Saturday, March 13, 2021

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2021 Paris-Nice Stage 7


It has become harder and harder to watch bike races online for free. Meanwhile, Europe is six to nine hours ahead of the US, and getting up early is hard. Plus, it’s rare to get find interesting (i.e., snarky, honest, judgmental) commentary that can breathe life into a race. That’s why I rise before dawn to provide no-tongue-bitten blow-by-blow reports in (near) real time.

Today I cover the key stage of this year’s Paris-Nice stage race. The race concludes tomorrow, unless (as happened last year) they cancel the final stage due to the pandemic. But they probably won’t, as I’ll get into shortly.

Paris-Nice Stage 7 – Le Broc to Valdeblore la Colmiane

As I join the action, the riders are just over the … crap, I really have no idea where they are. The course profile map means nothing because the course was changed up at the last minute due to COVID concerns. They should call it the Paris-Levens because the race will not actually ever reach Nice. As detailed here, a few days ago the mayor of Nice said, “What? A bike race? In my town?! During lockdown? C’est impossible!” Why he couldn’t have said this weeks or months ago, I have no idea. But I’m good and pissed off because today’s shortened stage—which still finishes atop the Category 1 Valdeblore la Colmiane—will wrap up at about 6:00 a.m. my time. So I had to get up at 4:30 to give this blow-by-blow. You’re welcome.

So the riders are on some unnamed climb. They’ve got 34 kilometers to go. My coffee hasn’t kicked in so it took 6km for me to write that last paragraph. My brain is barely working. The announcer, some Australian guy who always sounds kind of lugubrious, and who is working solo because NBC couldn’t pony up enough money for a second commentator, was just talking about Julian Alaphilippe, who isn’t even in this race, and is now talking about how well sprinters can climb, which of course is completely untrue. So he’s making no sense which isn’t helping me get oriented.

There’s an intermediate sprint and Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) takes it, to pad his lead in the green jersey competition.

Bennett didn’t have to sprint very hard because he’s in a 15-man breakaway that evidently doesn’t feature any other sprinters. He kind of looked back at the others as he easily crushed them, perhaps with an annoyed look like, “Why are you even making me sprint? You know you can’t beat me. Why don’t we all agree those points are mine and skip the sprint, so as not to mess up our rhythm?” Or maybe he thought nothing of the kind, or indeed nothing at all, or something more like “Hulk kill!” because maybe that’s how sprinters’ brains work. I sure as hell wouldn’t know.

The announcer is talking about kits, as in team costumes. He’s using the word over and over again, kit kit kit, as if to deliberately annoy me since (as detailed here) I’m not fond of that term. God, he won’t shut up about it. Kit, kit, kit. I’m going to take a little break here (the coffee is kicking in) and when I get back here, he better be on to another subject!

The breakaway has a little over a minute on the main bunch, and is .pppppppppppppppppppppp87oeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee dang it, my cat is walking across the keyboard. She doesn’t understand why I’m up in what must seem to her like the middle of the night, and it’s got her all stirred up.

So anyway, it’s like a dozen guys in this break. I won’t give their names because a minute six just isn’t enough with 16 km still to go. Here’s what lies ahead … check out this great little road snaking its way up the climb.

The break is starting to fall apart … look at this UAE Team Emirates dude going off the back. It’s David de la Cruz.

Wow, Bennett has totally given up, and just pulls over and stops to let the peloton go by! Yesterday his team was working for him toward the end of the stage and he was in great position until just a few kilometers to go when he just completely detonated and went straight out the back.

It’s 15km to go and the gap to what’s left of the break is down to 47 seconds.

Here’s what’s happened in this stage race so far. In the time trial, some young French guy I’ve never heard of named Stefan Bissegger took the win, wearing a totally ridiculous helmet that is an embarrassment to this—and in fact, all—sport.

Perennial favorite Primoz Roglic (Team Jumbo-Visma) took third in the TT, putting him in striking distance of the GC lead, and right behind him was a young American, Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates)—who handily beat the bizarre, probably sociopathic prima donna Rohan Dennis (Ineos Grenadiers), by the way—and moved into third overall. Alas, McNulty crashed out yesterday.

Then Roglic won stage 4, took the yellow jersey, kept it for stage 5 (which Bennett won, his second stage win), and then triumphed again in stage 6 to pad his lead. He came into this stage with 41 seconds over Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), last year’s GC winner. In third is Ion Izagirre (Astana-Premier Tech) at 0:50, with Aleksander Vlasov (also Astana-Premier Tech) in fourth at 0:51. Fifth is an American, Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar Team) at 1:08.

