Sunday, July 10, 2016

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2016 Tour de France Stage 9


If you’ve fallen behind on the Tour de France, or can’t be bothered to watch it, you’ve come to the right place.  Not only is my report almost live (not meaning close to dead, but almost real-time), it’s biased—that is, I don’t pull any punches when it comes to calling out a doper, an inelegant rider, or a jerk (or in the case of the obvious favorite, Chris Froome, all three at once).  That’s the benefit of being an unpaid blogger.

2016 Tour de France Stage 9 – Vielha Val d’Aran to Andorre Arcalis

As I join the race, there are about 50 km to go.  Today is a brutal stage, with five categorized climbs, including three category 1 and a huis-categorie (HC) climb at the end.  What is “huis-categorie?”  Imagine a rock climber saying, “Dude, that first climb was like a five-twelve, but then there was this other one that was like, so totally sick you just couldn’t even put a number on it.”  Or imagine a little kid saying, “My dad could beat up infintity-times-infinity of your dads,” and the other kid saying, “My dad could beat up so many of your dads, you couldn’t even count it, not even with infinities.”  Huis-Categorie is the French way of saying, “Don’t even try to describe how hard this climb is.”

Not much happening now, particularly as regards my Internet feed.  This has been the worst race ever for live Internet video.  I’ve got the British feed on one computer, with a picture so bad it looks like it’s finger-painted by a small child, and it freezes up constantly.  Then I’ve got a French-language feed, muted, on another PC with a separate Internet feed, and it’s a nice big, clear picture but it halts so often my coverage is more like a slide show.  On the plus side, I enjoy the French ads, particularly the ones for food or beverages, which all carry a public service announcement at the bottom (this one translates, “For your health, eat at least five fruits and vegetables per day”).

So the big news so far today:  one-time race favorite Alberto Contadar (Tinkoff Team) has dropped out due to injuries suffered in back-to-back crashes in two early stages. 

With 43 km to go (that’s right, I missed 7 km futzing with my feeds), two riders are off the front of a huge breakaway:  Jerome Coppel (IAM Cycling) and Tsgabu Grmay (Lampre-Merida).  Grmay is an interesting rider:  he’s Ethopian (the first from his country ever to ride the Tour), and he has a most interesting name.  In Ethopia, your last name is always your father’s first name.  And how did his father get his name?  His father invented it in a bid to use up all has Scrabble tiles.  They have strange house rules over there.  (Okay, the Scrabble thing is speculation.  But it’s true about the first/last name thing.)

So anyhow, this duo has a bit of a gap on this giant breakaway numbering almost 20 guys.  The only GC hopeful in that group is Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), though actually Pinot became a Tour hopeless with some very poor riding in the early stages.  So poor, in fact, that he has declared his season “over.”  I didn’t make that up.  I think the guy is a bit of a head case, honestly.

Interestingly, the term “Tour hopeful” has become synonymous with the term “Tour dopeful.”  I’m referring, of course, to Team Sky, which has put on their typical display of dominance, with an absurd number of riders taking the front on all the steepest climbs.  They did it yesterday, and they’re doing it again today.

To the credit of Team Sky’s leader, Chris Froome, I’ll say that he’s in yellow today because of his descending, not his doping.  (I don’t think they have a syringe for descending yet, unless it’s something old-school like amphetamine.  My teenage daughter, cynical beyond her years, has pointed out that Froome does have the physique of a meth-head.)  He took off just after the summit of the final climb yesterday and descended like a maniac, holding off the (albeit lackluster) chase to win by 13 seconds and pick up a 10-second time bonus.  Why did he bother?  First, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff Team) had been dropped on the climb and I suspect Froome wanted to make sure the GC group didn’t play it too safe on the final descent and give Contador a chance to cut his losses.  And why was the chase lackluster?  I’d guess that other favorites like Nairo Quintana (Movistar team) and Tejay van Gardaren (BMC Racing Team) are fine giving up a couple dozen seconds when this forces Team Sky to defend the yellow jersey for two whole weeks.

