Wow what a week for …cough cough… wheeze. Hang on a minute.
Where am I? Oh, I think I can see the neighbor’s house. I guess I’m still home. That makes sense.
Cheers from the Great Northwest, home to all of the world’s worst air and most of its craziest sunsets (it’s amazing what you can do with light and particulate matter). Thanks to the devastating wildfires in Oregon and California, I have spent the weekend on the couch, hitting refresh on my airqualitynow.com page and hoping it will tell me I can go for a ride. Obviously people have far bigger issues with this than the millions of folks stuck inside, and I am happy that the still air over the region is making it easier to beat back the flames. All in all, I’ll take it. But it’s especially tough during the Tour to have my bike taken from me.
Yesterday was a perfect example. Watching the riders approach the Grand Colombier, my mind is thinking two things: the race is about to get hot, and OMG I would love to ride up that thing! Sure, my timeline is dotted with reminders that Will J once took Jens up there and Jens is still having night tremors. But watching cycling never fails to make me want to ride, even in a completely irrational way. Apart from things like the Angliru, pro cyclists make this stuff look not just easy but fun, so why wouldn’t I want to do that too?
“But Chris, you are not a pro cyclist.”
So what? I can tap out a rhythm, and just look at those lacets!
“Seriously, your average wattage is like a third of theirs, and don’t even get me started on the per-kilogram part.”
I don’t care, it’s just so lovely there.
“Is it lovely inside your two hour pain cave? Because that’s where you would be.”
Let’s move on.
“There’s a nice cafe at the bottom of the climb too. Maybe that would suit you better.”
I said move on!
Anyway, I think I’m not alone in experiencing the joy of riding a bike through watching the Tour, on top of the joy of watching them do it. And it is a bummer to think that riding a bike around Seattle right now is about the equivalent of smoking 100 packs of unfiltered cigarettes. But at least I get the joy of watching them ride. And with the Tour de France piled on top of Tirreno-Adriatico, the battle for the sport’s most iconic jerseys against the battle for the coolest trophy, I am happy to say, it’s a good time to have nothing to do but watch cycling.
On to the rankings…
1. Wout Van Aert
Wout Van Aert is a Golden god
— Damiano indossa una maschera (@CPodiumcafe) September 1, 2020
This Time Around: The date of this assessment was September 1, a day before he won his first stage of this year’s Tour de France and a full three days before he would win his second. Coupled with two last year that’s… a lot of stage wins. Then he missed out on another because Peter Sagan nudged him off his line in the sprint in Poitiers. He probably was losing to Ewan regardless but it’s hard to say.
Anyway, with nothing better to do on the Grand Colombier stage, he decided to end Egan Bernal’s Tour with a murderous round of pacemaking that put the off-form defending champion in arrears, along with Nairo Quintana. His plans to take vacation in Cartagena should maybe get paused.
What can’t he do? Win the Tour? Probably that. For Wout to get to the weight he’d need to get to in order to hang on the biggest climbs would be… unhealthy? Power-sapping? Not possible, period? Top 20 at the Tour? I think he’s looking at that. He sits 24th now, surrounded by guys like Emmanuel Buchmann, Thibaut Pinot, Marc Soler etc. who are regarded as Tour placement candidates. Van Aert is so consistent and competent that as the pure climbers toss away chunks of time, he can just hang in there and progress up the GC. Not all the way up, but it’ll be fun to see how far. I wouldn’t bet against him bagging a top 10 someday.
In the meantime, he’s the key lieutenant to the maillot jaune. He probably also has an eye on Italy, where his old friend van der Poel just crushed a short climb to win a stage of Tirreno, looking more like who we expected. World Champs are going to be so fucking lit.
2. Not So Slow-Venia
Previously: Removed from the rankings as punishment for sending partisans out to block the 1946 Giro d’Italia en route to Trieste.
This Time Around: Some things you never get over. But I’m willing to try, given that a) I wasn’t born for several decades after this event, and b) in addition to not being a pro cyclist, I’m also not actually Italian. Oh and 3) holy shit!
Years ago, we coined the name Fastvakia to describe the ancestral homeland of Peter Sagan, and it made perfect sense. I don’t know if I want to go with Fastvenia here — it’s taken like six years to differentiate between Slovakia and Slovenia in my mind already — but this slo- business is a problem. When you have the two best climbers at the Tour, battling neck and neck for every climbing stage, it calls for a nickname in place of any hint of slowness. I’m taking nominations.