Simon Geschke (Cofidis) attacks the field. Pretty sweet attack—he’s got a big gap right away.

I know that’s a pretty lousy photo I managed to get—I’m doing my best—but at least you can see Geschke’s beard. You might think a beard would slow a rider down due to the poor aerodynamics, but I’ve actually found through firsthand experience that a beard makes you faster. Probably my best ride at the Everest Challenge was when I was rocking a beard (though not as sweet as Geschke’s).

Up at the front, the break is down to three riders: Neilson Powless (EF Education-Nippo), Kenny Elissonde (Trek-Segafredo), and Gino Mäder (Bahrain Victorious). Note how I put Powless first, even though he’s sitting third and not really working. That’s because I’m an American, born American, and these colors don’t run!

(You can’t really see Powless in that photo but trust me, he’s there, trying to close the gap to Mäder.)

The break’s lead is going back up, now 57 seconds with just under 10km to go. They might just have a chance! Back in the field, Jumbo-Visma is setting tempo, swallowing up the human shrapnel from the breakaway.

Cofidis has been doing a lot of work for their leader, Guillame Martin (Cofidis) who launched an early and doomed sprint yesterday, and sits 1:41 down on GC. It’s kind of cute how they still have faith in him.

Geschke is riding well and scoops up a breakaway orphan.

The break is still kicking ass, now up to 1:07 ahead, with Mäder doing all the work.

This climb is very long but not that steep, only 6.2% average. It occurs to me that you, gentle reader, may or may not have a visceral sense of what 6.2% feels like. I have long felt that I did, but as I ponder this more deeply, I realize that these pro riders are essentially a different species and whatever I think of 6.2%, it would feel totally different to them, like a false flat or something.

Mäder attacks! Instantly Elissonde detonates. (He was in a doomed breakaway yesterday and is surely pretty fried from that.) Now it’s just Mäder vs. Powless.

Wow, Powless reels Mäder back pretty easily. He’s had his Wheaties today.

These dudes need to pick it up though, as their lead is down to just 49 seconds. Powless better think about doing some work.

Mäder takes the final intermediate sprint. These two riders are no real threat to the GC, about 2:30 down, so maybe Jumbo-Visma won’t chase too hard.

Mäder attacks again but it’ a tentative testing-the-waters type move.

With 5km to go, they’re at 35 seconds. Powless grimaces and suddenly, he’s off the back!

The mournful-sounding announcer is talking about Mäders awesome attack but really, Powless simply died and Mäder sped up a bit in response. His lead has gone out to 37 seconds. If Mäder pulls this off, it’ll be his first-ever World Tour victory…

Back in the peloton, Fabian Aru (Qhubeka Assos) goes off the back. He officially sucks now. Funny that he was once thought to be a Tour de France contender.

Jumbo-Visma is no longer at the front of the GC group. I don’t know who all these guys are, it’s like amateur hour. I mean, they’re all pros obviously, but no clear leadership.

Okay, I stand corrected. The rider on the front is George Bennett, riding for Jumbo-Visma as Roglic’s super-domestique. He’s rocking the New Zealand national champion’s jersey. (As discussed here the New Zealand federation rejected the original design for this jersey, in a bureaucratic dustup worthy of Flight of the Conchords.)

This race just isn’t that exciting. Maybe I’m just not awake enough. There should be stirring background music. Could I scrounge up a radio at this point? Too much work. And who still has a radio, anyway?

Bennett is still on the front, setting too high a pace to allow any GC hopefuls to attack. With Roglic so dominant in this year’s race, would it kill Jumbo-Visma to toy with the peloton a bit, just to make things more interesting? By doing a great job, Bennett is actually making the race a bit boring.

Mäder looks impressive at the front despite his terrible sunglasses.

He’s still got 38 seconds, with just under 3km to go. This dude is putting the pussy on the chain wax!

Crap, Microsoft Word has frozen! I’ve lost my report! And now Roglic starts hammering at the front! I’m stuck with Notepad and nowhere to paste screen shots! Damn Microsoft to Hell!

As I fight with my software, the race is coming to a head! I’m running to and fro like Mary Macgregor in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie during the hotel fire! If you remember that! This is the wrong kind of excitement! Mäder’s lead is coming down as the much-diminished lead group throttles up! The GC hopefuls are running out of road to take time out of Roglic!

OMG, it’s a real nail-biter! Mäder might have just enough road to keep his lead and win! But now in the group Roglic attacks again! He’s insatiable!

It’s a blistering attack and only Schachmann can respond!

