Saturday, September 14, 2019

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2019 Vuelta a España Stage 20


Introduction

Do cycling fans get together in sports bars at 6:30 a.m. to hoot and holler and throw popcorn at the screen during a live broadcast? Alas, no. I try to make my biased blow-by-blow reports the next best thing. So read on to find out the (hopefully) thrilling outcome of the final mountain stage of this year’s Vuelta a España, which will almost certainly determine the final general classification result.


Vuelta a España Stage 20 – Arenas de San Pedro to Plataforma de Gredos

As I join the action, the racers have about 77 kilometers left to race, and it’s fricking raining again! Check out these blurry conditions.


Look closely at that photo. There are little sheep running around. I hope you see them too and that I’m not just hallucinating. (I’ve been fighting a virus and should probably be asleep right now instead of trying to make sense of a bike race, especially this one.)

So, the riders have finished most of the climbs today, except the last couple—first a Category 1 that looks like the hardest of the day, and then a little Cat 3 at the end. The drunk Aussie announcer says, “It looks like a cruise-y last hour.” I hope he’s wrong. (I should point out that he’s probably not actually drunk. I’m just talking smack because I miss Sean Kelly and that other Eurosport announcer.)

Looks like they’re on the last of the little climbs. The Astana Pro Team, predictably, goes to the front. They’ve got two big jobs today: try to get their leader, Miguel Angel “Superman” Lopez, back on the podium, and defend his white jersey of best young rider.


There’s a breakaway with 3:35 (a gap that has dropped from over four minutes when I got here). I’ll try to figure out who’s in there. Actually, you know what? This is nonsense. If they’re still holding a good lead with 50km to go, then I’ll name them.

The peloton (fairly reduced, maybe a couple dozen guys) is starting their wet descent. I’m so glad I’m not in there. Descending in the rain is a frigid experience, plus there’s the risk of crashing which must be especially stressful for guys like Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) who have everything to lose.


So, this has continued to be an exciting Vuelta. If you haven’t been following it, go check out my Stage 9 and Stage 13 reports. Since Stage 13, the most interesting development was a GC shakeup on a flat stage. A large breakaway was given over five minutes of leash, despite Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) being in it. He had suffered a lot during this Vuelta and lost so much time in this or that mountain stage, the fact of his having been GC leader (for a day) seemed a distant memory. But he was still in the top ten, and it was foolish of Jumbo-Visma and Astana not to bring back the breakaway. (We won’t talk about Tadej Pogacar’s UAE Team Emirates team, most of whom had been dropped. As for Pogacar himself chasing: as the announcer said, “He can’t help out … he just graduated from high school!”)

The peloton is splitting on the flat run-in to the big climb!


Why do riders let these gaps open up? That’s an easy one: it’s because this is the 20th stage of this race and they’re all fried. As I coached my teenage daughter (a mountain bike racer), “Pain makes you stupid.” (She immediately fired back, “You must have suffered a lot in your life.”)

So anyway, Quintana made back a ton of time in what the announcers said was the fastest stage over 200 km ever in a Grand Tour. This put Quintana all the way back up in second overall on GC, which I was thrilled about. I like Quintana because he’s such an underdog, even on his own team given the selfish riding of Movistar’s creaky, rusting Alejandro Valverde, who never seems to slow down even though he’s older than Iggy Pop.

Okay, the breakaway still has 2:37 with 50 km to go. They’re probably doomed but I’ll give you their names anyway, kind of as a memorial-in-advance. It’s Damien Howson (Mitchelton-Scott), Ruben Guerreiro (Katusha Alpecin), Sergio Samitier (Euskadi-Murias), Nicolas Edet (Cofidis), and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Ineos). Who names their kid “Tao,” by the way? Are they hoping this will give him some kind of zeitgeist-y cred?

