Saturday, July 20, 2019

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2019 Tour de France Stage 14


When guys sit around watching sports, they tend to talk a lot of smack. (Do women also sit around watching sports? I suppose it’s possible, like those new elements scientists have discovered that can exist briefly under certain conditions.) Have you ever wondered what professional sports announcers would say if they thought they could get away with it? Especially in a sport like cycling where doping isn’t so well covered up? It’s clear to me these commentators have to bite their tongues a lot, as tempting as it would be to go off about how lubed some rider obviously is. Well, I say what I want. I call it how it is, or at least how I perceive it to be, as an admittedly non-professional, non-journalistic, irresponsible, unpaid, unsung, and largely unread blogger. If you don’t like my style, or think you’d be offended at the suggestion that this or that rider is doping or that there’s no Santa Claus, please stop here.

Today I provide my based blow-by-blow of the first major mountain stage in this year’s Tour de France. It’s only 117 kilometers (73 miles)—far shorter than what my daughter and I rode last weekend —but the low mileage will only make it faster. Today they tackle the Col du Soulor (summit 4,836’) and finish atop the Col du Tourmalet (summit 6,939’). They’re gonna rip each others’ legs off!

2019 Tour de France Stage 14 – Tarbes to Col du Tourmalet

As I join the action, they’re doing a tribute to Laurent Fignon, who won the 1983 and 1984 Tours de France. His old directeur sportif, Cyrille Guimard, is talking about how Fignon never recovered from the saddle sore he suffered at the end of the 1989 Tour. That’s some saddle sore!

Now they’re on to actual footage. But they’re talking about Tony Martin’s time trial yesterday. It was crazy … he was almost dead last. I find this remarkable. I mean yeah, he was going easy to save himself to support his teammate, but still … almost last, for a four-time world time trial champion? I think he was making a statement: “Don’t anybody think I’m trying and failing. I’m not trying, I’m chilling, okay?” Either that or he’s just shattered from all the work he’d done for his Jumbo-Visma team leader, Steven Kruijswijk.

Okay, it’s about 70 km to go. I’m trying to figure out where that puts them on the course but I absolutely cannot do the arithmetic. It’s just too early in the morning. Okay, I’ve figured it out: the stage is only 117 km, not 177 as I’d put in my notes. Damn it’s early.

So anyhow, they’re about to tackle the Col du Soulor. French President Emmanuel Macron is onscreen, out on the course in a pace car. How cool is that? You think The Donald would ever watch a bike race? Ha. He probably didn’t even watch the Tour de Trump. But I’m straying into politics here and better stop. (Lest you think this blog is in any way partisan, I’d like to point out that whatever your politics, it’s pretty cool to sponsor a bike race out of your own pocket.)

So anyway, the riders are starting this Category 1 climb. Ah, they’re showing the distance to the summit, that’s cool. There’s a breakaway about three minutes ahead of the peloton. It’s full of non-GC guys, including Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and, oddly, 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), who finished yesterday’s individual time trial all the way down in 57th place. He has clearly given up on the GC for this Tour already and is saving himself for possible stage wins. Needless to say if he’d had a good time trial and was in contention, he wouldn’t be allowed to break away today.

“He always looks like he needs to see a chiropractor, this Ilnur Zakarin,” the announcer says. Ouch!

Back in the peloton, riders are already dropping off the back, including the Colombian climber, Henao Montoya (UAE Team Emirates). How weird, with Sagan in the break which is holding its ~3-minute lead.

In case you haven’t been closely following the Tour to this point, I’ll catch you up. The big news was that two of the favorites, Chris Froome (Team Ineos, née Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) are both out due to injury. This would seem to make last year’s winner, Geraint Thomas (also Ineos) the obvious favorite—which he pretty much is—but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Thomas’s teammate Egan Bernal is awfully fast and just won the Tour de Suisse. It’s a stretch to say Bernal is getting too big for his britches, as he weighs just 132 pounds, and when these riders peak for the Tour, they generally get too thin for their britches. They’re adding new buckle-holes in their belts. But Bernal is clearly making Thomas nervous and was even named a co-leader of Ineos. Meanwhile, pretty much any Ineos rider must be considered a GC favorite, because this is the well-lubed team whose domestiques are still on the front in the mountain stages when favorites from other teams are getting spat out the back.

