Saturday, September 5, 2020

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2020 Tour de France Stage 8


When I file blow-by-blow reports of pro bike races, I take full advantage of my amateur, unfunded status: I don’t have to bite my tongue when it’s time to cry foul. The typical offense is obvious doping. Happily, things have settled down a bit, by which I mean Team Ineos has apparently screwed up its drug program. Maybe their supplier folded or something. Anyway, read on for my coverage of Stage 8 of the 2020 Tour de France, delayed-due-to-coronavirus edition.

Tour de France Stage 8 – Cazeres-sur-Garonne to Loudenvielle

As I begin, the peloton is heading toward the first and only intermediate sprint of the day, at the base of the first climb. I bother to cover this because—hang on, I’ll tell you in a second. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgroe) is starting to go for it but suddenly seems to just tire out or something. He sits down and Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) takes the sprint!

What’s weird is that due to a breakaway today, only the top two in the peloton could score points here, and Sagan didn’t even take second. It’s like he couldn’t be bothered to sprint, which is so weird because yesterday his team basically did a team time trial at the front all day to try to saw off a bunch of inattentive sprinters, which worked out great. At least a dozen sprinters got dropped, including  the (then) points leader Bennett, and that’s how Sagan got his green jersey back.

Oddly, Sagan got the requisite points only via the intermediate sprints that the other sprinters weren’t around for. While the key objective of the plan was obviously for Sagan to get a stage win (with fewer riders to outsprint), at the finish line he was nowhere to be seen. Turns out his chain fell off. Bizarre. Stranger still, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) was perfectly placed in the final sprint but suddenly lost steam, waving his arm angrily, and didn’t place. Turns out he’d pulled his foot out of the pedal. It was the most exciting “boring sprinters’ stage” ever.

So, as the race approaches the first big climb, the category 1 Col de Menté, there’s a giant breakaway of 13 riders who have 14 minutes on the peloton. That’s why there were so few intermediate sprint places on offer for the main field. I’m not sure who any of these guys are, but there are a couple things worth pointing out. Look:

First, we see that the leader has clown hair. Doesn’t his head get awfully hot? Not to mention he looks pretty ridiculous? Well, he’s fast, anyway. The other thing we notice is that the guy behind him is Black. That is quite rare in the pro peloton. You know what’s even rarer? For the announcers to mention it. Maybe racial matters just make them nervous, like they’re afraid if they say anything it could the wrong thing. I hope it’s not that the announcers “don’t see race.” That’s nonsense. Nobody “doesn’t see race.” Some people decline to acknowledge it, is all. As if it didn’t affect anybody. But I digress.

So the Black guy is Kévin Reza (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept). Here’s a nice close-up:

I don’t know much about him other than what Wikipedia says. It’s his third Tour, he’s done the Vuelta twice, and he rode the Giro once. It says he’s a sprinter, but it appears he climbs well too. (You won’t see a pure sprinter like Alexander Kristoff in a breakaway on a mountain stage.)

As the break approaches the summit of the Col de Menté, the leader in the KOM competition, Benoît Cosnefroy (AG2R-La Mondiale) attacks the group to get maximum points.

So, I don’t particularly care about this breakaway because it’s mainly nobodies from a GC perspective. The highest-placed rider in it is Ilnur Zakarin (CCC Team), who started the day in 89th place, almost 13 minutes down. The main effect this break will have is to make the peloton more sluggish. If the all-important stage time bonuses are snapped up by breakaway riders, the GC group has less incentive to mix it up and be aggressive. That means a strong team like Ineos or Jumbo-Visma will want to control things, to save their riders’ energy for the second two weeks of the Tour, so the main GC contenders might just roll over the line together, which would be boring. (Note: I refuse to say “keep their powder dry.” That cliché should be abolished.)

Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) has some kind of problem and is off the back of the peloton. His teammates pace him back up. This group is nearing the summit of the Menté. They take on some food.