By way of bio, Geoghagen Hart has been in tons of breakaways this Vuelta but has nothing to show for it (which is fine with me because Team Ineos is like the Xfinity of bike racing … you can change the name but it’s still Team Sky). Edet wore the GC leader’s red jersey for a day or two, if memory serves. Samitier was on a solo breakaway for a good while on Stage 15 and though he was caught, he did win the Combativity Award that day. The other guys? Nobodies. (Other than being bona-fide pro cyclists good enough to make the Vuelta team, which puts them ahead of all other athletes in every other sport, and way ahead of your humble blogger.)

The rain has let up a bit and riders are ditching their jackets. Those jackets will make good souvenirs for some lucky fans, though on these remote roads, who knows … maybe the wind will catch them, blow them out into some field, and some bird will somehow choke on one. Or they’ll end up in the ocean, disintegrating into tiny bits of plastic that will destroy some coral reef. (Man, these run-ups to the climbs are boring.)

Astana sets the tempo as they start this climb.


Up in the break, Geoghagen Hart attacks! Only Guerreiro can respond.


Wow, these two are hauling ass and quickly open a massive gap on the rest of the break.

So, to finish up my recap, after that wacky flat stage, Stage 18 had more climbing, and Astana did some great work for Lopez, who made up serious time on Pogacar and Quintana, moving up to fourth on GC and taking the white jersey for Best Young Rider back off of Pogacar. Lopez is now 46 seconds off of the podium and will be looking to take that much time out of Quintana today.

The pace is really hard in the peloton. Roglic has just one teammate left. With 9 km to go on this climb, the breakaway has just 1:40 over the peloton. Why did I bother learning their names? They’ve got to be doomed. But then, a number of solo breakaways have surprisingly held during this Vuelta.

Lopez attacks!


Only a few riders can stay with him: Roglic, Pogacar, Valverde, and Quintana. But it doesn’t stick for long and the rest of the group makes it back on. It’s a pretty select group, though … 12 or 13 riders. And now a couple more struggle back up and make contact.

The group is still hammering with Astana on the front.


See that Movistar guy on the right, with the Band-Aid on his nose? That’s Marc Soler. He had this giant whitehead on his nose last night and his soigneur warned him to leave it alone, but he just wouldn’t listen. He had to try to pop it and it just bled and bled. Disgusting. I’m really surprised he saw fit to share all that on Twitter.

Of the original breakaway, only the front two are left.

The GC group continues to drill it with Astana on the front. That’s Pogacar in second … I cannot fathom why he’s in the green points leader jersey. Roglic leads that competition, but of course he can’t wear the jersey, being in red, so it ought to go to Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) who’s in second. Pogacar is only in 4th on points. Weird. Maybe he just asked nicely, and he was so sweet about it they decided to let him wear it.


Now Lopez goes again!


That attack doesn’t do anything. These are wussy little test-the-waters attacks. (I say “wussy” but of course I’m not three weeks into a Grand Tour.)

And now Pogacar attacks!


Nobody responds! He opens up a huge gap! And Valverde goes after him!


But Valverde only hammers for a little while, then wimps out, gesticulating dramatically as if to say … what? Is he pissed at his team director for commanding him to chase, when he’s pushing 40 years old? Or is he pissed at his own body? Or is he just pissed in general, because he’s jacked up on so much testosterone?

And now Pogacar has caught the leaders!


Pogacar drops them both and is on his own, surely looking to make a massive solo breakaway that will get him back onto the podium. Pretty ballsy, with 37 km to go. Now Movistar sends all their guys to the front to try to reel him back in and defend Quintana’s 3rd place on GC.


With a couple kilometers left on this climb, Pogacar looks cool as a cucumber.


Why is the cucumber the poster child for coolness? Why not, say, the other side of the pillow? Why not The Fonz? I will admit, the cucumber slices they put on your eyes during a mud bath are deliciously cool. But I digress.

Movistar has a good number of dudes in this GC group, and they don’t look too panicked. This guy on the front is gazing out at the scenery, apparently.


Pogacar continues to fly up this climb, his gap growing. In fact, he’s now back on the podium on the virtual GC (i.e., if the stage ended right now).

