Saturday, September 13, 2014

Biased Blow-By-Blow, Vuelta a España 2014, Stage 20


I know nobody follows the Vuelta a España.  It’s not nearly as prestigious as the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, and it comes during football season when even the most diehard cycling fan is glued to ... wait, what am I saying?  It’s impossible to be both a cycling and football fan.

Anyway, since you can’t be bothered to wake up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday (except to ride), and no major cable network carries this virtually unknown race, I’m doing you the service of fighting with messy Internet feeds to get some live coverage so I can give you a blow-by-report that differs from, say, the cyclingnews one in a couple of major ways.  First of all, I get into much more detail about what the racers are thinking, where they get their hair done, etc.  Two, I spell everything correctly.  Three, I don’t have to bite my tongue when (right or wrong) I don’t like something a rider is doing (e.g., doping, being inelegant, having a funny name) and so I pretty much tell the whole story.  The real story.  The as-I-see-it story.  Sometimes an unrelated story here or there.  So here you go.

Stage 20 – 2014 Vuelta a España

It’s a great stage today.  Arguably the hardest of the whole Vuelta, with certainly the most brutal mountaintop finish.  Here’s the profile.

My Internet feed absolutely sucks.  It’s going about as fast as Cadel Evans in this Vuelta.  It’s more of a slide show, really.

As I join the action, the riders have got 47 km to go.  There’s a breakaway of four guys:  Wout Poels (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Maxime Mederel (Team Europcar), Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida), and Jerome Coppel (Cofidis).  Wout’s manager is surely yelling “Wout, Wout, Wout!” through the radio.  Przemyslaw’s manager just calls him “Slaw,” and in fact nobody on the team can pronounce this guy’s name.  His parents can’t even pronounce it.  It doesn’t matter, though, because none of these names will become a household word because the gap is down to under five minutes and there are still two huge climbs to come:  the Category 1 Alto de Folgueiras de Aigas (Climb of the Folgers Crystals) and the Beyond Category Puerto de Ancares (Port of Apathy).

I’m on some Spanish site.  I knew I should have studied that language!  There’s a chat window alongside the video feed and the astute comments I see are “Vai!!! Vai!!! Vai!!! Froome!!! :-)” and “aru!!!”  So it’s nice to see Americans don’t have a monopoly on lameness when it comes to the amateur pundit game.

My online correspondent is having no luck with his Internet feed either.  Maybe the hacking group, Anonymous, is behind this:  shutting down certain video streaming websites to protest the jocks that used to pick on them in junior high gym class.

So, while I’m waiting for Eurosport announcer (and former champion) Sean Kelly to finish the sentence he started 30 seconds ago (before my feed froze again), here’s what’s happened so far in this Vuelta (since I know you haven’t been paying any attention because it’s only the Vuelta).  The Colombian favorites are out (Rigoberto Uran Uran and Nairo Quintana).  Quintana crashed in the time trial while leading the race, which is a shame.  And Uran Uran is too young to understand why older guys call him “Duran Duran,” which is also a shame.  Plus he got sick and dropped out. 

It’s 27 km to go and I’ve missed most of the last 20 km but I have a solid feed now.  The gap from the break to the peloton is down to 1:25.  The leaders are still on the penultimate climb.

So back to the recap:  the American hopeful, Andrew Talansky (Garmin Sharp) is way down in 56th place.  My favorite rider, Cadel Evans, is doing scarcely better, in 46th.  The defending champion, Chris Horner, didn’t get to start the race because his team decided he was just too damn old and with these new “elder abuse” laws on the books, they couldn’t afford to take the risk.  Well, I guess that’s not exactly what’s going on.  They decided his cortisol levels were too low so he wasn’t healthy enough to ride.  This is in keeping with the MPCC (Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Credible) which Horner’s team, Lampre-Merida, is voluntarily participating in.  Team Sky, meanwhile, doesn’t participate in MPCC because, according to their spokesman, “We don’t need to be a part of that program because we asked our guys if they doped and they clearly said no, and they would never lie.”

Speaking of Team Sky, I see that their domestique Vasil Karienka (who is wearing “the horse face” according to Kelly, whatever that means) is at the front of the Sky train hammering the pace at the front as they’ve been doing all day and for the last few weeks.

So, getting back to the status of the race overall.  Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) is leading the GC by 1:19 over Chris Froome (Team Sky).  Froomie had a lousy time trial, which puts his pharmacist in a really tough spot, but Froomie has lately been riding better so he might well try something on the brutal Puerto de Ancares, which is 13 km (8 miles) at 8.7%, with pitches of 18%.

Contador crests the final summit of the sawblade Alto de Folgueiras de Aigas in first place, perhaps to send Froome a message but more likely because his mom is watching the stage today but will miss the finish due to a hair appointment.

