Sunday, July 9, 2023

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2023 Tour de France Stage 9


It’s getting really hard, in this country, to find free coverage of pro bike races, with pay walls and subscriptions and somehow Outside magazine sticking its nose in, and even though I’m paying for a Peacock Premium subscription to watch the Tour de France, they’re showing me ads right now. The gall! Meanwhile, the announcers are too professional to call a rider a doper or a clown. That’s why you’re here, right? As a bonus, I’ll fill you in today on what’s happened so far in this actually totally awesome Tour.

Biased Blow-By-Blow: Tour de France Stage 9 – Saint Léonard-de-Noblat to Puy de Dôme

As I join the action, the riders have 73 kilometers left even though the riders are waaaaay ahead of schedule on the road. Phil Liggett says, “I hope the organizers have erected the finish banner at the top of the Puy de Dôme!” His co-announcer Bob Roll titters, “Huh huh … you said ‘erect’!” Naw, I’m just messing with you. Roll is actually talking about “the fragile ecosystem” at the top of the climb, so he’s obviously working off of some corny script.

Now they’re interviewing some random commentator they found somewhere, Steve I think his name is, who stands around on the course here and there and says lots of obvious and/or irrelevant things. He’s interviewing a couple of American parents, I think they said it’s the parents of Neilson Powless (EF Education – Easypost/USA). The mom is saying, “We flew all the way here yesterday, and then today it was kind of hard trying to find the race start, because my son wouldn’t answer his phone! All this trouble we took adding international calling to our plans, and he just ignored us! It was like when we took his sister to the ‘accepted students’ college tour and she pretended she wasn’t with us, like we were complete strangers. These darn kids!”

“That was some fascinating commentary, so thank you for that,” Phil says. “Also, could somebody tell this blogger to stop making shit up?”

In a couple of kilometers they’ll start the penultimate climb, the Cat 3 Côte de Pontamur. There’s a breakaway of fourteen riders with a surprisingly huge twelve minute lead over the GC group. In the breakaway is Powless, who has a pretty good lead in the King of the Mountains competition and is adding to that today.

So here’s what’s happened in this Tour so far. Oddly, it started with a mountain stage, and toward the end the Yates brothers broke away and duked it out, with Adam (UAE Team Emirates) prevailing over Simon (Team Jayco Alula) and taking the stage and the first yellow jersey. I’m sure their mom would have preferred they crossed the line together, hand in hand, but for that matter she probably wishes they worked for Goldman Sachs instead of doing this dangerous sport.

At the summit of the Pontamur, Powless takes the KOM points pretty handily over Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Dstny).

Campenaerts is an oddly good climber considering his build, which is not twiggy. In fact, I got in a bit of trouble for body-shaming him in my recent Critérium du Dauphiné report. It’s kind of remarkable to imagine that a pro cyclist with like 8% body fat could be offended by being called “stout,” but there it is. Anyway, a group of five now busts off the front of this break and it’s largely Campenaerts’ chasing efforts that bring it back together.

Getting back to my recap, Stage 2 was a lumpy course and Victor LaFay (Cofidis) won it in a bunch sprint ahead of Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and GC favorite Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates). In fourth was Thomas Pidcock (Ineos Granadiers), who’s definitely more of a climber than a sprinter. I texted my pal, “Wow, Pidcock is a fast finisher!” to which my pal replied, “That’s what my wife says about me!”

The riders now have 45 kilometers to go, and their lead is out to thirteen minutes. If this keeps up I may have to figure out their names, which would be a hassle, so for that reason alone I hope they get caught.

A rider attacks the break, waaaaay over on the other side of the road, and it’s Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar Team), an American. Could he actually solo for over 40K? I can answer in one word: ‘Mer’ca!

As if to prove my point, he already has 21 seconds on the group. He’s hauling ass!

Commentator Brent Brookwalter analyzes Jorgenson’s chances: “When there’s a tailwind from behind, that makes a big difference.” He’s absolutely right. It’s a lot different when you have a tailwind from ahead, also known as a headwind, which actually makes solo efforts more difficult. The “tailwind from behind” is certainly the best kind.

