Thursday, September 2, 2021

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2021 Vuelta a España Stage 18


Why is it that when the governing body of a sport, in this case cycling’s UCI, decides to allow widespread fraud, the media have to nevertheless adhere to the highest standards of journalistic integrity? When the UCI—apparently seeking to avoid embarrassment over their sport still being filthy—cleared Chris Froome after his positive drug test, journalists should have talked all kinds of smack and started throwing popcorn at the screen. Instead, they just keep biting their tongues. Well not me. Rest assured, I pull no punches in my blow-by-blow reporting and may even throw punches randomly if that enhances your experience. So read on for all the action in the final mountain stage of this very gripping Vuelta a España.

Vuelta a España Stage 18 – Salas to Alto del Gamoniteiro

As I join the action, one of the announcers, Anthony, is talking about the Church of San Pedro. He’s saying something about its nave. This is where having two announcers can be so powerful: the co-announcer, Hannah, should say here, “You seem to know a lot about churches … perhaps you could explain to me something I’ve always wondered about, which is: does the nave truly extend from the transepts to the chancel? I always thought it did but my mother insisted that that’s only true for the basilica-type buildings.” Then Anthony would have to admit that, though he did a great job of sounding conversational just now, he was reading right off the prompt sheet and actually has no idea what a nave is. Unfortunately, Hannah is as wary of being discovered a fraud as he is, so she just nods knowingly, which we can’t even hear.

There’s a sprint for points. Two riders from a rather large breakaway contest it. Wow, nobody else wants it but these guys are really throwing down. I’m reminded the two drunks at a wedding who actually try their damnedest to catch the bride’s thrown garter, while the rest of the guys kind of recede to the back of the room. Will these two feel embarrassed later?

Looks like Jens Keukeleire (EF Education-Nippo) took the points over Stan Dewulf (AG2R Citroën Team).

The riders are starting the second big climb of the day, the Category 1 Alto de la Cobertoria. I don’t know who all is in this breakaway, but presumably no GC hopefuls since nobody is chasing very hard.

I don’t know how this is a Cat 1 climb. It’s neither long nor steep that I can see. Easy for me to say, of course. Now, as cold as it looks in these photos, Hannah is saying it’s 20 degrees out. Celsius, of course, which like all metric units is useless. I absolutely hate it when somebody gives me the temperature in Celsius. Oh geez, I always think, now I have to do that cumbersome conversion. It’s barely worth it, but fine, here you go: it’s 68 degrees. Why did I even compute that? It’s not that hot, I don’t care if it’s 85% humidity.

A rider attacks from the breakaway: it’s Michael Storer (Team DSM), who has won two stages of this Vuelta already.

He’s looking for KOM points (having taken the last climb already). And look, he’s got them!

As the break begins the descent I’ll fill you in on what’s happened in this race since my Stage 14 report. In Stage 15, Rafal Majka (UAE Team Emirates) soloed but the GC didn’t change. Stage 16 was a flat(-ish) sprinters’ stage, and for the third time in this Vuelta Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) won handily (making the announcers look silly because all they could talk about in the run-up to the sprint was Arnaud Démare, widely considered a top contender for these flat stages but for no good reason because he sucks and finished 16th). And then yesterday, well, that was an amazing stage. I’ll tell you all about it in a minute.

The peloton is over the summit. Anthony is talking about how difficult the rest of this race will be, especially given “how cold it is.” You see how confused people get when they have to use Celsius? (Or does he just like to contradict his co-commentator?)

Anthony would tell you this rider, Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious) is getting ready to stuff newspaper into his jersey for warmth during the descent. Good guess, but it’s actually not accurate. Caruso is such a good descender, he sometimes gets bored and likes to sit up and leaf through the paper.

Storer wasn’t just looking for KOM points but looks to have ambitions for the stage. He’s descending aggressively and now has over a minute. Meanwhile, he’s now the virtual KOM over his teammate Romain Bardet, winner of Stage 14.

As Storer rounds a curve, Anthony-the-commentator does this thing where, in an earnest attempt to not dominate the mic and talk over Hannah (which he still does whenever things heat up), he asks her a question that of course he knows the answer to, as if throwing her a bone. “Hannah, why is Storer hanging his leg out like that?” he asks. Hannah, perceiving his condescending tone, snarls back, “He’s sticking his leg out like a dog pissing, marking his territory as is typical of all males of every species.” Anthony gently corrects her, mansplaining that Storer is actually doing this in lieu of braking, hanging his knee out there like a sail to catch the wind. This is of course completely untrue. In fact Storer is airing out his balls, which Anthony needs to go do privately now, and I hope he doesn’t come back until he’s cooled off a bit.

