Friday, July 26, 2019

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2019 Tour de France Stage 19


When it comes to bike race reporting, I don’t pull punches. In fact, I take wild swings like a drunk. That’s both the benefit of, and cause of, being a mere blogger. If you crave irresponsible, opinionated reporting that careens between snide and goofy—that is, the very reporting this sport deserves—then read on. Today I provide blow-by-blow coverage of the crucial penultimate climbing stage of the 2019 Tour de France. The route covers 126 kilometers (79 miles) over five categorized climbs, including the Hors Categorie Col de l’Iseran, and finishes just after the summit of the Category 1 Montée de Tignes. Here are the overall profile and the detailed profile of the Col de L’Iseran.

Tour de France Stage 19 – St. Jean de Maurienne to Tignes

 As I join the action, the riders have 58 miles to go and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) is, bizarrely enough, getting his leg taped up while he rides. He’s really grimacing, clearly in all kinds of pain. His pedaling is all gimpy.

Now they’re taking the bandage off. It’s so weird and sad.

He’s back on the bike but going backwards. Sprinters are passing him on the climb. Looks like his race is done.

The leaders are a little less than two miles from the summit of the Category 2 Montée d’Aussois. Wow, I got here really early. Jet lag.

 Groupapa-FDJ isn’t sending anybody back to help Pinot. I guess his team knows something we don’t, something that makes his race irrevocable. Maybe he can finish within the time cut, if it’s a temporary problem, and still ride tomorrow but that seems like the best case scenario.

Up the road, there’s a large breakaway, a couple dozen riders, about 45 seconds ahead of the peloton. The break includes Rigoberto Uran (EF-Education First) and Alejandro Valverde (Team Movistar), so I’m not sure how much leash they’ll get. And—my feed craps out. This is not cool. I’m actually (finally) paying for this so it should be rock solid.

While I wait for my feed to come back, and in case you’re a little behind on what’s been going on over the last 2½ weeks, here’s a quick recap. Since I last reported on Stage 14, the general classification hasn’t changed much, but the riders have worn themselves out even more. Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) is still in the lead, but by only a minute and a half over Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) who now leads his teammate, last year’s Tour winner Geraint Thomas, by just five seconds.  In fourth is Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), 1:47 behind Alaphilippe. Pinot sits fifth, a mere 3 seconds behind Kruijswijk (though that’s irrelevant now).

Ah, as my feed returns the footage is of the Groupama-FDJ car, meaning Pinot has withdrawn. What a shame, he was having such an awesome Tour.

Stage 15, the last in the Pyrenees, was absolutely brutal, with Pinot attacking again and dropping the rest of the GC contenders. Alaphilippe showed his first signs of faltering, though he fought hard and lost only 1:16 to Pinot, 58 seconds to Bernal, and 27 seconds to Thomas. He was admirably wappered at the finish.

The break is gradually increasing its lead. Uran finishes a long pull and peels off.

Stages 16 and 17 were flat and pretty boring until the sprint finishes that only matter to the sprinters. Yesterday’s stage, the first in the Alps, featured four categorized climbs including the HC Col du Galibier, though up the “easy” side from the Col du Lautaret. It was a thrilling stage, with Alaphilippe dropped on the Galabier but managing, through fearless and flawless descending, to latch back on to the main GC group. Bernal was the big winner on the day, gaining 32 seconds on the other GC contenders. That might not seem like much, but only 20 seconds separate 2nd place from 5th now. Any of these top five (well, top four now) could reasonably end up winning this Tour.

The other big winner yesterday was, of course, the stage winner, Nairo Quintana (Team Movistar). He’s had a rough Tour but moved up to 7th place with this ride. He also showed real class, dedicating his win to his team, who are a) really strong and leading the team GC, and b) apparently a bunch of dicks. I’m referring to Stage 14 when they worked really hard to set him up, and he failed to deliver, and they totally bagged on him. Alejandro “the evergreen doper” Valverde was particularly caustic and I hope he totally cracks today.

I took a little break during the (probably) boring downhill and now the riders have about 40 miles to go and are on the Col du Madeleine. My little cat, Freya, is jealous of my attention to the laptop and is literally sniffing around. She’s sniffing my mouse. Does she know it’s called that? I won’t take a photo. I’m resisting the impulse. The Internet is replete with cute cat photos.

