On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 10/1/2014
The first rains of the season have come to Sonoma County, as they almost always do, in the last week of September. Our drought-parched world has been begging for even a tiny drop of moisture for months, and when it finally arrived, it made up for its long absence with an extravagant, splashy storm, complete with fork lightning, ear-splitting thunder, and even hail.
I had ridden up through vineyards the day before the storm and had been sprinkled on--mildly, briefly--as I watched the farmers rushing the last of their grapes to the crushers. And then I rode again the day after the deluge--yesterday--leading a club ride down Tomales Bay through a world washed clean by this busy little shower. I know the rain that fell in that one afternoon downpour won't put a dent in our thirst for water, but it was enough to instantly bring a green fuzz to the meadows…all those sleepy seeds waking up from their year-long slumber and getting to work on the next generation of grasses.
So, hey, all of a sudden it's autumn, and this little paean to the passing seasons is my introduction to what I expect will be my last race-related column of the year. It was just two months ago that I banged out my post-Tour de France review. Since then, the pro peloton has not been standing still. Lots to talk about…
The Vuelta a España has come and gone and was once again the most entertaining of the year's three Grand Tours. Of the race's 21 stages, 12 were mountainous and nine were true mountaintop finishes. A couple of those hilltop finishes were minor but most were serious and decisive. Three stages were time trials. The shortish ones on the first and last stages were for the most part inconsequential, but the one full-sized ITT on Stage 10 was very important.
The Vuelta had probably the best A-list of GC contenders of the three Grand Tours. This was due at least in part to the pratfalls of a couple of big names at the TdF: Alberto Contador and Chris Froome both crashed out in July and were rebooting their season's ambitions in this last-chance tour. They were joined by an all-star cast of hopefuls: Valverde, Rodriguez, Aru, Uran, and above all, Nairo Quintana, winner of this year's Giro. The only major player missing was Vinnie Nibali, resting on his TdF laurels.
In my TdF wrap-up, I said there was no way Contador would be back from his broken leg in time for the Vuetla. Well…I was wrong. So were a lot of people. He broke his right tibia on July 14. The Vuelta started on August 23. That's 46 days--six and a half weeks--to knit up the larger bone in the lower leg and then get back to anything approaching decent racing form. I think we can all be forgiven for thinking there was no way he could possibly be an entrant, let alone a contender, let along a winner…especially because the early reports on the healing process were quite discouraging.
But there he was at the start on August 23, indulging in some pro-level sandbagging about not being ready to contend for the GC and just hoping for a good stage result here or there…yeah, right. As the first week went by and the sprinters got their meager few moments in the limelight, he seemed to find his comfort zone. On the first serious mountain finish (Stage 6), Valverde, Froome, and Contador crossed the line together, with Rodriguez, Quintana, and Aru just behind. On Stage 9, behind a breakaway, Contador, Rodriguez, and Quintana finished together, with Valverde, Aru, Froome, and Uran not far behind. So far not much room between them. Quintana was in the lead, with Contador and Valverde and the rest just a few seconds behind him. Early days yet…
Stage 10 was the only time trial of any substance, and that's where things started shaking. Most importantly, Quintana crashed badly on the tricky descent midway through the stage. He simply carried too much speed into a right-hand sweeper and went into the guardrail on the left, doing a snazzy front somersault and shredding his leader's skin suit. He eventually got back on the bike and finished, but he lost over three minutes and any hope of overall victory. Plus he was pretty beat up. And then he sealed the deal by crashing again the next day and withdrawing. Shades of Contador, Froome, et al at the TdF: to finish first, first you must finish.
Contador stepped into the gaping hole left by the departure of pre-race favorite Quintana and pretty much took charge. He was best of the GC riders in that ITT, except for Rigo Uran. (Tony Martin was first--no surprise there--and Uran was second, three seconds ahead of Fabian Cancellara. That is impressive.) Contador finished fourth and that put him in the overall lead ahead of Valverde, Uran, Froome, Rodriguez… Froome, normally killer against the clock, was a disappointing :53 behind Contador in the ITT, which left him 1:18 down on GC.
No rest for the weary warriors, at least not yet. Stage 11 brought us another big mountaintop tussle. This time Fabio Aru jumped away from the select leader's group under the 1-K banner and held on for a slim margin of victory, with Valverde, Rodriguez, Contador, Froome, and Uran right on his heels, seconds behind.