Nibali is setting the pace on the front. Back in the bunch, the Movistar team sets tempo.

It’s hard to imagine this break staying off … not because the peloton cares so much about catching them, but because the GC riders will be going so fast on the final Hors Categorie climb, the legendary Tourmalet. I mean, three minutes just isn’t much. For once, Team Ineos isn’t on the front … they don’t have the yellow jersey yet. 

So how has the general classification battle gone? Well, Team Jumbo-Visma won the team time trial, which was a bit of an upset for Ineos, but the gap was only 20 seconds and Jumbo-Visma would need more than that to set up Kruijswijk for the GC. The more important gaps came in Stage 10, which was supposed to be a boring sprinters’ stage. About 30 km (18 miles) from the finish, there was a big split in the peloton, and several GC favorites got caught out: Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First), Nibali, Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana Pro Team). Those guys lost 1:40 or more and are fully chapped.

In other news, Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) won Stage 3, took the yellow jersey, lost it to Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) after three days, took it back after a valiant ride on Stage 8, and has kept it ever since. He even extended his lead by winning yesterday’s individual time trial, the only one in this year’s Tour. That certainly surprised a lot of people, myself included.

The breakaway group is shrinking. Sagan, for example, has been shelled. On the front of the smaller group now is Lennard Kamna (Sunweb), I think.

 The peloton is hemorrhaging riders. We’re more than halfway through the Tour, after all. But wow, this is weird: French hopeful Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), a great climber, is dropped! Poor guy. He’s had a terrible Tour.

And now Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is dropped!

But the announcers are saying they made a mistake, that it’s his brother and teammate Adam Yates being dropped. I can understand the confusion—these guys are identical twins. Turns out it’s both being dropped, or more likely Simon dropping back to help Adam.  

What a weird Tour … Bardet and Yates, two GC favorites, clearly sucking—and they’re not even on the final climb yet.

Getting back to the GC summary, you’ve got Thomas just 1:26 behind Alaphilippe, who admitted after his TT that “We [Deceuninck-Quickstep] don’t have the team to win the Tour de France. We don’t have a lot of climbers.” He’s not much of a climber himself; last year he finished 33rd on GC, almost an hour and a half down on Thomas. Currently third on GC, 2:12 down, is Kruijswijk, who could be considered a favorite if his name wasn’t so damn hard to spell. No rider with a name like that has ever won the Tour. The closest was Roger Walkowiak in 1956, but that’s not nearly so hard. Kruijswijk did take fifth place last year which ain’t bad. He should change his last name to Cruise next year, and I’ll bet he makes the podium. Sitting 4th on GC, at 2:44, is Enric Mas (Deceuninck-Quickstep) whom, I confess, I’d never heard of, but who took second in last year’s Vuelta a España and finished 9th in the TT yesterday. Rounding out the top five is Bernal, 2:52 behind Alaphilippe and 1:26 behind Thomas.

Among the GC favorites who missed that split in Stage 10, Pinot did a great ride yesterday to finish 7th but is down in 7th on GC at 3:22; Uran finished 4th in the TT but sits 3:54 down in 8th place on GC; Porte was 5th yesterday but sits way down in 15th at 4:44; Fuglsang is down in 13th; and Nibali has clearly given up on the GC because he chilled out in the TT to take  57th and is almost half an hour behind.

So now the lead group is down to three riders. Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) leads, with Nibali right on his wheel. Rounding out the trio is Elie Gesbert (Arkea-Samsic). 

I have never heard of Gesbert. Maybe it doesn’t matter … he’s getting dropped anyway.

Wow, Wellens hits the gas and dusts Nibali to get the KOM points!

Movistar is doing all the work in the peloton. That’s their top doper, Allejandro Valverde, in the world championship jersey. They’re setting up Nairo Quintana, who sits eighth on GC, just over two minutes down.

The peloton is over the summit. Alaphilippe is just ahead of them, bombing the descent. If I were he, I’d take as much time on the descent as possible, to have a bit of a gap before the Tourmalet. Sure, the peloton won’t want to let him go, but descending is a tricky discipline where a lone rider can take some time whether his rivals like it or not.

