Saturday, August 28, 2021

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2021 Vuelta a España Stage 14


Year after year, the Vuelta a España ends up being way more exciting than the Tour de France, so it’s well worth following. And you’ve come to right place: with my totally unprofessional coverage, you’ll get much more detail about what the racers are thinking, where they are on the doping spectrum, where they get their hair done, etc. I don’t bite my tongue when (right or wrong) I don’t like something a rider is doing (e.g., doping, being inelegant, having a funny name) and so I pretty much tell the whole story. The real story. The as-I-see-it story. Sometimes an off-topic and/or totally made-up story, if I get desperate. So read on for my biased blow-by-blow of Stage 14, a pivotal day in the mountains finishing atop the Category 1 Pico Villuercas. During lulls in the action I’ll fill you in on what’s happened in this Vuelta over the last couple weeks.

Vuelta a España Stage 14 – Don Benito to Pico Villuercas

As I join the action—well, I guess I’m not technically joining in, I’m six thousand miles away sitting in a chair—but as I begin watching, the riders are starting the Puerto Berzocana, the first big climb of the day. There is a breakaway with a lead of about ten minutes. The best climbers in this group are Romain Bardet (Team DSM), Arnaud Démare (Groupama FDJ), and Jan Tratnik (Bahrain Victorious). Démare’s teammate Kevin Geniets is the one in the French champion jersey here.

“Wait,” you’re saying, “Démare isn’t a climber, he’s a sprinter!” Well, if that’s your position, how do you explain that he has the Strava KOM for the famous Cipressa climb in the Milan-San Remo classic? And don’t give me any explanation about him hanging on the side of his team car even though two riders reported this. Démare is a pure climber, even if that trip up the Cipressa is the only fast riding he’s ever done uphill.

(Note: if you’ve just looked up the Strava KOM for the Cipressa, you won’t find Demare’s record anymore. He took that ride down … something about setting a record on a crucial climb during a major race while putting out close to zero watts wouldn’t have looked good.)

Bardet takes the sprint to the summit to scoop up maximum KOM points. He’s now just one point away from the jersey.

After a short descent, the riders tackle the Alto Collado de Ballesteros, which (I am not making this up) translates “High Hill of Crossbowmen.” It’s a fricking monster climb … check out the profile.

Gosh, Démare is kind of hanging on the back there. I don’t understand why he’s not drilling it on the front. In case you’re wondering, he’s having a shitty Vuelta … hasn’t won a single stage.

Speaking of having a shitty Vuelta, Team Ineos-Granadiers hasn’t done squat, their top rider, Egan Bernal, being all the way down in seventh overall, almost five minutes back. They do have one rider in this break, Tom Pidcock, who is currently sucking wind near the back.

Where have you heard that name, Pidcock, before? Wasn’t that the kid in gym class everyone called Pudcock? No, he’s the winner of the Olympic mountain bike race this year.

Wow, in a crazy instance of simultaneity, at the very moment Pidcock is dropped from the breakaway, his Ineos teammate Richard Carapaz, who won the Olympic road race this year, is dropped from the peloton!

For some reason the cameraman wasn’t around to see it, but Bardet easily took the KOM sprint atop this climb. In fact, he pretty much dropped everybody to get it. He’s now the virtual KOM, and will take the jersey off Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) if this break stays away. Here is Caruso riding comfortably on the front of the GC group.

Caruso is a consummate professional when it comes to doping. His Bahrain Victorious team doesn’t have the top talent of, say, Ineos when it comes to the riders they’ve signed, but TBV’s doping program is second to none as this article laments. Caruso won his first professional race rather recently, that being Stage 20 of this year’s Giro, in which he went on to finish a spectacular (and very suspicious) second overall. Caruso has been doping since he was an amateur which apparently bothers TBV a lot less than it bothers me. Needless to say I’m hoping this breakaway succeeds so that Bardet can take away that KOM jersey.

Now the lead group is over the summit, having shed a ton of riders.

On the long descent, three riders have attacked the breakaway: Matthew Holmes (Lotta Soudal), Daniel Navarro (Burgos-BH), and Nicolas Prodhomme (AG2R Citroën Team).

D’oh! Holmes punctures.

You know what’s an even bigger bummer? They’re showing pointless aerial footage of a bunch of rooftops instead of the wheel (or bike) change. I wanted to see if a team car was close enough to support him, but don’t know anything. They’re showing the remaining duo on the attack, and then the rest of the breakaway now, without any sign of Holmes.