The next big test was Stage 14, with an uphill finish at La Camperona. The first half of the 8-K climb was nothing special, but then it ramped up to around 9% and finally, with 2 K to go, it tilted up to nearly 20% for over a kilometer before tapering to about 9% near the end. This one was great fun to watch. There had been a big breakaway far enough off the front to ensure--almost to ensure--that someone from that group would take the win. On the final climb, seven riders were in the final bunch, and at the 2-K banner, just when it hit that steepest section, Ryder Hesjedal was the first to launch an attack. (Recall my praise for Hesjedal on his gritty contest with Quintana on one stage of the Giro.) But almost immediately Oliver Zaugg countered, went around the haggard Ryder as if he were chained to the proverbial stump, and scooted on up the hill. Hesjedal looked like dead meat. He appeared to be barely moving, although he was staying ahead of the other five guys in the break. But no way was he getting back to Zaugg. You may not know Zaugg, but he is no patsy from palookaville. He won the 2011 Giro di Lombardia. He's a good rider and an excellent climber. Bear in mind too that Zaugg weighs 123 pounds to Hesjedal's 160. Anyway, Hesjedal kept cranking out his best, sustainable tempo, and one revolution at a time, he slowly ground his way back toward Zaugg. It really did not seem possible, but with less than 50 meters to go, he caught him, passed him, and dropped him. It was hero stuff…epic.
Meanwhile, back in the GC group, all the usual suspects were up to their usual mischief, all looking lively and feisty. All except Froome. He had slipped to the very back of the leader's group and looked to be well and truly dropped. He looked shot. The announcers were predicting doom and gloom for the lanky Brit, but wait…as the rest of the players were punching at each other, here, back from the brink, came old Froomy, spinning like mad and squirting right past the rest of the boys. He even opened what was looking like a sizable gap before Rodriguez clawed back up to him at the finish, dragging Contador behind him, with the others straggling in a few seconds back. It was stirring, thrilling…everything we like in a big race.
The next day, at the classic old mountain finish of Lagos de Covadonga, Valverde, Rodriguez, Contador, Aru, and Froome all finished within a few seconds of each other, in that order. Still not a lot of daylight between the top riders. But the next day would sort things out a bit: yet another monster mountain finish to La Farrapona (17 K with long sections over 10%). Froome opened the serious attacks with a hard, steady tempo that saw off everyone but Contador. El Pistolero just sat on Froome's wheel and let him do all the heavy lifting of dropping Valverde, Rodriguez, Aru, and the rest. Then, within the last kilometer, Contador kicked it and dropped Froome…“Thanks for the lift, amigo; I'll take it from here!”
In the end, he only took a handful of seconds out of Froome (and most of a minute out of the other guys), but it was more the way he did it than the actual times involved. He seemed to have things totally under control. Each of them had taken their shots at breaking him, but he didn't appear to be breakable. Speaking of breaking, I kept thinking of his recently broken leg. I kept wondering if it was truly, fully healed. Could the stress of three weeks of racing eventually aggravate the injury and cause painful inflammation? I kept thinking there might come a day when he couldn't mark the attacks of the other top guns. However, if he was in pain, we was doing a good job of hiding it.
But there were still two more tough mountaintop finishes. On Stage 18, Aru launched another of the attacks for which he is becoming known. He went off the front group and quickly opened up a nice little gap. But at about 2.4 K, Froome countered with an attack of his own and almost instantly crossed over to the young Italian, went right past him and started pulling like a train with Aru glued to his wheel, leaving Contador, Valverde, and Rodriguez scrambling to limit their losses. In the end, Aru won the stage with Froome right behind, and they took :13 out of the chasers. With time bonuses at the finish, it was enough to move Froome into second, ahead of Valverde, but still 1:19 down on Contador.
