Sunday, June 28, 2020

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2020 Tour of Sweden Stage 4


Well, it’s been a long time since I got to watch a bike race, what with the Covid-19 pandemic. Virtually the entire pro racing season has been canceled, though the Tour de France has been tentatively scheduled to start in late August. The first road race of note this year was the Slovenian National Championship, which quietly took place last weekend (as Slovenia, months ago, was the first country in Europe to declare they’ve eradicated the coronavirus). Because the Slovenian Championship lacked an international field, there was no TV coverage of the event.

But suddenly Sweden, the only European country not to have any shelter-in-place restrictions whatsoever, decided to revive their five-day Tour of Sweden stage race, formerly known as the Postgirot Open, which hasn’t been held in over 18 years. They found an eager sponsor, the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi, makers of hydroxychloroquine. (If this seems cynical, ponder for a moment the fact of Amgen, makers of EPO, sponsoring the Tour of California.) At long last, I was able to tune in this morning to watch Stage 4, the queen and penultimate stage.

(Why do I call this a “biased” blow-by-blow report? Well, I don’t have to bite my tongue when I think a rider is doped, a dope, or just being dopey. Or sneezy.)

Sanofi Tour of Sweden Stage 4 – Skövde to Huskvarna

As I join the action, Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Ineos) has accidently rolled off the front of the peloton on the third of six categorized climbs. He doesn’t look very excited. That’s kind of the way this team rolls; sometimes the riders are so lubed they don’t know their own strength. Consider how Froome has so often accidently dropped everybody, and then, when alerted to his position, he’d kind of shrug and either solo to victory or hang back for a bit to keep up appearances. 

Based on Geoghegan Hart’s faint suntan, I’d guess he’s actually made it outside for some training this year, which of course gives him a leg up on some of his competitors (such as the Spaniards and Italians who were forbidden to ride outdoors).

It’s a long climb and the peloton isn’t doing much about this accidental attack, so I’ll take a moment to fill you in on what’s happened in this Tour of Sweden so far. The two favorites going in, at least from my perspective, were Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates), because not only do they have actual road racing miles in their legs, they finished first and second, respectively, in the Slovenian National Championship a week ago. Not to mention they’ve been ascendant in the sport anyway, with Roglic winning last year’s Vuelta a Espana and Pogacor taking three stages.

Back in the race, Geoghegan Hart has stretched out his lead. Marc Soler (Movistar Team) is giving chase but he’s not gaining significant ground. I’m not getting much info from the announcers, who are lame. Eurosport’s best commentator, the Irish champ Sean Kelly, gave up on the sport this spring with so many cancelled races, and (as described in this great article) has gone back home to Ireland to work full time on his family’s dairy farm.

So who’s not here at the Tour of Sweden? Notably, Team Ineos is missing all their heavy hitters. Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal, and Richard Carapaz, along with six others initially slated for the race, have all been quarantined after Carapaz visited his home in Ecuador and subsequently showed Covid-19 symptoms. Following a team time trial practice, others developed fevers and the whole team had to sit this race out.

Now Miguel Angelo Lopez (aka “Superman”), of Astana Team, has attacked the peloton! Lopez is having a great Tour of Sweden, having won a stage and picked up the white point’s leader jersey.

Getting back to my discussion of who is at this race, Team Arkéa–Samsic failed to register in time and isn’t fielding a team, so their leader Nairo Quintana isn’t here. Movistar Team decided their star, Alejandro Valverde, is just too old to risk sharing a cramped peloton with so many other athletes from so many parts of Europe. Many French riders, including Thibault Pinot, Julian Alaphilippe, and Romain Bardet simply declined to participate, citing their lack of real training. Perhaps the most bizarre exclusion from the race is Tom Dumoulin, who was all set to lead Team Sunweb but was suddenly sidelined with a persistent and advanced case of dandruff.

Wow, Superman already has over a minute and a half on the GC group! Not sure how far ahead Soler is … I’m surprised he hasn’t been caught already.

