Sunday, September 3, 2017

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2017 Vuelta a España Stage 15


Why watch the Vuelta a España? Good question. It’s the least prestigious of the grand tours, not even a little brother but more like the Cousin Oliver of the Tour de France. On the other hand, the Tour is usually pretty boring thanks to Chris Froome and his US Postal team. Oops, did I say US Postal? I meant Sky. Same diff. The Vuelta can actually be considerably more exciting than the Tour, particularly when the Tour riders are too tired to dominate.

Well, this year Froome isn’t too tired for anything, and already has the race pretty much locked up. The only hope for a close contest is if something dramatic happens, like he crashes and forgets to bring his bike along when he chases back on. Whatever happens today, I’ll be reporting it candidly, without pulling any punches or leaving any accusation, fair or not, unhurled.

2017 Vuelta a España Stage 15 – Alcala la Real to Sierra Nevada

Common wisdom is that this race’s final summit, Sierra Nevada, is named after the famous mountain range in California. What a typically ignorant assumption. Of course it’s named after the brewery in Chico (slogan: “Marinating college kids’ livers since 1979!).

Today’s route is brutal. It’s only 129 kilometers (80 miles), but goes over the 1st category Alto de Hazallanas, does a long descent, then finishes atop the beyond-category Sierra Nevada. Look:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Chris Froome won it. There, I said it,” says the Eurosport announcer annoyingly. Look pal, it’s bad enough that the result is practically predetermined … do you have to rub it in?

As I join the action, we’ve got about 70 kilometers to go, or more accurately the racers do. There’s a breakaway a couple minutes of the road. It’s so cute how they pretend they have a chance of staying away! Or perhaps they’re just cynically grabbing some airtime.

This climb is 7km at 15%!  Wow! These guys are just dying, their upper bodies seesawing like crazy, all form just plain gone! There are pitches of over 20% here.

There’s some Cofidis guy leading the race.

He’s somehow suddenly got 1:12 over the shrapnel of the breakaway, which of course has detonated. This is Stéphane Rossetto, who looks pretty good for a guy who’s completely doomed. I hope I look that good when I’m doomed. Of course, maybe I’m doomed already and just don’t know it. Maybe Rossetto doesn’t know it either. Naw, he knows it.

Maybe Rossetto didn’t read the race bible, and thinks this is the final climb? I raced with a guy once who mistook the final prime for the finish, and threw his arms up in the air. Okay, it was me. In my defense, the race organizers didn’t know that you’re not supposed to have a prime on the penultimate lap. Or maybe they read that in the rules but didn’t know what “penultimate” meant. They probably thought it had something to do with Bic.

Back in the peloton, Team Sky is swarming on the front making sure everything stays boring.

The peloton is getting stretched out and frayed and won’t be long for this race. It’s been a brutal Vuelta and I’m sure everybody is tired. Since the coverage is suspended right now for a bunch of ads, I’ll fill you in on what’s been going on. Froome immediately showed his dominance on the first mountain stage, took the leader’s jersey, and has been strangling the race ever since. Nobody else has a chance, so the rest of the peloton is just showing up and collecting their paycheck. The most exciting part so far has been Froome crashing twice the other day. The second crash, on a descent, was weird … I watched it again and again, mystified. What happened? It wasn’t like he overcooked a curve, or hit a patch of something slippery, or anything like that. It looks like he just literally fell off his bike. Really weird. Here’s a snapshot, or you can watch it here (watch from about 21 seconds in).

Froome is pretty far back in the pack right now. He has so many teammates in this group he’s flanked on either side, despite nothing but Sky guys on the front.

The Eurosport commentator thinks Froome doesn’t look so good, on the basis of him standing, then sitting, etc. This means nothing, of course. And Froome looks awful all the time anyway. Now Sean Kelly (the other commentator) points out that Froome is eating a gel. “If you can eat a gel on a climb like this, you can’t be hurting too bad,” he says. He must really hate this other commentator. Perhaps it’s mutual. Or who knows, maybe the first guy deliberately says stupid stuff, just to act like a foil, a straight man.

