Saturday, July 22, 2023

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2023 Tour de France Stage 20


Maybe you don’t have time to watch the Tour de France, or maybe you don’t want to pony up all that money for Peacock Plus or GCN+, or maybe you just like the race “story” pre-masticated for you. Who knows, maybe you just enjoy the work of a quasi-journalist who isn’t afraid to fabricate escapades from whole cloth when a bike race starts to get boring. Whatever the case, you’re here, so read on for my no-punches-pulled blow-by-blow of the last mountain stage of the 2023 Tour de France.

(Oh, and if you somehow missed the last two weeks of the race, I’ll distill that here for you along the way.)

2023 Tour de France Stage 20 – Belfort to Le Markstein Fellering

As I join the action, with about 90 kilometers to go, there’s been a big crash which apparently caused a split, and the rider sitting second on GC, previous Tour winner Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates), isn’t even in the lead group with current race leader Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma). The riders are just about to start the second climb of the day, the Category 2 Col de la Croix de Moinats.

Caught in the crash were Carlos Rodriguez (Ineos Granadiers), and Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma). Rodriguez’s face is bleeding near his eye. Poor dude.

What a long, strange Tour it’s been. How can Pogacar not even be in the lead group, when for so long he and Vingegaard were neck-and-neck? Things change fast and after two bad days in a row, Pogacar is no longer much of a threat to the Dane. But to not even be in the GC group on the last mountain stage? That’s just kind of sad. It’s also more intrigue than I’d expected so early in the morning. I haven’t even had my coffee—it’s still brewing. In fact it’s probably ready.

As I return to the action, F— has usurped  my laptop.

The GC group has come back together, in the sense that Vingegaard is back in it. Evidently he was approached by Warren Barguil (Team Arkea-Samsic) who said something like, “Dude, you’re shackling the buzz of this break, your being here will force UAE to catch us, don’t be a dick.” So Vingegaard dropped back to the Pogacar group. No point making enemies in the peloton and he doesn’t need to take more time anyway.

Poor Kuss is really banged up and is getting dropped. You know it’s bad when a rider’s face is bandaged.

The breakaway has just 20 seconds … do I bother giving you their names? Wait, before I do that, there’s news: Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) has attacked the GC group and is hauling ass up to the breakaway!

And he’s caught the group, just at the summit of the Col de Grosse Pierre, where current King of the Mountains Giulio Ciccone (Lidl – Trek) takes maximum points.

Given the name of this climb, Col de Grosse Pierre, should we worry about fat-shaming? Is this the Pierre from that children’s book who didn’t care about anything? Not so fast. Pierre is also the French word for “rock” so the translation is simply “big rock pass.” No insult to anyone, we’re good here, move along, move along.

They’re doing a little side show, a profile of Rodriguez, who sits fourth on GC, 1:16 off the podium. Comically, they are including interviews with his directeur sportif and some Spanish journalist, who are both speaking Spanish, and nobody is bothering to translate. I guess it’s the network’s way of saying, “We know you never pay attention to these side shows anyway.”

Others in the lead group are Mattias Skjelmose (Lidl-Trek), Barguil, Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Easypost), Thomas Pidcock (Ineos Granadiers), and Maxime van Gils (Lotto Dstny). I can’t believe I bothered to get all their names when they only have a minute on the GC group with 65 kilometers to go. If you don’t feel my pain, consider how hard it is to even spell names like Giulio and Skjelmose.

Theres’ a chasing trio, just 17 seconds back, of Kevin Vermaerke (Team DSM), Chris Harper (Team Jayco Alula), and Valentin Madouas (Groupama/FDJ), who’s rocking the French national champion jersey. In the time it took me to spell-check all that, they’ve caught the leaders and the GC group is still like a minute down.

Pinot has had a disappointing Tour, and it’s his last ever because he’s somehow gotten so damn old (tell me about it), and he sits all the way back in 12th on GC, over 27 minutes down.

In the GC group, Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates) finishes off one of those tiny little cans of soda that the Europeans drink. This is why they’re so much more svelte than the average American. That and riding like 400 miles a week.

At the summit of the Category 3 Col de la Schlucht, Ciccone takes maximum points and—wow, this is novel—does a victory salute.