Okay, the peloton is over the top. Some douchebag spectator waves his arms wildly at the camera making peace sign, and he’s not wearing a mask. Oddly, masks are not required nationwide in France, so the race organizers can only request that fans wear them. As detailed here, a couple of the racers have expressed concern about this. After all, the fans are yelling their heads off, which greatly increases the chance of virus transmission. Imagine if just one racer caught Covid-19 from a spectator … these guys are riding inches from one another, and (obviously) breathing hard. Could end the Tour.

Speaking of which, there’s an interesting rule about the race this year: if the race has to be stopped due to Covid-19, whoever has the yellow jersey at that point will be declared the winner, so long as at least ten stages have been completed. This may make for more aggressive riding, because waiting until the third week to take the lead isn’t as bulletproof a strategy as in years past.

There are still 65 km to go. Man, I got up super early so I could see the riders tackle the Col de Menté and I’m not sure it was worth it.

Looks like Bardet’s issue was a crash. I hope he’s not badly hurt … I think he’s underrated and could be one of France’s best hopes for a great Tour.

The clown-haired guy, Jerome Cousin, has dropped the breakaway on the early slopes of the main climb of the day, the hors categorie Port de Balès, almost 12 km long averaging 7.7%. This guy has been on the front more than anybody else today. As for his hair, the announcer helpfully points out that the hair salons in France are all closed. Why doesn’t Cousin’s wife/other cut his hair? Who knows. Maybe she has a fetish for clown hair.

Wow, Cousin is really hauling ass! He’s got almost a minute on the rest of the breakaway. I wish I’d seen his attack, but I was, uh, detained. I’ve drunk a lot of coffee this morning and was making my own, uh, move.

Still, there are over 35 miles left to race, so this is still a fairly Quixotic move. Maybe Cousin felt like his breakaway companions were loafing, and is goading the strongest ones to bridge up.

My poor cat has been banished to the garage because she bothers my daughter’s sleep. But she’s crying piteously at the door and has been for like an hour. I’ve got to let her out. So things are about to get pretty dicey chez Albert.

So, here’s a quick recap of this Tour so far. On the GC front, Alaphilippe took the yellow jersey with an awesome move in an early stage, only to lose it the next day by getting an illegal feed, less than 20km from the finish. I can’t understand how a) he didn’t seem to know the rule, and b) his team mechanic, who passed up the bottle, also didn’t seem to know the rule. Since then, Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) has led the race, having been in the breakaway the day Alaphilippe won. Team Jumbo-Visma has ridden really well, setting up their leader, Primoz Roglic, for a brilliant stage win in the first mountain stage.

Team Ineos hasn’t been nearly as dominant as in years past, and in fact their leader, Egan Bernal, hasn’t looked that good. He’s recovering from back trouble that saw him drop out of the Criterium du Dauphiné a couple weeks ago. Richard Carapaz, the Plan B rider for Team Ineos, missed the split yesterday and lost 1:21. Oddly, Ineos didn’t put Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas on this year’s Tour team, despite them both being past Tour winners. I guess team management wasn’t happy with their form. Or maybe they were just being dicks, because they are. But I certainly won’t miss Froome, that doping d’bag.

There’s an American in the breakaway, Neilson Powless (EF-Education First), who had a great ride the other day, taking fourth in a mountain stage. The announcers are interviewing EF Team Manager Jonathan Vaughters, who boldly predicts that Powless will win today. I’m not overly superstitious, but I can’t help but to think Vaughters is dooming his rider. What are the odds that somebody makes such a pronouncement and then it comes to pass, especially when the rider is still fairly inexperienced?

Reza is dropped. He’d been doing a lot of work … perhaps it was all for his teammate, Quintin Pacher. Pacher is now in a more select group of three, with Zakarin and Nans Peters (AG2R-La Mondiale). They’re now joined by Toms Skujins (Trek-Segrafredo).

Back in the peloton, Jumbo-Visma is still controlling the pace. They’ve got some help from Bora-Hansgroe, working for their GC leader, Emanuel Buchmann.

Wow! In the blink of an eye, Cousin detonates and gets passed by Zakarin, Peters, and Pacher, who have dropped Skujins and the rest of the breakaway.

Now Zakarin and Peters have dropped the others.

Whoah, this is weird. France’s best hope for a GC win, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), is having serious problems, going out the back of the peloton, and his team is rallying around him!