Getting back to my recap, stages 3 and 4 were for the sprinters and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) won both. Stage 5 was in the mountains and pretty epic. There was a giant breakaway with a huge lead, but on the last climb it exploded, as did the peloton behind. Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe), a past Giro d’Italia winner, soloed impressively, and race favorite Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) totally attacked and, threading his way through the breakaway riders like in a car racing video game, took about a minute out of Pogacar. Pogacar certainly didn’t look like his previously dominant self and just couldn’t narrow the gap any more than that. Hindley took the yellow jersey.

Now four riders have dropped the rest of the  breakaway to chase down Jorgenson. It’s Powless, Matej Mohoric (Bahrain Victorious), Mathieu Burgaudeau (TotalEnergies), and David de la Cruz (Astana Qazaqstan). They quickly narrow the gap to Jorgenson and open up about 45 seconds on the rest of the break.

They’re on the final descent now before the fearsome Puy de Dôme and Jorgenson is extending his lead. Pretty bold descending considering that last year he was leading a similar mountain stage and totally stacked on a descent. It occurs to me that it’s just barely possible you don’t know what “stacked” means in this context. I coach high school mountain bike racers and none of them so far has heard of “stacked.” Does that make me old? Don’t answer that. Anyway, it means “crashed,” obviously.

So, to cap my recap, stage 6 was another day in the mountains (the last in the Pyrenees) and while Jumbo-Visma (particularly Van Aert and the American Sepp Kuss) did a great job pacing Vingegaard, who looked totally solid, Pogacar launched a vicious attack and totally dusted him. It was a great attack, none of this testing-the-waters BS, but an all-in effort that was pretty spectacular. Pogacar took 24 seconds out of Vingegaard, plus another four bonus seconds. Vingegaard took the yellow jersey off Hindley who slipped to third on GC, 1:34 behind Vingegaard and 1:09 behind Pogacar. Nothing changed in the next two sprinters’ stages so that’s how the GC looks heading into today. Pretty awesome for just one week of racing!

The breakaway has reached the base of the final climb now. It’s 12.5 kilometers (7.6 miles) to the summit finish. The peloton is 16 minutes back and thus officially doomed. Jorgenson has just over a minute on the chase group, which is down to three dudes after de la Cruz had a mechanical problem. The rest of the break is about half a minute down.

Cool, here’s a schematic of this climb. The final 4.5 kilometers are absolutely brutal:

I’m going to get this right this time: “HC” stands for Hors Categorie, meaning “beyond category,” as in “this climb is so difficult, we can’t even assign a number to it.” I often write “Huis Categorie” which doesn’t really mean anything. I guess it’s because I once read Huis Clos (Sartre’s No Exit in the original French). Of course these riders have an exit—the finish line—but it might not feel like that until they get there.

Campanaerts is totally drilling it in the second chase group. It’s kind of amazing for him to be so strong on this climb because … how shall I say this … for a bike racer he looks like he’d do pretty well in a bar fight.

“Jorgenson is writing his name into the annals of the Tour de France,” Phil says, “but he’d better write it in pencil because he might have to erase his name if the chasers catch him. No, I did not actually say that, even though it would be a good point. Who is this blogger?”

Powless is chasing hard and you can tell he’s suffering.

At long last, the GC group hits the base of the climb and they’re hammering now, jostling like they’re heading into a bunch sprint.

Jumbo-Visma is working really hard to make the pace too high for Pogacar to attack. That’s Dylan van Baarle on the front. This group won’t stay this large for long.

“Burgaudeau has done the least work in this group today. He looks like he’s suffering but maybe that’s a … poker face,” Roll says. I think he was looking for “rope-a-dope” or perhaps “deception.” I kind of wonder if Roll knows what a poker face actually is.

“Jorgenson is coming up along the train now, which was built in twenty-twenty-twelve,” the hapless Phil says. When was 202012, exactly? By my rough calculations that would be in the future…

Here’s a look at that summit. Dang.

