Sunday, July 12, 2015

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2015 Tour de France Stage 9 TTT


What do you suppose goes through the minds of race announcers, that they’re not allowed to say? Maybe things like, “That guy’s obviously coked to the gills,” or “So-and-o looks like a damn clown.”  Sure, announcers hint at stuff:  “Froome has injected some, uh, life into this race,” or “Not the most elegant rider, surely, but he gets the job done.”  And why can’t they be perfectly candid?  Because they’re professionals.  I, on the other hand, am not.  So I’ll say it how it is, or at least how it looks to me.  And if I’m a little on the cynical side, can you blame me?

I know you think team time trials are boring, so I’m going to work really hard as I go along to make this as entertaining as possible.  And you should read anyway, because this is an important Tour stage.  The Tour hasn’t had so little time trialing since 1933, and this year’s only individual TT already happened, without breaking up the GC all that much.

I’m missing a Mount Diablo ride with my pals for this, BTW.  One of them really egged me on, e-mailing me last night to say, “Dana, thanks for writing the TTT preview!  Now that you fulfilled your blogging obligations to your mom, you can meet us....”  He has an impressively firm grip on how elite my blog readership is.  Today you can see how I did with the predictions I made, about the outcome of this race and its affect on the GC battle....

2015 Tour de France Stage 9:  Vannes – Plumelec TTT

As I join the action, FDJ is hammering along and the Eurosport announcer (I never learn their names, as it’s too sad when they leave, which at least they tend to do before getting too old to think straight) has just said, “So-and-so is out with a broken neck.  It’s actually broken in two places, and he’s lucky to have escaped serious injury.”  WTF??!! Is this guy joking?  Who jokes about a broken neck?  Or does he somehow consider this minor?

And just like that, we’re on to some ads.  I’m joining the action late here, so I hope I haven’t missed any important teams.  I had a bit of a glitch this morning because my Internet connection is down.  Fortunately, all bloggers have dueling Internet connections.  It’s just part of the value we bring you readers, for free.

Here’s my favorite current ad.  ANNOUNCER:  “Marcel Kittel, do you use this shampoo because Alpecin is your new team sponsor now?” KITTEL:  “No not at all, I just like the feeling of thick hair.”  I’ve seen this ad several times this week and I still can’t believe I’m hearing it right. I mean, I’ll grant that it’s theoretically possible to absorb caffeine through your scalp.  Dumb idea, but okay, possible.  But “the feeling of thick hair”?  Look, nameless ad agency, hair doesn’t have nerves, and if it did, it’d be one nerve ending per shaft ... how could you sense thickness

The Lotto Soudal team has started their TTT.  As I mentioned in my preview yesterday, these Lotto guys are (by bike racer standards) simply huge, with the highest numbers I saw for height, weight, and body mass index.  If this TTT were, say, 3K in length, I’d pick them as favorites.

Sean Kelly, the evergreen Eurosport announcer, says that these teams warm up for 40 km before a race like this.  Man, that’s a lot.

IAM Cycling is on the line.  I don’t know what product or service IAM produces, so I just consider this the “dog food team.”  I could look it up, but I’m too busy.

Lotto Soudal looks pretty cohesive.  All their guys have great position on the bike, which is more than I can say about some GC contenders (okay, one GC contender, and I won’t bag on him by giving his name, though his initials are CF and he’s on Sky).

Poor Orica GreenEdge.  They won the last long Tour TTT, two years ago, but they have only six riders left in this crash-ridden Tour, and they obviously went in to this one with the sole goal of making the time cut (kind of like choosing a class in junior high because you heard it was an easy “C”).  Orica GreenEdge look like they’re on a training ride.  Check it out, one guy didn’t even fasten his helmet strap!

Weird.  I’ve restored my better Internet connection and refreshed, and now the announcer is a woman!  I’ve never encountered that before.   Maybe she watched “In A World...” and got inspired.  She’s interviewing some dude with an Irish accent, Brian Smith.  I can’t tell his role because my video is too grainy.

Ah, we’re back to the main announcers.  I guess they had a special guest star asking the questions (since all that requires is a script and a good voice, and she had both, and I miss her already).

Lampre Merida finish their ride, in around 33 minutes.  I was slurping coffee and missed exactly what Kelly mumbled about their result, but I think these guys are now leading.