Oh, no. His teammates are patting him on the back as if to comfort him. That can’t be a good sign. And now he is struggling even keep up with them. He’s clearly dying. This is hard to watch.

Ah, they’re showing a replay of him trying to deal with some back pain.

Jumbo-Visma is really controlling the GC group’s pace, and they seem to have most of their guys.

One of their super-domestiques, Robert Gesink, drills it at the front, flanked by Wout van Aert, who has won two (flat) stages in this Tour.

Up the road, Zakarin and Peters are still in the lead, with 36 seconds back to the chasers as they crest the Port de Balès. They’ve got a pretty long descent coming up though … that won’t be easy for them against a slightly larger group behind them.

Powless has been yo-yoing off the back of this chase group and makes contact just as they reach the summit.

Peters totally drops Zakarin on the descent. Zakarin looks really tentative. Look how he hangs his knee out … that’s bad enough in a curve, but he’s doing it well in advance of the next one.

Wow, Pinot is just done. You can tell. His group has lost almost five minutes already. Best case scenario now is that he stays in the race, starts to feel better in the next week or so, and can go for a stage win or two.

The American star Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) has been dropped. Van Aert takes up the pacemaking. Maybe Kuss is fried from all the work he did for his team yesterday, on flat roads in the wind … not exactly his forte.

The GC group is starting to pull back the breakaway, now about ten minutes back. They’re probably not too bummed about missing the chance for a stage win and/or time bonuses but they don’t want to leave it for too long.

Peters is tackling the final climb solo, having totally dusted Zakarin on the descent.

Zakarin doesn’t look so good on the climb, either, and continues to lose time to Peters. He’s now 33 seconds behind.

Maybe I spoke too soon. Peters is suffering pretty badly himself and the gap starts to come down. Needless to say, if Zakarin wants the stage win he’ll have to completely drop Peters on this climb, because Zakarin can’t descend for shit.

And now van Aert totally detonates! He’s spat out the back with a quickness. No shame there, though … he’s done a kickass job today. And all week.

Zakarin now has Peters in sight. But the gap isn’t coming down very quickly and we’ll have to see how Peters holds up.

Look at these fans. Clearly they need a tutorial on proper mask fitting. Maybe they pulled the masks down to better cheer the riders on, screaming their heads off four feet from the athletes’ faces? Fricking clowns.

Back in the GC group, Alaphilippe attacks!

This stretches things out a bit and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team), the oldest rider in the race, is dropped.

Wow, Alaphilippe suddenly completely detonates and he’s OTB!

Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates)attacks!

Pogacar is a major GC threat, despite missing a split yesterday and losing 1:21. None of the GC favorites will want to see him go. Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic) bridges right up! 

And Yates and Dumoulin are both dropped! Only Roglic can stay with Quintana and Pogacar! And Pogacar goes again!

Yates catches back on, and Dumoulin tries to claw his way back as well.

The GC group is on the verge of completely detonating. Look at all these little gaps. Bernal, in the white Young Rider jersey, hasn’t done much today except to hang on.

Pogacar has a pretty good gap! 

Up at the front, Peters is now growing his gap over Zakarin and near the summit has an awesome chance at taking the stage.

Carapaz is doing a great job for Bernal. It’s a pity Carapaz lost that time yesterday. I’d love to see a rivalry form, not because I enjoy insubordination per se, but because I (obviously) hate Ineos. Speaking of whom, they’re calling themselves the “Ineos Grenadiers” for this Tour, which is ridiculous. This team hasn’t lobbed a grenade all season, nor in last year’s Tour. Their typical tactic is gradual strangulation.

Pogacar has a pretty nice gap. He’s being chased by Richie Porte [Trek-Segafredo] and Mikel Landa (Bahrain-McLaren) who also lost time yesterday … all three need to make it up wherever they can.

Cripes, the crowds are as thick as ever, despite the race not allowing any motor vehicles up here. These guys all hiked for hours to get here.

Yates is dropped again! He only has three seconds on Roglic in the GC, so he could easily lose the jersey today. Enric Mas (Movistar Team) falls off as well. Mas is Movistar’s highest-placed rider, starting the day in 13th, only 22 seconds back.

