Sunday, July 4, 2021

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2021 Tour de France Stage 9


What would it take for a modern bike race announcer to cry bullshit on an obviously Not Natural performance? Let’s just say a lot … because nobody spoke up when Mark Padun, a previously unheard of rider on Bahrain-Victorious, won back-to-back mountain stages of the Critérium du Dauphiné recently without any visible effort, soloing away from everyone and increasing his lead with every pedal stroke. This looked particularly fishy to me because other relative nobodies on the same Bahrain-Victorious team, Gino Mäder, Damiano Caruso, and Jan Tratnik, had done amazing things in the Giro just before. None of the announcers said anything then, either. So these talking heads are professional to the core, even when it means helping to perpetuate a sham.

Well, don’t worry, I’m completely unprofessional. And I’m here to report on the second major mountain stage of the Tour de France without biting my tongue.

Tour de France Stage 9 – Cluses to Tignes

As I join the action, Wout Poels (Bahrain-Victorious, speak of the devil!) is solo, looking to increase his lead in the KOM competition. He was fifth yesterday but sits 8:51 down on GC. Going after him is Nairo Quintana (Team Arkea-Samsic) who’s having a terrible—for him—Tour, sitting almost 24 minutes down. They’re just under a kilometer from the summit of the Category 1 Col des Saisies (literally translated, “Climb of Sissies”).

Quintana is chasing hard, evidently looking to get some KOM points. Between that and stage wins, he can have no other Tour ambitions this year.

Ooh, it’s a close sprint!

Poels slows to put on a jacket and Quintana just plunges forward. Wow, Quintana is going so fast, his numbers are blowing right off his jersey. They’re in tatters!

Joining me in the studio today is my co-commentator, Freya. She is noteworthy in the race coverage media for having even less to say than Sean Kelly.

As they descend, I might as well start the uncomfortable conversation about the leader of this race, Tadaj Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates). My skepticism was kindled during last year’s Tour when this guy came out of nowhere to destroy everyone in the final time trial. It was bad enough that he took massive time from Primoz Roglic (Team Jumbo-Visma), enough to leapfrog him for the GC victory, but he won the stage against time trial specialists including Roglic’s teammate Tom Dumoulin who’d previously won the world TT championship on a very similar course. Well, this year Pogacar pulled off a similar feat, absolutely pummeling everyone in the first time trial. It wasn’t a climber’s course, but a lumpy one that favored rolleurs like Stefan Kung (Groupama-FDJ), who held the lead for something like an hour until Pogacar came through. When a GC rider who climbs amazingly well can beat the TT specialists at their own game, I get a bit suspicious. And then, yesterday, Pogacar walked away from the GC group way before the finish and gave them such a spanking, they’ve probably already given up on this Tour. I’m more than a little skeptical about this guy.

Now the leaders of this stage have come back together as they begin the toughest climb of the day, the Huis Categorie Col du Pré, 12.5 km in length at an average grade of 7.7%. Sergio Higuita (EF Education-Nippo) hands Quintana a bottle.

The riders are allowed to share food and water, but they can’t loan each other equipment or, oddly enough, money. (Yeah, I made up that last factoid.)

Poels has somehow fallen off the pace and dangles off the back of the breakaway. The way he’s sitting up, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d just been messing with his phone. Typical.

This is Michael Woods (Israel Start-up Nation) trying to chase down the leaders. He does a lot of this … falling off a group, clawing his way back, lather-rinse-repeat.

They’re showing an interview they did this morning with Ben O’Connor of the AG2R team.

INTERVIEWER: How do you like your chances today, Bun?

O’CONNOR: My name is Ben, not Bun.


O’CONNOR: Why are you even interviewing me? You’ve obviously never even heard of me and I’m way down in 14th place on GC.

INTERVIEWER: We have to interview everybody, so that whoever it is who does something remarkable in the stage, we can then show an interview with him even as the action unfolds. Makes us look prescient.

O’CONNOR: I am a professional athlete. I don’t know big words like “prescient.”

INTERVIEWER: It means prophetic.

O’CONNOR: Who are you callin’ pathetic?!