Ah, here he is, latching on the back of the main breakaway group as Démare takes the intermediate sprint (uncontested, I might add). What a stunning achievement for Démare. These are the first points he’s won since Stage 4, a week ago Tuesday.

Oh, shit! A rider is fetching something from the team car and totally stacks!

It’s Jay Vine (Alpecin-Fenix) and now he’s sitting in the road and looks like he’s in a lot of pain. Poor guy. At least the motorbike getting the footage didn’t run him over.

The breakaway is pretty far from starting the final climb, so I’ll take a moment to fill you in on what’s happened in this Vuelta over the last couple weeks. In the first stage, a 7.1 km time trial, defending champion Primoz Roglic (Team Jumbo-Visma) crushed everybody, showing the same stellar form that won him the Olympic TT recently. He lost the red leader’s jersey the next day when a breakaway stayed away.

Back to the action, Holmes has managed to jump across the 35-second gap to the leading duo, followed shortly by Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up Nation).

Getting back to the recap, Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-Quick Step) won two flat stages, Magnus Cort (EF-Education –Nippo) won two lumpy stages (one in a solo breakaway, the other in a field sprint, showcasing his varied talents), and Caruso had a very not-normal solo victory on Stage 9. Roglic, having bested his GC rivals in Stage 6, was in the red jersey heading into Stage 10, but a big breakaway went waaaay up the road, with GC challenger Guillame Martin (Cofidis) in it. Roglic, apparently not feeling he had enough help chasing—or perhaps just showing off—attacked the peloton and had a gap of 20 seconds at the final summit, heading into the long descent. He descended like a madman—the commentators expressed surprise at his recklessness—and then sure enough he locked up his rear wheel heading into a curve and totally stacked. I have to hand it to him, he got his chain back on in like one second, leapt back on his bike, and got right back into the lead group. After the race he said, essentially, “I meant to do that,” channeling his inner Pee Wee Herman.

OMG! Navarro overcooks a curve and stacks, taking Vanmarcke with him!

Back to the recap, in Stage 10 Roglic lost the red jersey to Odd Christian Eiking (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) who has held it ever since. By the way, “Odd” is not my commentary, that’s actually the guy’s first name. Sounds like a Dickens character, doesn’t he?

Now, I was thinking Roglic’s needless risk taking was totally unprofessional, since he’s crashed so much this year (and in fact lost the Paris-Nice on the last day by crashing twice). But he bounced back quite persuasively on Stage 11, crushing Enrich Mas (Movistar Team) in the mountaintop sprint finish to win his second stage. Roglic now sits third, 1:56 behind Eiking and 0:58 behind Martin. Mas sits fourth, 2:31 behind Eiking, and Miguel Angel “Superman” Lopez (Movistar Team) rounds out the top five, about a minute behind Mas.

Returning to the action, Prodhomme is now solo after that crash, and has a bit over a minute on the rest of the breakaway heading into the final climb.

Back in the chase group, Navarro (#61) is back in there and looks okay.

The chase has split, but may come back together in a bit. Bardet is the favorite here, being a name-brand climber, but he’s in the second chase group. There are three in the first chase group: Navarro, Ryan Gibbons (UAE Team Emirates), and Andrey Zeits (Team BikeExchange).

Man, Prodhomme is riding well but looks to be really suffering.

You know who else is suffering? Your humble blogger. I got my shingles vaccination yesterday and gosh my arm is sore. It’s hard to properly pity these riders when I’m feeling so sorry for myself.

As Prodhomme’s lead dwindles, Zeits attacks the other two and gets a gap!

Back in the peloton, Jumbo-Visma sets the tempo as they’ve been doing all day, pretending Roglic has the red jersey simply because a man named Odd cannot possibly hold on to it for long.

And now, up in the first chase group, Bardet attacks!

OMG! Vine has made it back to the chase group after that horrific crash! Look at how tattered his uniform is, his remaining bib number dangling!

Amazing! If Vine were a soccer player he’d still be rolling on his back, clutching his shin and moaning in pain like a little bitch, to try to get a penalty kick! But instead he’s gotten all bandaged up, grabbed a fresh bike, and chased back on! What a stud!

And now Vine is attacking this chase group! He’s got a two-liter thirst-buster of adrenaline and is tearing this shit up!

Pidcock, who must have re-caught the break and then attacked it, sits up (way over to the right of the road) and lets them catch him.

Zeits is about 22 seconds behind Prodhomme. They’re not showing Bardet anymore so I assume he’s been caught by the main chase group.