Surely by now you know why Chris Froome isn’t in this race, but in case you’ve been hiding under a rock, I’ll tell you: in early May, while being interviewed by an American journalist (for this article), he was suddenly struck by lightning. The story, a puff piece about how Froome and his Sky/Ineos team never doped, ended with Froome explaining their unprecedented and uncanny success: “The sport is now a hundred times cleaner, but we climb faster than [the dopers] did at the time. The best way to explain that is that we have evolved a lot in the areas of technology, nutrition, and training. We are better as athletes.” At this moment the lightning bolt struck the cheating, lying scumbag right through the head. Oddly, the so-called journalist didn’t mention this in his article. Odder still, when mentioning Froome’s positive test for salbutamol, the journalist breezily recounted how Froome “was later cleared of doping” without mentioning what a complete travesty that was, with absolutely no explanation given for the charges being unexpectedly dropped.

And now Lopez has caught Soler, who looks pretty beat.

Sure enough, Lopez motors right on by. I think Soler has given up.

Roglic attacks! He started off this race very well, handily winning the individual time trial and taking the leader’s green jersey in the process. He faded in yesterday’s stage, though, losing enough time to Pogacar to fall to second on GC. He needs at least 30 seconds to move back into the lead, and can’t afford to lose more than 18 seconds to Lopez.

Roglic doesn’t look nearly as strong now as he had in last year’s Vuelta, and I’m reminded of how he cracked in last year’s Giro d’Italia after winning both time trials. Ah, and here it appears he’s getting caught. Wow, he’s really going backwards. The GC group is hauling ass now, seeming to have been awakened by Roglic’s attack! It’s all coming apart!

A teammate gives Roglic his wheel, but it’s no use. Roglic just cannot hang. The teammate looks over his shoulder. He’s saying something … probably encouragement.

Pogacar sits comfortably in the group. This kid is pretty amazing … he almost always looks fresh as a daisy. Huh, it looks like the pace settled back down. I think this race caught a lot of these guys off guard … there’s only so much training you can do by yourself, some of it indoors, and no races to motivate you. There aren’t very many spectators either, and nobody looks that excited. In fact, check this gal out. She doesn’t look happy at all. Or is she sneezing into her elbow like we’ve all been taught?

The GC group is growing as more riders catch back on. Sunweb takes to the front and picks up the pace. Honestly, I don’t even know whom they’re working for … without Dumoulin, I don’t even know if this team has any stage racers.

There’s an attack from the bunch! It’s Pierre LaTour (AG2R La Mondiale), attempting to bridge up to Lopez!

The racers are on the lumpy section heading toward the fourth of six summits today. As the field hits a flat stretch, Team Ineos takes to the front and starts loafing, obviously hampering the chase so Geoghegan Hart can stay off. Toward the back of this group, Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R La Mondiale) sits up and … what’s he doing? Texting? Ah, I just got a tweet from him. “Pierre’s off the front, my work here is done lol” he’s quipped. They really shouldn’t let riders tweet during races. It’s dangerous.

As they hit the next uphill, the field starts to speed up again. Oddly, it’s Astana on the front, drilling it. What about Lopez? Did he get caught?

Farther up the road, LaTour is still looking great. I don’t think this spectator is six feet away, though. Fricking Sweden. Five times the death rate of the rest of Scandinavia (click here for details), and they’re still pretending everything is okay.

Speak of the devil: Eurosport is showing footage of Huskvarna, a town near the stage finish. Look at all these weekenders, all crowded together with not a mask among them!

See the big sign there? Google translates the second sentence as “But now we need to keep our distance.” Not a very obedient populace, eh?

On the penultimate descent, Astana continues to drill it for Superman, who I assume is in there somewhere.

Ah, there’s Lopez. As this ever-growing GC group starts the monster Berg av Kleideniden, Superman is tucked neatly into his Astana train. Geoghegan Hart still has almost two minutes but it’s a long climb. You can see Pogacar, in his green leader’s jersey, behind a teammate on the right.

Up ahead, Geoghegan Hart’s lead is starting to erode. Now we’re back looking at LaTour who is visibly struggling. The peloton, still lead by Astana, is hauling ass and starting to break up again. And whoa, what’s this?

