Sunday, September 1, 2019

Biased Blow-By-Blow: 2019 Vuelta a España Stage 9


Bike racing has been more fun to watch lately, due to Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky) being less dominant. I wouldn’t say no other team dopes, but I will say no other team does it so well as to put a stranglehold on every Grand Tour they do. Whatever Ineos is getting wrong this year, it’s making the races more exciting. (Not that they didn’t win their seventh Tour in a row, of course, and for the second time in a row with a supposed domestique.)

Ineos has so far botched this year’s Vuelta a España, so I’ve been enjoying it. It’s still anybody’s race. The convicted doper Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has been riding suspiciously well so far, so I’ll have to provide my usual disclaimer now: if you want responsible journalistic reporting of the race, where everyone allowed to race is assumed clean, you’ll have to go somewhere else. I use the terms “spade” and “filthy doping scumbag” interchangeably.

If you’re okay with my caveat, read on for my biased blow-by-blow report of Stage 9 of the 2019 Vuelta a España, a very hilly stage with a summit finish at Cortals d’Encamp.

Vuelta a España Stage 9 – Andorra la Vella to Alto Els Cortals d’Encamp

As I join the action, the riders have 80 km to go and are nearing the top of the first climb, the Category 1 Coll d’Ordino. It’s funny, I could just make up the names of these climbs and you’d never know the difference. I could have called it the Coll d’Arduino after the inventor of the famous programmable circuit board who is from this region. (No he isn’t.)

The crazy thing is we’re only 10 km into the race. It’s super-short but as you can see from the profile, it’s just loaded with tough climbs. The breakaway is over the top of the Ordino now, with a couple minutes on the peloton. It’s a break of like 30 guys and I would normally assume they’re all nobodies, but yesterday Astana lost the leader’s red jersey, which had been on the shoulders of Miguel Angel Lopez (aka “Superman”), by letting a break of supposed nobodies get too far ahead.

It’s about a 30 km descent to the base of the hardest climb of the day, the HC Coll del Futbolín, named for the inventor of foosball who was born in this region. See? You totally fell for it. It’s actually the Coll de la Gallina, which means “climb of the chicken.” It really does ... go look it up!

Okay, while I was researching “Gallina,” the break broke. There are seven leaders now: Robert Gesink (Jumbo-Visma), Marc Soler (Movistar), Etxegibel Bizkarra (Euskadi Basque Country), Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma), Patrick Bevin (CCC), and—to hell with it, the front seven have been caught again. Anyway, those are some of the players. They’ve still only got 2½ minutes so it probably doesn’t even matter who they are.

So, in case you haven’t been following this Vuelta, it’s been really exciting so far. First of all, no Team Ineos heavy hitters are in there, as I mentioned earlier, so the red jersey has changed hands several times and nobody is controlling the race. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) had an awesome solo breakaway on a mostly flat course, which was cool. He and his teammate, Valverde, are sharing the Movistar team leadership because they’re both riding well. Alas, one of the favorites, Rigoberto Uran, crashed out along with several of his Education First teammates. No major favorite has worn the red jersey, which is currently held by Nicolas Edet (Cofidis Solutions Credits), a French guy nobody has ever heard of who was given like nine minutes of leash yesterday and now holds the GC lead by 2:21 over Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida) who also had the red jersey for a day. Edet has 3:07 over Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) who is the highest placed GC favorite, sitting fourth behind Lopez, who is 3:01 behind Edet and has worn the red jersey twice so far.

The breakaway is now 3:30 ahead of the peloton, with 53 km to go as they approach the base of the Gallina. 

Man, they’re really flying today. After a major climb their average speed is 43 kph (almost 27 mph)! Yeah, they’re all clean.

Getting back to my recap, Valverde sits ten seconds behind Roglic in fifth, 11 seconds ahead of Quintana. Those are pretty much the realistic GC contenders at this point, though I’ll draw your attention also to Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates), the 20-year-old Slovenian in his first year as a pro who won the Tour of California earlier this year with a dominant performance on its queen stage. He’s ridden this Vuelta really well so far and sits 9th, 5:37 behind Edet and 2:30 behind Roglic. It’s especially impressive because he looks like he’s about 12 years old.