It was all going to come down to the final climb on Stage 20, and it was the only HC climb out of all these tough ascents: 13 K to Puerto de Ancares…averaging 9%, with a max of 18%. And it was going to come down to the gang of five: the last men standing after three weeks of brutal challenge: Contador, Froome, Valverde, Rodriguez, Aru. Rodriguez was the first to go on the offensive, several kilometers down the final, fearsome climb. He built a nice gap while the others kept a steady cadence. Then at 6 K to go, Froome got out of the saddle and upped the tempo. Valverde and Aru were gapped immediately, but Contador, looking as relaxed as if he were out on a weekend club ride, glued himself to Froome's wheel and marked his every move. They soon reeled in Rodriguez and set off on their own, the two chief protagonists, fighting it out to the last. Froome threw everything he had at Contador: attack after attack. But Contador was equal to every one of them. And then, with half a K to the line, after one more Froome acceleration, Contador came around him and dropped him, making it look easy. It was almost a carbon copy of the Farrapona finish. He danced his way up the final meters with a big smile on his face, while Froome chugged along, looking totally spent…which no doubt he was: he gave it his all, and then some.
The very short final time trial was a bit of an anti-climax. The leaders all set off on wet roads around a very complicated, urban course--tons of roundabouts and sharp corners--and none of them featured in the results. Froome took :27 off Contador, as the latter tiptoed around the wet course very carefully, doing just enough to protect his overall lead. That lead ended up being a rather slender 1:10 over Froome and 1:50 over Valverde. Based on raw numbers, it may not look like a colossal smack-down, but really, he seemed to be the master of the situation pretty much from start to finish. When the going got tough, he was tougher than all the others. And never forget: none of the others was six-plus weeks out from a broken leg. Very, very impressive.
Across the pond and up in the Rockies, Teejay Van Garderen followed up his fine fifth place at the Tour de France by defending his title at the USA Pro Challenge. He easily won the queen stage hill finish at Monarch Mountain on Stage 3. He stayed close on the next stages and then drilled the ITT on Stage 6, finishing a comfortable :53 ahead of second-place Tom Danielson.
The irrepressible and nearly inexhaustible Jens Voigt--at the ripe old age of 43--announced his retirement before the USA Pro Challenge, and he promised to go out fighting, looking for an opportunity to launch one of his legendary late breakaways. He got his chance on Stage 4, soloing off the front of the day's breakaway with 40 K to go. He nearly made it too, but the sprinters' teams finally caught him within the last kilometer. He did have the consolation of being awarded the Most Aggressive Rider jersey, which might just sum up his entire career.
But in spite of being officially retired from racing at that point, he wasn't quite ready to quit riding hard, and on September 18 at a velodrome in Genchen, Switzerland, he broke the hallowed record for the hour, covering 51.115 kilometers (31.6 miles) in the allotted time. That put a fitting and spectacular cap on a colorful career that has spanned 17 years and well over 500,000 miles. He will be missed.
In the Jens Voigt, "shut up legs!" department, and harking back to the Vuelta, I also want to tip my cap to another journeyman pro: 33-year old Australian Adam Hansen. He's not a GC contender, nor often likely to be considered a favorite in any race he enters. He's a grunt, working down in the engine room for his team leaders. However, like Voigt, he does like to get into breakaways and to try his luck going off the front of a break now and then. He won Stage 7 of last year's Giro that way and he won Stage 19 of this year's Vuelta following the same formula. But what really caught my attention about Hansen was learning that, with this Vuelta, he has now completed the last TEN Grand Tours in a row. Four Vueltas, three Giros, and three Tours, without sitting one out, without withdrawing because of injury, illness, fatigue, disqualification. What an Iron Man!
And that brings us up to the World Championship race, run just this morning in Ponferrada, Spain. Young Michael Kwiatkowski won, becoming the first Polish World Champion. Many riders from many countries had their chances, but his was the right attack at the right time: seven K from the finish, with one climb and one descent to go. He got a gap and held off a hard-charging chase group by just enough time to sit up and do a little celebrating as he crossed the line. Simon Gerrans was second and our old friend Allejandro Valverde was third. (Last year I said Valverde's middle name should be "Almost" because he comes so close to winning so many times. To be sure, he has won many races in his career, but 2nds and 3rds are far more common in his palmarés. Consider his World Championship record; two 2nds--2003 and 2005--and four 3rds--2006, '12, 13, '14. Six podiums, no gold medals.)
That'll do it for now, and probably for 2014 as far as racing is concerned. I love racing and love hashing it over, but it's only one facet of the wonderful world of bikes and biking. We'll kick around something else next month.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org