Saturday, May 22, 2021

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2021 Giro d’Italia Stage 14


If (in a normal, non-pandemic year) you were to watch the Giro d’Italia in a sports bar in Italy, you’d certainly expect the fans to be biased towards the local riders. Meanwhile, if you were to do the same in the U.S., the bias would be toward baseball or football even if it were the queen stage, and the bartender would just grunt at you if you begged him to turn one of their 50 screens to the race. But don’t worry, you’re in good hands here. I’m biased towards clean riders, if any, and those showing grit and panache. So sit bold upright in that straight-backed hair, grab a bottle of Cytomax, and settle in for my blow-by-blow coverage of the surely pivotal Stage 14 of this year’s Giro, finishing atop the famous Monte Zoncolan.

Giro d’Italia Stage 14 – Citadella to Monte Zoncolan

As I join the action, there is the inevitable Hendrix perm. I’ll bet you thought I was gonna say inevitable breakaway! Nope, not me, I’m not quite awake enough for that, I’m “talking dog farts,” as they say. Well, okay, you got me, it’s the inevitable breakaway. They’ve got about eight and a half minutes with 67 kilometers to go, as they start the penultimate climb, the Forcella Monte Rest, which looks pretty brutal on paper but is only a Category 2. How could it be, when it’s 10 kilometers long and is steep enough to require switchbacks like these?

The break is like eight guys including two from Trek-Segafredo, one of whom is Bauke Mollema, a very solid rider who is somehow all the way down in 39th, close to 42 minutes back. But then, that’s the kind of Giro this has been … if you’re not in the top ten, you’ve been completely blown out the back on one stage or another. For example, Romain Bardet (Team DSM), once a hopeful, is in eleventh but like three and a half minutes back, with only two of seven mountain stages completed.

Speaking of blown out the back, here’s a guy who lost a fair bit of time when few expected it: it’s Remco Evenepoel of Deceuninck-QuickStep, widely considered to be the biggest threat to current race leader Egan Bernal of the Ineos Grenadiers.

Evenepoel looks to me like the kind of rider who would lose time in the mountains, because he’s not utterly emaciated and twiggy like a proper climber. And yet, his recent tumble in the GC—he fell from second to seventh—was in the Strade Bianche stage which was mostly flat (just a couple of Cat 3s). This course had a lot of dirt sections that clearly spooked him. You see, he wasn’t on a gravel bike. It’s commonly known that anything but perfect asphalt requires a very special kind of bike with fat tires and … shoot, I’m no expert, but I know gravel bikes have loads of special features which is why you need to go right out and buy one. But for some reason the racers don’t get them, and Evenepoel was a bit hesitant on the dirt sections, especially when descending. The Ineos Granadiers, and other teams with GC aspirations, seized on this and drilled it all day, hanging poor Evenepoel out to dry with just one teammate to pace him. It was a glorious stage, even if I’d prefer to see Evenepoel thrive.

In the breakaway, Jacopo Mosca (Trek-Segafredo) drives the pace.

They’re interviewing Emanuel Buchmann of Bora-Hansgrohe, who has had a great Giro so far and sits sixth overall at 1:50.

INTERVIEWER: Emanuel, I was just reading on albertnet that you’ve had a great Giro so far.

BUCHMANN: Well, that Dana guy … he would know, wouldn’t he?

INTERVIEWER: Is it true you were named after a French softcore porn film?

BUCHMANN: Why does everyone ask me that? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Can we please talk about the bike race?

INTERVIEWER: Sorry, yeah, so … what kind of gearing will you run for the Zoncolan?

BUCHMANN: 34 in the front, 32 in the rear.

INTERVIEWER: Will you attack?

BUCHMANN: Not in that kind of gear, obviously. Hell, dudes use to ride this with a proper 42-tooth inner ring. I’m apparently just hoping to hold on.

INTERVIEWER: Does it concern you that while you’re standing here being interviewed, the peloton is going up the road?

BUCHMANN: Damn, good point. I’d better head out.

I hope you gather from that interview how fast and loose I play it with my reporting. It’s really hard to keep up with the dialogue while also catching you up on previous stages, and sometimes I miss a word, phrase, sentence, or most of the interview. That bit about the 34/32 is true, though. Weird.

