Saturday, November 7, 2020

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2020 Vuelta a España Stage 20


To me, sport seems kind of pointless during this pandemic. The articles on the front page of the sports section of the paper (yes, I get an old school paper newspaper, a phrase which seems redundant but obviously isn’t) seem almost insultingly trivial: “Niners face weak defense next week,” or “Smith starting in St. Louis despite hangnail.” And yet, we have to do something during shelter-in-place so I’m bringing you an (almost) live report of the final and decisive stage of this year’s Vuelta a España, a brutal course finishing on an hors categorie summit (or “especial” as they call it in Spanish).

Don’t worry: if you’ve ignored this Vuelta thus far, I’ll bring you up to speed along the way. And if there’s any funny business around a rider doing something “not normal,” I won’t bite my tongue.

2020 Vuelta a España Stage 17 – Sequeros to Alto de la Covatilla

As I join the action, there are about 52 kilometers left in the stage, which means nothing really is happening as the course is merely lumpy for a while. The announcer is describing some castle, reading off his cue card. You know, they could just make shit up, nobody would know. “This was the fortress of the 98th king of Spain, Juan the Bloated, or ‘Juan el Hinchado’ as they called him, the inventor of the gordita, named after his daughter, who was chubby—but cute! Hinchado famously had his chef executed for substituting ground turkey in his gorditas.”

A rider has punctured and needs the service car. To be clear, the rider himself didn’t puncture, it was one of the tires on his bike. Can you imagine if it were the rider himself? He’d need more than Shimano neutral support. Speaking of which, it’s sad not to see the yellow Mavic neutral support cars anymore. I guess Mavic folded. Anyone who enjoyed the wonderful reliability of GP4 rims back in the day will be sad about this.

So here’s what’s been going on over the last three weeks. Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), last year’s champion, is on fire, winning several stages and holding the GC lead (as well as the points jersey, the extra layer being welcome as the weather has been chilly). He looks bigger and beefier than he did in the Tour de France this year, which was his race to win until he spectacularly faded in the final time trial (though to be fair, it wasn’t such a bad ride but was overshadowed to say the least). In a post-stage interview recently, Roglic even called himself a sprint specialist, which is noteworthy because it’s the first interesting thing he’s ever said.

Missing from the lineup this year is last year’s third place Vuelta finisher, Tadej Pogacar. Pogacar is just plain worn out, after winning the Tour de France along with its KOM competition, its young rider competition, its Bic Best Handwriting competition, and its Lola Ascore Most Elegant Rider competition. He was even Prom King at his junior high this year. He’s wise beyond his years to insist on resting now.

I’m not hugely fond of this Aussie announcer, and I’ve just realized whom he sounds like: Borat. It’s not the same accent exactly, but there’s a similar mournful quality to his delivery. Joining him is this British gal who, being British, sounds super smart.

Getting back to my recap: sitting second on GC is the Ineos Grenadiers rider Richard Carapaz, who is only 45 seconds back. He lost five of those seconds on a sprinter’s stage yesterday, because Roglic contested the finish and took second—like a boss! It’s so rare to see a GC rider duking it out in a bunch sprint … I was pretty impressed. Plus, you can watch Roglic yelling, “Fuck!” at the end, as if it were a great shame not to beat all the real sprinters at their own game. I watched this a number of times because I needed to confirm he really said this. (“Fuck” is not his native tongue, of course. Being Slovenian he should have yelled “hudiča!” though that would be more cumbersome.) Notably, Roglic lost yesterday to Magnus Cort (EF Pro Cycling) who recovered from COVID just a few weeks before the Vuelta started. I know this sounds like the kind of crap I would make up, but it’s actually true. Click here for details.

As the riders approach the base of the penultimate climb, it’s starting to rain. Good, good. I want this to be epic!

So yeah, Carapaz is only 45 seconds back, and is a damn good climber. He’s also a very aggressive rider, as we saw during last year’s Giro d’Italia, which he won handily (despite starting as a domestique for the always-disappointing Mikel Landa), having impressively soloed to a mountain stage win in the process. Carapaz’s Ineos team kind of sucks right now (which warms my heart) but he can’t be counted out. Could Roglic falter today? Wouldn’t be the first time.

The announcers are talking about the riders’ shoes. Insoles, to be precise. So you know you’re not missing anything as I ramble on about the current GC.

Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling) sits third on GC only eight seconds behind Carapaz, and has been named the strongest rider in the race by no less an authority than Alberto Contador. Carthy won the queen stage this year, on the famous Alto  de l’Angliru climb. (Don’t worry, the announcers are talking about a church right now, where, they say, two bored nuns invented the bikini—no they didn’t—so you’re still not missing anything.) If you want to see a thrilling stage, go back and watch that one (it’s Stage 12, from last Sunday). Roglic faded that day, and Carapaz tried to do maximum damage, but Roglic’s stalwart teammate, the American Sepp Kuss, did an amazing job of pacing Roglic and helped him minimize his losses.