The peloton has reached the base of the Gallina and Movistar leads the chase, doing Cofidis’ job for them because Movistar is setting up Quintana for an attack.

How do I know Quintana plans to attack? Well, it’s not just a hunch, nor am I clairvoyant (that I know of). It’s because reported it (here). There’s a bit of paraphrasing going on there, though. Quintana never actually said he was going to attack, much less Roglic in particular. Quintana acknowledged that Roglic is dangerous because he’s a great time trialist, but didn’t say anything like “I’ma attack that sumbitch.” He did say, and I quote, “I’m feeling mentalised to go all out. I’m feeling good.” It’s tempting to credit Quintana with inventing a highly useful new word, but of course this is in translation. Who knows what he actually said. Where does this translator get off, putting nonexistent words like “mentalised” in people’s mouths? (Actually, I should start doing that.)

Okay, I just asked Alexa if “mentalise” is a word. (Not the Amazon Echo, but the real Alexa—my daughter.) Turns out “mentalize” is actually a word, but something obscure in the field of psychology that doesn’t have to do with attacking Roglic.

The aptly named Rob Power (Sunweb) is leading the breakaway on the chicken climb. Their gap is just over four minutes now.

OMG, look at this crazy climb!

Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) just went out the back. He sucks this year. He should be working for Pogacar but instead he’s just flailing around each day.

Sunweb is doing a lot of the work in the break, trying to put their leader, Wilco Kelderman, into the red jersey. Keldermen sits 12th on GC, 6:37 behind Edet.

Some Ineos guy attacks the break. It’s Tao Geoghegan Hart. He looks kind of bored … I wonder what he’s looking at off the side of the road. A bird? The scenery?

Esteban Chavez (Mitchelton-Scott) has some kind of bike problem. This is significant because he is the team leader and sits 10th on GC, 5:53 back.

Astana takes over the chase, to keep Lopez in contention to take back the red jersey.

Oddly, the so-called peloton has shrunk to the point that it’s now smaller than the breakaway. So do we change the labels around? Should we call the breakaway the peloton, and these guys now comprise the chase group? Thorny semantic question…

Chaves’ teammates are doing a nice job dragging him back up. Something went wrong with his wheel change, it wasn’t enough apparently, and he was riding a teammate’s bike that was totally the wrong size for him like we saw in “Breaking Away.” Chaves must feel sheepish, because he’s not riding very well right these days. Perhaps he’s just being polite by sitting on, to make his teammates feel important.

Wow, freakin’ awesome road.

So, while I wasn’t looking (or more accurately the camera wasn’t looking), an AG2R rider, Geoffrey Bouchard, caught Hart and dropped him. Hart is now closing the gap again.

You don’t see many Geoffreys in bike racing for some reason. I have a brother named Geoffrey. In grade school when he did his “My Book About Me” project, to the prompt “What is special about you?” (you can see how the curriculum was designed to encourage maximum narcissism) my brother wrote, “My name is Geoffrey, not Geoff, and I am not stuppid.”

Astana continues to drill it on the front.

The gap to the group formerly known as the peloton is dropping. It had been over four minutes and is down to 3:31. I wish I really were clairvoyant so I could decide what to bother reporting. What a waste if these guys don’t stay off.

Bouchard has crested the Gallina solo. I didn’t get a shot of it. That process is difficult.

Pogacar is still in the peloton, or what we used to call the peloton. I spotted him at the back but didn’t grab a snapshot. That process is difficult. (Have I mentioned that?)

The chase group is disintegrating. Edet looks like he’ll lose the lead today … he’s no longer in contact.

That dude behind Edet, #181, in the King of the Mountains jersey? That’s Angel Madrazo (Burgos-BH) who won a mountain stage earlier in this Vuelta after getting dropped no fewer than four times by the breakaway and then clawing his way back. That was fricking amazing!

As you can see in the profile schematic above, after this descent the next three climbs are practically contiguous, stair-stepping up to the final Cat 1. That’s going to be awesome. For us, anyway. Most of the racers probably won’t appreciate it so much.