He’s celebrating because he now has enough KOM points that all he has to do is finish this Tour and he’ll wear the polka-dot jersey on the final podium. I hate his polka-dot shorts, by the way. White cycling shorts are always a no-no, and with so much polka-dot going on, he looks like that weird animal from Put Me In the Zoo.

So, let’s back up and talk about the GC battle. Since Stage 9 (see my report here), during which Pogacar took nine seconds out of Vingegaard, the GC continued to tighten up in Stage 13, with Pogacar taking another eight seconds (a four-second gap at the finish with a four-second time bonus), so that only nine seconds separated the riders on GC. The next day was totally nuts: the two riders, having dropped all the others, marked each other near a mountain summit like track riders, neither wanting to lead out the sprint for the time bonus on offer. Vingegaard finally launched a sprint and took the bonus, but Pogacar beat him in the stage to also get a time bonus, and the net result was Vingegaard’s GC lead going up by just 1 second, to 10 total. It was shaping up to be the best Tour since 1989.

As the riders hit the base of the penultimate climb, the Category 1 Petit Ballon, Pinot attacks the breakaway!

And now, what’s this? They’ve let a woman out on the course!

Look how happy she looks! And how blurry that background is … she’s going so much faster than the men! It must be true: the future is female.

Wait a second. Look at that background. It’s the fenced-off area indicating the final kilometer of a race. You know what? They’re showing some kind of past footage of a women’s race. Oh, I see now. It’s some kind of promo for the Tour de France Femmes. I think I need more coffee.

Skjelmose has been dropped.

Back in the GC group, UAE Team Emirates are setting tempo with Soler on the front.

Getting back to my recap, the GC battle lost a lot of its luster in Stage 16, the time trial, where Vingegaard took a massive 1:38 out of Pogacar. Even more remarkable was Stage 17, where Pogacar totally cracked and lost over five minutes. So now the most interesting GC battle is for the final podium spot, with Adam Yates (UAE Team Emirates) defending third by the 1:18 I already told you about (Rodriguez).

Pinot attacks again, and only his teammate Madouas can respond. Madouas is tucked so neatly in behind Pinot, I can’t even see him. I can just feel his presence because the Force is strong in him.

Oh, maybe not so much. Now Pinot drops him, too.

This stage is on Pinot’s home turf, and naturally he’d planned something for the last mountain stage in his last Tour, so they interviewed him before the stage. Here’s what he had to say.

INTERVIEWER: What are your thoughts heading into this final Grand Tour mountain stage?

PINOT: I’m feeling a bit wistful, as you can imagine.

INTERVIEWER: Because your career is coming to an end?

PINOT: Well yeah, of course, but also because the sport seems to be changing. It’s not so beautiful anymore.

INTERVIEWER: In what sense?

PINOT: Well, they banned that style of riding where you put your forearms on the tops of the bars to create an aero position, as though you were using an aero bar, and so now lots of bikes have these goofy handlebars that are really narrow at the top, and then the drops are canted out to the side, almost like on a gravel bike, and it’s disgusting.

INTERVIEWER: But the Tour is so much bigger than just the bikes, isn’t it?

PINOT: Yeah, but other things have deteriorated. You have all these male fans running around in underwear, not even proper boxers but tighty-whiteys, and as they run alongside the riders they let their asses hang out. I cannot understand their motivation.

INTERVIEWER: Um … okay. Good luck today.

Full disclosure: nobody translated the interview from the French, and I had to guess at a lot of it. And actually, I must confess I made some of it up. Okay, all of it. I don’t even know if the French have a term for “tighty-whiteys.”

A chasing trio has formed behind, with Pidcock, Barguil, and Harper. They’re about 30 seconds behind Pinot.

Now Pidcock and Barguil drop Harper and the gap rather quickly comes down to 20 seconds.

The crush of fans is pretty incredible.

Now the lead starts to go out again. Perhaps Pinot is being buoyed along by the fans.

Back in the GC group, UAE still sets tempo, just in case Pogacar finds some life in his legs.

Ah, I spoke too soon. Now Jumbo-Visma moves to the front with Wilco Kelderman setting a nice pace for Vingegaard.