Pogacar has 1:32 as he crests the summit. “Now he’ll get a jelly in him,” the announcer says. I guess he’s talking about a gel. Those wacky Aussies. “Now he’ll be getting’ his vegemite,” the announcer doesn’t go on to say.

As the GC group nears the summit they catch Geoghagen Hart and Guerreiro. So much for the breakaway. The question now is, can a lone rider hold off this elite group with 32 km still to race? There are actually three more little climbs left: two unnamed, uncategorized lumps, and then the final Cat 3. It’s pretty windy out there (they even took down the KOM banner) so the question is, which direction is the wind coming from? If it’s a tailwind, then Pogacar is very smart. But then, he’s only 20 years old, so how smart could he be?

In any case, Pogacar is really motoring on this descent.


I don’t know why they show the relative speeds of these groups. Sure, Pogacar is going 6 kph faster than the GC group, but he’s on a different part of the course, which is surely a steeper pitch. This comparison means nothing. It’s comparing apples to orangutans.

The announcers seem mystified by Pogacar’s tactics. “At the start line he was talking about patience and following wheels,” they say. “And now this bold early move!” Look, guys, if he’s planning a long attack, would he announce it to the press? I think not. I mean, duh.

Pogacar continues to fly along, at almost 42 mph.


Movistar still leads the chase, with four guys on the front of the GC group. They better start closing this up while it’s fast, because those climbs won’t suit their effort very well, the way Pogacar is riding. They’ve only taken three seconds on this descent so far.


So, the GC guys can pretend that the big job now is just to reel in Pogacar, but there’s more to be done. If Movistar wants to have a go at the GC win, today is their last chance to attack Roglic. And even if that seems impossible, Lopez has a very real chance of getting back on the podium if he can take enough time out of Quintana (who has, after all, lost large swatches of time in the mountains throughout this Vuelta). So these guys not only need to close the gap to Pogacar, they ought to be attacking the crap out of each other. Instead, it’s just status quo, with Lopez and his Astana team leaving it to Movistar to do all the chasing.


The announcers won’t shut up about how different Pogacar’s tactics are from how he was talking. Look, guys, he was dissembling. It’s called “strategery.”

Pogacar still looks cool as a pudding pop. (He’s surely too young to have heard of pudding pops, which have now gone extinct. And who knows what delicious frozen desserts they even have in Pogacar’s homeland of Slovenia.  As you can see here, they don’t seem to freeze their desserts at all. Why, that’s downright un-American!)


You can’t tell from this still photo, but Pogacar is doing that crazy thing where you pedal while tucking.


It’s one thing for, say, Valverde to do that, but Pogacar (presumably) hasn’t sired any children yet. His director is on the radio saying, “Don’t do that if the road surface gets rough. We can’t have your racking your nuts. Our insurance doesn’t cover this kind of thing.”

It’s kind of unbelievable that Pogacar’s lead isn’t just holding, but slightly increasing. I wonder if Astana is trying to punish Movistar over their (Movistar’s) tactics yesterday. There was a big crash in the GC group, including Roglic and Lopez, and Movistar kept drilling it on the front instead of following the unwritten rule of waiting up. Lopez lambasted them, and they got a lot of bad press over it, and they even issued an apology afterward. But for Astana to let their white jersey slip away on some matter of principle seems pretty stupid to me. If that’s even what’s going on. Which I doubt. They’re probably just fried.

Pogacar accepts a beverage from a fan. Man, that’s risky. What if it’s spiked with an illegal substance? Stranger things have happened. Or what if it’s got a bunch of backwash in it? Or what if it’s actually bong water? Yuck.

I’m tempted to ask out loud, “Alexa, why is Pogacar in the green points jersey?” But Alexa (the real one, my daughter) just appeared at my elbow and asked, “Why is Pogacar in green?” So she doesn’t know either.