Returning to my recap, Stage 17 was epic. It was raining on and off all day, and the riders went twice over a Cat 1 climb and finished on an HC. The race leader, Odd Christian Eiking (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux), went out the back pretty early, weighed down by all the ink in his jersey required to spell out his team’s name. Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) totally attacked on the penultimate climb, dusting everybody except race favorite Primoz Roglic (Team Jumbo-Visma) who latched right on. Bernal led all the way over the climb. They had a minute lead at the summit, which they doubled on the gnarly, wet descent where Roglic started taking turns at the front. Eiking totally stacked and though he got back up, he went on to lose lots of time and also his red jersey. On the final climb, Roglic rode away from Bernal and soloed to a stage win and the GC lead. Bernal was caught by the GC group, which had sawed off Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), who lost several minutes and slipped from second to fifth overall, 4:16 behind Roglic. With lots of help from his supercharged Bahrain-Victorious teammates, Jack Haig moved up to fourth on GC, 3:46 behind, and Miguel Angel “Superman” Lopez (Movistar Team) moved up to third, 3:11 down. His teammate Enric Mas now sits second, 2:22 behind Roglic.

The peloton reaches a little town and Movistar sets the tempo. This is the first time I’ve seen them at the front; just like yesterday, mostly it’s been Bahrain-Victorius, riding as though they owned the GC.

Now Anthony is explaining how the riders don’t lose any weight during a stage race like this due to their “nutrition.” He’s not telling the whole story. In the olden days, riders did lose weight … you would see, for example, that Greg LeMond looked husky and robust at the beginning of the Tour and gaunt and haggard by the end. But these modern riders get blood bags, which weigh over a pound apiece. (Do all riders get them? Well, I’d hate to go that far, but a lot of them must, based on the average speed of these mountain stages. Yesterday it was 24.6 mph, despite a net elevation gain of 3,600 feet. Unreal.)

Storer pushes on, extending his lead over the giant breakaway. He’s got over two minutes, as the rest of the break loses time to the GC group.

Finishing up my recap, there was one other cool thing about Stage 17: Roglic’s super-domestique Sepp Kuss was able to just sit in and chill in the chase group, and at the finish he launched a tremendous sprint to take second on the stage. Over the last fifty meters or so, he had this huge grin on his face. NOOICE!

As Storer approaches the penultimate climb with 30 kilometers to go, the GC group has almost caught the breakaway. At the back of the group, Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) suffers to hang on. I’m actually surprised to see Vlasov at all … he had a gnarly crash on a descent yesterday and looked really bad, lying in the road while other crashed riders were still getting up. I see now he lost 35 minutes … such a pity, as he was having a good Vuelta, having started Stage 17 in 11th on GC.

Now the peloton is all back together, other than Storer who still has 2:10. And now Fabio Aru (Team Qhubeka Nexthash) attacks. He hasn’t had any big results in years and will retire at the end of the season, so this is one of his last chances to show the world he’s not totally washed up.

I was trying to figure out who that DSM guy is with Aru, but never mind … they’ve both already been caught. So much for that.

My online correspondent, a former American pro, says, “Give it to me straight … do you think I could hang with the lead group?” I reply, “Hell yeah, so long as you were riding for Ineos or TBV!” As I mentioned to my daughter on the phone last night, I’ve decided I loathe Team Bahrain-Victorious even more than the Ineos Grenadiers. My daughter replied, “That’s an amazing turnaround, almost like when you decided Little Star is actually even better than Zach’s!” She’s right, as I’ve hated Ineos since the Sky days. But they’re just so hapless lately … bagging on them is like teasing a very small child. Ineos’ top rider now is Bernal, whose big move yesterday came to nothing unless you count propelling Roglic into red; Bernal is still only in sixth. Bahrain-Victorius, meanwhile, has been ascendant with their shocking out-of-nowhere performances in the Criterium du Dauphiné and the Giro d’Italia. And Bahrain’s Vuelta leader, Haig, is really boring … he never attacks, he just sits on his teammates’ wheels and hopes other riders falter. He’s somehow managed to climb up to fourth overall without having taken a single bit of initiative.

With 2.6 km left in this climb, Storer still has 2:20 over the peloton.

In the GC group Mikel Bizkarra (Euskaltel-Euskadi) attacks and Bardet bridges across with him, surely looking to minimize his losses in the KOM competition.

Bardet takes the front. I gather he wants to keep that strange blue-and-white-spotted-cow jersey by chasing down Storer and beating him to the finish. That would be very selfish, of course, because Bardet and Storer are teammates. For Bardet to suck Bizkarra’s wheel would be fine, or to attack him … but dragging him up? Madness.

Storer is over the summit and makes his way down the final descent toward that brutal finishing climb, the Alto del Gamoniteiro. Maybe I have time for a quick bio break … wish me luck!

Okay, I’m back and Bardet has dutifully dropped Bizkarra.

As the peloton reaches the final climb, Movistar takes the front, setting up Mas. Man, look at the profile of this beast!