The break reaches the summit of the Monte Rest. Vincenzo Albanese (Eolo-Kometa) shrugs off the KOM, instead prepping for the descent.

I took a little break and now the peloton reaches the summit, with Astana-Premier Tech forcing the pace for their leader, Aleksander Vlasov, who sits second on GC, only 45 seconds behind Bernal.

On the descent, which is so twisty and technical it’s hard to get a worthwhile snapshot for you, the peloton totally splits! Dudes are taking advantage of their giant balls to open up a gap! The front group has Bernal in it, no less … if you squint you can see him on the back there.

Now this small Maglia Rosa group, with at least two Astana riders, pushes their advantage over a small climb.

Farther back, Evenepoel is actually in the third group, like twenty seconds back, paced by a teammate.

I feel kind of bad for Evenepoel … he had a bad crash last year which has probably shaken his confidence. But that’s bike racing … you have to be good at everything, all the time. It’s not like football where a player can be good at exactly one thing and make a ton of money at it. Imagine if they made a place kicker throw a pass now and then, or asked the QB to block a little. What a bunch of pussies.

Now the second group has made contact with the first. Deceuninck-QuickStep hammers the pace to bring the gap down for Evenepoel.

And now they make contact, to Evenepoel’s great relief (and perhaps embarrassment).

So, no huge crisis for Evenepoel but I’ll bet he wasted a lot of energy he’d rather have held on to with the Zoncolan looming. I’m sure he’s dreading this climb, taking on a real climber like Bernal with his fearsome and decidedly “not normal” Ineos team. Poor Evenepoel. He’s gotta be so nervous. Talk about pucker-factor ... I’ll bet you couldn’t pull a needle out of his asshole with a tractor (to paraphrase the writer Craig Johnson).

It’s not just Ineos that Evenepoel has to worry about, though. Astana seems to be going really well in this Giro, they’ve been on the front a lot today, and they’ve still got at least five guys in the peloton.

Oh man, they’re showing conditions at the finish … looks pretty brutal, especially if it rains.

So, the announcers are saying this side of the Zoncolan hasn’t been ridden in over a decade and has sections of over 15%, hence Buchmann’s gearing choice. So if anyone in this break survives, it won’t be because of the six minutes they have right now—it’ll be because they’re great ungodly godlike men. I’ll share a few more names of breakaway riders: we’ve got George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma), his teammate Edoardo Affini, Alessandro Covi (UAE Team Emirates), Lorenzo Fortunato (Eolo-Kometa) and … to hell with it, I can’t keep them all straight.

A few kilometers before the Zoncolan starts, Affini takes the intermediate sprint and it looks like he’s suffered mightily in the process.

Affini is a complete badass, by the way. In yesterday’s pancake-flat sprint stage, he took a glorious flier right toward the end and just about took the win. Only Giacomo Nizzolo (Team Qhubeka Assos) came by him, with a perfectly executed sprint (to take his first win after eleven second-place finishes, heartwarmingly enough). Here’s a fun fact: the guy who took fifth, Fernando Gavia (UAE Team Emirates) lost his saddle like 1.5 kilometers out and finished the race without it. He was not sanctioned for the loss of equipment, by the way, which just shows how much laxer the laws are over in Italy. True story: I was pulled over by a cop for riding with my young kid on my top tube. The law is that the number of riders on a bicycle must equal the number of saddles. No joke. (I didn’t get a ticket, BTW. As soon as I saw the squad car I said, “Alexa, start crying, quick, or we’re both going to jail!”)

Mosca takes the lead, pacing Mollema.

As the break threads through a darling little village at the base of the Zoncolan, we get almost the complete (pared-down) roster.

Looks like Mosca blew. The break’s lead is holding up pretty well—actually, it’s gone up a bit—so it could be a few of these guys will stay away. Kind of depends on how much trouble the GC riders give Bernal.

Incidentally, Gianni Moscon (Ineos) appears to still be in the peloton supporting Bernal. This is impressive, as he had a fearsome crash on a descent the other day, trying to keep up with Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo). Good to see he was (apparently) unhurt.

In the break, Jan Tratnik (Bahrain-Victorious) kind of rolls off the front.

I dunno, I think Tratnik looks more like a NASCAR driver than a cyclist.