Even if the GC guys finally start attacking each other on these last climbs and manage to haul back Pogacar, I applaud his gutsy move. Cycling needs more of that. If Team Ineos were up to their normal tricks, we wouldn’t see anything exciting happen in this Veltua. Ineos would be lined out on the front, setting too high a tempo for anybody to touch. It would be boring as balls. I wonder what’s going on with Ineos lately? Maybe their freezer broke down and their blood bags went bad, and couldn’t be infused.

Astana’s Jakob Fuglsgang attacks! Finally!


But then they all sit up again. WTF?!

Now Lopez takes a turn at the front, but he doesn’t look like he’s really committed.


This is the bike racing equivalent of office politics. Every rider seems to have some reason not to be working harder.

Bora-Hansgrohe takes up the chase, for Rafal Majka, who sits 6th on GC.


But now Pogacar is on the final climb, just 3.5 km from the finish, with 1:34 advantage. He’s got the stage win almost for sure; the question is, can Quintana claw back 20 seconds and rescue his podium spot?

Hermann Persteiner (Bahrain-Merida) attacks the GC group, not for the first time today.


Whoah, Lopez is getting dropped!


Quintana is getting dropped as well, and Lopez tries to catch up to him.

In typical fashion, Valverde leads the GC group as it leaves Quintana behind. Valverde’s second place overall is not in danger, but Quintana’s third definitely is. Why do this? Valverde’s just like a dickhead big brother who can’t stand to share. What a pud.


If these riders didn’t have radios, and could only guess at their splits, Valverde could be forgiven for leading the chase all the way to the top. But they do, and he can’t.

Pogchar still looks super strong at the head of the race.


He’s got the win!



Valverde takes the sprint for second, to pick up a couple of bonus seconds that won’t affect his GC position whatsoever. Too bad he didn’t use this energy to help pace Quintana.


Quintana rolls in almost two minutes down and drops to 4th on GC. Really bad day for him. On the other hand, he won a stage of this Vuelta and had the red jersey for a day, so it’s not a total wash.


Here’s your top ten on the stage:


And here’s the new GC:


So, Quintana would have had to be 51 seconds faster today to save his podium, which is admittedly a lot. But if Movistar had chased harder, particularly toward the end of the race, and Valverde had done everything he could to pace Quintana up the final climb, they might have saved it. At the very least, they’d have looked more like a team. Following their PR disaster yesterday, this would have been a good move. Instead the team looks to be in shambles, and I hope—with Quintana leaving the team at the end of this season—that Valverde’s age finally catches up to him next year.

Roglic becomes the first Slovenian to win a Grand Tour. Good on him!


Through the miracle of super-slo-mo replay, I’m able to get a pretty nice shot of the sprint for second place.


Man, those grimaces on the faces of Persteiner and Majka are glorious. Valverde, as always, is showcasing the white men’s overbite. I also dislike the stupid tape he wears on his nose, which proves that he’s an idiot.

Here’s Pogacar on the podium. He will now be a much-sought property among the pro teams, needless to say. I can only hope Ineos doesn’t get him … the sport will be far more entertaining in the years to come if this guy is attacking them.


Pogacar is being interviewed. “My psychology was very bad at first today. But then I saw how the others were suffering in the cold, and when Lopez looked tired I decided to attack. And then—hey, can I ask you a question? People keep calling me ‘wet behind the ears.’ What does that mean?”


Roglic mounts the podium and gets the handshake from this random guy who always shows up in his ugly red parka. Roglic looks a bit stressed. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him smile.


Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R La Mondiale) clinched the KOM competition today. He appears to have a rather long torso.


They’re interviewing Roglic. I have never heard anybody this boring. “Yes, it went well and I am still leading the race, so I am happy. It was hard.” The interviewer grasps at straws: “Walk us through the stage. Who helped you … Movistar? Pogacar?” Roglic replies, “Yes, it was a very hard stage. I crashed yesterday and that hurt. But I am still in the lead, which is nice. My team was very good today.” Interviewer: “And tomorrow you ride into Madrid.” Roglic: “I’m sorry—what?” Interviewer: “Madrid—the race finishes in Madrid tomorrow.” Roglic: “Yes, tomorrow is the last day. Thanks for asking.” I’m amazed I stayed awake through that.