Speaking of great descenders, Nibali is working over his breakaway pals!

The announcer is calling Nibali “the professor of descending.” Huh? This isn’t something you can lecture about, is it? Did I miss this important elective in college?

Speaking of education, a new thing I’m doing for my blow-by-blow reports is offering readers the opportunity to ask questions about the race, or even generally about the sport. If you’re not taking advantage of this, click here and ask away! (Yeah, it’s a little late for today’s stage, but for next time…)

One online correspondent has asked, “Why do riders have numbers and transponders?” The answer is, even though the transponder gives officials everything they need to know about who crossed the finish line when, these devices can fail, so bib numbers make a good backup. Also, riders sometimes need a bike change during a stage, and obviously the backup bike wouldn’t have a transponder. My question is, why are these things so large? In high school mountain bike racing, the transponders are paper-thin and glued to the paper bike number. In the Tour, the transponders are the size of a granola bar. I’ll have to research this.

The breakaway is on the flat section before the base of the Tourmalet.

The announcers just quoted Bernal as saying, of his time trial, “It was a bad day to have a bad day.” Is there a good day to have a bad day? Yeah, I guess, like a flat day when you can manage to hang on in the back of the pack. Fair point. For really silly rider quotes, I must contribute this one, uttered by George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) after his TT: “I went as easy as I possibly could today so in the end it was really easy, but I'm sure if you went hard it would have been hard.” How true that is. Poor guy … clearly he was still oxygen-starved after his race and they should have left this quote on the cutting-room floor. (Do newsrooms have cutting-room floors, or just movie studios? I’ll put that on my research follow-up list.)

Movistar still drives the pace on the front. You can see that Sagan has wisely dropped back to the peloton.

The break is working well together but their gap is only 1:15 with 24 miles to go so they’re likely doomed.

It looks like Yates will get back on, but climbing poorly on the Solour doesn’t bode well.

Damn, Nibali is dusting his breakaway pals again! You can barely see him off in the distance.

Another reader question: “Why do they never ride on the drops anymore?” Great question … I’ve wondered this myself. I think it’s because their stems are too low. Blame their mechanics, or whoever sets them up on their bikes. Sure, a low stem looks cool, but so does riding on the fricking drops.

The announcers, Matthew Keenan and Robbie McEwen (the ones I get when I choose ad-free coverage) are bagging on Bardet. They’re stopping just shy of calling him a pussy. I’m not sure how I like these guys, but I’m sure I hate ads, on principle (after all, I’m paying for this coverage) so these commentators will have to do for now.

Wow, Sagan is drilling it on the front. I wonder why? He does have a teammate in sixth, Emanuel Buchmann. But I’ve never heard of Buchmann, he’s three minutes down, and other teams have bigger GC riders. Maybe Sagan wants a few points, but surely those will mostly be gone already, like the  better food at a potluck?

A number of dropped breakaway riders have gotten together and are making up some time on the leading trio. This is kind of what the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs, aka Baby Bells) did following the breakup of AT&T, with great success as we’re now back to just two major telephone companies. But I digress.

Okay, Sagan takes a few points. Man, that guy is insatiable.

The footage turns to beautiful scenery and the announcer is droning on about some famous French abbey. He’s supposed to sound conversational, but it’s obvious he’s reading off a script. This guy really needs to practice this.

The leaders pass through the feed zone. I see that Nibali’s trio has been caught by the RBOC conglomerate.

Another reader question: “Did Cavendish really have mono or is he just a lardass?” Hey now, readers … be nice! I think the answer is neither: Cav is just old (34). It’s hard to win sprints when you’re old. Even Sagan has lost a lot of his punch and he’s only 29! If that seems young to you, you don’t have a teenager. They really make you feel old, by saying things like, “You’re so damn old … why even bother living?” (I’m paraphrasing.) At 50, I’m not sure I’m even capable of accelerating anymore.

It looks like some guy has dropped the breakaway. It’s Roman Sicard (Total Direct Energie).

I don’t know how big his gap is, but it can’t matter. I’ve never heard of him and the Tourmalet is giant.

And just like that, Nibali and his RBOC group are getting caught. So it looks like that 1:09 gap is to Sicard and he’s the only breakaway left.

Sicard looks good but who are we kidding?