Wow, this is a pretty stark peak.

Okay, so I don’t get this. Bouchard is solo, having opened up the gap again back to Hart, and after this descent the course will be almost all uphill, so his chances are looking pretty good of possibly soloing in a Grand Tour stage. And yet, he’s not riding on the fricking drops. Why do these racers ride on the hoods all the time? Is nothing sufficient motivation to get aero once in a while?

Now Bouchard has begun the third climb of the day. Note that he’s got one of his numbers turned upside down. This is either due to superstition, or in adherence to The Rules, a bunch of observations that a bunch of self-styled cycling experts, the Velominati, decided to make into hard-and-fast rules. I will give Bouchard the benefit of the doubt and say he’s just a silly superstitious type. Surely he couldn’t care less what these dorky American spectators have to say. (And no, I don’t expect him to start riding on the drops just because I, another dorky American spectator, have mentioned it here.)

Wow, Chaves and his teammates have managed to close a 45-second gap and have latched back on to the Lopez group (i.e., the GC favorites chasing the break). To be honest, I did not expect him to make it.

So, two things to note in this next photo: 1) Astana is on the front of the group again, and 2) the stats in the corner show that Geoffrey (not Geoff!) Bouchard took 27 seconds out of the chasers on that descent, despite riding on the hoods. So maybe I’ve underestimated him … maybe he’s not stuppid. His lead is now up to 1:15.

Here is Roglic. At this point, given how well he’s climbed so far in this race, he’s my pick for the overall GC victory by the end. He’s kind of a badass. I’m not talking about his tattoo, by the way, even though it’s kind of coarse and non-artistic, like he might have gotten it in prison or the military. He’s still got a bandaged elbow … his team totally stacked in the team time trial on the opening day of this Vuelta.

Lopez attacks, with Quintana reacting immediately!

But that was a half-assed attack, quickly neutralized.

Now Lopez goes again, and he really gives it everything! He gets a big gap right away! Unfortunately the camera is back on Bouchard so I can’t tell you more.

Astana wisely calls back a rider from the break to help Lopez.

It’s one of the Izagirre brothers. I didn’t catch which. Okay, it’s Gorka. Not like I know these guys. I don’t know them from Adam … and in fact, I don’t even know Adam.

So, the Roglic group (i.e., what had been the Lopez group before Lopez bailed on it) is now really, really small. The race has been blown wide open!

Lopez has dropped his teammate and makes his way solo to try to reel in Bouchard.

Quintana attacks! He’s in green. It’s confusing because that other Movistar guy ahead of him was farther up the road earlier, from the original breakaway.

Lopez catches another Astana rider. The announcers and video feed graphics haven’t done a good job of keeping track of everybody on the road. That original break was huge and has scattered human shrapnel all over this road.

Valverde attacks again.

I didn’t use an exclamation point there because these aren’t real, I’m-committed-now attacks. See? Valverde is caught now because it was just a beat-up-on-Roglic attack. Quintana counters.

It’s back together again, and now—you see that Jumbo-Visma guy way up the road there? That’s Sepp Kuss, another orphan from the breakaway, dropping back to support Roglic. It’s about time Roglic got some support! Kuss should have been called back ages ago.

It’s starting to rain. NOOICE!

So, his totally Euro name notwithstanding, Sepp Kuss is an American, from my home state of Colorado. I just learned that from my online correspondent. Another Coloradan in this race, Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) tried a solo breakaway yesterday and though it didn’t stick, he had a great stage and sits 17th overall, about eight minutes back.

So, Lopez has 35 seconds over the Roglic group. That’s pretty good, and perhaps enough padding for a stage win, but for his GC prospects he’ll need more time than that. He started the day only six seconds ahead of Roglic on the GC.

Up near the finish, it’s pouring rain!

I just love watching bike racers duking it out wretchedly in awful weather. I’m so cozy here in my home office, and I don’t have to pedal! Surely I wouldn’t enjoy this so much if I didn’t have experience racing in lousy weather myself. Of course, I wasn’t racing to put food on my family, and could ride as poorly as I wanted without being chewed out by my boss, so I can’t pretend to know what it’s like for these pro racers.