In the meantime, it’s downright bizarre what is going on. The history of Slovenian cyclists is pretty thin, and almost nonexistent at the top level before, say, 2000. Since then, they’ve gotten stage wins at grand tours from Borut Bozic, Luka Mezgec, Matej Mohoric and Jan Polanc. Lots of “that guy” sprinters who won here and there. Janez Brajkovic won a Dauphine, which would be cooler if it weren’t on behalf of the Armstrong/Bruyneel shitshow. But to go from being a bit player despite lovely mountains and a proximity to Italy, to owning the entire goddam Tour de France in such a short time… I mean, do these things happen? I guess there was that time when suddenly a Swiss Rider, Ferdi Kubler, broke through and won the 1950 Tour, then didn’t defend his title in 1951, only for a second Swiss rider Hugo Koblet to win. You could also throw in Irish cycling in the 1980s suddenly producing both Kelly and Roche. Or American cycling conjuring up LeMond and Hampsten from seemingly whole cloth. The American emergence is probably the weirdest, given how sudden and pervasive it was, and how it hasn’t been replicated (without EPO). Anyway, Slovenia’s moment is a serious one. By the time it’s over, maybe we will talk about going out for Štruklji after the race.
Previously: Mostly the subject of speculation as to why their high-profile riders keep ditching the team prematurely.
This Time Around: Uh, maybe because the team is busily replacing them with cheaper and better talent? I must admit, I don’t follow the daily churn of rumors and backstories like I used to, but this Tour has taken Sunweb from the “what’s going on behind the scene” murmurs to “these guys sure seem to know what they’re doing.”
The latest departure, Michael Matthews, is getting let out of his deal early after being denied a spot on the Tour de France team. Matthews is a talented rouleur/sprinter guy who won the green jersey overall in 2017, but it looks like an anomaly given that Marcel Kittel and Peter Sagan both exited the race in untimely fashion that year, and that Matthews followed up with a DNS and 5th last year, with no additional stage wins. His sprinters’ spot went instead to maybe Cees Bol, or Soren Kragh Andersen? Not sure. But the result has been two brilliant victories, by Andersen and Tour revelation Marc Hirschi, and a relevance that didn’t seem possible two weeks ago. Sure, Bol is not up to the task of beating the likes of Ewan or Sam Bennett in a chaotic Tour de France bunch gallop just yet — though he came close on stage 5 behind… who else? (scroll up) — but he’s getting important reps for later in the race or next year when he can lock it all in and win. We haven’t made it to Paris yet, he has a couple more tries.
Hirschi, I can’t say enough about that guy, although I kind of did last week. But the way they set up Andersen for the win on the rolling finish of stage 14 was masterful. Hirschi and Tiesj Benoot both took turns attacking the front, with Casper Pedersen shadowing others, successfully softening up the likes of Sagan, Alaphilippe and the other elite stage hunters looking to get away. Once their rivals had burnt enough matches, off went Andersen on one of those attacks where as soon as he goes, you just know it’s over. And it was.
At 29, Matthews has some good days left in his legs, but what can he do that these young kids can’t also do, at probably half the salary (or less)? What would their prospects look like at the Tour had they brought him instead of Bol or Pedersen or cyclocrosser Joris Niewenhuis? Or, god forbid, the 22-year-old Hirschi? At best, marginally better, while abandoning their goals in other races — namely the Italian campaign that Matthews is on now. Winning fixes everything for the team, if not for the guy they moved out before the wins happened. So no, I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes there, but I sure do like what’s happening on the road.
4. Aging Anglos
Previously: [Insert dad jokes.] [Actually don’t. Words hurt, you know.]
This Time Around:
Yes, the comedy stylings of Froomey and Gee! Because it’s all laughs around the Grenadiers’ camp fire these days.
The caption they are looking for here is something like “you should have never lost faith in us, Brailsford” or “those kids from South America have a lot to learn” or “suck it haters!” Something like that. Because Ineos left its two venerable Tour champions home, due to lack of results, injuries and so on, opting instead for the next-wave climbers Bernal and Ecuadorian neighbor Carapaz — a/k/a the defending Tour and Giro champions. But both have been subpar, thanks to lingering injuries of their own (probably) or lack of veteran presence (probably not but maybe don’t ask Bradley Wiggins), and the second-guessing has kicked into high gear. “Froome has earned the right with his four wins” say people who didn’t watch him suffering at the Dauphine. “The team could use some veterans at the breakfast table, just oozing guidance or something,” say those who are definitely not at the breakfast table. Or worst of all, “the team isn’t very British,” say people who think ethnicity is a good reason to pick a rider for your team.