Doesn’t he kind of look like the guy who would buy you beer at the bowling alley?

As the break approaches the 10K banner, it’s kind of coming apart. If you look closely you’ll see that Lorenzo Fortunato (Eolo-Kometa) has dropped the others (he’s right at the banner).

The gap grows between Fortunato and the rest of the break. He’s got Tratnik almost in sight.

Back in the peloton, Moscon takes the front for Bernal as they cross under 10 kilometers to go. Note Mascon’s bandages … could be worse of course.

Looks like Vlasov, in the white young rider’s jersey, doesn’t have many teammates helping him. I think a couple are sucking wind at the back but they’re probably done. Ineos, of course, has five guys still (not including the team medic who is making this all possible).

Moscon blows up, pulls off, and is now going backwards.

Up ahead, Fortunato catches Tratnik! They’re way ahead of the other breakaway riders but we don’t have numbers yet.

Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana-Premier Tech) detonates and goes out the back, leaving Vlasov further isolated.

Fortunato takes the lead. They’ve got 38 seconds on the chasing group of four.

Ineos is still setting tempo. The second rider there is swinging his arms around so as to get a full-body workout. Or maybe he’s shaking blood into his hands, or gesturing (“What have I done?!”) Also of note is that Simon Yates (Team Bike Exchange), who has been at the very back of this group all day, has moseyed up the side to have a quick peek at what’s going on.

Oh, dear. Nibali, a former Giro winner, is sawed off. He’s showing his age for sure.

Evenepoel is still in the lead group but toward the back. He doesn’t look very happy.

Another Ineos rider blows.

The wind is blowing sheets of mist over the road. Looks like pretty miserable conditions, though really it’s mainly the riders making things miserable for one another. Damn, I’m getting cold just watching. Poor, poor me.

So leading the shrinking GC group we’ve got a couple of Ineos henchmen, then Bernal, then Vlasov, then Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), who sits 8th on GC, 2:24 down on Bernal.

The chase group isn’t making any progress. Look at all that snow!

One of these dudes is already in his lowest gear. What the photo doesn’t show, though, is that he’s spinning it at a pretty high cadence.

In the chase group, Covi attacks. Too late, surely.

And up the road, Fortunato attacks Tratnik!

He quickly gets a decent gap!

Evenepoel (#91) is toward the back of the peloton, not looking good!

Fortunado is really suffering! And now a douchebag spectator runs alongside Fortunato, giving him tactical tips or perhaps trying to turn him on to Dianetics, and actually bumps into him, knocking him sideways! Fortunado looks absolutely stricken! Unbelievable!

Back in the rapidly dwindling GC group, Daniel Martinez (Ineos Granadiers) continues to pummel everyone, Bernal tucked safely in behind him. Buchmann is hanging tough. Vlasov looks like he’s on the rivet.

OMG, Evenepoel is going out the back! Poor dude!

And now, what’s this!? Yates, who has been loitering in the back all day like he always does, comes out of nowhere and attacks, for the first time in this Giro, and possibly in his entire life!

It’s a totally legit attack, too! None of this halfhearted “my directeur sportif said I have to do something so I’ll check that box” kind of bullshit you see so much. Only Bernal can hang with him!

Up toward the finish, Fortunato has only 600 meters to go and still a solid gap!

Yates and Bernal leave the rest of the GC riders for dead! They’re gaining massive time!

Fortunato looks like he’ll get this, but he also looks utterly horrified! He’s staring into a deep existentialist void, in uncharted emotional territory because this is a guy who (the announcers tell me) has literally never won a bike race in his life! He’s probably thinking, “I know I’m going to screw this up, but how?!”

Tratnik is utterly dying and starts weaving like a drunk! The center cannot hold! Weird pink shapes are appearing, hovering above the road … or is that me hallucinating? Do you see them too?

Fortunato is all alone! Not just on the road, but in the universe! There are fans, sure, but they don’t know him!

A wall of mist blows through, yanking Fortunato’s soul from his body and diffusing it across the entire universe!

The young man’s soul is returned to him, just in time for him to cross the finish line in victory!

Fortunato is delighted, but also emotionally obliterated! His psyche has undergone trials that baseball players, cheerleaders, and fire marshals have never dreamed of!