Oh, I forgot to mention, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) is riding his last grand tour (possibly his last race?) and has been riding really well, except for one early disastrous day when he supposedly had the flu. So he’s got no prayer in this race other than to put on a good show here and there.

They’re 2.4km from the summit. There’s a chase group with Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Steven Kruijswijk (Lotto NL – Jumbo) and a couple others.

See those two white dots in the middle? That’s how my feed shows me it’s frozen, as if I couldn’t tell.

Bardet had a great Tour de France, but has been nowhere in this Vuelta. How could he, though? How could anybody? How is it that Froome magically has great form? All good questions.

Wow, this road is really narrow, and in really shape. I’d love to ride it somebody, perhaps by myself I can go as slowly as I need to.

Could Tejay van Gardaren (BMC Racing Team) win a stage this year? Well, certainly no GC teams would chase him down. That’s a polite way of saying he’s not in contention. He was, for a while there, until suddenly he wasn’t.

Some guy named Sander Armee (pronounced are-MAY) is leading the climb, having dropped the other breakaway riders. Armee is on Lotto Soudal. I don’t know what happened to Rose or Rosa or Rosie or whatever that other guy was called. Armee must have a really ugly face, because the cameramen refuse to show it. Either that or the motorcycle can’t manage to pass him.

Back in the peloton, Sky still has things well in hand.

Everybody is over the summit now, and then they’ll descend for about 25km (~15 miles) before the final climb, which is a beast of about 28km (~17 miles).

Froome is up toward the front of the peloton for the descent, so that if he inexplicably falls off his bike again, at least he’ll take down some of the other contenders with him. Okay, that was a cheap shot. He’s actually a very good descender. Mostly.

Rossetto has just been passed by the 4-man chase group.

Okay, here’s a head-shot of Armee. Turns out he’s a real looker.

The other two in the chase group are Nelson Oliveira (Movistar Team) and Adam Yates (Orica-Scott). Not that it matters. The peloton isn’t far behind these guys and on the final climb, when the GC guys hit the gas, that gap will vanish.

So, I’m keeping a close eye on Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). He skipped the Tour de France this year, after failing to win the Giro d’Italia, so in theory he should be fresher than Froomestrong. Nibali sits second on the GC, just 55 seconds behind. Nobody else has a prayer. Nibali did outsprint Froome for third recently, picking up a 4-second time bonus.

Astana has been on the front a fair bit today, which is kind of weird. Their highest-placed guy, Fabio Aru, is down in sixth, over 3 minutes down. So I guess their strategy is to wear down Team Sky, including Froome, so they can launch Aru on the final climb and he can take like 4 minutes? Good luck with that, guys.

The chase group have hit the final climb and now they saw off Oliveira and Rossetto. They’re bearing down on Armee. He’s got 30km to go, all of it uphill.

The racers are about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Kelly says it’s because the breakaway took so long to form. I think it’s because the producer of the coverage has a party to get to or something, and gave strict orders to wrap up early. It’s like that pro wrestling match where the producer needed to be somewhere, gave the command, and the winning wrestler didn’t even bother to take off his jacket before getting into the ring. What, you’ve never watched pro wrestling? Don’t give me that.

It’s still Astana on the front. I really don’t get that.

And now the chasers have reeled in Armee.

Kruijswijk is looking really good in the breakaway. I am totally going to use his name next time I play Hangman. You know who used to be really good at Hangman? My kids. I could never guess their words when they were younger, because they couldn’t spell. It’s really hard to guess a misspelled word. Now they can spell better and have lost their edge.

Armee has blown and is going backwards. So has one of the Astana guys who pointlessly did so much work earlier. There’s probably a story behind that. “Chernetski, I don’t like you,” directeur sportif Alexandre Vinokourov must have said before the race. “I want you on the front today, setting the tempo until you blow. Do it or you’re fired.”

Contador attacks!

Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) is with him! It’s an all-or-nothing Hail Mary type move! Of course it’s doomed, but I love the idea of a bold move like the days of yore before race radios turned the sport into Moneyball.

At the front, Bardet and Yates have dropped the other two.

So, Lopez is 3:48 down on GC, in 10th. Who knows, maybe Astana has been working on the front to set him up (not Aru). But Sky doesn’t look rattled and they’ve still got plenty of guys.

Yates has now dropped Bardet. I guess he sees no point in having a breakaway companion, since the whole rest of the stage is uphill and there probably isn’t that much benefit from drafting. Besides, Yates must figure this is a shot in the dark anyway, with only a couple of minutes on the peloton and 25km more to race.

The peloton has under 30 riders in it, and five of them are Sky. No other team is this well represented, as usual.

Did you know that when Will Smith played Muhammad Ali, he had his ears pinned so they wouldn’t stick out so much? Maybe they could do that with Froome’s elbows. Just a suggestion.

Lopez and Contador are 45 seconds behind Yates. “He’s suffering majorly,” Kelly says of—who? Yates, Lopez, or Contador? But does it matter? Kelly says this about everybody. It’s just filler. It would be fun to be at a dinner party with Kelly. Asked a difficult question by his mother-in-law, he’d say, “He’s suffering majorly,” just to buy some time, before answering her actual question: “I can’t remember for sure but I think we have a Roth IRA.”

Contador and Lopez catch Bardet. He looks pretty blown, but manages to latch on. And now the peloton is catching up to Armee.

Yates is doing really well, having increased his lead to 50 seconds. Maybe he has a side bet going with somebody about how long he can stay in the lead. Maybe side bets are how these non-Sky riders motivate themselves given that all traditional goals are hopeless to achieve.

Bardet is now leading Contador and Lopez. Who knows, maybe he sat up a bit after Yates dropped him, so he’d have somebody to work with. Perhaps Yates is an introvert and Bardet is an extrovert. I’ll bet that’s it.

So:  Yates is riding a Scott bicycle, and in my last race I also rode a Scott bicycle. Coincidence? Yes.

After a commercial intermission, Yates’s lead has gone up to 1:05. Pretty impressive, really.

Perhaps Lopez is just getting ready to set up Aru later. It doesn’t look like the long-bomb move is going to achieve a whole lot, because the gap to the GC group is not really going up much. Lopez is virtually ahead of Aru on GC at the moment, but Aru is the team leader. I’d rather see Lopez do well today, myself. That’s because Aru is basically wearing tube socks, which is a fashion trend I’m really getting sick of. And anyone who beats the odds by depriving Froome of a stage win on a mountaintop finish is a hero to me.

Contador, Lopez, and Bardet have caught Kruijswijk.

The GC group is down to about 20 riders, and Sky still has 4.

Nibali attacks!

With 12km to go, he better have good legs. I would love to see Nibali spank Froome, frankly, ever since that 2015 Tour stage when Nibali soloed to victory and Froome cried foul like a little bitch.

Wow, Yates’s lead is up to 1:17.

Nibali has 20 seconds on the Froome group. Of course, whatever time he might manage to take today won’t guarantee him anything … there’s a 40km time trial coming, which clearly favors Froome who is an eerily fast time trialist.

Well, in the time I took to type that, Nibali got caught by the GC group. Man, what a waste of keystrokes.

Yates is still looking really good, and with 10km to go, maybe he’s got a chance!

Man, what an animal! Yates is climbing this bad boy in the big ring!

Froome looks as bad as ever.

With 8km to go, Yates’s lead is starting to drop. He’s at just over a minute now (on the chase group) and he looks a bit saggy. Perhaps if the four chasers catch him, Contador can get a stage win. That would be a nice consolation prize since his GC hopes were dashed so early.

Thomas de Gendt (Lotto Soudal) is somewhere between groups, having attacked yet again. I haven’t reported on it thus far because he tries to solo in every race he does and it never comes to anything. Why does he do it? Nobody knows. At least, no spectator knows. Maybe the other racers know. Maybe they tease him and he can’t stand to be in their company.