The GC group has now reached the bottom of the climb. Their 14-minute gap behind the breakaway is great news for us spectators … it makes the action last longer!

Prodhomme’s lead is going out a bit but I don’t think he’ll get this stage. He’s still got 8.5 km to go and the chase group seems to be loafing as everyone watches Bardet. Bardet is having a terrible Vuelta, sitting way down in 38th over 49 minutes back, so of course he’d love to win this stage to salvage his pride.

Geniets sneaks up the right side and launches a massive attack! The footage sucks and shows this distant aerial footage that is useless! Now they’re showing Prodhomme again, for no reason whatsoever! We can’t see the action because the coverage is so piss-poor! I’m livid!

Now Bardet attacks again!

Up at the front, Zeits is about to catch Prodhomme!

But before he does, Bardet latches on! He easily overhauls these two and immediately attacks!

Bardet’s gap yawns out to 11 seconds almost instantly, as Vine and Jesus Herrada (Cofidis) join Zeits and Prodhomme.

Now Vine starts to saw off the rest of the chase group. Bardet’s gap, with 4 km to go, is about 30 seconds.

Trek-Segafredo leads the peloton, for no apparent reason. Their top rider sits 12th on GC, and obviously there’s no hope for a stage win today.

The GC group is still huge, so they’re obviously loafing. Maybe Trek-Segafredo is setting tempo simply because they can … just being visible is their greatest distinction in this Vuelta so far.

Vine has dropped the rest of his chase group. Now Herrada bridges across to him and takes a pull.

This race is giving me chills! Wait, that’s not right. The shingles vaccine has given me chills. My teeth are literally chattering here. I hope you’re happy with my sacrifice … I could be in bed right now.

Back in the GC group, Cofidis busts a move to set up Martin.

So, on the face of it of course Martin needs to shed Roglic. But even if he doesn’t, he could probably get rid of Eiking  today and take the red jersey.

Now Cofidis’ move is paying off, they’ve got a solid gap on the GC group!

At the front of the race, Bardet is flying!

And as Bardet approaches the finish line, a giant of saliva drops down from his lower lip! It’s totally disgusting!

But he sucks the viscous gob of drool right back into his mouth, like playing a movie backwards, and thus rescues his stage win! All is well, he has all the saliva he needs now.

And now Bardet approaches the line … nobody can catch him now! But what’s this? It’s another giant blob of mucous sliding down his lip! Disgusting x2!

This spitball won’t go back in! He’s sucking as hard as he can but it still creeps down his lip! His sponsors will be furious! He reaches up now with his hand to wipe it off.

It’s a PR disaster! He’ll be known as the Saliva Soldier! No more endorsements for him! What is to be done? Ah, but Bardet is a wily one. He turns his manual spit-wipe into a blown kiss. Well played, Bardet!

But the saliva just keeps coming! He must now go at it with the back of his glove, as the front is already completely saturated!

He finally finishes sorting out his spit-gobs and gets to do his victory salute, but dammit, there’s that spit-yoyo yet again! It can’t be stopped!

Bardet is over the moon, but the spit has now spread and completely coats his lower lip. You can even see a new gob of it starting to drip off his front teeth. Disgusting.

And now the film of drool is dragged downward by gravity and starts to pool up again into a round blob. It even looks like a bubble is forming somehow, like there are gases suspended within the spherical membrane.

This is truly one of the most bizarre spectacles ever seen in sport. I really feel for the guy.

Obviously I’ve never had that kind of athletic success, but I can relate to grossing people out via a gross mouth. When I was in junior high my orthodontia required an “appliance” called a Frankel which involved both my upper and lower teeth; I had to hold it in place by clenching my teeth against it. My mouth, stupidly thinking this Frankel was something to eat, produced infinite amounts of drool, which ran down my chin constantly and made my lips chapped. I should have just hidden in a cave until my orthodontia was complete, but—like Bardet—I gamely did my best to live with it. One day I finally struck up a conversation with Natalie Greenstein, on whom I had a huge crush, and things seemed to be going well other than she could barely understand what I was saying, due to the Frankel. She was smiling, though (it would be years before I came to understand she was almost laughing at me), and I reasoned that the only thing standing between me and perhaps asking her out was the Frankel. I had to get rid of it! So I deftly snaked the plastic carrying case out of my pocket and popped open the lid one-handed, and then kind of let the Frankel drop from my mouth. I caught it very gracefully in the case, but a saliva tether must have formed—nothing else could explain the look of utter horror on Natalie’s face. Needless to say, I never again summoned the courage to talk to her. I was utterly mortified. How odd, then, that Bardet just looks completely delighted right now. It’s not like he’s oblivious to these giant loogies that keep making their way out of his mouth—he’s done an admirable job of damage control—but it’s as though he doesn’t realize they’re all anybody can think about, other than the fans at the side of the road whom we should hope are generally nearsighted. I think after Bardet sees the coverage of the finish he’ll want to put this day behind him.

