Saturday, September 12, 2015

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2015 Vuelta a España Stage 20


Some bike race coverage is better than others, but the vast majority of accounts share one trait:  journalistic integrity.  This means being responsible and only reporting what is verifiable fact.  How odd, then, that such coverage participates in the big lie that the sport has cleaned itself up.  An announcer must pretend to be excited when an obvious doper is doing well, when he’s got to be thinking, deep down inside, “What a disgrace.”

Well, my coverage is different.  I like to tell it how it is, or at least how I suppose it is.  My goal is simply to entertain, even at the risk of inaccuracy, because that’s the purpose of sport anyway, right?  And yeah, I play favorites ... because what sports fan doesn’t?  So read on for a totally biased blow-by-blow report of the crucial penultimate stage of the 2015 Vuelta a España.

Vuelta a Espana Stage 20:  San Lorenzo de El Escorial – Cercedilla

As I join the action, Ruben Plaza Molina (Lampre-Merida) is off the front solo with almost 80 km left in the stage.  This looks pretty quixotic, but what better country to be quixotic in than Spain? 

Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing) decides to do something panzic, and tries to bridge from the chase group up to Plaza.  What’s “panzic,” you ask?  Well, if we can derive “quixotic” from Quixote, to mean “acting in a way that Don Quixote might act,” can’t we do the same with Quixote’s faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza?  I’ll make you a deal:  you help spread “panzic” as a word, and I’ll keep providing these blow-by-blow reports free of charge.

Zubeldia is caught.  Man, he almost didn’t even last long enough for my verbal aside.  So, I’m not sure how big this chase group is.  It’s about 12 minutes ahead of the peloton, and 2:20 behind Quixote.  Er, Plaza.  Is Plaza being stupid?  Not necessarily.  This is a really strange course:  nothing but up and down ... 176 km (109 miles) with four Category 1 climbs.

Long flat sections doom a solo rider, but drafting doesn’t help that much on climbs, and if the road is twisty, a good descender can hold his own pretty well.  Think of Floyd Landis in Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France, when he soloed for a huge distance over such terrain to [seem to] win the stage.  (If he hadn’t drunk too much Jack Daniels and fallen asleep with a testosterone patch on his balls, and if all the American cyclists hadn’t turned on each other via the Lance Armstrong investigation years later, I might have managed that last sentence without the bracketed caveat!)  So yeah, maybe Plaza’s move is smarter than it looks.

Speaking of turning on each other, I think Sean Kelly is getting fed up with his co-announcer, Carlton, who has just made a lame joke about race leader Tom Dumoulin (Team Giant-Alpecin) breaking his bike in a crash yesterday.  “Giant was probably pretty upset about that,” he quipped.  Earlier in this Vuelta, Kelly might have politely ignored this, but instead he disagrees, saying, “In a crash like that you’re actually just glad your man wasn’t hurt.”  I can’t blame Kelly for being impatient.  During a crucial earlier stage, Mikel Landa (Astana Pro Team) was soloing, and Carlton said, “He’s Mikel Landa, and he’s about to land a big one!”  What I heard next was hard to make out, but I think it was the sound of Kelly punching Carlton in the windpipe.

With 53 km to go, the riders are on the penultimate climb, the Puerto de la Morcuera, which is 10.4 km in length at an average grade of 5.3%.  Plaza has almost 3 minutes on the chasers, whose gap to the main field is down to 10:50.  Plaza doesn’t look so hot—his shoulders are really rocking—but then, form isn’t everything.  I mean, nobody looks worse on a bicycle than Christopher Froome (Team Sky), but that doesn’t stop the guy from winning the Tour de France.

Speaking of Froome, he dropped out of this Vuelta long ago.  He was way out of contention after a crash, but frankly he was never really in contention anyway.  He almost got a stage win on a summit finish, but as he was making his disgraceful, mincing-stepped, high-cadence, bobble-headed way to the finish line, Dumoulin—who had failed to solo minutes before—defied the laws of gravity and came flying by to take the win.  Dumoulin is a big man, a man’s man, and it’s not a stretch to say a macho man, and he wielded his bike like a fricking bat instead of a badminton racquet like Punky Froomester does, and I had to let out a whoop of pure joy and relief that the sport isn’t totally ruined by the kind of boring predictability that Froome and Sky have been working to produce through their undeniable lead in the pharmaceutical arms race.

It’s actually been a very exciting Vuelta, because no single rider or team has built up too great an advantage.  Sadly, Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) crashed out; Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) looks too tired from the Tour de France to contest GC victory here; Vincenzo Nibali was disqualified for holding on to his team car (which was disgracefully, embarrassingly blatant; he might as well have been caught on camera dirty-dancing with a podium girl); and other contenders like Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Fabio Aru (Astana Pro Team) have been excellent but not dominant.  Going into yesterday’s hilly stage, Dumoulin had only 3 seconds over Aru in the GC battle.  He dropped Aru on the short cobblestoned climb at the end to get 3 more seconds.

Near the top of the Puerto de la Morcuera, Astana is drilling it on the front, and Dumoulin is gapped!  They’ve got about two seconds on him!