Bardet is either nibbling his nipple or talking on his race radio. I will assume the latter. Now he looks over his shoulder, and sits up. Ooh, he looks pissed. He’s probably just gotten orders to stop chasing Storer.

With just over 12 km to go, Storer still has 2:22. That could evaporate if Mas or Bernal launches a huge attack. Speaking of not looking too happy, look at Mas’s teammate setting tempo. Looks a little grumpy. Kind of a little eye-roll here too, like he’s thinking, “Sure, I’ll just keep the pace high and then Mas will destroy Roglic and take the red jersey. Yeah, right.”

Some AG2R guy attacks. I really don’t like his BMC bike. I know that clean, cable-free style is more aerodynamic and everything, but it’s a bad look. Brings to mind a pogo stick or something.

The attacker is Geoffrey Bouchard, AG2R’s leader, who has had a lousy Vuelta, sitting all the way down in 17th. This doomed attack won’t do much to burnish his image. He seems to be riding well but he looks kind of depressed. He’s thinking, “How did I choose such a difficult career? I could be working at some marketing agency, tinkering with words all afternoon and then leaving early.”

David de la Cruz (UAE Team Emirates) bridges across to Bouchard.

De la Cruz takes the front and immediately their gap increases hugely.

Wow, Storer’s lead is coming down fast as de la Cruz hammers the pace. Am I supposed to capitalize “De”? It’s a preposition, which suggests not. But it’s also the beginning of a proper noun. I hope this guy gets caught so I don’t have to worry about this anymore. But only if he’s caught by somebody cool, with an easy name.

Bouchard detonates and slinks back to the GC group with his tail between his legs.

Man, de la Cruz really looks miserable! I think I hurt his feelings making fun of his name! Now I feel bad. I’ll capitalize De from now on. Hell, I’ll even capitalize La.

De La Cruz has taken a minute out of the GC group. It’s being paced by Bahrain-Victorious who still have four riders here.

It’s a freaking long climb, averaging almost 10%. Still 8 km to go as Storer starts to fade. I can’t see him finishing with the leaders … I think he’ll be caught and shat out the back.

Storer waits for De La Cruz, looking back as if to say, “Dude, are you coming? We need to work together breaking the wind on this 10% grade.”

De La Cruz latches on, pulls for a while, and now looks back at Storer as if to say, “Planning on taking any pulls here, Chief?” Storer shakes his head as if to say, “No, man, I’m too fried. Also, don’t call me Chief.”

Back in the group, Bardet doesn’t look too good. He’s just hanging on the back. Perhaps he’s sulking.

The gap is coming down as some Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux rider, I think it’s Jan Hirt, works to set up his leader, Louis Meintjes, who sits 12th on GC. Look at Hirt climbing in the drops, like a boss.

De La Cruz sheds Storer and now his lead starts to increase.

Bernal attacks! Roglic instantly responds! Bernal is wearing his standard poker face, which always strikes me as slightly nonplussed and adenoidal.

And now Bardet is going out the back!

Only a few riders can go with Bernal! It’s Roglic, Mas, Lopez, and Kuss.

Kuss takes the front to keep the pace steady for Roglic.

Superman seizes his opportunity to attack!

Wow, he’s instantly got a huge gap, disappearing into the mist like one of those gorillas! And the gap to De La Cruz drops quickly!

De La Cruz looks more miserable than ever, even though he’s being cheered by a ‘70s-era rock-and-roll fan!

And now Lopez can see the front of the race! He’ll catch De La Cruz very soon!

Lopez catches De La Cruz and goes straight past him!

In the GC group, Adam Yates (Ineos Granadiers) goes out the back. He’s not having any fun. He’s ashamed of his neck, which is weird in a man.

In the GC group Kuss continues to set the tempo. (Kuss looks a lot like my nephew John … click here and check it out.) Mas, behind him, has a band-aid on his nose. Apparently he cut himself shaving this morning … but who shaves his nose? It’s mind-boggling.

Now Roglic attacks! He doesn’t like Superman taking much time! So far only Mas and Bernal can follow!

Now Bernal attacks again! Roglic is again right on him, as is Mas.

Bernal accelerates yet again! Roglic and even Mas seem to have no trouble staying with him, though. Mas is even kind of smiling a bit, as if to say, “Hey, guys, this is really fun!”

Roglic counters, and Mas is still there, still kind of smiling! His sprit animal is the golden retriever!

Lopez isn’t growing his lead much, but with less than a kilometer left he’s looking really good for the stage win.

The mist is getting ever thicker, making the spectators wonder why they bothered to hike for six hours to get here! And yet Superman is still rocking his sunglasses! What, does this guy use echolocation?

And Lopez has the win! It’s impressive he could even find the finish line!