The announcers are talking about pedal systems so there’s still nothing to report, so I’ll alert you to a great tale from years past, that being my own coverage of the Angliru stage of the 2013 Vuelta. That was an amazing stage, the penultimate test of that year’s Vuelta. I reread it last year just before getting to do a fundraising ride with Chris Horner, the winner of that Vuelta. I wanted to be able to recount that stage if I happened to have the chance to chat with Horner during the ride. Amazingly, I did … in fact, he gave me the whole story as we rode up Wildcat Canyon. Talk about a biased blow-by-blow! It was great. I told him, “I always kind of liked Nibali,” to which he replied, “Oh, he’s an asshole!”

Movistar is on the front, driving the pace to set up their leader, Enric Mas, who sits fifth on GC, 3:29 down. Mas is very good, and is rocking the white best young rider’s jersey (as he did in the Tour, IIRC), but he had a fairly lousy time trial.

Marc Soler (Movistar Team) attacks! Why would he, with a teammate to support? Well, he has a history of this. I guess so long as he doesn’t drag anyone with him, it’s fine … a second stage win for him would be a bigger deal than Mas taking fifth on GC.

I guess I should mention there’s a breakaway. It has only 1:15, down from over three minutes when I started watching, so it’s not likely to stay off. Speaking of doomed efforts, twice a Deceuninck-Quick Step rider has tried to solo in a stage in this Vuelta, only to be caught with like 2 km to go. Yesterday it was Remi Cavagna … pretty heartbreaking to watch.

You know it’s a cold day because Soler is sporting full leg warmers and arm warmers. You almost never see that despite the guys’ single-digit body fat.

Soler’s numbers are colored red. I reckon that’s due to his team leading the overall.

One clever thing about Soler’s attack is that it takes the burden off Movistar to do any pacemaking. Of course, that burden was Movistar’s own choice anyway. Now Jumbo-Visma dutifully takes up the chase.

Soler’s teammate Imanol Erviti, who’s been up in the breakaway, comes back to help him. Classic move, nicely played.

With 24 km to go, the riders finish the Alto de la Garganta and descend toward the final climb.

Now the breakaway hits the climb. Mark Donovan (Sunweb) attacks as they hammer up the cobblestone street.

What an awesome, narrow little road. This climb would be hard enough without the riders’ world being pixellated!

Interestingly, the breakaway’s gap is going up with 16 km to go. It’s at about 2:30 now.

The upcoming Alta de la Covatilla is pretty tough: a 7.1% average grade, with ramps of 10 to 12% for 3 km straight. Wouldn’t it be funny if I screwed up and called it the Col de la Covitalla? Because that would mean “the cabbage of the Covatilla.” Yeah, you’re right. That wouldn’t actually be that funny.

The breakaway is very large and their gap is up to 3:09. This is a bit annoying because now I have to try to figure out who they all are. I’ll give you the first three: Ion Izagirre (Astana Pro), Gino Mäder (NTT Pro Cycling), and Donovan. They have a 39 second gap to the rest of the break.

Here’s Izagirre. He looks suitably badass.

Back in the GC group, Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) detonates. He’s supposed to be helping his teammate David de la Cruz, who sits tenth on GC, but clearly Costa doesn’t have the minerals today. On top of that, he was relegated to last place in the lead group yesterday for a dangerous sprint. Maybe that demoralized him. Should we care, with 9.5 million Americans falling victim to the coronavirus? Probably not.

As the GC group begins the final climb in earnest, Carapaz doesn’t have a single teammate left. What happened to Ineos? Did their medic quit in a huff? Did they have supply chain problems getting their “marginal gains” products? Who knows, and who cares. By the way, as far as doping, I’ll give Carapaz the benefit of the doubt at this point. He only just joined the team this year.

With only 7 km to go, it’s clear the GC group doesn’t care about the breakaway. Jumbo-Visma is just watching Carapaz, hoping he doesn’t have the ability to attack. Everybody is pretty blown of course, after 15 stages. Sam Bennett and Kuss set the pace for their Jumbo-Visma leader.

Up in the break, Izagirre attacks!

Mäder is able to react, but Soler is shelled! Now it’s just between these two.

Back in the group, you know the hammer has gone down because the riders are all stretched out. Ide Schelling (Bora-Honsgrohe) is on the front with Jumbo-Visma still vigilant.

Plot twist! Donovan has made his way back to the leaders and now goes right to the front.

In the GC group, Schelling continues to hammer on the front.

The fog gets thicker as Izagirre makes his way, suddenly solo. When did that happen?

No sign of anything from Carapaz. Perhaps he’s just knackered.

Crazy! Up in the break, David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) has come out of nowhere, caught Izagirre, and now attacks!

Gaudu quickly gets a gap!

And now, back in the GC group, Carthy attacks!