Dumoulin’s team is nowhere around; probably they’ve all been shelled.  (I think of them more as a sprinter’s team built around John Degenkolb than a GC team.)  But Dumoulin is a cool customer.  He lost snatches of time—30 seconds here, 30 seconds there—in the earlier, more brutal mountain stages, confident that he’d make up time in the time trial, which he certainly did, crushing everybody (including the second-place rider on the day, who lost over a minute).  Still, 6 seconds is nothing on such a hard stage, particularly when Aru has such a strong teammate, Landa, to help him attack.

The breakaway, by the way, is still over 10 minutes ahead of the field, which makes Aru’s job harder because they’ll eat up all the bonus seconds for the top 3 finishers.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) is all by himself, having been sawed off from the GC group.  That’s been the story of this race.  He’s always either trying to solo, or getting dropped from a group.  Maybe he just prefers being alone ... maybe he just doesn’t like his competitors.  Fine by me ... I don’t like him, either.

The GC group is down to 8 guys.  I love these later stages in grand tours, when so many riders are so blown, they just give up when the hammer goes down.  It certainly makes it easier to tell what’s going on among the GC favorites.  It’s particularly easy with this Vuelta because Dumoulin is so much taller than everybody else, like a giraffe among gazelles.

Astana attacks again!  Oh, man, Dumoulin is really hurting!  His shoulders are rocking and he’s totally isolated!  Ooh, it’s a big gap.  Sure, he has a long descent before the final climb, but if it’s not technical, he won’t necessarily make up time on the group.  Being dropped this far from the finish also doesn’t bode well.

The front group of 6 has split in half but they’ll come back together.  They’ve got about 22 seconds on Dumoulin now.  Majka and Quintana are in that group and obviously highly motivated to work.  Quintana sits 5th on GC, about 30 seconds behind Majka.  I'm sure he’d love to make that up today.

Dumoulin is working with Mikel Nieve (Team Sky) and has decreased the gap to around 18 seconds.  Assuming he catches up, the final climb is going to be brutal.  If he manages to stay anywhere near the leaders on that climb, he’ll have a 7 km flat section before the final descent.  He showed in the time trial how much faster he goes on the flats than the little climbers.  Like a Kawasaki Ninja against a bunch of Vespas.

Could Dumoulin be faking it, to give Aru false hope?  Probably not, but it’s not impossible.  In a really hilly road race I once let myself get dropped on every climb, because it wasn’t that hard to catch the group on the downhills.  I did this for the whole race until the last couple climbs, when keeping up mattered.

Dumoulin is hauling ass ... Nieve can barely hang on, despite what must be an awesome slipstream.

I wonder what the Giant-Alpecin director is saying to Dumoulin over the radio.  How do you motivate your rider without demoralizing him?  Maybe it’s something like, “You have to beat Aru.  He’s the kind of jerk who sticks his chewed-up gum to the bottom of the desk.  He’s mean to old people and kicks dogs when nobody is looking.”

Dumoulin has shrunk the gap to 10 seconds.  This would be great news if he didn’t have that final climb, 11 km at 5.3%, to deal with.  Dang, he looks really tired.  He flicks his elbow and Nieve takes a turn at the front.  Now they’re chatting.  What could they be saying?  “Dude, you’re crazy, Natalie Portman is way hotter than Scarlett Johansson.”

Dumoulin gives a little head-shake, reminiscent of George H.W. Bush.  Either he’s cooked, or this is the greatest rope-a-dope since Lance on the Alpe d’Huez stage of the 2001 Tour.

Dumoulin drops back to his team car, but then seems to change his mind and just keeps riding.  Maybe he was going to ask for a strong cup of coffee but then remembered that caffeine is a diuretic and didn’t want to have to take a piss during the climb.  That might knock him off the podium.

Look, I’m not going to deny it:  I’m totally rooting for Dumoulin.  When it comes to bike racers, I’m size-ist.  This isn’t really on aesthetic grounds; it’s just that, being a tall, heavy rider myself, I’ve had countless opportunities—hundreds, I think—to resent the little climbers as they break my legs off.  I admit it:  I’m bitter.  When I look at a big guy like Dumoulin, I can relate to his difficulty in these mountains.

It looks like Aru has another teammate ... somebody must have dropped back from the breakaway.  If so, that’s the first time Astana has done anything intelligent in any bicycle race.

Man, Dumoulin must be heartbroken ... at one point he was 10 seconds behind the leaders but now it’s stretched out to over a minute, despite his getting some help from a couple more riders.  He’ll be lucky to hang on for a podium placing at this point.  Poor guy, he’s really suffering.  I dare say he even looks, well, clean!

Way up front, Plaza is still going it alone, 1:40 ahead of the chasers.

Dumoulin’s radio earbud is taped to his ear.  I always find that a little sad.  Some riders have the good kind of ear that holds the earbud; some don’t.  Lance never needed tape; Ullrich always did.  Ullrich’s taped-on earbud looked sad, too.