Pinot crests the Petit Ballon summit with a 33-second gap. He goes for a gel. I wonder how he’ll fare on this 10-kilometer descent … he’s not known for descending well, whereas Pidcock is arguably the best in the business.

Oh, no! What’s this? David Gaudu (team leader of Groupama-FDJ, sitting 10th overall) has dismounted rather suddenly!

I have a feeling this wasn’t just a pee stop. Ah, they’re showing a replay … he crashed in the sharp curve. He looks to be in pain but he’s getting a new bike and will go on.

Okay, this is really weird. Pidcock is being distanced on this descent by the other two. I would never have predicted this. It’d be like Taylor Swift being upstaged at a concert by the opening band. It just isn’t supposed to happen.

I will confess that I know almost nothing about Taylor Swift so my metaphor could be weak. That said, it’s never a bad idea to include the name of a pop star, such as Taylor Swift, in a blog post to increase pageviews. Taylor Swift Taylor Swift Taylor Swift.

Pinot is managing to maintain most of his lead on this descent, which must be very satisfying for him. And now he’s on the final climb.

Gosh, his lead is suddenly coming down a bit. I have to admit, I’d like to see him win this stage, to go out with a bang. I mean, the crowd favorite, the longtime underdog, winning big on his last try … it would make a kind of corny story, like an ABC After School Special, but I like Pinot. (The rider, not the wine. I have no use for wine.)

The gap is down to 13 seconds, and of course the chasers aren’t all Pinot has to worry about. The GC group is now less than a minute behind, and if Pogacar has one more big attack in him, that could close up pretty quickly.

Pidcock is hauling ass and now they’ve dropped Harper again.

In the GC group, Rafal Majka (UAE Team Emirates) hammers the front for Pogacar.

And now Pogacar attacks!

Only Vingegaard can respond!

But Pogacar seems to fizzle a bit! And now he’s looking around, as if to say hey, is anybody else coming?

And now Felix Gall (AG2R Citroen Team) blows by them and they grab his wheel.

Behind, the Yates brothers attack together.

And Pinot is caught! He looks back and can probably just see the GC group approaching.

And now the entire original breakaway is dropped as the GC trio continues to drill it. The Gall!

Gall sits eighth on GC going into today, but he’s over two minutes out of seventh.

Simon Yates is flying, starting to close on the leading trio and blowing by Pidcock! And now his brother Adam passes Pidcock! It’s a free-for-all!

Simon has caught Pinot and Barguil, and Adam isn’t far behind.

Now the four are together, less than 20 seconds from the leaders.

Ah, I just realized, Pidcock didn’t crack … he’s surely dropping back for his teammate, Rodriguez, to help him defend his fourth place on GC, now that Simon Yates is up the road and needs just 18 seconds.

Yep, there it is … Pidcock has dropped back and now paces Rodriguez. With them is Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe), who won a stage of this Tour, wore yellow for a day, and sits seventh on GC.

Pinot is totally dropped. Oh well. He gave it a good try.

With only 550 meters left in the climb, Pogacar isn’t going to be able to do anything. A stage win is probably all he could achieve at this point, though his chances of that are certainly good.

And that’s it, they’re over the final summit.

Now the question is, can the Yates brothers catch this trio, so Simon can fight it out for the stage win and Adam can help Pogacar? Their gap is just 15 seconds.

Oddly, the official summit isn’t really the top. There’s another ~500 meters at 8%, which isn’t exactly a bump in the road.

There’s a lot of dialogue going on between Vingegaard and Gall. I wonder what they’re saying? Vingegaard might be saying, “Look, pal, this stage win is a bigger deal for you … you need to pull,” and Gall might be replying, “Are you kidding? You know I can’t beat Tadej in a sprint. Help me out here … don’t be greedy.” Or maybe they’re arguing about who’s better, Billie Eilish or Taylor Swift. Or Nicki Minaj.

Now Pidcock blows up completely  … he did what he could for Rodriguez.

And the Yates brothers have caught the break. This may well move Simon up in the GC.

Oh, man, Rodriguez, despite a badly scraped-up face, is really heroing up, chasing back with all he’s got. He’s only 15 seconds behind and if he manages to catch, he’ll hang on to fourth overall. Oh, wait, he’s 15 seconds behind the Pinot/Barguil/Bilbao group. So he’s racing to keep Bilbao from knocking him out of fifth, essentially.

