Saturday, September 14, 2019

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


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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