That’s like the third Sanofi ad since I started watching. Pretty cheeky … clearly the suggestion is that this race can proceed because Plaquenil, their brand of hydroxychloroquine, is so effective against Covid-19. Totally absurd. But hey, I guess if they’re paying for the ad, who am I to protest. It couldn’t be any less effective than, say, McDonald’s.

The GC group has caught LaTour.

It’s a long slog up this Category 1 climb, the dreaded Berg av Kleideniden, rising to over 1,900 meters (6,000 feet), the highest summit of the stage. Now, one by one, the Astana train starts to falter and pretty soon there’s not a single one of them at the front. Either that or they’re being told to stand down because Lopez is hurting so bad. Superman, indeed! At this rate it’s only a matter of time before the attacks start.

Whoa, did I call it or what? Pogacar decides he’s had enough sitting around and totally attacks!

This is really pretty crazy. With Geoghegan Hart’s lead dwindling all the time, all Pogacar really needs to worry about is Roglic, who has been yo-yo’ing off the back all day … and yet Pogacar attacks, due to sheer youthful exuberance I guess. It’s tempting to assume he’s just testing the waters but I’ve never seen him do that. And sure enough, he’s taking time out of the group with every pedal stroke.

And now he’s got Geoghegan Hart! The tall Englishman grabs Pogacar’s wheel and hangs on for dear life. It's just as well because I was getting sick of typing “Geoghegan Hart” which is the keyboard equivalent of a tongue-twister.

Geoghegan Hart cannot hang. Pogacar solos over the summit of the Kleideniden and starts the final descent toward the short, Cat 3 climb to the summit finish. He’s demonstrated before that he can fly on the descents. I just hope he doesn’t hit a bump and rack his nuts!

With 1K to go to the summit, the chase group begins to splinter! Superman falters! Geoghegan Hart has been caught and now struggles to keep up! Roglic is nowhere to be seen!

Pogacar is in the final stretch, having knocked out the final Cat 3 climb like it was nothing!

Pogacar takes the stage, extending his GC lead needlessly! He’s got the Tour of Sweden in the bag!

It’s a fairly modest victory salute for somebody who has just schooled the entire peloton.

The chase group having completely exploded, a few lone riders cross the line. I don’t know who they are but it scarcely matters at this point.

Unbelievable … another ad for Sanofi.

Pogacar stands alone on the podium. The announcer is saying they're not allowing more than one rider at a time on the podium, and no podium girls or other dignitaries, but at least Pogacar doesn’t have to wear a mask.

Pogacar is being interviewed. “I wasn’t that worried about Roglic. At the start line he said he was having a bad race and wasn't used to going so hard day after day. I was mostly worried about Superman but as we went along I couldn’t figure out how he got that nickname. I feel bad for his team, they all looked stronger but were so loyal to him. Hey, wait a second ... I think I hear my mom calling me. She was worried sick about me racing here and drove all the way up here, 2,000 kilometers in her crappy little Renault, to be close by. She is so nervous, she wanted me to race in a mask! Yes, that is my mom calling. I gotta go!”

Damn, I just sat through like my fifth Sanofi ad and now they just keep showing helicopter footage of the Kleideniden, high above the little lakeside town of Huskvarna. I’m waiting to see the leaderboard for the stage and the new GC.

What the hell? Suddenly the footage vanishes and I’m plunged into some other program altogether, some weird sporting event already well underway. What the hell is it?

What are all those people carrying? It’s bizarre. And they’re really not maintaining any social distance to speak of. Oh, I get it—those are maps. I’ve stumbled onto an orienteering event. These are apparently quite popular in Sweden. But I can’t handle the sight of all those people clustered together … I’m out of here. By the way, tomorrow’s final stage of the Tour of Sweden is a flat circuit race favoring the sprinters, so the final GC will clearly go to Pogacar. Nothing more to see, folks … move along, move along.


I guess I should point out, since a few people have apparently not realized it, that this entire report is pure fiction. There has not been a Tour of Sweden since 2002.

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