INTERVIEWER: Not pathetic, prophetic!

O’CONNOR: Whatever, dude.

Yeah, yeah, I made all that up … sue me.

So here are your breakaway leaders … I love it when they provide the names so I don’t have to.

Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we have more stats than ever about the various climbs and descents. For example, we can now see who’s braking the most.

Very soon, they’ll be able to share these riders’ Amazon shopping preferences as well. It’ll be like a gift registry!

In case you haven’t been following this Tour, I’ll take a moment to fill you in on the race so far. Stage 1 went to Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) who soloed. The big news on the stage was a massive crash caused by a dumbass fan holding a giant cardboard sign out in the road. Stage 2 was Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), who took the yellow jersey and kept it until yesterday. The third stage went to Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) after a spectacular crash in the final sprint that ended the Tour for Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), who had been a favorite for the green jersey. Also in Stage 3, last year’s Tour runner-up, Primoz Roglic (Team Jumbo-Visma) crashed hard on his butt and lost 1:21, not to mention most of his form. Stage 4 saw a spectacular win by Mark Cavendish—his first in years, after he was only added to the Tour team at the last minute—following which his entire team and their staff were in tears. Stage 5 was the time trial I mentioned where Pogacar made everyone look like chumps, with the closest GC favorite, Roglic, 44 seconds behind and the next closest, Richie Porte (Ineos Grenadiers), a whopping 55 seconds back.

Wow, the conditions are just brutal today. Riding with wet feet is no fun and racing the Tour in these conditions, with your paycheck on the line, has to bring a serious pucker-factor.

Back in the GC group, the UAE Team Emirates guys drive tempo for Pogacar, obviously.

Returning to my recap, Cavendish triumphed again in Stage 6, padding his lead in the green jersey competition.  Stage 7 featured five minor climbs, and was unexpectedly exciting when a large breakaway took major time out of Pogacar’s UAE team. The stage was won by Matej Mohoric who dragged the break along for dozens of miles and then soloed away like it was nothing. He took the stage, the combativity award, and the KOM jersey, and was bounding on and off the podium like the Energizer bunny, while Van der Poel, who’d buried himself to keep the yellow jersey, could barely sit up for his interview. The next stage, yesterday, was also won solo by a Bahrain-Victorious rider, Dylan Teuns, who also showed no perceptible effort. Which brings us to today.

Now, in the chase group, Sepp Kuss (Team Jumbo-Visma) attacks!

What’s he hearing on his radio? Could be “Slow down, you fool, you’re a domestique and your leaders are behind you!” Kuss’s most promising teammate is the young Jonas Vingegaard, who started the day in fifth overall, exactly five minutes down on Pogacar and only 22 seconds out of third.

Looking back at the GC group, Jumbo-Visma’s Wout Van Aert, who sits second overall on GC less than two minutes behind Pogacar, is struggling at the back. He’s not really a GC type and I think everyone knew his podium position wouldn’t last.

The announcers are now interviewing Matt White, directeur sportif of DS-Bike Exchange, whose top rider, Simon Yates, is over 12 minutes down.

INTERVIEWER: Is the GC battle essentially over already?

WHITE: Of course it is. Why would you even ask me that?

INTERVIEWER: Isn’t your attitude a bit defeatist?

WHITE: Hey, you asked! What did you expect me to say?

INTERVIEWER: Are you actually saying any of these things?

WHITE: No, it’s just some blogger making shit up. As usual.

In the breakaway, Quintana attacks!

Now the footage swings over to the GC group where Miguel Angelo Lopez, aka Superman (Movistar Team), goes out the back. He’s having a terrible Tour, over 26 minutes down at the start of today. Maybe he’s riding on of those new Kryptonite frames.

Only Woods can hang with Quintana.

I take it back. Nobody can hang with Quintana!

Daaaamn! He’s totally dusting these guys!

At least they’ve got each other.

Quintana’s eyes have got that dead look in them, as though he’s seen so many horrors he’s just become kind of inured to them.

Quintana takes the KOM points (all 20 of them, this being an HC climb) so he’s now in the hunt for the polka-dot jersey if he can keep this up.