OMG, it’s coming down to the wire! Roglic is absolutely flying just as Mäder bogs down! Can he hang on? This would be the biggest win of Mäder’s career, and he has ridden so well today … he’s so near the finish … could Roglic run out of road? Crap, here he comes, with Schachmann in tow!

Roglic drops Schachmann and thus has the GC pretty much in the bag, but still he keeps coming! Poor Mäder is hanging on for dear life, the finish line just a couple dozen meters away!

Roglic passes Mäder, ruthlessly and needlessly! Mäder looks back to see what’s going on, surely puzzled as to why Roglic would do such a thing, with all his GC foes clearly vanquished!

And Roglic has the stage win, as if he needed it! Look at him celebrating like this was anything but a dick move!

As they show a super-slo-mo replay of the finish, we can see Mäder make a very small gesture: he just kind of raises a hand halfway up like a non-psycho cyclist does when a car cuts him off, kind of a “what the hell” thing.

I totally get Mäder’s gesture. The cool thing for Roglic to have done would have been to be content with taking a few more seconds out of the other GC riders, and let Mäder win while making it look realistic. Roglic could have put on a face of anguish and suffering while falling just short of overtaking the young Swiss rider, who could then enjoy his victory. It would be literally a win-win. Instead this seems never to have occurred to the yellow-clad dumbass.

(You might think that’s an unrealistic scenario, and that any athlete would have instinctively taken the win if he could. Not so. I have personal experience with this: in the 1985 Red Zinger Mini Classic, it was obvious that Peter Stubenrauch was not only the best rider in the race, but by far the best sprinter, yet he routinely let me win primes so as to not be too greedy. The first time he inexplicably eased up at the line to let me take a prime, I looked over like “WTF?!” and he just grinned. And this wasn’t because we were friends, as we weren’t—yet. Now, over 35 years later, we still are. I’m guessing Mäder and Roglic won’t be friends in the year 2056.)

Roglic is being interviewed. “You have to win everything, don’t you,” the interviewer sneers. Roglic responds, “Yes, I wanted to win, because ... why not?” He trails off now because he can’t think of a single other thing to say. The announcer prods him further: “Take me through the last 100 meters. You know you’d stomped out the other GC hopefuls, and you were in a position to be gracious and elevate your profile among the fans, which must be important to you because you generally come off as some sort of robot and surely you can grasp that your career depends not just on your palmarès but on your connecting to people, which can lead to all kinds of lucrative endorsements and so forth. And yet you not only cruelly passed up Mäder, but also did this great big alpha-male victory salute as if this were the most impressive victory of your career when really it doesn’t matter much, your dominance here actually making the race look bad, like it’s unimportant, like your main rivals had  bigger ambitions and hadn’t trained specifically for it because it’s only Paris-Nice. The way you punched the sky, it was just so tone-deaf, bringing to mind the smarty-pants kid in the classroom who’s constantly putting his hand up and, when the teacher ignores him, raises it higher, higher, higher, so his shoulder is raised, half his butt is lifting off the chair, and he’s going ‘Ooh, ooh, ooh’ and can’t figure out why the teacher won’t call at him yet again. What was going through your mind, if anything, at that moment?” Roglic seems dumbfounded and finally replies, “It was really tight at the end so I was really happy to [crush out this young rider’s dream and notch another unimportant victory because obviously I’m riding the best right now but it’s only Paris-Nice and nobody so maybe I should reflect that this isn’t good for my image but I’m too stupid].”

That’s a really poor photo I’ve managed to get but you know what? Roglic doesn’t deserve better because he’s just an asshole. (Oh, by the way … that interview? I’m not sure I got it verbatim. My mind wandered a bit during Roglic’s protracted speechless interval and it’s possible I made some shit up. Okay, I totally did. But I think I stayed true to the spirit of the dialogue the interviewer would have liked to have had.)

Here is the stage result.

And here is the new GC.

Our top American, Matteo Jorgenson, slipped from fifth to tenth. Too bad. (No, I’m not a rabid patriot or anything, but my poor country has taken such a beating with COVID, it’d be nice to see us do well at something.)

Now Roglic takes the podium. I have little to say here. Haven’t we seen enough of this?

At least Mäder wins the combativity award for today. Poor guy … he really doesn’t look very happy.

Tomorrow is the final stage and though it features four Cat 2 climbs and one Cat 1, the last summit is over 30km from the end, so the GC is not likely to change much. That said, as the master strategist Roglic said in his (actual) interview, “It’s not really finished until you reach the finish line.” Damn. He’s practically a poet.

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