Returning to today’s stage, the leading two riders have been absorbed by the disposable diaper of the breakaway.  Do you like my metaphor?  It’s better than some of the hackneyed ones you’d have to hear from the TV coverage.  The one I’m getting sick of is “so-and-so makes his way to the front and begins injecting pace.”  Can we not use “inject,” please?  I’m trying to pretend the sport has cleaned up.

Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) has dropped the others and is making his lone, useless way up the climb.  With 35 km to go, the leaders are on the Category 1 Col de Beixalis.  This is a short climb but has some seriously steep pitches, like 17-18%.  If you’re not a cycling aficionado and don’t grasp what 17-18% means, imagine you’re driving up one of those crazy steep hills in San Francisco and your friend’s girlfriend gasps and asks to take a different route, fearing the car will begin sliding down the hill backwards.  That’s the kind of grade we’re talking about here.

My video feed has stabilized but I’m still hunting for some audio.  The freezing has stopped but it’s some dirtbag announcer I’ve never heard before, a second-string would-be game show host who is somehow sucking all the excitement out of this race.  I’ve got to look for a better feed.

De Gendt is now overtaken by the breakaway and he’s going backwards.  He looks at the cameraman with a look that says, “Stop filming me you bastard.”  I get that look from my teenager a lot.

Froome is riding oval chainrings.  Is there anything I like about this guy?  Look, I’ll go ahead and admit that I thought his move yesterday was pretty cool, particularly if I decide to believe that it was his idea and not just a clever instruction over his radio.  Certainly his aerodynamic tuck was one of the ugliest in cycling’s history, particularly when he pedaled while sitting on the top tube, but it was inarguably effective.  It would still be a stretch to say I was developing a grudging respect for Froome, but perhaps the earliest stages of this respect-building process were starting to be laid down.  Think “terraforming on Mars” and you’ll get an idea for the massive scale of such a project.

But anyway, that was before I read an interview with him about a 200 Swiss franc fine he was slapped with for decking a spectator.  I saw the video replay of it and don’t have a problem with his action, because the spectator was way too far out in the road.  Bernard Hinault, one of my heroes, would have done the same thing.  But in justifying his action, Froome said, “Nothing against the Colombian fans, I think they’re fantastic and bring a great atmosphere to the race.  But this guy in particular was running right next to my handlebars that had a flag that was flying behind him.”  Why bring up the guy’s nationality at all?  Why pretend to have nothing against Colombian fans while bothering to inform the world that this dirtbag fan was Colombian?  Like I’ve said before:  Froome, man, get some class.

The huge number of nobodies in this breakaway is making the race pretty boring right now.  Somebody is going for KOM points.  I think it’s George Bennett (Team LottoNL-Jumbo), whom I’ve never heard of.  He’s duking it out with Pinot.  That’s nice, but I don’t care about the KOM and I can’t get excited about either of their stage win prospects this far from the finish.

Pinot is first to the summit with Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana Pro Team) not far behind.  The breakaway has pretty much detonated now and most—probably all—of these guys will be vacuumed up by the GC group despite the 8-minute lead they have with 27 km to go. 

I’ll take the opportunity, during this boring descent, to fill you in on some other Tour highlights.  Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) is back on great form, after (oddly enough) focusing on track races this year, and has won three stages.  He even earned his first-ever yellow jersey, which set up a touching moment of dramatic irony.  Being interviewed after winning the first stage, before the podium ceremony, he was bored and tired and had nothing much to say other than running a few macros (e.g., “My team is putting 50,000 Africans on bicycles”), and then his little daughter crawled into his lap and he turned his attention entirely to her, saying, “Daddy won today, and you know what you get when Daddy wins?”  His darling daughter replied, “Flowers.”  He said, “That’s right,” but didn’t seem to grasp that this time she would also receive a stuffed lion.  So neither of these two were even aware of how totally stoked they were about to be—but we, the viewers, were well aware of it.  That’s what dramatic irony is, and recovering English majors like me just love that shit. 

In other news, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff Team) has the ugliest helmet in the race and won a stage.  

Sky is still swarming the front as the GC group clears this summit.