Now Higuita has dropped the other two, perhaps by accident. I hate it when that happens.

Less than 2 km later, they’re back together. But what’s this? Quintana has decided he’s too hot! He’s stripping down completely! He’s lost his mind!

Okay, I guess I misread the situation. Probably his jersey had a bunch of tags in it, with washing instructions in fifteen different languages, and they were irritating the sensitive skin along his midsection. I can relate. Now he gets a fresh jacket, and is asking for some tater tots.

Denied! Quintana, though a world-class athlete, has to settle for some random room-temperature food wrapped in foil.

They’re on the Category 2 Cormet de Roseland. Fun fact: this climb is named after the girl that Romeo had the hots for before meeting Juliet.

O’Connor sits up and struggles mightily to pull on some full-finger gloves right over his soaked cycling gloves. Note how blurry the photo is .. that’s because these guys are so cold, they’re trembling.

Quintana is like, “Hey, great idea! I want gloves too!” O’Connor is making very little progress gloving up. But he’s tenacious.

Higuita’s sunglasses are terrible. Just terrible. Seems like they ought to have a snorkel attached. They’re spoiling his entire look (which was pretty lame to begin with, what with the Pepto-Bismol-pink jersey).

Poor Woods, having yo-yo’d off the back of the break all day, is now in that stalled phase where the yo-yo stops coming back up. He’ll need to be completely rewound.

On the descent, Higuita dusts Quintana and O’Connor. Quintana goes after him.

Now it’s just Higuita and Quintana. Not sure where O’Connor is.

OMG! Back in the GC group, one of Pogacar’s teammates goes off-road!

He flips over the bars! Hopefully it’s a soft landing.

Quintana has taken a feed, but now goes back to the support car. “I don’t want this gel!” he shouts, thrusting out the offensive packet. “I want hot tater tots!”

I’m hearing that the UAE rider who crashed is Brandon McNulty. I sure hope he’s okay. Not just because he’s an American, by the way. As a human being, and a cyclist.

O’Connor is closing up the gap to the leaders.

Back in the GC group, Vingegaard punctures. He’s got no teammates to help. I have no idea what happened to Kuss. (Same thing yesterday … he was in the break, and then just vanished, losing major time by the end of the stage.)

And now O’Connor has caught the leading duo.

Here’s the climb profile … it’s a long one. O’Connor takes a bunch of gels from his team car.

Vingegaard catches back on to the GC group.

Here’s the chase group. The announcers haven’t said anything about them all day. I don’t know who they are other than Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) who sits 12th on GC, 7:28 back.

OMG, Quintana suddenly cracks! Maybe he bonked. He takes a drink … maybe it’s something sugary.

Pogacar has one teammate handling the chasing duties as Ineos Grenadiers sucks major wheel.

The weather improves a bit as the leading due start the final climb.

Pogacar loves the limelight. He’s so happy to be on camera, he offers the cameraman a gift. “Here. Take my jacket. It’s yours! I mean it! I want you to have it.”

He’s pretty relaxed for a guy who is 7:19 behind the lead group, whose leader is within a minute of taking over the GC lead.

Up in the breakaway, Higuita starts to really suffer and asks O’Connor to push him. O’Connor is like, “Yeah, sure dude!”

O’Connor is such a nice guy. I hope he increases his lead over Pogacar, though that would be pretty hard to do while pushing another rider up the hill. Not to be a dick or anything, but I kind of have to question O’Connor’s tactics. Oh well … he’s young and eager to make friends in the peloton. This is his first Tour, in fact.

So, here’s some news from the announcers: Roglic and Van der Poel have abandoned. Obviously Roglic is suffering from his crash injuries, but why would Van der Poel quit? Well, some are saying he had a bad acid trip last night. Look at this picture he tweeted:

O’Connor attacks Higuita! I guess he decided if he had to push him along the whole way it just wasn’t a true partnership anymore. He opens the gap up so quickly, I couldn’t get a nice shot of the attack.

O’Connor gets yet another gel. This guy eats even more than I do!

Alas, O’Connor’s gap to Pogacar is dropping all the time, and Pogacar is still just being paced by his teammates. It would be nice to see the yellow jersey change hands but I don’t see that happening.