Mohoric starts to pull away from his trio. He quickly opens a big gap but he’s clearly on the rivet.

Michael Woods (Israel-Premier Tech), from the second chase group, has been clawing his way toward the leaders for some time and now overhauls Burgaudeau and Powless.

Woods is now gaining on Mohoric and has him in his sights.

Back in the GC group, UAE moves to the front, perhaps setting up Pogacar.

Jumbo-Visma are having none of it and move up Wilco Kelderman and Kuss.

Kelderman doesn’t last long and now it’s up to Kuss.

Up ahead, Woods goes straight past Mohoric.

Come on, Jorgenson! He’s still looking good but the gap is coming down.

For some reason there’s no red kite showing one kilometer to go, but there’s some paint on the road. Something about how remote this finish is, and maybe the delicate ecosystem Roll was talking about. Maybe I should have paid more attention.

Oh man! Woods is bearing down!

Woods has got Jorgenson! And now Woods launches an attack and totally dusts the American!

Woods is soloing in! He’s totally stoked!

He’s got the win, but not enough speed for a proper victory salute!

Somehow, Pierre Latour (TotalEnergies) comes out of nowhere to overhaul Mohoric and Jorgenson to take second.

Back in the now seriously diminished GC group, Kuss still paces Vingegaard.

Hindley is dropped, along with all Pogacar’s teammates including Adam Yates.

Simon Yates attacks! This almost never happens! Like his brother, he historically just follows wheels but who knows, maybe their success on the first stage taught them something.

It’s a nothing BS attack. But now Pogacar goes!

Vingegaard cannot respond!

Pogacar pulls away but very, very gradually.

Pogacar needs 25 seconds to take the GC lead but he won’t get it. He reaches the summit with Vingegaard just out of the frame.

Vingegaard crosses the line, looking pretty shattered, but by my count he has lost only nine seconds which is not a disaster.

This is supposed to be a biased blow-by-blow … so how does your humble blogger feel about the outcome? Where is my professed bias? Well, I’m enough of a patriot to be disappointed about Jorgenson not managing to hold on for the win, but other than that I’m ambivalent. I’m pleased with this stage’s outcome because it tightened the overall battle nicely. We’ll see the new GC pretty soon but in the meantime here’s the stage result:

Between Vingegaard and Pogacar, I don’t overmuch care who wins this Tour. I guess I’m slightly favoring Pogacar because a) he rode a pretty full classics season, putting it all on the line like our heroes from the olden days instead of focusing everything on the Tour, and b) Vingegaard is kind of odd looking. I was watching stage 6 with my daughter and she asked, “Has he been Botox’d?” That would be an interesting tactic, to keep your competitors from knowing when you’re suffering. Talk about a poker face! Here’s as much expression as you’ll ever see on the Dane. Look, my phone camera’s A.I. actually added stripes, just to humanize him a bit.

By comparison, Pogacar has that kind of apple pie face that might make the sport more watchable to new viewers.

They’re interviewing Woods now.

INTERVIEWER: It was an amazing late attack. You found yourself on your own, then there was no crowd for the last few kilometers. Must have been a lot quieter then?

WOODS: Yes, but my ears were still ringing.

INTERVIEWER: What does this win mean to you?

WOODS: I’m almost 37 years old, not getting any younger, and I’ve always talked about winning a stage, and finally achieved it, so I’m feeling so fortunate to have so many people behind me, my team, my parents, my wife and kids.

INTERVIEWER: Riders always credit their families, including their kids, but really, how much help could your kids have been?

WOODS: Oh, you’d be surprised. My eight-year-old daughter Facetimed me this morning and said, “Daddy, if you don’t win today, I won’t love you anymore.” I found that incredibly motivational.

INTERVIEWER: What do you make of this practice of bloggers—that is, rank amateurs with no journalistic integrity—totally making shit up, particularly these rider interviews?

WOODS: I think it’s brilliant. In fact, albertnet is the best blog ever. Seriously. All us pro racers read it, practically every post, even the ones about spelling and grammar.

INTERVIEWER: Thanks Woodsy. Very enlightening.