Well, as my brother Max likes to say, it’s all over but the cryin’. Tomorrow is a sprinters' day highly unlikely to change the GC, and probably another stage for Bennett since very few top sprinters showed up to this Vuelta. (Why would they, when there are barely any flat stages?) Bennett is probably bummed that the GC leaders, other than Pogacar, loafed so much today … maybe some of the other sprinters would have missed the time cut.

My final verdict? Awesome Vuelta. In Roglic we have a first-time Grand Tour winner who looks like he’ll be around for a while, and with youths like Pogacar and Lopez, who knows … maybe this sport has some life left in it yet!

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Friday, September 6, 2019

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2019 Vuelta a España Stage 13


Introduction

I like to watch bike races, ideally in person, but usually online. Watching with friends is best, so we can make snotty comments to one another as do all sports fans everywhere, but I settle for putting my opinions on paper via blow-by-blow reports.

Read on for my willfully biased report of today’s all-important Vuelta a España mountain stage. (For background on the race so far, check out my coverage of Stage 9 last Sunday.)


2019 Vuelta a España Stage 13 – Bilbao to Los Machucos

As I join the action, the riders are climbing the Category 2 Puerto de Alisas. I don’t know why it’s not d’Alisas, and neither do they, I imagine. The sad fact is, spelling doesn’t count in bike racing.

Some dude is off the front solo but I’m going to apply the “office politics” rule of not bothering to learn his name—like we used to do with the temps (and was done to me as a temp). So we’ll just have a look at this fellow, whoever he is, and let him remain anonymous unless he proves we can expect anything lasting to come from his effort.


Now the leaders are over the top of the climb and descending. David de la Cruz (Team Ineos) almost stacks while getting dropped on a curve! I wish I had footage of that. Anyway, Cruz is Ineos’s top-placed rider on GC, but is way down in 48th place, almost an hour back. Maybe Ineos doesn’t give these second-string guys all the good dope that has won them so many Tours de France. Or maybe their supply chain got fouled up. Whatever the case, they’re nowhere in this race this time around. My summary as an armchair pundit? Best. Vuelta. Ever.

I had to step away for a while, and upon returning find the race just as disheveled as I left it. There are riders all over the road, a few here, a few there … it’s a mess. I need more caffeine before I can sort all this out. Suffice to say there’s now some random guy on the Euskadi Basque Country team who’s leading the race solo. It’s Hector Saez, according to the announcers. By his bib number I’d thought it was Sergio Samitier. What, did these guys trade numbers at the start?


Perhaps Saez is feeling bold because his teammate, Mikel Iturria, won a stage the other day after a long solo breakaway, defying the odds and a chase group that just couldn’t get their act together. Anyway, Saez might think he can repeat that, but he has just over a minute on his chasers, which isn’t much with 45 km to go.

So these poor dudes have already done four categorized climbs. There’s a pretty long flat section, then a couple of Cat 3s and then the “ESP” final climb, the Alto de Las Machucos. I suppose “ESP” is short for “especial,” the Spanish equivalent of hors categorie, “so hard it cannot be categorized.”

So, chasing Saez are two loners, Sergio Higuita (EF Education First) and Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R La Mondiale). Bouchard was solo for a good while during Stage 9 so we know he’s pretty tough. He’s gotta be looking at the KOM jersey because he’s not too far behind in that competition. This duo’s gap is holding at around 40 seconds, with the main chase group another 40 seconds behind them.

They just showed the back of the peloton and rider #176, Juan Molano, has his numbers on upside-down. Probably he pinned them on when he was really, really tired. Probably pinned his jersey to the bedspread while he was at it. I’ve been that tired before. In fact, I’m pretty tired right now. Did I even see that right? Am I hallucinating?

