Friday, July 24, 2015

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2015 Tour de France Stage 19


Is it responsible for a journalist to cast aspersions, jump to conclusions, play favorites, and make fun of his subjects?  Of course not.  But is it okay for a journalist to keep his mouth shut and pretend everything is normal when it’s obviously not, or when “normal” has become totally warped?  Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about these questions.  I’m not a journalist.

Read on for a breezily irresponsible, brazenly irreverent, and boldly impassioned collection of sentences that follow this strange pattern of adverbs that start with “b” and modify adjectives that start with “i.”

Tour de France Stage 19:  Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire

As I join the action, there are 67 km to go.  That puts the riders about halfway up the Col de la Croix de Fer.  This is a beast of a climb, 22 km (13 miles) long at an average grade of 6.9%.  There’s a large breakaway about 3 minutes ahead of the yellow jersey group. Pierre Rolland (Team Europcar) is off ahead of the break.  Rolland was second yesterday having failed to close the gap that Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) opened up with his m4d descending sk1llz.  Third yesterday went to Winner Anacona (Movistar Team), which begs the question, “What were his parents thinking?”  How many dumb jokes did this guy have to suffer through in gym class whenever he failed to live up to his name?  (Yeah, I know, he’s Colombian, they weren’t speaking English, blah blah blah.  Don’t over-think it.)

Wow, the field is really coming apart.  It’s been a grueling Tour.  Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) is getting dropped.  At the head of the GC group, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Pro Team) is being paced by his powerful teammates.  Poor Nibali.  Every day he tries to do something, and every day it’s just pissing into the wind.

Here’s today’s course profile.  It’s probably the hardest stage of the Tour this year, with 4 categorized climbs, finishing on the Category 1 La Toussuire.

Wow!  Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) is dropped!  The GC group is down to ten guys.  Thomas current sits 4th in the GC, just 6 seconds ahead of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo).  This could shake up the GC.  Of course in this Tour, as so often happens, nothing will shake up the race for first place, and we’re left mining the leader board for interesting also-ran trivia like who gets 2nd thru 10th.

Nibali attacks!  Did that really deserve an exclamation point?  Nope.  I don’t think he expected to drop race leader Christopher Froome (Team Sky), who instantly neutralizes his “attack.”  Probably Nibali had a side bet going with somebody about whether or not he could get Froome to start breathing through his mouth.  (He couldn’t.)

Rolland’s solo move is proving clever, as Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Rigoberto Uran (Etixx Quick-Step) have joined him, making this a somewhat more viable breakaway.  Current KOM leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Team Katusha) was in there for a bit, but now he’s going backward.  Wait, now Uran is dropping Ruben Plaza Molina (Lampre-Merida) ... where did he come from?

Rolland is 5 km from this summit.

The GC group is back up to maybe 20 guys.  Wout Poels is driving the pace for Froome.  Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team), currently 2nd on GC, has Alejandro Valverde and Jose Herrada Lopez supporting him.  Valverde is having a great tour, sitting 3rd on GC.  Valverde dopes.  Can I say that?  Of course.  I just did. The better question is, can anybody actually say he doesn’t dope?  C’mon.

Wow, Froome has something wrong with his bike!  He’s looking down at his drivetrain, clearly puzzled at all the whizzing gears and such.  He’s getting dropped!  Nibali, meanwhile, is attacking!  If anything comes of this attack, he’ll be compared to Contador and “chain-gate,” but of course nothing will come of this attack.  Froome could have a flat tire and break a spoke and have a derailleur cable snap and he’d still be able to haul back Nibali, or anybody else with the absurd audacity to actually try to drop him.  That’s just how he rolls.  There, he’s back up with Quintana and Contador.  Whatever his bike was doing wrong, it seems to be behaving now.

Interesting. Nibali actually has about 30 seconds on the GC group.  How cute!  He’s making it look like he might actually have a chance!