Herrada sprints in for second, Vine taking third just behind him.

This really was an amazing comeback from Vine. He looked so awful sitting in the road after that crash, and then like twenty minutes later he’s suddenly back in the breakaway and riding well. Look, he’s even smiling now! I guess he wanted to make amends … his team is going to be pretty angry about his tattered jersey. It was brand new!

Back in the GC group, Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) makes a ho-hum attack. Perhaps he could move into the top ten if this works out. Which I doubt.

And now Lopez attacks!

He instantly neutralizes Ciccone, who looks back at the peloton as if to say, “Help!”

Lopez quickly opens up a huge gap!

Jumbo-Visma drives the pace on the front. This is great for Mas who gets to just sit on and perhaps plan an attack of his own.

Sepp Kuss takes a monster pull for Roglic. ‘Merica!

Eiking looks pretty bad at the back of the GC group, but I think that’s Martin just ahead of him, not looking so hot either.

By the time Superman hits the line, Roglic has somehow pulled back most of the time, busting up the GC group in the process.

A bit behind, Eiking is dropped but not by much and gives it his all to minimize the damage. His red jersey should be secure for at least another day.

Martin crosses the line a handful of seconds before Eiking, and not much later than Roglic. He lost an opportunity to take the GC lead today, but based on how vulnerable he looked, I reckon he’ll be satisfied with the outcome.

Now they’re interviewing Bardet.

INTERVIEWER: You must be feeling a total mixed bag of emotions. What’s it like to be Romain Bardet right now?

BARDET: Well, not really a mixed bag, I mean, I’m totally happy and want to thank my team for—

INTERVIEWER [interrupts]: Well of course you’d be happy about the race, but that other thing … they’re starting to call it SalivaGate.

BARDET: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

INTERVIEWER: Nice try. I’ll bet you’re glad to be wearing that COVID mask now.

BARDET: Wait—are you telling me—are you saying you guys could see my little drool problem?

INTERVIEWER: What do you mean little? Dude, you could see it from space!

BARDET: Merde! I can’t believe that! I’ve had such a shitty Vuelta … can’t I get a break?

INTERVIEWER: You were clearly struggling to manage all that slippery, viscous mucous. Walk us through that ordeal.

BARDET: Well I’d had all this extra drool all day, and it was disgusting, it tasted like bong water, and my teeth felt all furry. My tongue is tired from trying to squeegee clean my teeth. Hell, my tongue hurts more than my legs!

INTERVIEWER: Did you consider just clamping your mouth shut?

BARDET: Please. It was like a 19% grade. Hey, I gotta go. My soigneur is over there waving a toothbrush at me and I can’t wait to use it!

Here’s the stage result. Not shown: Démare, who finished over ten minutes down. Just sayin’.

And here’s how the GC looks now. Not much change, for a stage that was ballyhooed as being potentially pivotal. Eiking lost a whopping four seconds to Martin, and Roglic took back 16 seconds from Martin.

Bardet mounts the podium to celebrate his stage win. This is the first time in Grand Tour history that not a single female model is present on the stage. I’m sure the promoters tried their best, but no woman would go near a guy with that much spittle, mask or no mask.

This is also the first time a rider has ever been instructed to not spray the champagne. COVID couldn’t interrupt that ritual, but Bardet’s saliva issue now has. Look how carefully he sets the magnum down inside the recycling receptacle: it’s completely full. Look, dude, spare yourself the effort … nobody is going to want to drink that.

Now Eiking mounts the podium for the red jersey presentation. Just look at his hair. It’s magnificent. You can’t tell from the still shot, but it’s actually waving in the wind, like amber waves of grain. I’m sure all the fans back in Norway have a huge crush on him. Bardet must be green with envy at this point.

Well, that’s about it for today. Check back on Thursday because I plan to cover Stage 18, the final mountain stage and probably the hardest, with a Cat 2 climb, two Cat 1s, and a finish atop the beyond-category Altu d’El Gamoniteiro. I’m drooling just thinking about it! And I’m sure Bardet is too!

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