Sunday, March 22, 2015

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Milan-San Remo 2015


In a way, it’s hard to watch Milan-San Remo, the first of the so-called “Monuments” (i.e., really important races) of the year.  It’s so fricking long, and so flat, that there’s really very little action until a couple of little climbs toward the end.  Maybe that’s why you’re here:  you just couldn’t bring yourself to get out of bed early for an hours-long race, but you want to know a little more about the result than you’ll get from the post-race coverage.  But of course that’s not really it.  You’re here because you’re tired of real journalists biting their tongues all the time and being careful not to slander anybody, and you know that unpaid (and largely unread, almost completely invisible) bloggers can tell it like it is.

This race is often called “La Primavera,” meaning springtime, and carrying the burden of association with pasta primavera, which is pasta with no meat, just some damn vegetables, and everybody knows that vegetarians are an easy crowd to please—you just have to skip the meat and they’ll eat anything.   Hopefully this will be a better race than that.

Biased Blow-By-Blow – Milan-San Remo 2015

I join the action just in time to see Maarten Tjallingii (Team LottoNL-Jumbo) clenching the stem of a banana in his teeth.  Now, it would be tempting for a race commentator to trot out a cliché of some kind, like comparing this to a horse having taken the bit in its teeth.  This would actually be refreshing compared to the totally overused phrase “gallop to the finish.”  But I’m watching the Eurosport feed, which is a cut above, and the bloke (being British, of course he’s a bloke) says, “I can guarantee you he won’t be eating it with the skin on.”  Why is this funny?  Is it the randomness?  Is it that I was softened up by the British pronunciation of banana (i.e., “buh-NAW-naw”)?  Or is it that I’m just feeling really happy right now because I’m watching bike racers out there in the cold and rain and I’m nice and warm with a mug of tea and a cat on my lap?

In any event, you won’t have to settle for such inane comments from me except when I quote the Eurosport guys.  You see, I’ve done my homework and am steeped in trivia about this race which I can dole out as we go.  Not that the pro announcers don’t; my tidbits just aren’t subject to the annoying formality of fact-checking.

So here’s what’s going on.  Yes, it’s been raining, and it’s gotta be cold because a lot of dudes are rocking full leg warmers and long-sleeve jerseys.  The weather is clearing up, but the racers are surely already soaked.  There’s a breakaway 3:23 ahead of the group, with about 65 km to go.  It’s ten riders, the only ones I’ve heard of being Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani CSF) and Tjallingii. 

Depending on what house rules you use for Scrabble, you might keep “Tjallingii” in your back pocket.  What a great way to use up all your tiles, while baiting your cycling-ignorant opponent to challenge your word!

So, if you’re reading my blow-by blow, perhaps you’re only a pseudo-aficionado of cycling or are reading this way after the fact for the sake of nostalgia.  That being (possibly) the case, I suppose I should give you some background about who the favorites are this year and what they have to say about their chances.  Don’t worry, I’ll work this in carefully so I don’t deprive you of any real-time updates like “the peloton is still very large and going very fast, everybody is still on bicycles, and the breakaway is still losing time.”

As it happens, a good friend of mine, Maynard Steele, is a freelance journalist and got some great pre-race interviews with a number of favorites.  This was for “Woman’s Day” magazine, which I’m sure surprises you, but Maynard knows what he’s doing.  You and I know that “Woman’s Day” is for housewives, but these Europeans don’t grasp that.  They’re picturing Baywatch babes reading it, so they’re a bit more open, perhaps even trying to be a bit provocative.  Consider this quote from Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo):   “I feel I’m ready.  I think my form’s improved as the season has gone on. I don’t think there’s a secret to winning Milan-San Remo. I think it all depends on what happens on the Poggio.  And yes, there’s lots of pressure on me, a monument victory is long overdue, but I’ll be happy just to make the podium, so I can show that I can behave myself there.  I have learned not to grab the podium woman’s butt, even if she did wink at me earlier.”