And now Quintana attacks! Only Roglic can match him!

Roglic puts the hammer down on the descent! Surely he wants to take advantage of Yates being on the back foot.

Peters pretty much has this. Over the final climb and heading toward the finish, he leads Zakarin by almost a minute.

A mile later, Peters has got the win!

A bit later, Skujins outsprints Carlos Verona (Movistar Team) for second place. Evidently the two passed Zakarin, who must have completely blown up.

Ah, here’s Zakarin. I’ll bet he’s really regretting what a grandma he is on the descents. He surely wasted a ton of energy making up for it, and eventually blew.

Powless gets fifth on the day. Not bad for a rider who was jinxed by a general manager who needs to learn how to talk less.

Pogacar continues to drive, and now has 39 seconds on the GC group.

Back in the peloton, Yates has caught back up and the group is more together … and Bardet attacks!

Bardet is getting a pretty good gap!

Up the road, Pogacar finishes strong, taking back 39 or 40 seconds on the rest of the GC guys.

Alas, by the time they roll in, Bardet is all but caught. Look at Yates, leading the chase like a boss. Pretty impressive after he’d been dropped twice earlier. Note also Bernal just tucked in there, like always. I’m not that fond of Bernal. He never does anything aggressive or interesting … he’s just waiting for people to get tired. I don’t think he’s had his face in the wind a single-dingle time in this Tour.

Here’s the top ten for the stage.

They’re interviewing Peters. “Tell us about your win,” the interviewer begins. “Well, it’s my first Tour de France, and I’d had this dream of doing something special,” Peters replies. “It was kind of a weird dream. I was on my way to a job interview, wearing a nice suit and everything, and I was in an elevator, and I looked down and realized I was barefoot. Oh, wait. Wrong dream. Anyway.” To which the interviewer responds, “Okay, so you’re a dreamer. Is that why you forgot to put on a Covid mask for this interview?” Peters: “Oh, shit!”

And now Alaphilippe finally finishes, having lost about 13 minutes to the GC group.

Peters mounts the podium. He’s managed to find a mask and looks a bit chastened.

Now, finally, Pinot miserably rolls over the line with his team, almost 20 minutes behind the GC group. I hope he can recover in time to salvage some glory in the remaining two weeks of this Tour.

Peters also gets the combativity (most aggressive rider) award today. Note that podium girls are no longer a thing. Instead there’s always one man and one woman. The man often looks like a complete imbecile because there are things you can do with a dress that you cannot reasonably do with a suit, like being bright red. I’ll bet when this guy gets to Paris, and the whole race is over and he’s back at his hotel room, he’ll just take this suit off and stuff it in the trash.

Yates is being interviewed. “You got dropped there, what happened?” the interviewer asks. “Well,” Yates replies, “Dumoulin did a monster pull and I couldn’t hang, so I had to drop back and do my own pace for a while. I could have become demoralized but then I said to myself, hey man, it’s time to put the pussy on the chain wax!”

(Note: unless a rider actually says something interesting in an interview, I supply my own narrative. Clearly I’ve taken some liberties today. But Yates really did acknowledge Dumoulin’s hard work at the front.)

Dumoulin’s other teammates eventually faltered today, particularly Kuss, so Dumoulin had to take up the domestique work himself on the last climb, showing great loyalty to Roglic. This is notable because at various times Dumoulin, and others, have implied that he’s a co-leader of Jumbo-Visma. Today settled that … Dumoulin ended up sacrificing himself and losing a lot of time on GC such that he’s likely no longer a contender for the podium.

Here’s the new top-ten on GC. Bardet moved up a few spots (gleaning two seconds today), and Pogacar climbed a bit.

Main takeaways from today? Ineos remains fairly unimpressive; Jumbo-Visma is still pretty solid; Yates did an awesome job keeping his cool and defending his jersey; Quintana looks solid; Pinot is out; Alaphilippe will officially be looking only for stage wins; and a lot of these spectators are making me really nervous.

Tune in again a week from tomorrow when I return to cover Stage 15, which finishes atop the hors categorie Grand Colombier!

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