WOODS: Don’t call me Woodsy.

Vingegaard gets his yellow jersey. I’ve never seen a podium girl in a t-shirt before. I’m not sure what that means, if anything. I wonder who that is represented in the graphic. Some French philosopher, perhaps?

It’s kind of a strange shirt because anybody could be excused for looking very closely at it to figure out who that guy is, but it would seem like the dude was staring at the t-shirt wearer’s breasts, so he’d have to be like, “I’m not checking out your boobs, I’m just trying to figure out whose picture that is.” Fortunately since I’m just staring at a screen, it’s okay. And if I’m not mistaken the picture is of Raymond Poulidor, a French racer from the ‘60s and ‘70s who was beloved by fans for being “the eternal second.”

Now they’re interviewing Vingegaard.

INTERVIEWER: It’s a very close race, was the climb hard?

VINGEGAARD: It was very nice, a very nice climb to do, yes it was hard.

INTERVIEWER: Can you be better than you are right now?

VINGEGAARD: Well, according to my wife, I could have better table manners.

INTERVIEWER: I mean better at cycling.

VINGEGAARD: Why are you guys so obsessed with cycling? There’s more to life than cycling.

INTERVIEWER: Well, I am a sports journalist, covering a bike race.

VINGEGAARD: Well, yeah, fair point.

Here’s the new GC. Only 17 seconds now between Vingegaard and Pogacar. And look, only five seconds between the Yates brothers … how cute!

Despite always sacrificing himself for Vingegaard, Kuss climbs a spot into ninth overall today. ‘Mer’ca!

Next they interview Pogacar.

INTERVIEWER: It was not a victory for you today, but are you happy?

POGACAR: It was not a victory, but it was a small victory.

INTERVIEWER: Wait. Was it a victory, or not?

POGACAR: We should leave that up to the philosophers I think.

INTERVIEWER: True enough. So let’s talk about your facial hair, or rather lack thereof.

POGACAR: Yes, I am still quite young. I can’t even get into bars unless I bring ID.

INTERVIEWER: It looks like there is the beginning of a moustache just starting to form on your face, for the first time ever.

POGACAR: Yes, I am very happy about that. My cousin has this sweet ‘stache and I’ve always envied him.

INTERVIEWER: You have won two Tours de France and look pretty promising for a third. Does your cousin envy you now?

POGACAR: Well, maybe, but then he’s got a cooler car, and he gets more chicks. I really have no idea how he feels, you’d have to ask him.

Maybe because there’s so little room at this summit for team vehicles, etc. they’re not doing the usual thing of showing riders hugging each other or warming down on trainers, so it’s just one interview after another. Powless is next.

INTERVIEWER: You didn’t win the stage but did manage to hang on to your polka dot jersey. Are you happy?

POWLESS: Well, do I look happy? Look at this grin! I can’t wipe it off my face!

INTERVIEWER: Was it hard?

POWLESS: Well, yeah, especially when all the breakaway riders started attacking each other. With forks.

INTERVIEWER: With forks?

POWLESS. No. No forks. Just regular attacks. I don’t know why I said that.

INTERVIEWER: They interviewed your mother a bit ago and she was a little upset you wouldn’t answer your phone this morning.

POWLESS: Yeah. Things get a little hectic before the start of a stage and I always tell my mom that’s not a good time. So she keeps telling me to bring my phone with me out on the course and I tell her I can’t, it’s too heavy, and she’s like “What’s a phone weigh, four ounces?” I’m like no, it’s more like six ounces, that’s a lot, that’s like a [billiard] ball, and she’s like no it’s not, and then we just go around and around. So maybe you can see why I don’t always pick up.

INTERVIEWER: I’m with you. Don’t worry about it. You’re good kid.

POWLESS (sighs): Yeah, you should tell my mom that.

Well, that’s about it for today. Tomorrow is a much needed rest day, before another hilly stage on Tuesday. Next weekend they have a rest day and a time trial, so I doubt I’ll report, but check back on Saturday, July 22 for a report on the final (non-parade) stage!

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