So, if you want to know what’s happened in this Vuelta so far, first go read my Stage 9 report , which includes a synopsis of the first week. Since that stage, Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) crushed everyone in the only time trial of the Vuelta, taking over the red leader’s jersey with a nice margin of almost two minutes over Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team), who is riding really, really consistently—you might say oddly, even eerily consistently since he’s 39 years old. Better living through science! Sitting third on GC is Miguel “Superman” Lopez (Astana Pro Team), 19 seconds behind Roglic. Sitting fourth is Nairo “Batman” Quintana (Movistar Team), who had been the leader until his abysmal, totally disappointing time trial. Rounding out the top five is Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates), the 20-year-old sensation who won Stage 9 and also the Tour of California this year. He’s only 5 seconds behind Batman on GC and appears to only be getting stronger as this Vuelta rolls on.

Looks like our chasing duo have been caught by the rest of the chase group. I never even got a photo of them together. I’ll check their Insta feeds later to see if they snapped a couple selfies during their chase. (Did I use “Insta” correctly? I know that’s what the youngsters are calling Instagram, but I’m not sure “feed” is the right word. I’ve never seen the app … I’m not young or cool enough. Speaking of modern teen lingo, I love to get a rise out of my kids by using the word “woke” as an adjective. I just drop that in, real casual-like, and they go ballistic. “Nobody says that anymore! Don’t ever say that again!”)

The cameramen, or more to the point the moto drivers, aren’t doing a very good job today. They can’t seem to get a shot of Saez from ahead, so all the footage is of his butt. I doubt you want to see a lot of that. I want to see his face, and in particular his teeth. Sunday’s and Wednesday’s stage winners had really, really bad teeth and their stage wins filled me with hope that they can now finally afford orthodontia, since stage wins in the Vuelta can greatly increase a previously unheralded rider’s salary.

The announcer says a lot of these riders are rocking compact cranksets with 36-tooth inner rings, and 32-tooth cogs on the back. Seriously, a 36x32? That’s a fricking crazy-low gear. Apparently the final climb is like a wall. It’s about 7 km and gains 630 meters. If my math is correct, that’s like a 90% average grade. Hmm, that can’t be right. Perhaps 9% is more like it. That’s pretty steep but it must be that the steepest bits are where they need that gearing.

Astana is leading the chase for Lopez. Well, I don’t suppose it’s that they’re chasing, exactly (since they don’t care about the nobodies off the front) but that they’re setting a high tempo so as to put Roglic under pressure and set up their leader, Lopez, for a blistering attack. For the remainder of this Vuelta, the climbers’ teams are going to try to crack Roglic. Of course, they’re also giving him a free ride by massing on the front like this.


The peloton is on the Cat 3 Puerto de Fuente las Varas which Saez is now over. His lead is 1:51 which is coming down a bit. The peloton is over 7 minutes down but they could close that up pretty quickly once the GC contenders start assaulting each other. (How come announcers never employ synonyms for “attack”?)

Getting back to this final climb, the Alto de Los Machucos, I am going to assume the profile map is wrong and that it’s actually called the Alto de Los Muchachos, which (if Google is to be believed) translates to “Tall Boys.” Isn’t that a better name? Let’s go with that.

This breakaway just has too many riders to list. Highlights among them are Philippe Gilbert (Deceunink-QuickStep), who pulled off a solo victory in yesterday’s nail-biter stage; Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal); Sergio Henao (UAE Team Emirates); and Robert Power (Team Sunweb).

Pierre Latour (AG2R La Mondiale), also in this chase group, sits up to file his nails. This is a show of confidence. When a rider starts paying this much attention to his personal grooming, you have to figure he’s expecting a victory. It’s kind of like zipping up as you approach the line solo.


Also of note in the above photo is that the chasers were about as fast on the last climb as Saez. The peloton, meanwhile, was clearly flying. At this rate, the breakaway riders won’t be ahead for long.