Here is Higuita, valiantly chasing. He’s just a little guy.

The UAE rider who crashed is Brandon McNulty. He’s back in the race but I don’t know where.

Oh dear, Guillaume Martin has a bike problem. He gets a fresh bike. The thru-axles on these modern wheels mean that wheel changes are a thing of the past.

Amazingly enough, O’Connor is actually taking his lead back out. He was at like seven minutes and now he’s got 7:30. Must be the gels!

It’ll be a shame when Pogacar gets bored sitting around behind his teammates and lights it up.

The GC group is down to a couple dozen guys, with Ineos well represented. They kind of suck this year, which I take some comfort in. It doesn’t actually bother me a bit that they’re not thriving, though a solid attack would sure liven things up.

Pogacar’s domestique Davide Formolo is doing a great job, as he did yesterday. He makes the best faces.

Quintana has caught and dropped Higuita. Seems to be managing his efforts pretty well. He’s got a minute on his chasers; if he hangs on, he’ll probably have the KOM jersey tonight.

Ineos takes the front and immediately the gap to O’Connor starts to come down. I guess they have to try. Their top rider, Richard Carapaz, sits sixth on GC, five minutes down. He’s attacked a fair bit in this Tour but it never comes to anything … he’s just wasted a lot of energy for nothing.

In the chase group, Mattia Cattaneo (Deceuninck-QuickStep) attacks and starts narrowing the gap to Quintana rather quickly.

Geraint Thomas (Ineos Granadiers) leads the chase, setting up Carapaz I guess. It’s pretty annoying that they’re just setting tempo, when Pogacar’s team is gone. It’s like they’re helping Pogacar pull back O’Connor. Why won’t they attack?! There’s no point waiting around … they’ve got five minutes to make up.

O’Connor still looks good, but he’s clearly suffering.

Cattaneo blows straight past Quintana, without even saying hi. I guess he’s just letting him die in peace.

With just 600 meters left on this climb, O’Connor’s directeur sportif yells at him from the car. What is he saying? It’s probably encouragement, but he could be yelling, “Take yellow today or you’re fired!” Or maybe “Hey, Ben, your fly is open!” Maybe this guy is a real card. We really know nothing about him.

Carapaz attacks but it’s useless! Pogacar stitches it up instantly and then counterattacks!

His gap yawns open grotesquely, instantly, inevitably.

O’Connor has got the win!

He claps his hands and thinks, “Yay!” He’ll tweet that out later: “Yay! I won!”

Cattaneo takes second, about five minutes behind. Meanwhile, Pogacar has blown by the shattered Quintana.

Pogacar finishes, losing about six minutes to O’Connor in the end, easily keeping his yellow jersey. I’m not providing a photo because I’m already tired of this guy.

The rest of the GC riders come over in dribs and drabs, over half a minute behind Pogacar.

David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) crosses the line, having lost a fair bit of time right at the end when he kind of blew. He started today in ninth, 5:52 down.

The announcers are saying Geraint Thomas had a pretty good day. Yeah, he solidly contributed to Pogacar’s chase effort and gave Carapaz the opportunity to launch a totally feeble attack that set up Pogacar’s counterattack perfectly. As he crosses the line he ponders just how badly that went.

See that bottle of water in the road? It rolled around for a good while there, one rider having to swerve around it.

They’re interviewing O’Connor.

INTERVIEWER: So, are you kind of happy, or what?

O’CONNOR: Yes, it’s exciting to put on a show for my parents and my mates back in Australia. This is what I’ve dreamed of. That and elves. I have a lot of dreams about little elves, it’s weird.

INTERVIEWER: You’re a little glassy-eyed. Are you gonna start crying now, like a Quickstep guy?

O’CONNOR: I think I can avoid that. I’m able to control myself better now, I’m not yelling “yay” anymore.

INTERVIEWER: Walk us through that victory salute, where you clapped your hands like a little girl at a birthday party.