The announcers are saying Pinot had a muscle tear in his thigh and was having trouble walking yesterday evening. Such a shame … I really respect that guy.

I’m not sure why the Col du Madeleine is so famous if it’s only a Cat 3. Perhaps it’s the way they’re approaching it. Anyway, the gap of the leaders is now up to 1:23, but that’s still not a ton with the really big climb yet to come.

In other Tour news, Luke Rowe (Team Ineos) and Tony Martin (Jumbo-Visma) got into an altercation the other day and have both been disqualified. It seems Martin whaled on Rowe with a folding chair and then threw him out of the ring. Rowe responded by grabbing Martin by the scruff of the neck and bashing his forehead repeatedly into the turnbuckles. (Full disclosure: I’ve embellished a bit here. Their altercation was the cycling equivalent of this and both riders kept the rubber side down.)

Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), who had a great ride yesterday to take over the polka-dot jersey of best climber, is paying dearly today and may well lose the jersey. Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) is leading the chase for Alaphilippe. He looks pretty tired. I mean, duh.

My cat has abandoned. She just doesn’t understand this sport.

If you saw footage or photos from yesterday’s stage you surely noticed the big bloodstain down the front of Quintana’s jersey. The announcers are saying that it wasn’t actually blood, that (as Quintana explained) he missed while eating a gel. That’s total BS. It was blood. Nobody misses that badly with a gel. It’s not like you squirt them into your mouth from two feet out. You zip out the gel, so the “nozzle” of the gel, where the bleb is (that little membrane left over when you tear the head off), is inside your mouth. I think he had a nosebleed and doesn’t want to admit it, as this might give comfort to the enemy. If you think this is a conspiracy theory, I will ask you: who are my conspirators?

Here is Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Merida), just behind former Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, who led him out to take maximum KOM points at the summit of the Madeleine.  How cool is that, having a champion like that helping you out?

So here’s a fun fact: today’s stage has a net elevation gain of over 5,000 feet. This might not seem like a big deal, but here’s why it matters: despite all the climbs, there’s less descending, so a great descender who gets distanced on a climb won’t have as much opportunity to catch back on (like Alaphilippe did yesterday to rescue his yellow jersey).

They’re on the short flat section before the base of the Col de l’Iseran.

You might have wondered, if you read my last report, who the hell Gomez is. I didn’t discover my error until yesterday. I meant Bernal. It was so early in the morning when I started, and I was so groggy, I used the wrong surname. In my defense, Bernal has a lot of them. His full name is Egan Arley Bernal Gomez. I wonder if he has a nickname on top of it, making him, say, Egan Arley “Bernie” Bernal Gomez. If he were a rapper, I guess his name would be something like MC BurnGo.

So, Team Movistar is comfortably in the lead in the overall team competition. There’s probably no way they won’t clinch that, which is a shame because the teams in 2nd and 3rd are both American. That’s kind of the only way the U.S. has distinguished itself in this race. our top rider, Ben King (Dimension Data) is sitting in 69th overall, close to two hours behind.

The yellow jersey group is dwindling as Team Ineos drives the pace on the front to keep that gap down to a manageable size. (Uran sits in 9th overall, about 4 minutes behind Bernal in the GC.)

Daaamn, look at that road! Look at that gnarly climb! In cycling, the better advice than “don’t look down” would be “don’t look up.”

I would say Uran is making this race harder for pretty much all the contenders. Without him in this break, the GC group might be more complacent. Instead, Ineos is pushing hard and the others have to match it. That will soften up Alaphilippe, needless to say, before that last brutal climb.

So, if this break were to stay off, it’s hard to say what Bahrain-Merida’s goal would be: maximum points for Caruso, for the KOM competition, or a stage win for Nibali? Actually, if they are really crafty they could get both: the summit of the Montée de Tignes is 2 kilometers from the finish line. But this is all just daydreaming … with like 27 miles to go, their gap is dropping.

Dylan van Baarle, an Ineos domestique, detonates and falls off the pace. So does David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Pinot’s super-domestique. I guess Gaudu has less incentive to stay up, since his continual sacrifices for Pinot have put him pretty far behind on GC. Who knows, if he takes it easy he could have a big day tomorrow and hunt for a stage win—though I’m kind of dreaming. The guy is so young, he’s gotta be completely fried at this point.