So, this stage may be the final battle of this Vuelta because tomorrow’s time trial is really, really short.  The GC contest is really between Contador and Froomestrong, because the perennial Spanish stage-race also-rans, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Team Katusha), are no better than they ever are.  I think those two always vie for the final podium spot but get no higher than that, which is fine with me.  Valverde is a known doper, and Rodriguez has this thing where his upper lip gets pushed up way above his teeth, which combined with his overbite is aesthetically unsightly.  I know I should be kinder than that, especially since the poor guy has to put up with everybody spelling his name wrong all the time (i.e., Joaquin, as cyclingnews spells it) and he deserves better.  But that’s just how I roll.

The gap is down to 48 seconds between the doomed breakaway and the peloton.  They’re on the final descent before that brutal finishing climb.

The other big thing you have to know about this race is that a few days ago, a couple of the racers got in a fistfight, while riding!  It was awesome ... everybody else in the pack started chanting “Fight!  Fight!  Fight!” just like in junior high.  No, of course I made that part up, but the fistfight was real.  You can see here a video of Gianluca Brambilla (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) being told by the race officials, who are yelling at him from their car, that he’s out of the race.  (Footage of the actual fight starts about a minute into the video).  You should check it out ... it’s something to see.  Brambilla keeps gesticulating, as angry Italians often do, and then sitting up and riding no-handed.  I guess he figured “That’ll show ‘em!” and I can only hope he doesn’t do that when he’s riding in traffic and some car cuts him off.  That could be dangerous.    

So, were Brambilla and his foe, Russia’s Ivan Ronvy (Tinkoff-Saxo) ejected due to unsporting behavior?  No, it’s a bit more complicated than that.  The director of the race simply felt that their fight was disgraceful because they were such pansies about it.  And I have to agree.  They punch like little girls would if little girls threw punches.  I’ll bet any boxer could do a better job climbing the Puerto de Ancares than these guys did duking it out.  So needless to say, neither rider was given the day’s Combativity award.

It’s not the first time poor fighting skills have gotten people into trouble.  I got in a fight in my junior high gym class and landed what I thought was a pretty good punch.  It made the other guy’s mouth bleed, which I kind of felt bad about and kind of felt great about.  So then the guy started screaming and trying to kick me, and I dragged him over to the gym teacher.  To my amazement, the teacher—a war veteran, it was said—yelled at me:  “I saw the whole thing!  What is this—you land one good punch and then you come to me for help?  You don’t just hit a guy once!  You hit him again and again!”  I was bewildered.  Was this some reverse-psychology thing?  Anyway, I didn’t actually get in trouble, but having a crazy war veteran yell at you is overrated, as life experiences go.

The break is down to 17 seconds.  Sky is absolutely drilling it on the front.  It’s nothing but black jerseys and they’re taking the field apart.  Froome is sitting in third.  He’s easy to make out because his elbows stick out to the sides.  It’s really awful to look at.  The Eurosport announcer, Carleton I think he’s called, said the other day, “Froome is not flicking his elbow out to ask Contador to help ... his elbows always stick out.”

Is Sky setting the stage for an awesome come-from-behind GC victory for their man?  Could be.  Brailsford, the Sky team manager, said yesterday, “I think Froome can still win this Vuelta.”  But Brailsford also said, back in July, “It’s best not to put Bradley Wiggins in the Tour,” and said a couple years ago, “Blackberry doesn’t need to do a touch-screen ... the iPhone is a flash in the pan.”

Wow, Anna is calling me!  And she has pretty big hooters!  How do I close this pop-up without accepting the call?  I can’t handle that kind of distraction!

Man, this grade is brutal, and the road surface is medieval.  Rodriguez makes an attack!  It’s a pretty good one, too.  There’s 9K to go.

The lead group is really small now, like eight guys.  J-Rod, or “J-Wad” as he’s unaffectionately known in some circles, is still looking quite strong.  My online correspondent says of him, “He’s like an untrained porn star,” by which I think he means that J-Rod often attacks too early and blows his wad long before he’s supposed to.

Froomie is drilling it on the front with Bertie right on his wheel, out of the saddle, doing that slightly duck-footed lazy mongoose sway he’s so fond of (and which seems so effective).

J-Rod is bobbing a bit, but looking pretty solid, and he’s not doing the white man’s overbite yet.  Maybe today is finally his day.

To Contador’s credit, he isn’t wearing red shorts to match his red leader’s jersey.  His gloves and shoes are the same yellow his teammates get.  For that reason, and because his elbows don’t stick out, I’m hoping he’ll keep the lead today even if he is a filthy doping scoundrel.

It’s 17 seconds between J-Wad and the GC group.  Valverde is off the back.  Anna is calling again.  Fabio Aru (Astana Pro Team) is clinging for dear life.

J-Rod is only 2:29 behind Contador in the GC, but they can give him a bit of leash.  Contador has been doing this a lot:  letting, for example, Froomie go on ahead so that Valverde and Rodriguez have to chase while he, the accountant, sits on.  I’d have to say, those two podium hopefuls have done a lot more to help Contador than his Tinkoff-Saxo team has.