I’m looking forward to watching Astana and Movistar blitz Roglic and Jumbo-Visma. Roglic won both time trials in the Giro d’Italia this year, but cracked in a later stage and couldn’t thereafter make a realistic bid for the GC. Obviously he’s doing better so far in this Vuelta but there are a number of climbing stages still to come…

There are 15 guys in this chase group with 20 km to go. Back in the peloton, Astana still has at least 7 guys, and they’re still swarming the front. Movistar surely has a number of dudes there too, so it’s going to be hellaciously fast on the Tall Boys climb. Could they pull back 6 minutes? Yeah, probably.

Saez’s gap is holding at just over a minute. I think he’s just over the penultimate climb. As the chasers get over that, his gap will drop. I don’t think he’s going to hang on, even if this chase group manages to stay ahead of the peloton.

Okay, I’ve been staring at the elevation profile, and it looks like this isn’t quite a summit finish … there’s a very short downhill afterward. There’s also a section of the climb that looks vertical in the schematic. Go ahead, scroll back up and look at that. Definitely some super-steep bits.

Wow, the peloton is now only 5 minutes behind the breakaway. I’m glad I didn’t waste more energy learning all the escapees’ names.

The Spanish countryside is as pretty as a postcard.


I don’t know, maybe Saez can stay off. This climb is only 7 km, and he’s keeping his gap pretty consistent. It all comes down to what’s left in his legs, and only he knows that, if he even does. The announcers are talking about how he needs to “empty the tank.” This is where the “full gas” analogy falls apart. I mean, it’s not like you see Formula One cars jettisoning fuel toward the end of a race, though that would be something to see, especially if there were any smokers in the stands.

Another common expression that doesn’t actually make that much sense: “the gloves are coming off.” When’s the last time you were watching a prizefight and a boxer got pissed and removed his gloves so as to deal out a terrible bare-knuckled beating? I don’t follow that barbaric sport, but I’m guessing this gloves-off thing has never happened. In bike races the riders sometimes don’t wear gloves, but I doubt that’s an act of naked aggression … they’re just gambling on not crashing, and maybe their noses aren’t snotty enough to need the backs of their gloves.

The chase group is making its way through a little town toward the base of the Tall Boy. Okay, here’s a schematic showing that final climb. Two sections of 25%, yowsa!


A  rider is trying to bridge from the chase group up to Saez. It’s Bruno Armirail (Groupama-FDJ). Will he make it? And will it matter? The peloton is now only 3:43 behind Saez with Astana continuing to drill it on the front for Lopez.


Saez is getting a water bottle hand-up, which is really strange at the base of a climb. He didn’t pull any of that stupid sticky-bottle nonsense either, like Demare did when he blatantly cheated in the Milan-San Remo a few years back. Maybe Saez is taking on energy drink … maybe he’s about to bonk.

Saez is on the final climb, and it already looks like a beast!


The peloton is now less than 3 minutes behind Saez. They’ll have that chase group in sight before too long.

The chasers are on the climb now and they know it’s all or nothing now.


Armirail has passed Saez and quickly opens a huge gap!



The peloton is now only 2 minutes back … they’re closing it up with a quickness. It’s a surprisingly large group given how fast they’re going. 

Quintana goes to the front! He really needs to drop Roglic. And Valverde, frankly.


Man, Armirail is having to weave all over the road—he’s practically ground to a halt! Suddenly 5 km seems like a mighty long way…


And back in the diminished peloton, Pogachar goes to the front!


Quintana has the chase group in his sights. I’d love it if he took lots of time out of Valverde, who has ridden like a selfish little bitch for this entire Vuelta (and arguably his entire career).


And suddenly we have a new leader, Pierre Latour! He’s caught and dropped Armirail! What did I tell you about Latour, preparing for his victory salute earlier in this race with that manicure…


Rafael Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) is getting dragged up to Quintana by a teammate. It’s Felix Großschartner, who has dropped back from the break to help. He’s dragging the rest of the GC group with him.


