says LeMond.  Hmmm.  Some part of me thinks LeMond wouldn’t mind continuing to be the only American to officially win the Tour.

They’re showing very brief snippets of the podium ceremony but nested within a boring interview with Kittel.  Sagan gets the green jersey (and the white jersey of best young rider but they only showed like two seconds of that and I missing grabbing a snapshot).

I was already losing my patience with this endless interview format, and now they’ve brought over the notorious doper and all-around tool Alejandro Valverde, so I’m going to cut this coverage off here.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my biased account.

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