Behind, Tratnik has managed to get his bike pointed in the right direction again, and slogs toward the line, the wet wind yanking atoms from the surface of his body.

Tratnik crosses the line, utterly ruined. His suffering is absolute.

Returning to the GC battle, Bernal has attacked and dropped Yates! Now he overhauls Bennett!

As he approaches the line, Bernal blows by Mollema, who looks back as if to ask, “Where the hell did he come from?”

Bernal crosses the line and starts the real clock: how much time will he take from the others, padding his GC lead?

Vlasov is dying! Poor guy!

Vlasov finishes … he’s lost at least another minute to Bernal.

Here is the stage result … notably missing from the top ten is Evenepoel. The lead group exploded toward the end and I’ve completely lost track of him.

They’re interviewing Tratnik. “I’m actually very happy,” he says, “but you probably can’t tell, with my eyes closed like this. I’m trying to open them—really, I am—but I just don’t have the energy. Sorry guys, I’d love to hang out with you, maybe buy you a soft pretzel, but I’m seriously about to pass out. I’ll catch you later.”

The press staffers are freezing their asses off so they’re running around interviewing everyone they can. They have collared Nibali, surely hoping for some kind of tantrum since he totally blew chunks today. But he appears tranquilo and has very little to say. “Yes, I suck now,” he says offhandedly, “but my retirement account is in great shape, thank you very much.”

Now they interview Fortunato. “Yes, I was in race, and it go, ah, uphill, and I attack, and … very very happy. Legs very good. But I left my body. I was outside it. I … I can’t do this in English. [Switches to Italian; interviewer translates.] Today, it was just a tomato. It was a pancake. Well, more like a bun. It was a tight bun. Very tight bun, with kernels.”

I’m not going to bother recording any more of that interview because it’s clear the interviewer’s Italian is no better than mine and he’s just making shit up. The nerve of that guy!

Okay, here’s the next ten placings on the day. Besides Vlasov, Evenepoel was the big casualty, giving up another 1:30 on Bernal.

They’re interviewing Bernal now. “Astana was on the front a lot today … were you surprised?” the interviewer asks. Bernal replies, “Yes, they were going really hard, and I was surprised. It was kind of cute, really, them pretending they had a chance, when of course their utter vanquishment has been practically scripted. I mean, think about it: my super-domestique Martinez took over half a minute out of Vlasov today. No one can stop Ineos except maybe … oh, shit, I just realized I’m late for the doping control!”

Now Fortunato mounts the podium, which is bizarrely set at the absolute highest, most exposed location possible with a frigid wind whipping through. Those poor podium ladies … there little ankles must be frozen. Fortonato has been presented with a weirdly colored helmet mounted to a plaque. He looks happy though.

Now begins Fortunato’s frozen-fingered grappling with the wire on the champagne bottle, like Bernal struggled with (the only thing Bernal has struggled with, I hasten to add) a couple days ago. Why don’t the race staffers do most of the untwisting ahead of time? I tell you, pro cyclists don’t get enough respect.

Fortunato takes a good, long drink of the champagne. It’s impressive that he can hoist the magnum for so long, in fact … most climbers can barely lift it past shoulder level.

Now Fortunato consults the concierge on directions to the restroom. “Man, that champagne is going right through me!”

Okay, this is a bit embarrassing. I totally missed Bernal’s podium ceremony because he zipped out there with the pink jersey already on, then fled for the warmth of his team van before I could get the screenshot. He didn’t even wait around for the champagne, so they’re trying to find him now to bring him back.

I got a nice shot of him fighting with the champagne but you don’t need another one of those. Amazingly, his lofting of the flowers and stuffed animal was so brief, I missed it again. He’s quicker off the podium than he is attacking the peloton!

Here is the new GC. Yates moves up to a career-high second overall. That said, he is scarcely faster than Bernal in a time trial, same as Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious), and Vlasov is almost two minutes down on GC with four more mountains stages to come … so Bernal doesn’t appear to have much competition.

Eurosport closes the race coverage with a close-up of this random woman. Why her? Well, why not? After all, she bothered to do her mascara.

Come back next Saturday for more biased blow-by-blow coverage, as the race tackles the grotesquely oversized Passo San Bernardino, over 30 kilometers long with a vertical gain of 5,000 feet!

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