Wow, J-Rod is making it happen ... his lead is now 26 seconds.  There are time bonuses in this race, too.  Maybe he’s hoping Froome and/or Contador will blow up trying to close the gap.

Aru is just barely hanging on to the others.  Froome starts totally hammering on the front!  Whoah, Valverde is totally getting dropped!  It’s unbelievable how quickly he’s going backward.  Froome is going incredibly fast, and looking really awful with his long, skeletal arms out ahead of him like a zombie’s.

It’s 5.9 km to go and my feed has evaporated, straight up vacated.  Dang it!  I’ve hit refresh but all that’s done is get Anna calling again.  Okay, now I can at least hear again and eventually can close these pop-ups.

The next kilometer averages 13%.  In case you have no idea what that means, it’s just really, really steep.  Probably twice as steep as that awful climb between your house and the video store.

Froome and Contador have caught J-Rod.  Froome sits up and rides no-handed while he futzes with his sunglasses or something, and has now stepped up the pace.  I guess he’s trying to psych out Contador. 

Man, this grade is nuts!  It’s 14%!  Froome looks solid though he’s bobble-heading a bit.  Contador looks a bit tired, but I mean, duh!  He’s been racing for three weeks!  He’s wagging his jaw, but then he always does that.  Probably does that at the dinner table.  Froome’s neck must be tired as he keeps staring at the ground and then looking up, again and again.  Maybe he’s trying to burp.

It’s 4.4 km to go.  Camera switches back to Aru to show how he’s all alone and just suffering away.  Aru punched Froomie’s ticket at the end of a recent stage and took the win, so he can’t be too bummed now.  So the top five on the GC are the top five on the road at the moment.

J-Wad is dropped!  Did I call it, or what?

Froome is so gaunt, he’s at real risk of having his jawbone slice through his flesh.  It can’t be comfortable having less than 1% body fat.  I mean, how does he even sleep at night?  And how does he shave?  What does he even eat ... rice cakes?  He’s a mystery, this guy, or maybe a space alien.

It’s just Froomeboy and Bertie on the front now, about 3 km to go.  I’m starting to think this is a stalemate, unless the race officials command them to ride no-handed from here on out just to make it more interesting.  Wouldn’t that be great, if race officials could issue such commands, like the DJ at the roller rink who would sometimes say, “Now, skaters, turn around and skate the other way!” or “Everybody skate backwards!”

Carleton says, “The road is only 2% now, that’s nothing, but soon it kicks up rather rudely!”  I love these British announcers, in a strange way.  No, not that way.  I mean I love what they say.  Or more precisely, I don’t love what they say but I like listening to them say it.

Valverde is suddenly bearing down on these guys with a quickness.  

Froome is frowning, as if thinking, “I don’t like this at all!  I don’t like Contador and I don’t like this climb and I don’t like this sport!  But it pays better than being an extra in a zombie movie, which was my only other offer, so I guess I’ll continue on.”  

My daughter Alexa has pointed out that Froome’s jersey sleeve says “FROOMEY” on it.  Are you kidding me?!

Now he’s out of the saddle and his elbows are sticking out farther than ever ... it’s really ghastly.  But it’s no good, Contador cannot be dropped.  So all Froome is achieving is to help Contador pad his lead over the other Spaniards.

Contador will probably make a huge effort at the very end—the first time he’ll face the wind all day—to get the bonus seconds, since you can never have a big enough lead facing the final time trial.

Wow, there he goes!  Contador has attacked.  He’s grimacing and just absolutely killing it.  He really has the edge.  He’s got that George Mount grin (and if you don’t know who George Mount is, don’t sweat it—he’s even older than Duran Duran).  Dang, Contador is really pulling away.  I can just see the slight scarecrow figure of Froomie, in his cadaverous black kit, back in the distance.  Man, this finale is super-steep and Contador knows what the hell he’s doing.

I just hope that, when the time comes, he won’t do that pistolero victory salute where he mimes shooting a handgun.  This guy’s upper body is so spindly, he couldn’t take the recoil of a cap gun.

He’s got the win!  And he actually put both hands up in the air, like a proper winner!  What a pleasant surprise! 

Froome staggers in a bit later ... 16 seconds the final gap.

Valverde crosses the line almost a minute down.  And here comes J-Wad, upper lip stuck way the hell up there, totally bummed.  The rest of the peloton will come over in dribs and drabs over the next couple hours.

“I’m not suggesting he’s yodeling,” Carleton says of Contador.  Does this Eurosport announcing gig have a two-drink minimum or something?

The big loser of the day is Irishman Dan Martin (Garmin Sharp) who lost over 3 minutes, slipping from 6th to 7th overall.  He remains the only English speaker in the top 10.

And Contador gets his penultimate red jersey and a kiss from the podium girls.  I hope these women get hazard pay, having to kiss a sweaty cyclist every day.

Well, that about wraps it up ... this stage, my coverage, and the overall race since tomorrow’s time trial is only 10 km in length.  Nothing more to see here, move along, move along ... go mow the lawn or something ... make yourself useful.

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