Wow, the riders go into a tunnel and a bunch of them stack!  Normally we’d now be looking at Tom Boonen rolling on his back and moaning in agony with a broken bone, but he’s not in this race.

It’s down to 48 km and the gap is down to 2:07.  They’re on the Capo Mele, which is not Italian for “head of the mêlée” like many think, but actually translates “tiny little hill that is barely worth mentioning.”

Another big favorite, given that this 293 km race often comes down to a field sprint, is Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step).  Cav claims he’s not at 100% as he’s coming off a stomach virus, but of course this might just be a ruse.  He told Maynard, “[Milan-San Remo] is my first goal of the year. It’s not like a failure if I don’t win it. How do you Americans put it ... ‘This ain’t my first rodeo.’  If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the classics, it’s that an ageing complexion needs more coverage, not more product.  So layering on a sheer formula isn’t your best bet.”  Perhaps the jocular Manxman is tweaking certain British journalists who mock him for having such a perfect, gleaming smile that his teeth are almost unpatriotic.

One dude is dropped from the break.  They’re really giving it a good fight, but the gap is down to 1:45 with like an hour to go.

One of my real-time blow-by-blow readers (okay, my one reader) says, “The better part of 300K is a long way to ride in the cold and rain.  I don’t care if you’re totally lubed, it would still suck.”  Now, in case this report is your introduction to the sport of cycling, my pal is referring to illegal performance-enhancing drugs, which a majority of fans believe are still in use.  And here’s another little tidbit:  other sports are even worse!  That’s right ... those football players you watch?  They’re all on steroids!  Crazy, huh?

At the back, Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka) is having some trouble.  Not sure what happened ... got stuck behind somebody with a mechanical or something.  He’s also having some trouble with his name.  Every time somebody is introduced to Boasson Hagen, he says, “Nice to meet you Edward.”  Which prompts, “Um, it’s actually ‘Edvald,’” and now the two are off to an awkward start.  Fortunately, the time my wife and I met Boasson Hagen, at the Tour of California years ago, there was nobody to introduce us, which was fine because my wife later admitted that she thinks he’s hot, and I wouldn’t want to have to kick his ass or anything.  (In a fistfight, not a match sprint, of course.)  Boasson Hagen continues to be the only bike racer my wife cares about (though that’s putting it strongly).

Man, the pace has really picked up, and the gap is down to 50 seconds.  The break has shattered and the front group is down to three riders:  Matteo Bono (Lampre-Merida), who goes by the nickname “the other Bono,” Serge Pauwels (MTN-Qhubeka), and Pirazzi.

Whoah!  A gnarly crash on a gentle descent!  Dude’s front wheel just washed out.  A Tinkoff-Saxo rider, Christopher Juul Jensen, looks pretty bad ... I think he hit a stone wall.

Three Sky riders are chasing the break all on their own.  Ben Swift, their best sprinter, is among them.  Seems like a ridiculous move, but then Sky is so coked up on PEDs, they don’t need to follow normal tactical guidelines.  Just consider what went down in Paris-Nice recently with Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas practically walking away from everybody else at the stage race’s only summit finish.  Thomas is in this trio now, showing that when you’re on the high-test stuff, you can be just as amazing on the flats as you are on the climbs.  The third guy is Luke Rowe, whom I’ve never heard of, but then I’d never heard of Christopher Froome either until he joined Sky and was suddenly one of the strongest guys in the sport.

It’s 30 km to go.  I may not have time to run down the rest of the top contenders.  But here’s an interesting quote from perennial favorite Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team):  “For me, [sharing team leadership with Greg Van Avermaet] is an advantage. Two guys are better than one.  And Greg is a classy rider.  I’ve learned a lot from him, such as how to use the tip of my ring finger to gently tap liquid highlighter along my cheekbones, from just beyond the apples of my cheeks up toward my temples.  The product contains light-reflecting particles that draw the eye upward and away from what he calls my ‘droopy jowls.’  Bit of a twit, Greg, now that I think about it.”