Another ad!  There’s this highlights reel of all the sports that Eurosport carries, and the announcers just about pissing themselves with excitement (e.g., “He didn’t just break his world record, he absolutely SHATTERED it!!!”) and then, incongruously, they show a snippet of same-sex diving, with the announcer totally quiet.  What?  You haven’t heard of same-sex diving?  Maybe that’s not the official name.  Synchronized diving?  Yeah, that’s probably it.

Bora-Aragon has launched their offensive.  Okay, I know that’s a bombastic way to say “started their TTT,” but there are a lot of teams here and I don’t want you to think this was a computer-generated sports story.  (That’s a thing now, believe it or not.)  I promise I won’t use the word “gallop” at any point during this blow-by-blow.

IAM Cycling is going really fast, getting the best intermediate split.  And now Trek Factory Racing is on the start ramp.  The camera pans across them and man, one of their dudes is really small.  It’s almost comical.  They should have arranged them in order from tallest to shortest like at a wedding, to look less jarring.  And lose the bridesmaid dresses, guys!  Poor Trek.  Earlier in the Tour they lost their best guy, Fabian Cancellara, who was the first of two race leaders to crash out this year.  Unlike Orica GreenEdge, these guys can’t afford to loaf, because they have a GC rider, Bauke Mollema, to support.

Team Europcar doesn’t look fast at all.  They’re bunched up like a peloton instead of strung out in a line.  Thomas Voeckler is attacking!  He just never learns.  Remember when everybody used to love him?  You can thank Lance Armstrong for that.  I know, Lance lied, he cheated, he was a dick, but at least he gave the French their underdog for awhile there.  Look for the silver linings, people.

Astana is on the road.  They had a great TTT in the Dauphiné.  They also looked unbelievably good in the Giro.  I really mean “unbelievably,” as in I don’t believe it.  They reminded me of US Postal.  On final climbs Astana would have like four guys in a lead group of ten or fewer.  Oddly, though, they kept attacking their GC rider, Fabian Aru.  Since we’re into another ad (which is also unbelievable) I’ll take a moment to describe Astana’s latest optimization efforts.  Their tactics were so sloppy in the Giro, not only confounding Aru but surely demoralizing him, they’ve decided to tweak their world-class doping program yet again.  You read that right:  doping for the mind.  Their directeur sportif, Giuseppe Martinelli, was apparently having trouble concentrating and is now on Adderall.  Not to be outdone, the team’s general manager, Alexandre Vinokourov, always an impulsive type (but hailing from the good old days when hunches and gut feelings hadn’t yet been totally obliterated by race radios), is testing a new drug, LogiContin.  And both of them are also experimenting with Alpecin-SC, a new caffeinated leave-in conditioner.

IAM Cycling has the best time at the second intermediate check, by a larger margin than before.  They look pretty awesome, if you can ignore the visors built into their helmets.  They’re not the kind of visor that sticks out to form an awning, but more like what welders use.  Is there a name for that?  Speaking of which, I was out riding up the Huis Categorie Mount Diablo with my teenage daughter last weekend, and there was a woman up there with one of these dorky TT helmets (and aero bars).  She instinctively started giving my daughter advice, as though her old man obviously couldn’t.  I like that about riding with my kid.  Nobody ever gives me advice.

Oh dear.  Astana’s mental doping is clearly not working!  Their TTT line has completely disintegrated!  They’ve lost like four guys on this first climb and are trying to regroup.  Only two riders have made it back up.  One of the two who can’t reconnect is gesticulating wildly to the guy behind him.  And now he swats himself on the butt!  It’s so sad ... I almost can’t bear to watch.

IAM Cycling now has the best time, ten seconds faster than Lampre-Merida.  We’ll see how long that lasts.

Team LottoNL-Jumbo is on the road, and so far so good.  The “J” in “Jumbo” is that special Dutch kind, so it’s pronounced “Gumbo.”  No it isn’t.  Just seeing if you’re awake.  Of course it’s actually “Yumbo.” 