Man, Plaza just slashes away.  He hasn’t looked good all morning, and yet his lead is holding steady.  His saddle is about 2 inches too low ... maybe it’s slipping down.  And Dumoulin’s beret is all crumpled; his sunglasses are scratched; his zipper is jammed; back home, a drain is clogged; his cat just missed the litter box by like 4 feet.  The center cannot hold.  I think I’m going to cry.

The chase group has broken up and it’s now four riders chasing Plaza:  Giovanni Visconti (Movistar Team), Alessandro De Marchi (BMC Racing Team), José Gonçalves (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), and Matteo Mantaguti (AG2R La Mondiale).  Do you like how I bothered with the cedilla on the “c” in Gonçalves?  You won’t get that on  They wouldn’t bother.  On the downside, knowing it’s pronounced “Gon-SAL-vays” means I can’t make a pun about calves.  Maybe that’s for the better.  (Yes, I’m killing time before the finish because the denouement of this race is such a long, painful one.  If this were boxing, the ref would call the fight right now, but in bicycle races everybody has to serve out his full sentence.)

Dumoulin has fallen behind the group he was with and some Astana guy is on his wheel now.  I’m sure the Astana rider is taunting him from back there.

Quintana attacks!  No, he doesn’t have grand ambitions here, being almost 3 minutes behind Aru on the GC.  But as I mentioned earlier, he’d love to overtake Majka in the GC.  Needless to say, Majka is right on him.  The two are pulling ahead of the other GC favorites. 

Plaza reaches the final summit!  I think he’s got the stage win.  What did I tell you about Plaza’s long solo move not being as stupid as it might look?

Majka attacks Quintana, just before the summit.  Not that he really wants to distance him; I think it’s just a gesture:  “I see your effort to pass me in the GC, and I spit on it.  Look, I’m beating you to the top of the hill!”

Dumoulin’s director is saying, over the radio, “It’s okay, Tom.  You’re still a good person.  You’re not mean to old people, and you’ve never kicked a dog.  We just talked to your girlfriend and she says she doesn’t care because you’re way better looking than Aru.  She says he looks like a stricken baitfish.  She really said that.”

The peloton is over the final summit, while Dumoulin has almost 4 more minutes of miserable climbing ahead of him.  As my brother Max likes to say, “It’s all over but the crying.”

Plaza is struggling to maintain his gap on this flat section.  Funny, isn’t it, how a flat section can be cruel for a climber?  Still, his spirits are surely high, so his suffering is only physical.  Poor Dumoulin.  I wonder if he’s seen “On the Waterfront,” and if, despite not having seen it, he might be thinking, “I coulda been a contenda!” without any knowledge of where that comes from.  Probably not.  He’s probably thinking something far less predictable, like, “Mikel Nieve is such an idiot.  Scarlett Johansson isn’t even that hot.”

The chasing quartet is on the final descent now.  Their gap is down to 1:18, but with less than 5 km to go, they’re pretty much doomed to fight it out for second place.

Man, the GC group crested that final summit with 3 Astana guys left!  Astana is half the lead group!  I wonder if Team Sky has any plans to hire Astana’s team doctor away.  Not that Sky needs any help with its doping program, but it’s always wise to neutralize a fearsome opponent if you can.

Plaza has just 700 meters to go!  I wonder if he’ll do the new victory salute that has become so popular, where he tugs on his necklace until he’s pulled out the pendant, and polishes it up on his jersey before crossing the line.  Those Europeans are so weird.

Here he comes!  He looks back—he can’t help it—and now he does something really cool:  he takes his gloves off, and throws them to the crowd!  That is just fricking awesome.  I’m glad he didn’t get carried away and throw his helmet to the crowd; it would be awful to get disqualified only 25 meters from the finish line.

The next two riders are sprinting for second and I don’t care who gets it.  My enthusiasm has been deflating for about the last hour, in case you can’t tell.  Really, it’s Dumoulin, not Plaza, who’s the Don Quixote of this Vuelta.  At least he gave us a show!

Aru crosses the line and does an awkward, blurry victory salute with his teammate.  I never liked the “GC victory salute.”  Do you know who was the first guy to do that?  Lance Armstrong.  Do you know who was the second?  Carlos Sastre.  Now it’s almost standard.

The camera is on Aru as he’s mobbed by the press.  Even in victory, he looks like a stricken baitfish.

Dumoulin crosses the line, surrounded by a group of also-rans that evidently caught him as he made his lugubrious, plodding way toward the line.  It’s probably better for him, having a little bit of anonymity at the finish line instead of giving everybody a chance for some emblematic photo of his great loss.  He slips to 6th overall in the Vuelta, less than 24 hours after leading it.  Oh well ... he’s young.  He has many opportunities ahead.

They’re interviewing him.  He’s gracious enough to allow it (in contrast to Aru, who refused to speak to the press yesterday after losing 3 measly seconds).  Dumoulin is asked, predictably, how he feels.  “Just empty.  I mean, my legs are empty.  But don’t forget, I’m sponsored by Alpecin shampoo.  So my hair feels great!”  Ah, a true professional to the last!

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