Now it’s just Bono off the front, solo, barely holding off the Sky trio.  The racers are on the penultimate climb, the Cipressa.  This is a celebrated climb, though not as celebrated as the salad that goes by the same name (but which Americans know as the Caprese, except Midwesterners who think all salads are just giant hunks of iceberg lettuce with thousand-island dressing).

Van Avermaet is now in great position as the front of the peloton starts to break up.  And there’s a crash!  The French national champ is down (which I point out not because he was a favorite, but because based on his jersey I could at least say something about him).  The video is freezing up.  I doubt anybody is hurt because it was on the climb so they were “only” going like 40 kph.  Now the pack is back together and some Sky guy is drilling it.  I think they said its Lars Petter Nordhaug; I won’t pretend I can recognize him.  I’ve never heard of that guy in my life.

This is unbelievable:  they’re flying up this climb so fast, they’re having to brake for the curves.  Surely some of the sprinters are worried by this.  Cavendish is still in there ... it’s a long pack so you can slip back a fair bit and still be attached.

An attack by BMC ... not sure who it is.  The riders are all lined out which surely means agony.  Lots of dudes going backwards as you look back in the group.  Alexander Kristoff (Team Katusha) is really suffering almost at the very back.  He’s last year’s winner and must be totally stressed out right now.  He told “Woman’s Day” last week, “Milan-San Remo is a wide open race, so many guys can win in different ways. You can win it in a sprint, as I did, you can go away in a small group on the Poggio or even before.  Why should I assume it’ll come down to a bunch sprint?  And why, for that matter, woudn’t I ‘walk’ black eyeliner across my top lashes using tiny back-and-forth motions, starting from the outer corner of my eye inward?”

I’m starting to think the publishing game is starting to affect my friend Maynard’s journalistic judgment.  Something is not quite right about these quotes from the racers.  He might be paraphrasing again.

It’s 22 km to go, and BMC has lots of guys near the front, with Daniel Oss leading with a quickness.  Cavendish is in better position now but is clearly suffering.  Now they’re descending the Cipressa.  The road is dry which I think is good ... I don’t like it when crashes figure strongly in the end result.

There’s a French rider named Adrien Petit in this race.  I wonder if he’s a small guy, from a family of small guys.

They’re really bombing this descent.  The odd puddle could change things around fast but these guys are plenty alert.  There’s a tailwind which is surely intensifying everything.  The Poggio is coming up soon.  It’s almost 4 km in length but only averages 3.7%.  It’s tempting to call that a pretty easy climb, but remember how far these guys have already ridden.

It’s 16 km to go.  Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step), the reigning world champ, is way toward the back, though not as far back as Kristoff who I think is literally the last rider in the peloton.  Do they think the draft is actually better behind 90 riders than, say, 60?

The sun is coming out.  I should point out that Bono is still 20 seconds ahead of everybody.  That’s kind of amazing, really.  He was already off the front when I joined the coverage almost 90 minutes ago. 

Kwiatkowski has to be considered a favorite.  He’s a relative newcomer to the limelight but obviously extremely talented, and apparently a quick learner.  Speaking of his chances in this race, he said, “I didn’t feel tired after Paris-Nice. We did the recon on the Monday and I really enjoyed that time.  My skills are still improving, and though I’m still young, I think I’m gaining some wisdom.  I’ve learned to love the skin I’m in, if that makes any sense.  Love you as you truly are, before you put on the concealer or the lipstick.  Use your products to enhance your own natural beauty and know that every line, crease, or scar is a marker of who you are and what you have survived.  Be proud and own it!”

The racers are approaching the Poggio now.  After this climb is a fairly tricky descent, and then a flat run-in the the finish, which is a kilometer shorter this year, which could increase the chances of a successful breakaway.  It’s under 10 km to go.  Astana is at the front.  Cavendish has wisely moved himself closer to the front of the group. 