Okay, I’m back.  Watching Astana’s troubles had a serious impact on me—as in, my bowels thought it was race day for me.  You might find this TTT boring, but that’s my fault.  This can be a very exciting event for anybody who’s had to suffer through a crucial TTT himself and can relate.  I think this is very likely the most painful event in cycling.  Why?  Well, first off, TTTs tend to be pretty short, so the effort is far more intense than with the patient pacing you need for a really long mountain stage.  Yes, the individual time trial is often of similar length, but if you loaf in an ITT, you don’t screw over your team.  In a TTT, you have to be awesome the whole time or you blatantly ruin everything for your comrades.  It’s kind of like ballet, where if a dancer breaks her ankle during a performance she has to keep right on dancing.  (If you think it’s silly to hold ballet dancers up as the ideal, think again:  they have the highest pain threshold ofanybody.)  I’ve always sucked at ITTs because I knew there was no real consequence of failing to ride hard enough.  I was lazy.  But in TTTs I was driven by the fear of shame, and dug deeper than in any other event. 

Think about it:  if you’re in a hill climb and get too miserable, you can back off and watch the others ride away from you and feel like you’re giving them a gift!  “I suck, so you get to win ... enjoy it.”  But imagine being in the collegiate national championship TTT as one of the favorites, and failing to deliver.  Forever after you wouldn’t be able to look at your teammates for fear they’re thinking, “We could have won if you didn’t screw it up!”  I found myself in that position in 1990, and was so miserable during that TTT, I seriously fantasized about killing myself.  I thought, if I ride full-speed into that post, will I die?  That would end the pain and I wouldn’t have to face my pals!  It was too risky, though ... what if I lived?  So I pushed on.  Yesterday I was boring my wife with this story, when suddenly she became interested. “Wow, you’re moved by this!” she said.  “Are you crying?”  I wasn’t, but I was very close.  And this was 25 years later.  TTTs are a bitch.

Oh my god.  Astana is down to five riders.  They’re in the final kilometer.  They really don’t look good.  They look really deflated, I mean physically.  Their fifth guy is so fried he’s on the wrong side of the road, not even getting a draft.  That’s surely the sign of mental collapse.  Sometimes that’s okay, though, as it means you left absolutely everything on the road.  If you finish too fast, that can mean you didn’t exhaust yourself properly. 

And how about that!  Astana has managed somehow to take the lead.  Of course, the best teams are still to come, but still, I guess they couldn’t have gone that slowly.  Poor Nibali.  His Tour isn’t going well, and I’m sure he hoped to validate his victory last year so people wouldn’t just say, “Yeah, you won, but Contador, Quintana, and Froome weren’t there.”

AG2R La Mondiale is on the road.  They look kind of climber-y to me.  Not so good for TTTs.

Eurosport is interviewing Michele Scarpone, who has so little hair left, he could make a bottle of Alpecin last for like a year.  He should use their special Espresso version.  He says nothing of any interest, predictably enough.  I’d quote him if he said something like, “Yes, I visited Dr. Ferrari, but not for drugs, or even for training advice.  You see, we’re lovers.”  Actually, let’s pretend he did say that.

Tinkoff-Saxo is down the start ramp and hammering along.  This is one of the really important teams, because a) their GC guy, Alberto Contador, is obviously a favorite, and b) if they have an outstanding ride today, they could put Peter Sagan in the yellow jersey, which would be amazing because he’d then be holding the green, white, and yellow jerseys simultaneously. 

Movistar is having a good ride and some have tapped them as favorites for this TTT.  Naturally their motivation is super high, with GC favorite Nairo Quintana in their ranks.  They look pretty good out there, if you can get past their boring uniforms.

Oh dear!  The Movistar line has broken!  You know, I’m going to blame the radios for this.  After all, the directeur sportif can’t give a continuous patter about whether everybody is together, and so many riders have forgotten how to use their spidey-sense to know what’s going on.

BMC are on the start ramp!  No pressure, guys.  Man, I hope they light it up out there.  An American in yellow, without all the asterisks of doping, would be fricking awesome.  I wouldn’t expect him to hold it for too long, if he got it, but how awesome would it be to bring home a stuffed lion for your kid?

Movistar has the fastest intermediate split, notwithstanding their troubles a bit ago.  But they’ve taken the lead over from a team with only five guys left ... their placing may yet tumble.

Now Eurosport is interviewing Juan Antonio Flecha about the weather.  “The wind is blowing, as wind often does, and though it was blowing also earlier today, it may not be blowing is much as it was, though it could be blowing harder now, and there was wind when Astana was riding, like there is now, and wind can be a factor in a TTT when a team can be slowed by wind, unless it’s a tailwind, which would tend to blow you forward and actually speed you along.  Also, I myself am a windbag, and I’ve been breaking wind this entire time, by which I mean I have been releasing gas from my anus.”  Flecha’s chatter is the verbal equivalent of a college kid using a really big font and wide margins to make the five-page minimum with his essay.  Might I recommend a Bora kitchen ventilation system for this fellow?  I’m reminded repeatedly during this coverage of how well Bora handles “vapors that smell bad.”  They’re insulting your cooking!  Great ad copy, that.