Dang, Sicard has over a minute and a half! The announcers are saying he has a sweet tailwind. (They said “roaring tailwind” which is absurd. Only headwinds roar. It’s so quiet when you have a tailwind, it’s tempting to think you’re just really strong.)

The valley is long and nothing’s happening so it’s time for another reader question: “What is your theory about Rohan Dennis [Bahrain-Merida] and his abandonment?” This refers to the reigning world time trial champion who quit the Tour mid-stage the day before the time trial. His team isn’t saying why he quit but there are mumblings about his equipment (I mean his bike, get your mind out of the gutter!) and some disagreement with his team. I really have no idea, other than a) perhaps he knew he’d get shelled in the TT for some humdrum reason like poor form, and his ego couldn’t handle that, or b) he had some doping-related problem (e.g., didn’t want to get tested after the TT). I know that’s incredibly cynical of me, and I have no specific reason to suspect Dennis of doping other than his being a cyclist. But I’m kind of grasping at straws here in the absence of any explanation from Dennis or his team.

Interesting: Gesbert, one of the RBOC riders, wasn’t caught, and he’s chasing down Sicard. And he’s got him! Here he makes sure nobody has bridged up with him.

And just like that , he goes straight past Sicard and makes a huge gap instantly!

Damn, Adam Yates is already dropped again and they only just started the Tourmalet!

Movistar is still driving the tempo in the peloton. Andrey Amador is officially a total badass.

Wow, Sicard has detonated. I just saw the Yates group pass him.

The front group is really shrinking. Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) gets shelled.

Gesbert is still off the front but with only 35 seconds on the peloton, a third of the way up this climb, he’s probably doomed.

Alaphilippe is hanging tough in the peloton, with Richie Porte on his wheel.

Thomas looks quite comfortable in the group. How funny: right after I typed that the announcers commented on how bad he looks, how much he’s suffering compared to last year. I guess we’ll find out who’s right.

With 11 km to go, Elie Gesbert has only 23 seconds. Not long from now that gap will suddenly drop to nothing. What kind of a name is Elie for a dude? I guess it’s no worse than Dana, so never mind.

Amador detonates and pulls off. Nice work, dude!

Oh my god! Quintana is getting dropped! (He’s the blurry guy, #61; behind him is Fabio Aru of UAE Team Emirates, once considered a GC hopeful but clearly not this year.) How awful for Quintana, after the heroic job his teammates have done to set him up.

Now Soler drops back for Quintana.

Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic) attacks!

And he drops his chain! But he’s got it back on! These modern bikes! WTF!?

Barguil  sits 16th on GC, 3:26 down (over two minutes behind Thomas). Ineos won’t let him get far. With 8 km to go he’s got about 15 seconds.

Ineos still has four guys in this small lead group, but they haven’t dominated like in years past. Jumbo-Visma has three guys, so Kruijswijk is in good position. I really need to create a macro to help me type that name.

Alaphilippe doesn’t look so good, hanging on the back.

Pinot has a teammate, I think it’s David Gaudu, putting the screws to this lead group.

Barguil still looks good, his gap up to 18 seconds despite the fireworks behind him.

Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) is falling off the back and chases hard.

Poor Quintana has lost almost a minute.

Barguil still looks okay but it’s a long 6km, and he’s down to 12 seconds ahead.

Man, Gaudu is a total badass!

And now Porte detonates!

I can’t wait for Pinot’s attack … unless he’s suffering worse than Gaudu. You never know.

Walt Poels, who’s worked all day for Ineos, is dropped. Thomas is near the back of this lead group. That’s pretty odd.

Gaudu is totally drilling it, for as long as he can last. He is clearly suffering.

It’s down to 14 riders in this group. And now Thomas makes his way toward the front. Bernal is right behind him.

Gaudu has taken such a hard pull, he gapped the rest of the group. At some point Barguil was caught, so Gaudu leads the race, but barely. And now he detonates and goes backwards. It’s all up to Pinot now...

Quintana is almost two minutes down. His GC bid is over, needless to say. For Movistar it’s all about Mikel Landa for the rest of this stage, but he started the day in 18th, six minutes down.

Now Laurens de Plus (Jumbo-Visma) sets the pace for Kruijswijk. De Plus pulls off and George Bennett takes over. Kruijswijk looks really good.