Oss and Thomas have a bit of a gap on the others as they close in on the Poggio. 

At the back of the group, Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) is just barely hanging on the back, clearly dying.

My wife just approached and said my name in that “can we talk?” voice.  I told her there’s 8 km to go and next thing I knew, she’d started in on our “talk.”  I repeated “It’s 8 km!  I’m watching this!”  She indicated a lack of understanding of how quickly 8 km goes by.  It’s going to be a long morning.

Thomas has attacked Oss!  He’s absolutely flying!  He’s making this climb look like a flat road!  But Katusha is crushing it on the front of the peloton.  Ooh, Thomas looks like he’s really suffering, and that’s saying something.  Normally when a Sky rider solos, he barely looks like he’s going hard.

I think I have time for one more “top contender” quote.  John Degenkolb (Team Giant-Alpecin) is a clear favorite based on his m4d sprinting sk1llz.  He was noisily confident ahead of the race:  “We had a good ride today, seeing the course and getting one last long ride in. I’m happy with my shape.  It’s going to be a phenomenal race.  Burning rubber AND BLOOD! Now that’s what I call a bike race.  SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY!  Blood-burning racing bikes and blood-red lip-liner!  BE THERE!”

Oss is still a ways ahead of the peloton, mouth gaping open.  Looks a bit like a pit bull.  Oh, his face is contorted.  He’s miserable.  And here comes the peloton, with some bearded Katusha rider heading it up.  I have to think some sprinters are getting shelled.

Van Avermaet has got a bit of a gap and seems infinitely powerful at the moment.  Cav is being absolutely rendered at the back of the group, hanging on for dear life.  Thomas still has a bit of a gap but he’s running out of climb.  It’s 5.4 km to go and they’re over the top of the Poggio!

If Van Avermaet can work with Thomas, they might do something, but it’s an awfully strong peloton and Thomas has got to be fried already.

Van Avermaet has got Thomas!  And the rest of the group is pretty much upon them.  They’re bombing the Poggio.  The great thing about this sport is that in addition to everything else these guys have to be able to do—motor on the flats, climb well, sprint well, hold up after 6 or 7 hours—they also need great skill and giant balls (figuratively speaking).

It’s so hard to tell what sprinters are still in contact. 

Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) and Gilbert are down!  Their race is over!  Another guy who went down spikes his helmet on the asphalt.  Kwiatkowski is also down!  Dang it, these guys are totally bummed!

Van Avermaet is still at the front, still with a tiny gap!  He’s a phenomenal rider, but still fighting the wind alone.  Okay, a number of guys have passed him up.  I think Sagan was among them.  Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) is up there.  It’s only 1.3 km to go!

Michael Matthews (Orica GreenEdge) is in there.  Kristoff is there.  Boassan Hagen is also there.  They’re under the 1 km banner!  Katusha, just like last year, is right on the front, the first two guys.  It’s a pretty big group, all lined out, Kristoff well placed, Degenkolb right up there, and they’re starting the sprint, Kristoff goes from early out and BOOM!  It’s suddenly Degenkolb!  He’s got the win!

Degenkolb bided his time and (even more importantly) was just really, really fast.  The crush of media are around him and his chest is still heaving.  He won on a bicycle made by Giant.  I, too, ride a Giant.  That’s about where our similarities end.

Kristoff was second, Matthews third.

They’re showing the super-slo-mo.  Kristoff went really early, and just faded at the end.  He even had to sit back down on the saddle a bit before the line.  If it were possible to be poisoned by lactic acid, he’d be a dead man.  Degenkolb does the “I-can’t-believe-it!” helmet-clutching victory salute

It looks like they’re not going to show the podium ceremony.  I never get to see those anymore.   Oh well.  I’d be more bummed I were missing out on a chance to see if Sagan can behave himself on the podium, but he placed only fourth anyway.  It’s a pity; I heard he’d been so confident of a triumphant post-race interview, he even plucked his eyebrows.

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