Speaking of silly notions, here’s a great headline from a couple years back:  “Froome Win ‘Has Silenced Critics.’” That’s from a 2013 article in The Express which goes on to say, “Chris Froome’s historic victory on Mount Ventoux last night should silence the Team Sky doubters, according to team principal Sir Dave Brailsford.”  Clearly, Brailsford misses the point:  nobody had been doubting Team Sky’s abilities; they’d been doubting that Team Sky is clean.  And that Mount Ventoux stage has become the poster child of Froome’s “not normal” abilities.  In retrospect, Brailsford’s comment was exactly wrong.

(Do I need to go into that whole thing?  It’s pretty tedious.  Condensed version:  Froome’s power and heart rate data were stolen and published, and a video was created showing that Froome’s race up Ventoux produced eyebrow-raising watts-per-kilo stats reminiscent of known dopers.  Froome’s camp claims that the power numbers are off because of the oval-shaped chainrings Froome uses.  This is obviously an absurd defense, because how could such a rich team tolerate inaccurate power readings?  How hard could it be to calibrate the power meter for the stupid chainrings?  Why use a power meter at all if it produces incorrect numbers?  And who really cares?  Blah, blah blah!)

Pierre Rolland is solo again, and has crossed over the summit.  (Get it?  Crossed the Croix?)  Uran crosses next, and now Bardet is over.  The GC group is not far behind and Froome leads the group over the summit.

Nibali is less than a minute behind Rolland now.  He’s descending really well, as always.

Wow, Rolland almost stacks!  Serious pucker-factor there.  Took a curve too wide.

And now Nibali hits the same curve, also too wide, and has similar trouble!  Somebody is going to crash there, I predict.  This might be one of those situations where the race radios might actually increase safety (which does not, however, offset all the times they increase danger, but that’s a giant topic I don’t have time to take on right now).

Nibali is only 50 seconds behind Rolland.

Rolland has finished his descent and now begins the Cat 2 Col du Mollard, 5.7 km (3.5 miles) at 6.8%.  Nibali is about 45 seconds behind him, and Molina is drifting ahead of the GC group, which is a little over 2 minutes back.

Rolland looks a bit sluggish on the climb, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going well.  Everybody except Froome looks sluggish after almost 3 weeks of racing.  Froome could probably do a five-week grand tour and never slow down.

Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin) is hanging on at the very back of the GC group.  Talansky sits 12th on GC.  It’s a pity Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) had to withdraw, while in 3rd place overall.  The only other American in this race, Tyler Farrar (MTN-Qhubeka), isn’t exactly a GC guy, and it shows:  he’s way down in 155th place, almost four hours down.

Not that I care overmuch about nationality.  I was chatting with my teenage daughter about the silliness of tribalism among sports fans, and how, say, a Bay Area fan will personally identify with the San Francisco 49ers and, after “his” team wins the Super Bowl or whatever, will run around in the street yelling “We’re number one!” as if his invisible support and loyalty had anything to do with the success of a bunch of guys drafted from all around the country.  “Why don’t fans identify with individual athletes?” Alexa wondered.  It’s a great question!  Why is it always “we,” when “I” is really no less absurd?  So in the first week of this Tour I kept telling her, “I’m having a great Tour!  I’m in 2nd overall!”  (Finally she asked me to stop.  I guess that trope didn’t get funnier with overuse.)

Lopez is driving the pace for Quintana on the Mollard, but the gap behind Nibali is actually growing, and is now over 2 minutes.  Nibali is quickly gaining on Rolland and now trails by 26 seconds.  There are cute little kids on the side of the road in matching fluorescent green hats.  Fans of Quintana and/or Movistar?  Fans of fluorescent green?  Wearing the hats only because their mother makes them?  Who knows.  The only thing I can say for certain is that those kids are finally silencing their critics.

Man, Lopez is just sitting on the front the whole time, clearly suffering.  Sky can’t be bothered chasing Nibali, who’s over 8 minutes down on Froome.  Movistar, naturally, has to be more worried because Nibali is only 4 minutes behind Valverde.

Bardet attacks!  He quickly opens a nice gap, but an FDJ guy is right on him.  Who is it?  Probably Thibaut Pinot.  Bardet is surely looking for KOM points.  I hope he gets the polka-dot jersey away from Rodriguez, who has never struck me as credible.