Uran is dropped!

Whoah! Thomas is falling off the back too!

Only Bernal is left for Ineos!

Pinot drills it on the front!

And now, a bit behind the leaders, Uran passes Thomas! And with just a few hundred meters to go, Pinot finally makes his move!

It’s a super-steep grade and Pinot instantly creates a huge gap! I think he’s gonna get the win!

Pinot has got it!

What a great day for him! Following his very good (for him) time trial, and getting some bonus seconds and the stage, he’s gotta be so fired up! And Alaphilippe, finishing second, actually extended his lead on Thomas in the GC … unbelievable. As a hater of Team Ineos, I’m really stoked.

Here comes Uran … he has fought bravely to limit his losses.

And now Thomas rolls in, obviously in agony, losing over 30 seconds to Alaphilippe in the GC.

I must have missed Bernal and a couple of others while the TV coverage endlessly showed supor-slo-mo replays of Pinot’s victory. Now, a bit later, Gaudu finishes … what a great job he did for Pinot today. Balls like King Kong.

Here’s your top ten. This won’t massively shake up the GC except for certain riders like Porte, Bardet, Yates, and Quintana who lost big. Of course, tomorrow will show who is able to recover from this monstrous effort.

Pinot is being interviewed. It’s all in French and nobody’s translating, but fortunately I studied this language in college. He’s saying, “I went as hard as I possibly could today so in the end it was really hard, but I’m sure if you went easy it would have been easy.” I’m not sure I have that exactly right, but it was something to this effect.

Here is the new GC:

So, Bernal is within a minute of Thomas now, and more importantly he’s riding better. With no more time trials, Bernal is one great ride away from definitively taking over the team leadership … but Thomas could still rally. More importantly, without Ineos’s typical dominance, they don’t have a stranglehold on this Tour … it’s still pretty wide open going into tomorrow.

Man, Pinot just crushed it today! As awesome as he was, I have to wonder what this will cost him … with over two minutes to make up on Thomas, he’s got his work cut out for him. As for Alaphilippe, I still have a hard time believing he can continue to defend yellow, with so many tough stages still to come. His best-ever stage race placing was 5th in Paris-Nice, and 33rd place in last year’s Tour is his best Grand Tour result to date.

Here’s Pinot’s podium presentation.

What is it with the baseball caps? Whatever happened to cycling caps? How did this sartorial dumbing-down come to pass? Baseball caps are so gauche, so inelegant, so … American. Perhaps that’s the only stamp the US is putting on this race. Tejay Van Gardaren (EF Education First) having crashed out, our highest GC rider now is Joey Rosskopf (CCC Team) in 85th place, almost 90 minutes down.

Pinot gets to meet President Macron! How cool would that be, to want to meet your country’s president?

And now here’s Alaphilippe getting his yellow:

From a purely aesthetic perspective, he doesn’t have the best smile, but I actually find it charming. It reminds me of someone I know.

Wow, Bardet is only just finishing, back in the autobus group. Poor dude.

Here’s Bernal getting the white jersey of best young rider. Since when do they make podium girls wear bridesmaid dresses? What an unfortunate color. I hope these ladies are paid well.

I’ve been glued to this screen for almost two hours and I have to pee like a racehorse. How do the professional commentators handle this? Do they have little portable plastic urinals like hospital patients get? Are they fitted with catheters? Or do they have wireless headsets so they can actually continue commentating while they use the restroom? Unsung heroes of the sport, I say!

Sagan crosses the line. I missed grabbing a shot of his signature wheelie. I wonder if he wears out his bikes’ headsets prematurely, when he’s really tired and the front wheel slams down? I hope Sagan tips his mechanic well.

They are interviewing Alaphilippe now. “I was there to fight at the end and … I was happy to finish at the front. I was really suffering like everybody…. The French people who follow cycling can be really happy,” he says. And the French people who don’t follow cycling? “They can pretty much blow me,” Alaphilippe says. Yes, of course I made that up.

Tune in to albertnet again in a week, as I blog the final mountain stage, finishing atop the Hors Categorie Val Thorens. I’m so pumped … for the first time since 2011, we have Tour de France that is actually exciting!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

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