Thomas takes a huge pull!

And now Alaphilippe is really struggling!

And now Bernal goes!

The break dissolves! It’s a free-for-all! Alaphilippe isn’t panicking, but he’s losing serious ground.

Alaphilippe has lost about 20 seconds to Thomas. Kruijswijk and his teammate Laurens de Plus are still with Thomas. Not sure what the gap is up to Bernal but he’s increasing it. I think he’s caught what’s left of the breakaway.

Alaphilippe is just dying!

Bernal has caught Nibali, Uran, Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic), Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and maybe one or two others tucked in there.

And now Nibali is dropped. The pace is relentless. Alaphilippe is now a minute behind Thomas and about to lose the virtual GC to Bernal. And now only Yates can hang with Bernal.

And Yates is struggling to hold Bernal’s wheel!

They’re less than a kilometer from the summit. Kruijswijk and Bennett are biding their time, perhaps unwisely as that final climb isn’t that long and Bernal is gaining a lot of time. This tiny group is about to catch Uran, and Nibali sits on them.

Bernal is over the summit. Now we’ll see if he can hold his lead on this descent and build an even bigger gap on the final climb. He’s got 52 seconds on the Thomas group.

Alaphilippe is not yet over the summit, and has lost about a minute each to Bernal and Thomas. Look at that amazing vista! I’m sure he’s not able to enjoy the view.

Yates is chasing down Bernal! He wants a third stage win!

And now the announcers are saying there’s a storm brewing, and there’s ice on the road ahead! They’re showing it! There are snowplows on the course! The organizers are talking about neutralizing the race!

OMG! They’ve announced that they’re stopping the race! They’ll take each rider’s time at the summit of the Col de L’Iseran! The announcers are getting this from the race radio! What a bizarre turn of events! So Bernal will be the stage winner, and takes over the GC! But nobody has gotten word to Bernal or the others! They’re still barreling down the descent toward the ice! A motorbike is gesturing to Bernal and Yates but they ignore him!

The Race Director of the Tour, Christian Prudhomme, is talking directly to Yates! It’s crazy!

And now the word is getting out, and the riders are grasping that this is really happening, and they’re starting to chill out.

Bernal has got to be pretty stoked, even if he didn’t get to celebrate his stage win. It’s an unmitigated shame for Yates, though, who has been deprived of the opportunity to win the stage.

So a number of very disappointed riders today, but I’m sure many more are just as relieved to have their suffering end sooner. I’m reminded of the time my brother, my nephew, and I rode up Mount Baker in Washington state, and were turned around by snow before we could make the summit. My brother asked his son if he was disappointed, to which the lad replied, “I’m stoked!

Alaphilippe, of course, is not stoked. He looks frankly a bit put off.

It’s a workday, so I’m not going to hang around for the podiums and interviews and so forth. I hope that Alaphilippe is philosophical about this and doesn’t whine like a little bitch about losing the opportunity to chase back on on the descent, because let’s face it, he was cooked. The non-drama-queen and honest statement from him would acknowledge this. And in fact, he might take some solace in the albeit remote prospect that he’ll recover well for tomorrow and actually benefit from this bizarre shortening of the race.

The announcers are saying a number of riders, including Yates, are P-I-S-T pissed. (That’s my wording, not theirs.) But here’s some footage of a snowplow clearing the road ahead, and anybody who looks at this ought to conclude that the right decision was made.

I’ll post the stage and GC results here a bit later. They’re gonna take a while, because officials will have to decide whether to award the time bonuses on the stage, which could be pivotal in determining the overall. And now, I gotta go! Thanks for tuning in.


As it turns out, the race officials ultimately decided not to award any stage placings, rather than going with the order riders finished the last climb. I am a bit disappointed, because those who lead over the climbs should be rewarded, but I appreciate their rationale. (That being that it’s more fiscally efficient, as you don’t have to dole out the prize money!)

Here is the GC after the stage, heading into the last day in the Alps and thus the last day of real competition. I would be really surprised if anybody bested Bernal tomorrow ... but then, I was really surprised by today’s stage!

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