Nibali has caught Rolland and they’re descending together.  DAAAAAAAMN, Nibali overcooks a curve and very nearly goes off the road!  But he saves it!  Balls like King Kong!  Man, my heart is racing.  I used to watch these guys descend and think, “Yeah, I’d be up there, I could hang with that.”  Then I maimed myself, so now I watch the racers descend and think, “Oh dear!  Please be careful!”

Bardet, whatever his intentions, is now solo and descending with aplomb.  What’s this?  He’s beating his drivetrain with his fist!  What ... crank falling off?  Bizarre.  And now he’s unclipped his foot from the pedal and is kicking his drivetrain!  I hope it’s just his front derailleur or something.  Surely he’s radioed the car for help.  What are they saying, do you think?  “Aw, quit whining.  Fix it yourself.”

“The double-changer must be touching the crank,” says celebrity commentator Sean Kelly.  That does it, from now on I’m going to call my front derailleur a “double-changer.”  That’s far better than “mech.”  And what if the crankset is a triple?  You say nothing.  The word “triple” is like “Voldemort.”

Fortunately for Bardet, this is a mighty steep descent so he’s not having to pedal that much anyway.  Being kind of a small dude, he tends to just take the curves faster vs. powering out of them like the jumbo-sized racers.

Man, this is a really bitchin’ descent!  Such a wind-y road.

The yellow jersey group is just under 2 minutes behind Nibali and Rolland, with Poels drilling it on the front for Froome.  I wish they’d show Geraint Thomas, off the back ... surely he’ll be passed in the GC by Contador, but also possibly by Robert Gesink (Team LottoNL-Jumbo) who was just over a minute behind him on GC heading into today.

The final climb today, 18 km (11 miles) at 6.1% average grade, is where Froome accidently dropped Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 Tour de France.  Imagine being so lubed you don’t even know you’re going fast enough to destroy everybody behind you.  That would be like me in an eating contest.

The gap is down to 1:44 with 16 km to go.  Both Nibali and Rolland are cool as cucumbers.  How did cucumbers get to be the standard-bearer for coolness?

Wow, Nibali accelerates and totally drops Rolland!  Man that gap is opening fast!  Is Nibali hauling ass, or did Rolland detonate?  We’ll know soon enough based on the splits to the GC group.  Rolland is really wincing now.  No longer looks cool.  He’s as warm as flannel now.  He’s as warm as a perfectly executed bread salad.

I think Nibali’s chances of a stage win probably have a lot to do with the GC battle behind him.  Gesink doesn’t have any teammates, nor the horsepower to lead a protracted chase.  Contador probably is much more focused on gaining a podium spot than defending his 5th place (which is now 4th, Thomas having been shelled).  Valverde is probably more focused on defending his podium place than on kidding himself that he could help Quintana win the Tour.  That’s what makes Tours like this too boring, when one team and one rider are too dominant.

I take it back, Gesink does have a teammate, Steven Kruijswijk, owner of the weirdest last name in the Tour this year.  Kruijswijk leads the chase for Gesink and doesn’t look too bad, though the gap is actually opening up a bit.  Nibali is his normal poker-faced self.

This GC group is pretty big ... clearly the hammer has yet to go down.  Quintana sits on Froome, who sits on Poels, who sits on Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo).  Unless Quintana launches an all-or-nothing attack, and maybe gets joined by Contador, and they manage to actually ratchet up the pace in some meaningful way, it looks like Nibali will get a stage win.  That would be a nice consolation prize after basically sucking this year.

Talansky is just barely hanging on to this group.  He’s been very active in recent days and has probably soiled a lot of chamois.  (You didn’t think I was going to say “burned a lot of matches,” did you?)

Oops, they’ve just panned back across the entire line of the GC group, and I don’t see Talansky anymore.  I guess he got sawed off.

Nibali crunches on.  What’s with the pink shoes?  Left over from the Giro a couple years back?