They’re into the last kilometer, and Adam Yates winds it up for Pogacar! He’s drilling it on the front, Pogacar tucked right in, should be a textbook leadout. But Vingegaard has thrown away the script and goes early! And he looks really good!

But Pogacar isn’t fazed! He comes around Yates and launches his own sprint, not even bothering to dive onto Vengegaard’s wheel!

Pogacar has got the win!

Here is the stage result. Check it out, Gall sneaked in for second.

Vingegaard chats with his wife. Note how responsible she is, masking up so she doesn’t give her husband COVID and cost him the race. Their child doesn’t need a mask because everybody knows small children cannot get, or spread, COVID. Now, I might be imagining this, but I could swear I heard Vingegaard’s wife say to him, “You look handsome.”

Here is the new GC, which—needless to say—isn’t likely to change tomorrow. Despite his crash, Gaudu climbs up a place, because Kuss lost so much time today.

Now they’re interviewing Pogacar.

INTERVIEWER: It must be satisfying to finally have a good moment after this horrible final week.

POGACAR: Yes, I finally feel like myself again.

INTERVIEWER: You keep touching your nose. And now you’ve just rubbed your nose on your shoulder. What’s going on there? Rogue boogers?

POGACAR: No, just a little non-allergic rhinitis. You have one more chance to ask a legitimate question or this interview is over.

INTERVIEWER: What was your best moment of this Tour?

POGACAR: The atmosphere on the team bus, that was just really great.

INTERVIEWER: And your worst moment?

POGACAR: When [I was dropped and] Marc Soler looked behind at me with his scary eyes ... that was the most terrifying moment.

It’s worth pointing out that most of the above interview is actually pretty faithful to what was said, for once. I only made up the nose bit because somebody had to explore the very real phenomenon of Pogacar constantly messing with his nose on camera.

Pogacar mounts the podium for his stage win.

And now Vingegaard gets another yellow jersey.

You know what’s crazy? It’s how much these two look like other celebrities. Check out the pop singer Aurora, who could be Pogacar’s sister:

And how do Vingegaard and Macaulay Culkin look so much alike?

I feel like the sport needs to capitalize on this somehow.

Pinot mounts the podium having won the Combitivity award for today.

The crowd chants, “PINOT! PINOT! PINOT!”

Oh dear, they’re showing Kuss and the poor guy is really banged up. He was so amazing in this Tour supporting Vingegaard (after having been so amazing supporting Roglic during the Giro) and he came into today in ninth overall … such a bummer of a day for him. He slips to 12th.

They’re interviewing Vingegaard.

INTERVIEWER: How was that today? Are you feeling happy to have this Tour all but won, or do you suffer from complicated emotional problems such that you somehow feel super bad about everything?

VINGEGAARD: I really appreciate the battle, it was [presumably] very nice to watch, it was very close. Today I felt good on the bike, it was another nice fight.

INTERVIEWER: Is this a team victory? And a family victory?

VINGEGAARD: Yes, my family was there every day for  me, they’ve done so well over the last three weeks.

INTERVIEWER: What, really, is the role of the family during the Tour? What does it mean for them to “do well”? It’s not like they were pacing you or giving you advice through your radio or something.

VINGEGAARD: Well, it consists mainly of not distracting me. Lots of riders get these late-night phone calls because the printer isn’t working, or the drip irrigation system has sprung a leak, or their kid won’t go to bed. Or their wives pick fights, they’ll be all like, “You just disappear for three weeks at a time, how do you think I feel?” So I didn’t have to put up with that, which I appreciate.

INTERVIEWER: What is your best memory of this Tour?

VINGEGAARD: The whole team, way we rode as a team, executed our plan every day, thanks to the team once again.

INTERVIEWER: That’s not exactly a single, specific memory. I was hoping for some kind of clear-cut snapshot, a perfect little set piece that would distill your overall experience into a single moment we can all easily picture.

VINGEGAARD: Okay, in that case, my favorite memory is about to be formed—it will be the moment you get that mic out of my face.

Well, that’s about it for this year. Watch these pages next month because I’ll probably cover the Vuelta a España…

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