Okay, they’re showing Sky now, and Froome with his ugly helmet.  The commentator is going on about how Froome’s handlebars were created using a 3D printer.  I know, this dude’s just making shit up, right?  Froomie’s helmet is of a piece with the rest of his ghastly gaunt ungainly look.  It completes the insect look.

BMC has the fastest intermediate split, but only by two seconds over Movistar.  I’m not sure that heralds an awesome ride but of course it’s hard to predict these things.

Saxo-Tinkoff isn’t looking all that tight.

But then neither is BMC, actually.  Couple gaps there between riders.  I guess you can’t tell from this photo, but one rider is sitting on the back, unable to move up through the line.  At least he’s communicating well to the others about it.

See that thingy sticking out from the last dude’s saddle?  That’s a GPS device, to make all the split times more precise.  Every racer has one for every stage, just to further remove guesswork from the armchair generals’ over-precise operations.  It’s also how they can put up that little speedometer graphic you see in the photo there.  I’d like to see the big data from Stage 4, when Tony Martin overcame a mechanical problem and soloed to victory on his teammate’s bike.

Team BMC has the fastest split now with Sky through the first intermediate check, but it’s by a fraction of a second! 

Weird ... Tinkoff-Saxo has only seven guys in their group.  I thought they had nine going in ... maybe not, or maybe they accidently shelled a couple dudes.

I have to say, Sky looks pretty good.  All nicely lined out, no gaps, and totally aero.

BMC is at the second intermediate point and now leads Movistar by 3 seconds.  That’s not a ton, considering Movistar isn’t the team they’re most worried about.  I’m thinking mainly about a yellow jersey for Tejay, of course; even a 30-second deficit wouldn’t hurt Sky too much since Froomie, when he’s properly lubed (i.e., on any day of the season), can take that kind of time in just a few kilometers on the right mountain ... and there are so many brutal mountains ahead.

Tinkoff-Saxo are looking okay, other than their uniforms, which are so bizarre ... they’re made to look like they’re spattered with mud, evidently.  I just don’t get that.

Uh oh ... BMC is somehow down to six riders.  Maybe it’s according to plan; maybe they’ve figured out that certain guys will slow them down on the climbs or something.

Sky are through the second intermediate check, and they’ve got the virtual lead by one second over BMC!

Tinkoff-Saxo are over the line and have lost about 25 seconds for Contador.  Not great, but not a complete disaster.  The bigger issue for Contador is if he tired himself out too much in the Giro.  I’m surprised he even raced it, frankly.

BMC has gapped their sixth rider!  Okay, he’s back up ... they’re going so fast, the slipstream must be really long.  They’re on the penultimate climb and riding cohesively.  But what’s this?  They’re actually down to five guys, and Sky down to six.  I think it’s because we’re 8 days into this race that teams are breaking up so much.  A TTT earlier in the Tour probably wouldn’t feature so many breakdowns.

BMC are now on the finishing climb and they’re clearly suffering.  Out of the saddle now, going for the line!  They’re trembling all over, so the camera can’t properly focus on them.  (No they aren’t.)

They’ve got the fastest provisional time, but I have a feeling Sky could win this.  No yellow for Tejay in any case, as I pessimistically predicted.  You never know, though ... maybe Sky will fall apart, like they did in the Dauphiné.

Sky has 1 km to go.  They’ve got two minutes to get to the finish, which might be tricky only because of the finishing climb.  Geraint Thomas is hammering on the front and has been for a fair bit now.  Now Froome takes it up.  Nicolas Roche is dying on the back of the line.  They’re having to regroup a bit here and Roche is back on.  Froome is out of the saddle, looking like Ichabod Crane.

Check it out!  BMC has managed to win this thing!  Sky got second, by one second!  Both teams beat Tinkoff-Saxo, also as I predicted.  Also, Tejay has moved from third into second on the GC, also as I predicted.  As it turns out, all of my predictions were spot-on.  How do you like that, Mom?

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