Another early stage incident to recap:  you know the giant flame rouge, which would be a banner across the road indicating 1 km to go, except this is a grand tour where everything is fancy so it’s a giant inflated tube, leveraging bouncy-house technology?  Well, apparently somebody tripped on the cord and the damn thing collapsed just as the peloton was approaching it, which caused chaos and a pretty bad crash, with the current best young rider, Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange), getting a nasty scrape on his chin.

Returning to today’s action, the remaining guys from the breakaway are sprinting across the flat section, attacking each other like it’s a fricking criterium, before the final climb as though that could possibly make sense.  Positioning is nothing when it’s an HC climb.  I once stopped for like two minutes at the base of Alpe d’Huez to get some food and Coke, letting a group of like ten guys ride off into the sunset, because I figured they were all going to shell me anyway.  Is it any different for this human shrapnel that was once a breakaway?  I think not.  They’re mostly as doomed as I was (despite their lead over the GC group holding at 8 minutes) and should just stick together to the climb instead of pretending this is a tactical “chess game on wheels.”  (Another stupid cliché.  I’m glad cycling is never quite boring enough to be legitimately compared to a chess game.)

On the front now we have Rafal Majka (Tinkoff Team), who is a great rider but somehow isn’t in the top 20 on the GC this year, joined by Sanchez.  They’ve got 15 km to go but 10 km of those are uphill at an average gradient of 7.2%.

Wilco Kelderman (Team LottoNL-Jumbo), one of the breakaway guys (I think), has a flat tire.  I wonder if he’s riding Hutchinson tires.  My daughter’s Hutchinson came apart yesterday, the bead separating from the casing, and I had to call my wife and have her drive out and pick her up.  Don’t ride those … seriously.

Tom Dumoulin (Team Giant-Alpecin) is leading the race, which is a bit odd because he’s a time trialist (and, to an increasing extent, an all-rounder), not a climber.  By bike racer standards he’s a great big burly man, and I credit his exceptional riding to his size.  Just like a big guy can hold his alcohol better, big guys can absorb more pain on the bike.  The sport would be well served by having more guys like Dumoulin in it.  He’s also got a full head of hair, unlike Froome, who is not only bald but has those weird wrinkles on the back of his neck like one of those ugly pug dogs (or naked mole rats) some people seem to love.  Speaking of hair, as recently as a couple decades ago Dumoulin would have need a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for his Alpecin shampoo, which is caffeinated.  But caffeine is no longer regulated.  I wonder how much caffeine you can actually absorb through your scalp—which leads me to another thought I’ve been having.  Often, you’ll see spectators handing up water bottles to the racers.  No racer with any brains would drink anything a spectator gave him, but they do pour these bottles over their heads if it’s a hot stage.  So why not spike a bottle of water with some banned substance, and add some DMSO for good measure?  (DMSO is the solvent American football players use to chase crushed aspirin into their ruined knees so they can keep playing.)  An evil fan could make a rider test positive!  Why am I entertaining such dark thoughts?  I guess I’m still sore after getting a serious tongue-lashing from a UCSF official after spraying a racer with water during a criterium on a hot day back in 1986.

Amazingly, the gap to the GC group has gone up to 9:14, with Dumoulin still off the front solo.  And now a rider hits a spectator!  It’s Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18), who tried to avoid the guy (who was way too far out into the road) but slammed him with his shoulder and came this close to going down.  It was an impressive display of bike-handling skills.  The spectator was knocked flat—look closely and you’ll see him on the ground in this photo, on the left end of the zebra crossing.  (No, I’m not going to tell you the nationality of the spectator.  You can tweet Froome later and find out.)

Dumoulin is still hammering away solo on the front, with just 7 km to go.  The remaining guys from the breakaway will surely stay away now, with 9:30 in the bag, but will Dumoulin be able to hold off Majka, Pinot, and now Rui Alberto Faria Da Costa (Lampre-Merida) who is attacking?  Perhaps.

Wow, Pinot detonates!  He’s rocking on the bars and his head is down and he’s cooked.  What is Dumoulin’s time gap?  This is getting exciting!  And now the road is wet and there’s a proper storm brewing!  Daniel Navarro Garcia (Cofidis) materializes out of nowhere—who is this guy?—and I think he’s a contender now, working well with Majka to try to reel in Dumoulin. 