Carapaz (in the green points leader’s jersey, on loan from Roglic) is right on Carthy! The cameraman is so excited he’s trembling and can’t hold the camera still, so the picture is all blurry!

Kuss looks like he’s in trouble! Roglic has to chase the attack down himself!

Now Mas attacks but Carapaz is right on him! This group is dwindling fast.

And here it is—Carapaz attacks! Roglic has nobody to help him! He chases, but the gap immediately goes up! Carapaz is aided by the blinding sunlight, diffused as it is by the mist!

It’s head-down time for Carapaz! The camera guy is so fired up, he continues to shake! Maybe he needs a cigarette! Maybe he’s got the delirium tremens!

Mas fades and it’s all up to Roglic now!

Carapaz suddenly has 21 seconds! He’s totally drilling it! He’s halfway to closing up the GC gap and winning the Vuelta!

The grade eases and Carapaz is in full TT mode!

Suddenly Roglic has a teammate. It’s Lennard Hofstede. Wow, he really got his ass in gear and now might just save this Vuelta for Roglic.

Carapaz passes some guys from the break. He’s crushing it! And yet, without a steep climb at his disposal, his gap over Roglic is bound to shrink.

At the front, Gaudu is still solo. I think he’s got this, unless he has a headwind or something. Note the windmills in the background.

Carapaz has 25 seconds. Remember, he needs 45.

Gaudu takes the stage win!

It’s really unfortunate that he did the cheesy make-a-heart victory salute. He’ll probably regret that later, when the euphoria of the stage win (his second in this Vuelta) has worn off.

Now Carapaz is at the 1 km kite. But his lead has dwindled to only 19 seconds.

Second and third are taken by breakaway riders, so there are no more time bonuses.

Carthy heads for the line solo, giving it everything, in his bid to move up on GC. He must be thinking of the 8-second deficit he started the day with, not the greater deficit that now exists due to Carapaz’s big attack. I can’t blame Carthy for getting confused … it’s been a long Vuelta. If I were in his shoes, I’d probably get so confused I’d ride in the wrong direction entirely and have a head-on collision with somebody.

Carapaz hits the finish line, and it looks like he won’t have a big enough gap! Still, it’s impressive he made the attack, despite having no teammates on the final climb and probably being a bit wappered.

And now Roglic is solo, giving it everything, looking a bit silly with his bright yellow arm warmers but nonetheless defending his Vuelta with aplomb.

Roglic approaches the finish line, with plenty of time left. But suddenly there’s another rider, some Astana guy, trying to beat him to the line! But the Astana guy is going the wrong way! He’s heading for the wrong end zone! What the hell is he thinking?! And now he’s pulled his foot out of the pedal! He’s a disaster!

All is well. Roglic’s catlike reflexes carried the day. Turns out the Astana guy just wanted to be the first to shake Roglic’s hand.

They’re interviewing Gaudu, the stage winner. The interviewer asks him something in Spanish, probably some version of “How’d it go?” The probable language barrier doesn’t seem to matter because Gaudu just starts spewing—I mean, he’s just talking up a storm, doesn’t need any prompts. He’s like the opposite of Roglic. Unfortunately, it’s all in French, and despite having studied this cryptic language for years, I can’t quite keep up. Here’s my best effort:

“I’d like to thank my teammates because that’s kind of, like, required. Also, I want  to apologize for that stupid make-a-heart-shape victory salute. I don’t know what got into me. In the moment you just get emotional, you know? See, I woke up this morning and I said to myself, the cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness, so today has to be my day, my soul’s escaping through this hole that is gaping,  this world is mine for the taking, make me king, as we move toward a New World Order, a normal life is boring, and I’m sorry—did you say something?”

Here’s Roglic on the podium, having valiantly defended his GC lead today.

And now here is the stage result:

Here is the (almost) final GC (heading into the final, nothing sprinters’ stage tomorrow):

Now they’re interviewing Enric Mas, who consolidated his 5th overall today along with the Best Young Rider jersey. “Would you like to do this in English or Spanish?” the reporter asks. “Oh, English is fine,” Mas says. “I’m working on my English. Today I tackle the hypothetical subjunctive: I would have liked to have had a better day today and perhaps make the podium.” Wow, he nailed it! Unfortunately, the cameraman seems to have abruptly bailed so we don’t get to hear any mo.’ No Más.

And now, finally, they’ve found Roglic, who had gotten lost in one of the changing rooms, to interview him. “It is very nice to defend my lead today,” he says, and then suddenly I can’t hear anything else because he’s drowned out by a sudden burst of noise from a bunch of fans’ vuvuzelas. It’s crazy, they just came out of nowhere, and there’s also the clanging of a bunch of pots and pans being banged together. It goes on and on. And oddly enough, the sound isn’t coming from my laptop, but from outside my house. Something is going on right here, in my neighborhood. Oh, I’ll bet it’s about the election! In fact—I gotta go!


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