He chooses the “punch the air” victory salute, probably because he’s not going fast enough on this 17% grade to take both hands off the bars. Plus, he needs to be near the brakes, because who knows what spectator, staffer, dog, or even pangolin could be wandering across the road through the mist?

A little ways back, Roglic has attacked the shit out of Mas and Bernal! He’ll take a few more seconds plus the second place time bonus.

Bahrain-Victorious drills it to try to limit Haig’s losses to Bernal. You can see De La Cruz tucked in there, admirably maintaining his composure after failing to solo.

Somehow I missed it, but Bernal and Mas obviously finished … not sure yet what order. And now Haig comes across to take fifth, followed by De La Cruz in sixth. How do I know it’s Haig, given all the mist? Just a guess … surely this team leader would do something other than sitting on his teammate’s wheels all day long. He needs to remind them that he’s the man.

Some 12 seconds later, much of the rest of the lead group comes over. Wow, this is interesting: Meintjes and Kuss are getting pushed across the line by staffers! Is that even allowed?! Probably these staffers just figure they won’t get caught, due to the poor visibility. Can you imagine if this became standard? It’s all well and good on a mountaintop finish, but imagine if these guys were running along at 45 mph during a field sprint, huffing and puffing through their COVID masks and then being totally in the way when they stop pushing. (I for one am all for such an innovation.)

Kuss doesn’t look nearly as happy at the finish line today as he did yesterday … and yet, even if he lost a bit of time, others have lost more. Kuss will leapfrog Martin on the GC, for example.

Now they’re interviewing Lopez:

INTERVIEWER: A-yo, what it do, Big Mig?

LOPEZ: This is a very meaningful victory for me, my first in the Vuelta in two years.

INTERVIEWER: Bruh, you be straight wylin’. You aint won a Vuelta stage since 2017.

LOPEZ: Actually, my Astana team won the team time trial here in 2019. How come nobody remembers TTTs?

INTERVIEWER: Speakin’ of crews, Movistar is rollin’ deep for reals this year.

LOPEZ: Yes, I’d really like to thank my teammates for making this win possible, along with my sports director, the team mechanics, our sponsors, and all our families for supporting us in our careers. I am grateful to Rosalinda Tejada, our team chef, whose nourishing meals both fuel and comfort all the riders. I’d also like to thank my soigneur, Amanda Bates, who not only soothes my tired muscles but is something of a guru to me. And I’d like to give a shout-out to all the unnamed riders in the peloton who gave me my nickname, Superman, which pushes me to achieve great things so that this lofty moniker doesn’t become embarrassing to me. And I’d like to thank Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who originally created the Superman character, and DC Comics for making this classic archetype of the heroic figure into something recognized globally.


Here’s today’s stage result.

And here’s the new GC. Bernal, Yates, and Kuss all moved up a spot, Martin dropped from fifth to ninth, Gino Mäder (Bahrain-Victorious) moved up from tenth to eighth, and Meintjes jumped from twelfth to tenth.

Now they’re interviewing Roglic.

INTERVIEWER: You seem to be in good spirits, despite your loss today.

ROGLIC: Um, well, yeah, maybe I didn’t take the stage, but I further padded my GC lead. I wouldn’t exactly call it a loss.

INTERVIEWER: I’m talking about your sunglasses. Do you even realize you lost them?

ROGLIC: What are you talking about, they’re right here on my head!

INTERVIEWER: That’s a replacement pair, obviously. Once again, we have to replace them because you can’t be bothered to keep track of your gear. You’re just totally spaced out, carrying on like you don’t have a care in the world. Your mother and I have worked very hard to buy you nice things and look what you do with them.

ROGLIC: I don’t think I even had them at the start. It’s been foggy all day.

INTERVIEWER: Look at you! Hat on crooked, sunglasses askew … you’re a disgrace. You know why you keep losing your sunglasses? It’s because you just stick only the very tips of the temples into your helmet vents. Those sunglasses are practically asking to fall out. Why do you think your jersey has pockets?

ROGLIC: Leave me alone, Dad! I’m leading the Vuelta a España! I don’t have to take this from you!

INTERVIEWER: Oh, Mr. High & Mighty with his flashy red jersey. There’s more to life than sports, you know…

Well, I guess we can see where Roglic gets his drive … must have been a difficult childhood. By the way, I didn’t make all of that up. Lopez really did thank his team, mechanics, and sponsors.

Well, that’s probably about it for this year’s Vuelta. Tomorrow has a few climbs but they’re early in the stage, so it’ll probably be a breakaway of nobodies. Saturday has five categorized climbs, finishing on a Cat 2, but I don’t see Mas or Lopez taking 2:30 out of Roglic and even if they somehow did, Sunday’s final stage is a 34 kilometer time trial which surely favors the Slovenian. As my brother Max likes to say, it’s all over but the cryin’.

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