Now hail is coming down!  They’re showing the finish line and the weather is just awful up there.  Just 6 km to go now.

So some Movistar guy and an FDJ are driving along together but I think they’re off the back.  Forget them, they’re dead to us.

Back in the peloton, Sky are still well represented with at least four guys.

I think Dumoulin has like 30 seconds on Majka and Da Costa.  He’s got just 4km to go.

The grade has eased to 4-5% so he may yet hang onto this, being a time trialist and all.  I’d love to see it.

Back in the peloton, a Sky dude attacks!  I think it’s Sergio Luis Henao.  But he’s dragged back.  And now Froome attacks, and Quintana is right on him!  Porte is trying to bridge up!  This is so gloriously awfully brutal!  It looks like Porte has got them, and now he counterattacks!  Man, he’s really looking good.  And now Dan Martin comes from behind and attacks!  It’s like when everybody attacked Lance on Alpe d’Huez in the 2003 Tour!

Dumoulin is really suffering, his cadence grinding down, but he’s still got 42 seconds on Majka and Da Costa!  I’m using an exclamation point because I’m excited!  And my daughter, watching alongside, questions my use of the exclamation point!  She says I’m abusing the power of it!  But I don’t care!  And now Porte attacks again!  And amazingly, Froome has lost all his henchmen!

Tom Dumoulin is under the Flamme Rouge, and it’s staying inflated for now!  I’m going to use an exclamation point on every sentence now, because all these guys are such heroes, drilling it in such foul weather, and also to spleen my daughter!  Yay!

Look at Porte, man!  He’s on the high-test shit today!  He’s really putting the wood to Froomestrong!  And now, who’s this attacking, some guy in a white jersey, I have no idea who, and he’s taking his turn at battling Froome!  It’s Yates, of the scraped chin!  How does he even shave?!

Dumoulin has got this!  He approaches the line!   He drops his sunglasses on the road—his mom will be furious!  That’s the third pair this year!

Dumoulin gets the win!

Does he look like he’s about to cry?  Yes.  Would I be crying in that circumstance?  Hells yeah!  I’d be crying if I were a spectator at this race!

Da Costa dukes it out with Majka for second.  Majka is content with third, I suppose.  More than that he’ll be content to climb into a warm team van and drink about a gallon of cocoa.

Da Costa approaches the line, looking suitably miserable.  So, you know baseball, the great American pastime?  Those guys have big paunches, and when it so much as rains, the game is canceled.  Bedwetters, all.

I haven’t seen Tejay Van Garderen at all.  He didn’t fare too well in the rain in the Tour de Suisse recently … I guess I can’t blame him.

Dan Martin is just macking it on the front, Froome et al tucked in behind.  Sure enough, TVG is not in this group.  This gives the team leadership to Porte, even though he lost almost two minutes to an untimely puncture in an early stage.  BMC is officially adrift in this Tour.

The GC group is now down to Porte, Quintana, Yates, and Martin (who is now struggling to keep up).  Yates attacks!  Unbelievable!  He’s a real upstart, wearing the white jersey of the best young rider.  Yates holds it all the way to the line!  What a badass! 

Here comes Tejay, who has lost at least a minute or so.  A pity…

Here’s the top 10 for the stage:

So, the number of real GC contenders has shrunk again today, with Quintna and Martin the only real challengers left after this stage (though AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet still has an outside chance, I suppose).  Contador has abandoned, Fabian Aru (Astana Pro Team) was dropped today, and Tejay, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Pro Team) was nowhere to be seen, and Porte was pretty far behind going into the stage.  Pinot takes the KOM jersey, but is over 15 minutes off the back in the GC.  Yates hangs on to the white jersey and his chin is healing nicely.

I am very happy to see Froome failing to increase his lead on this brutal stage, and I’m particularly pleased with how the Sky domestiques folded up a bit at the end, as their Postal-esque dominance is a blight on the sport.  Maybe they’ll continue to fade and we might have a real race here.  But then, whom am I kidding?  Tomorrow’s a rest day, and that means blood bags.

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