And now the GC group is all back together, just over a minute behind Latour.


LaTour is really suffering in another brutally steep section! But he’s staying strong! Viva Latour! (Okay, that was bad. Sorry … couldn’t resist.)


Quintana is dropped! Pogacar and Roglic are drilling it at the front, as they make contact with more breakaway orphans! Only Valverde can hang! They’re even distancing Lopez!


And they’ve dropped Valverde too! Unbelievable! Only Roglic can hang with the mighty Pogacar!


Quintana is clawing back up to the Valverde group. Back toward the front, the breakaway stragglers have now fallen away and it’s just Pogacar and Roglic. And now Roglic takes a pull!


And with 1.5 km left, Roglic and Pogacar catch Latour!


And they’ve dropped him! The stage is theirs for the taking! It’s gonna be one of these two!


After all the work Astana did for Lopez, he’s been totally dropped. He must be so bummed.

Quintana has caught Valverde, along with Majka.


The two leaders are over the top of the “Muchachos,” and both will want maximum bonus seconds so there’ll be no gifts today.

Pogacar leads out the sprint!


Pogacar has got the win!


It’s kind of hard to care who places where after these first two, because Roglic didn’t follow the script … he was supposed to crack, or just barely hang on, so that we could start to wonder again who might win this Vuelta. But instead he’s attacked everybody, has increased his lead, and seems to be in command now. But here is your top ten on the stage anyway:


As you can see, the big loser today was Lopez. He’ll probably lose his podium position.

Here are Roglic and Quintana warming down. Quintana continues to wear his helmet because hey, you just never know. Roglic wears a backwards ball cap because he’s worried about getting too much sun on the back of his neck. There’s a rumor in the peloton that he’s starting to grow a mullet.


I wonder if people will continue calling Lopez “Superman.” Maybe he’ll get downgraded. Of course he can’t have “Batman” because I already assigned that nickname to Quintana, earlier in this coverage, and it’s spreading like wildfire. I’m going to refer to Lopez as “Robin” from now on, not because he’s Quintana’s sidekick or anything, but because it’s the most demeaning superhero name I can think of at the moment.

They’re interviewing Pogacar. “I was just going to try to keep up today, but then I heard on the radio that Roglic and I had a gap, so I decided to destroy everyone again even though I just got here [to the pro peloton], and then—hey, you know what? I just remembered … my dad said if I won another stage he’d take me up to Wyoming to buy fireworks! Awesome!”


There’s a holdup in the podium ceremonies. Nobody can find the beer guys for the ridiculous winner-has-a-beer-with-friends product placement ritual. Perhaps the models got into those beers early and are passed out drunk in the back of the van or something. It’s really awkward … Pogacar is just standing around up there on the podium by himself. Somebody fits him with a ridiculous hat, which he tolerates (perhaps because it’s warm, perhaps because he’s still too dazzled by the spotlight to get all arrogant). Okay, here are the beer people.


And here’s the new GC after today’s shakeup. Roglic increases his lead; Pogacar climbs up to third overall; Lopez and Quintana drop down. Also of note: Lopez lost his white jersey, for best young rider, to Pogacar, and Quintana lost his green jersey, for points leader, to Roglic. Man … not a good day for these two!


Roglic is being interviewed. “Yes, the stage went well, I have to say that was pretty fun. But I actually kind of miss my ski jumping days. Sure, that’s a boring sport, but a jump is over in just a couple of minutes and then you head to the hot tub. With this damn sport, I’m out there for four, five, six hours at a time, day after day. It’s kind of a grind, to be honest.”


Tomorrow’s stage is a useless spectacle for the sprinters. Sunday is another brutal “ESP” mountaintop finish, with yet another such stage on Tuesday. More mountains on Thursday, with four Cat 1s, and then a final f-you mountain stage on Saturday. So, Roglic’s current domination notwithstanding, the GC is far from settled. With so many superheroes still in contention, the front of the race will be like some kind of fricking Vueltaverse™!

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