It’s 9.5 km to go.  Nibali’s lead is staying solid.  I guess it doesn’t matter that his best domestique, Jakob Fuglsang, has been dropped today.  Fuglsang crashed yesterday when a motorbike clipped him from behind.  That motorbike driver has been expelled from the Tour.  After that stage Fuglsang said, “He can be happy that he’s not close to me now, that motorcycle guy.”  I think Fuglsang overestimates his chances in hand-to-hand combat with the biker, of whom I happen to have a photo.

Rolland is caught by the GC group.  Man, that lead tumbled fast ... he must have sat up.  Poor guy.

It’s 7.1 km to go.  If somebody doesn’t attack Froome soon, he’ll probably attack himself, just out of sheer boredom.  Majka needs to step it up, or Contador needs to strike out on his own, or Quintana needs to try something.  Are they just too tired to care anymore about the GC rankings?  I guess I can’t blame them.  You know what cycling needs?  Something equivalent to the shot clock they have in basketball.  Riders with opportunities to better their GC positions should be identified, and docked time (or hell, maybe money?) for failing to attack within set periods of time.  That would be a lot easier than trying to solve the doping problem.

Gesink is starting to try to ramp it up.  Too little, too late.

Okay, finally!  Quintana attacks!  And he’s got something of a gap!  Froome is leading the chase, head down, elbows sticking way the hell out!  And now the whole group is shattered, as this is a really decent attack!

Quintana really does have a pretty good gap.  It’s a proper attack, none of this testing-the-waters BS.  It’s 4 km to go .. can Quintana actually take some time?

“Elbows out, tongue down!” cries Carlton, the Eurosport announcer.  Froome actually does seem to be working hard, though actually he so often looks like crap, it’s impossible to tell how he’s feeling.

Quintana is staying ahead, but the gap isn’t growing significantly.  It’s 14 seconds right now, as Nibali goes under the 3km-to-go banner.  I just don’t think there’s enough road for Quintana to really threaten Froome’s lead, not to mention enough power in Quintana’s legs.  To Froome, this attack is probably more of an unpleasant nuisance than any kind of crisis.

Nibali only has 2.3 km to go, and still looks pretty good ... it’s too bad, I’d like to see Quintana at least get a stage win for his efforts.

Quintana has increased his lead to just over 20 seconds.  Froome is probably holding back a bit, knowing that only by blowing up completely could he endanger his yellow jersey. 

Quintana is now under the 1km banner.  It’s not really a banner.  What the hell is it?  Big tubes arching over the road.  It’s a thingie.

Nibali gets the win.  I guess he showed me, with my (obviously wrong) “pissing into the wind” comment earlier.  And with the time he gained, he’s now in 4th on GC.  Not bad!

Quintana crosses the line, and then Froome 29 seconds later.  So Froome’s margin is down to about 2:40 in the GC, with tomorrow’s brutal stage ahead.  If Quintana were riding better (or more to the point, if Froome weren’t so dominant) this could get really exciting!

Well, the racers were running a bit behind schedule today, which means I don’t even get to see the podium celebration.  That’s a pity, because I pull major aesthetic Gs looking from Froome to the podium girls and back, which is always kind of amusing.  Anyhow, tune in ... never, because this will be my last report from this year’s Tour de France, and next year I’ll probably shift my attention to the World Badminton Championships.  Thanks for hanging in there.


I have now seen, minutes after posting this, Froome's post-race interview.  He describes his mechanical problem on the big climb:  “It was up the Col du Glandon, pretty close to the summit, I suddently felt like my back wheel locked up, a bit of tar or a small stone had locked itself between my brake caliper and back wheel so I had to stop and take the wheel backwards to get the stone out. Unfortunately that was the moment that Nibali decided to make his move. He did see what he was doing, I’m pretty sure he looked around, saw I was in trouble and attacked. In my opinion you don’t do that to the race leader, it’s not sportmanlike.”  Man, what a whiner.  How uncharitable, to cast aspersions on a rider whom he has thoroughly vanquished in this race, especially when the timing of Nibali’s attack was utterly irrelevant, when Froome and his team made the obviously logical choice of ignoring the attack altogether.  Froome, man, get some class!

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