It’s all hogwash, and the real reason is that the lack of time trials meant that Thomas probably should go somewhere else, in addition to Froome who is still recovering his form from horrific injuries in training. Bernal got the full support of a team that seemed well suited to this all-climbing Tour parcours. Bernal having an off day doesn’t mean the thinking was wrong.
But it is a bit tempting to wonder what it would look like to see Froome out there, where he has been such a legend and so consistent, even when the deck gets reshuffled against him. Hindsight is delicious sometimes.
5. The Rules!
Previously: OK, OK, we do give a shit about them.
This Time Around: Boy do we.
The Tour jury has been pretty strict about this and that, what with Alaphilippe surrendering yellow for an illegal bottle. And of course we all suffered the horror of watching Fabio Jakobsen’s gruesome crash in Poland, from which he is suffering far, far worse of course. So veering off one’s line in a sprint is not gonna be overlooked, even when it’s Peter Sagan and it costs him the lead in the green jersey competition and probably the title. Currently Sagan, a record seven-time winner of the jersey in Paris, sits 45 points back of Sam Bennett, but it would be a mere five if Sagan had not been relegated on stage 11 for shoving Wout Van Aert off his line. Sagan clearly did the deed, and maybe cost Van Aert the win (although I doubt it), though he claims with reason that he moved over to avoid some idiot’s selfie stick. He finished second, ahead of Bennett, securing 30 points to Bennett’s 20, but the jury saw foul and now Bennett is considered the runner up while Sagan gets bubkis.
There are two legit sprinter stages left, which could go either way. The finish on Friday’s stage comes after plenty of ups and downs, and as such may favor Sagan, while the ultra-flat Paris conclusion probably suits Bennett better. Ewan may be around for both, in which case these two could be battling for something less than the 50 points awarded the winner. All the other stages contain far too much climbing for any of these guys to get as much as a point. So, in all, Bennett can sit on Sagan’s wheel and beat him or not in these two finals sprints, and probably cruise home to victory.
But if Sagan hadn’t been dinged, we would be talking about every last intermediate sprint maybe flipping the outcome. Translation? Don’t break the rules.
6. Movistar’s Stealth Team Campaign
Previously: Hm, well they did have a nice documentary made about them being kind of an interesting team that couldn’t quite get out of its own way most days.
This Time Around: Don’t look now, but Movistar are in position to extend their incredible, historic, wonderful, heart-stopping run of greatness in the Tour de France teams competition. As we all know, cycling is a team sport, and while the yellow jersey gets so much credit, true fans know that celebrating individuality in this fashion is an abomination.
No, the essence of sport is encapsulated in the teams competition, and Movistar are on the verge of a fifth incredible win in six years. They are, hands down, the greatest team in Tour de France history, and all real cycling fans know this.
Movistar, stay true to your nature. Don’t listen to the haters who say this is a pointless competition that 19 teams don’t even acknowledge exists, and that your old way of throwing four leaders at every grand tour has been an unmitigated disaster. Those who sully the name of Alejandro Valverde by suggesting he has held the entire team hostage for the better part of the decade simply don’t understand the sport. Keep fighting for the purity of team cycling. You are an inspiration to us all.
7. Sepp Kuss and the Yellow Train
Previously: Unremarked upon. What with the whole “when has a Dutch team dominated a grand tour?” thing.
This Time Around: Remarked upon, every day more or less. Jumbo Visma have both the maillot jaune and every reason to defend it, from “we can” to “Roglič is awesome.” This is a team constructed to drill the entire peloton, even those pesky grenadiers, into submission… or something like that. I dunno, was there a memo? Because Pogačar isn’t reading from it.
Still, unless Pogs really just can’t be stopped, the Yellow Train will be the true revelation of the Tour. It is expertly crafted from a staff of grizzled veterans like Tony Martin, Bobo Gesink and George Bennett, with younger studs like Mr. Plan B Tom Dumoulin, the amazing Wout, and of course Sepp Kuss, the 26-year-old American who is making a name for himself with his heroic efforts on Roglič’s behalf.
Kuss has been around the top level for three years, racing all three grand tours since starting with Jumbo in 2018. He’s got a stage of the Vuelta and the Dauphine on his palmares so far, and after he was done helping Roglič up the Colombier, he cranked it up to take sixth for himself on the day. Kuss lies 17th on GC at the moment, and with his orders to help secure the overall victory, it’s not clear he will be moving up. But as long as he’s the last helper standing, as even Dumoulin concedes bits of time on the highest peaks, Kuss looks more like a guy who will get to ride for himself somewhere, and soon. That is, unless he is simply too valuable as Roglič’s right hand man. Anyway, it’s nice to see an American do relevant things at the Tour, and he is certainly a rider to watch over the next few years.