O’CONNOR: You need to understand, I went into that victory salute completely unprepared. I wasn’t meant to be in the break, I screwed up, I didn’t know what to do, then I heard we had three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, one fish two fish red fish blue fish, it was a mad stage, conditions were atrocious. I had to not panic, and when you think you’re gonna win a stage you can freeze up, and … look at me, dammit, I am starting to cry.

Okay, fine, I took some liberties recording that interview. O’Connor did say “mates,” anyway.

Here’s the top ten for the stage:

Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious), a sprinter who came into the stage sixth in the points competition, in the company of such pure sprinters as Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Nacer Bouhanni (Team Arkea-Samsic), and Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange), took third today. It’s not strange at all to see a sprinter take third on a major mountain stage when pure climbers like Quintana and Kuss don’t even crack the top ten.

It’s not strange at all, that is, when the sprinter in question is on Bahrain Victorious. There’s almost nothing this team can’t do, apparently. After the Dauphiné when Pudun soloed on mountain stages two days in a row, an anonymous team boss complained to Le Parisien, “It’s an absolute disgrace. How am I going to approach sponsors and tell them that there is no more doping when we see this? It’s crude. The Bahrain team is becoming more and more scandalous.” Now, I know this sounds like something I would make up, but I actually didn’t … you can read it here.

It’s been half an hour since the finish and more than half the peloton is still out on the course. A large group rolls toward the finish.

Here’s the new GC. O’Connor has catapulted himself from 14th place up to second with this ride!

O’Connor mounts the podium. He uses Continental tires on all his cars, bicycles, and other vehicles. Clearly.

Now Pogacar stands on the podium to show off his new yellow jersey. He looks very happy … goofy, even. But remember, this rider is only twelve years old.

And now, happily enough, Quintana gets to stand on the podium to rock the polka-dots. See that podium girl—er, woman? You might be wondering why her dress has little hearts instead of polka-dots. Well, that’s actually her bridesmaid dress. She’s in a wedding later. As soon as she gets home from the reception, she’s going to pull that dress off over her head and stuff it right in the trash.

This is as close to a smile as we will ever get from Quintana. Cover his mouth and look just at his eyes. There is pain.

Now they interview Pogacar.

INTERVIEWER: You increased your lead today, putting your scent on this race once again, like a dog pissing on a hydrant.

POGACAR: It was a good day. I really want to thank my team for making it possible.

INTERVIEWER: Um, actually, your team faltered today, leaving you completely isolated.

POGACAR: Oh, I didn’t mean my UAE team. I meant Ineos, my other team.

INTERVIEWER: That was weird, how Ineos just rode tempo for you to pull back the gap to O’Connor.

POGACAR: Well, it can’t be easy not having a viable leader, so I guess they’ve decided to make me an honorary Grenadier.

INTERVIEWER: Were you worried about losing the jersey?

POGACAR: I was scared a little bit toward the end. I [effortlessly] accelerated just to make sure I stay in yellow [as though toying with everyone].

INTERVIEWER: Why are you still holding that stuffed lion on your lap?

POGACAR: My balls are cold.

Mark Cavendish comes toward the line, in pretty serious danger of missing the time cut. His teammates have paced him valiantly. Look how badly he’s suffering. That lower lip is sticking out farther than a pouting child’s.

Cav crosses the line, in tears, with less than 90 seconds to spare.

He celebrates with his teammates as if he’s just won another stage. “I’ve never seen him cry so much as this year,” the announcer says.

Cavendish should really take some climbing lessons from Colbrelli. But he better not let the Bahrain-Victorious team doctor give him a brown paper sack or anything.

Here’s a bright note: the lying, cheating scumbag Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) has finished outside the time cut so his Tour de France is over. Odd, isn’t it, that this sprinter has the Strava KOM for the famous Cipressa climb in the Milan-San Remo and yet was cut from the race today? How come sprinters can only sometimes outclimb the climbers?

We’ve just got some bad news about Quintana: due to an obscure rule, a rider cannot start a stage without the original bib numbers issued by the race organizers. As you’ll recall, his numbers blew off earlier in the stage. They will have to be retrieved, and to teach him a lesson Quintana’s Arkea-Samsic team is making him go back out on the course and find them. I hope this doesn’t take too long … at least tomorrow is a rest day.

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