Lopez is really driving the pace of the chase group. The gap is down to 57 seconds. And suddenly Kruijswijk has been shelled! Both Contador and Bardet are out of the saddle to keep up with Lopez! Now they settle in.

And Lopez goes again and drops Contador, then Bardet!

Contador and Bardet regroup. Man, Lopez is gone! He just straight-up vacated! I don’t think there’s any question of him catching Yates now.

Sure enough, the gap to Yates is down to 33 seconds. Lopez looks really, really strong. I’m not sure how much leash the GC group will give him, but he could move into the top 5 on GC at this rate. I guess everything could change if a GC contender (say, Nibali) actually attacked Froome, I mean for real, none of this silly testing-the-waters stuff, but that’s almost impossible in the modern era, as we all know.

Lopez is only 11 seconds behind Yates. And he’s macking it! And just like that, he’s got him.

Man, he closed that gap like nothing! But Yates has jumped right on … maybe he was saving something up there.

Oh, man. I sure got that wrong. Yates detonates!

Uh oh. Yates isn’t the only one having problems.

Looks like I’ll have to settle for a Spanish-language feed from here on out. And a spotty one at that. It freezes constantly.

With under 3km to go, Lopez has 57 seconds on … well, could be the chasers, or the peloton. I can’t tell. Okay, looks like the chase group got caught. So now it’s Lopez off the front, and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha Alpecin) has attacked ahead of the GC group.

Wow, Zakarin is really motoring! I guess he is looking to increase or protect his GC position.

Contador has been dropped from the GC group. Wow, Aru is getting dropped, too!

Lopez is on the final switchback! And he’s got the win!

Zakarin crosses the line 35 seconds behind. Maybe with this he will make into the top 3 on GC.

The GC group, in tatters, blathers over the line. Can a group blather? Yes, though I guess you’ll have to take my word for it. No, they weren’t talking. But it was a blather. Straight-up blather.

“It was a big day, and lived up to its billing, don’t you think?” the other announcer asks Kelly. “Yes, well, it was a big day, but [because Sky is too dominant, it was actually totally fricking boring],” Kelly replies. No, that’s not verbatim but you get the gist.

Why do I watch this sport? It’s pretty futile hoping something unexpected will happen. It’s always the same … either Froome wins the stage outright, or Sky lets some GC no-hoper have a bit of stage glory while locking down the group of contenders to make sure Froome has no problem hanging on to the GC lead. About the most I could really hope for is a freak accident that disrupts the essentially fated outcome.

It’s kind of like how, back when I got the newspaper, I’d read all the comics, even the really stupid ones like “Family Circus.” I knew it was pointless, that I was just wasting my time, but somehow I held out hope that one day, one of these comics would actually be funny. And they never were. At least the grand tours have a bit better track record; after all, this year’s Giro was actually quite exciting, particularly because the race lead changed hands due to a mid-race toilet emergency. We were all on pins and needles wondering if Dumoulin could make up the minute or so he lost trying to take a dump. Maybe somebody needs to slip Team Sky some powerful laxatives at some point. Maybe then we’d have a real bike race.

Well, they’re interviewing Juan Antonio Flecha now, so I’ve officially lost my patience. You know what, Vuelta a España? Just shove it.

Okay, I guess I’ll sit through Lopez’s interview. “My team was amazing. The route was really hard. I am happy.” Funny… he sure doesn’t look happy. Maybe that’s because he’s just realized how totally hackneyed his interview responses have been. “What would my speech teacher say?” he might be thinking. “I’m a total failure as a public speaker!”

Here is the stage result.

And here’s the new GC. Sure enough, Zakarin has made the (virtual) podium.

If Froomie doesn’t dominate Tuesday’s time trial too badly, I might be back to cover the final mountain stage, up the Angliru, on September 9. So stay tuned. Or not. Whatever.

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