Dang, the problem is, the weather is interrupting all the footage, and also the official race radio transmissions relied upon by the announcers, online/TV spectators, et al. So I have no idea what is going on.

At last, after at least five minutes of nothing, here’s some footage of some random rider.

Better than nothing, I guess.

Marc Soler broke away somewhere along the line and with like 5 km to go, leads the race!

Quintana has attacked! Looks like Pogacar with him! He’s got a nice gap on the others and could win the stage and possibly the whole Vuelta based on this ride!

Roglic is dropped! He’ll have to fight to cut his losses! Check out the spectator in the red poncho, BTW. I love it.

Valverde, ever the asshole, can’t stand his teammate being in the limelight, and stupidly attacks despite knowing Lopez et al will surely go with him.

They’re calling Soler back to help Quintana and he’s pissed, gesticulating and everything.

Roglic has made his way back up to Lopez! Valverde attacks a second time and has a decent gap over Lopez … for the moment. And now Pogacar attacks Quintana!

Pogacar has totally dropped Quintana looks set up for a possible stage win.

Lopez has detonated and is going backwards! And now Quintana drops Soler and is looking to gain maximum time for his GC efforts (though I doubt he can catch Pogacar at this point).

And Pogacar looks better and better!

He’s got the win!

Quintana takes second.

Roglic comes in third to pick up the final time bonus.

So, it’s hard to figure out what will happen with the GC today. Obviously Edet and Teuns are out of the running, and it looks like Lopez lost some big time. But did Quintana take enough time from Roglic to take over the GC lead? If the infinitely selfish Valverde hadn’t helped Roglic, this would be a no-brainer.

Here’s the stage result:

So Quintana took 25 seconds out of Roglic, and only needed 21. Plus he got a bigger time bonus. So I think he’ll be in red today! Still waiting for the official GC.

Okay, here it is, and yes—Quintana has got it!

Check it out, Pogacar moves into 5th on GC. Amazing! He’s also within 1½ minutes of Lopez in the Young Rider competition.

So, Movistar leadership needs to slap Valverde around now and tell him to stop being a dick, and work for his teammate now. Sure, Valverde is only 20 seconds back, but he’s also older than Mick Jagger.

When the adrenaline wears off, Soler will surely see the wisdom of being called back to help Quintana. Even if Soler didn’t give Quintana that much shelter from the wind, he needed to finish behind him to let Quintana take maximum bonus seconds toward the GC leadership. I’m sure Movistar’s team director will forgive Soler’s theatrics, assuming he comes around.

They’re interviewing Pogacar. Look how young this guy is … he’s still got acne scars. “When I saw the weather would be bad today,” he says, “I was excited. I am more aerodynamic, and more hydrodynamic, than my rivals because my face is smooth. Racers never shave before a race because the sweat stings, but I don’t have to shave yet. I don’t even have to shave my legs. I am looking forward to puberty. It will make me even stronger, LOL.”

And now here’s the strangest ritual of the Vuelta: the stage winner having a beer with his buds. It’s obviously a paid promotion for Ambar, the brewer. The models and rider pose together, take one sip, and then—right there onstage—throw the rest of the beer straight into the recycling. This of course creates the impression that they don’t like the beer. I can’t think of worse advertising—“Look, cyclists and good friends hate our beer!”—though the first sentence of marketing fluff on the Ambar website is pretty silly too: “This is the beer that the waiter brings when you order an Ambar.” Truth in advertising, I guess. Of course Pogacar doesn’t even have a sip of it. The drinking age is probably below 21 in Spain, but his parents are strict. I’m sure his mother tells him, “Our house, our rules!” Not that he doesn’t sneak the occasional drink, but of course she’s watching right now. How great for Pogacar: he has his first-ever Grand Tour stage win, and can now send around this photo as his very first Beck’st!

Well, that’s it for today! Now: did I call it with Pogacar, or what? Sure, I could have falsified this report by going in after the fact and making it look like I predicted this, but I promise you I didn’t. Maybe I am clairvoyant! ;-)

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