Friday, September 6, 2019

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


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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