Grand tour victories tend to fall into two categories:
- Oh, him again? [Eye roll]; and
- A new guy! WHAT DOES IT MEAN?!?!
This time it’s #2. So Simon Yates won the Vuelta over the weekend, or really about 12 days ago when he began taking control with a few high stage finishes, built on patient attacking for small gaps and time bonuses. I’d like to resist lumping him in with the rest of the British grand tour winners this year, except that’s exactly how they proceed too (plus time trialling, not a subject of much interest at the Vuelta). Really, the only distinction I can make among their respective wins this year is that Yates’ triumph is the lesser of the three, because Thomas won the Tour and Froome broke Yates, the very same Yates, to win the Giro.
Anyway, the job of today is to kick around what we can glean from Simon’s big result, and it’s safe to say there is some poetic justice in Yates coming back from his Giro near-miss, where he led the race from stages 6 through 18 before imploding in the Alps, to making his effort stick all the way to Madrid. Yes, I am going there. It’s his second surge. It’s poetic (work with me). His name is a poorly-disguised anagram for “yeats.” It’s time to explain what Simon Yates’ Vuelta win means to cycling, and I am absolutely going there:
Yates just had his second coming, and it’s time to ponder whether some new revelation is at hand.
Backing up... William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming is almost a cliche for mediocre lit majors (hi!) who want to impress people such as themselves with the last remaining vestiges of their university education. It’s a miserable dirge about the world going completely to hell, literally, even though its origins are mostly about the author getting dumped by Maud Gonne again. But it packs a wallop, is full of memorable lines, and is a pretty good description of American life in 2018. So with that, I am going to pilfer from Willie Yeats to frame the major analytical themes around the Vuelta victory of Simon Yates.
The best lack all conviction
Here is a short list of guys who won the Vuelta a España in the 21st century: Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana, Vincenzo Nibali... and also JJ Cobo, Chris Horner, Fabio Aru, Alejandro Valverde, Aitor Gonzalez, Angel Casero, and Alexandre Vinokourov. To put this in the vernacular of our new grand tour overlords, you can be pretty much pants and still nab the odd Vuelta win.
Why? Because it’s not hard? Nope, the Vuelta is non-stop climbing on most stages, maybe a tad slower than the other two but still. Because it’s not attractive? Negative, it’s a grand tour of a beautiful country. Because it’s a mess? Nah, ASO have buttoned things down of late.
No, you can be pants and win the Vuelta because the other riders you’re competing against are also pants. Or more fairly, the guys who have reached that very top level are either not at the race at all or are dealing with the fact that they reached that top level six weeks ago. It’s September. Everyone is pants now.
I don’t mean to diminish the significance of his win, I’m merely saying that strange things happen at the Vuelta. That win by Aru came over Joaquim Rodriguez and a feisty Tom Dumoulin. Horner beat an exhausted Nibali. Cobo pipped Froome and Wiggins, for the love of all things holy. It’s not a result one should overreact to. Maybe let this one breathe for a season and then we will know what we have in this Yates kid.
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
This is actually the fun part of my analysis, where we dream about whether a new era of cycling is upon us. I predict that a couple times a year, so it’s worth throwing out some cautious notes, but the Vuelta is getting a bit more competitive these days, and the podium just sported an average age of I think 18 and three quarters. Well OK, runner-up Enric Mas is 23 and Superman Miguel Angel Lopez is a robust, they-grow-so-fast-these-days age of 24. But Lopez got third at the Giro this year too, behind Dumoulin, who also took second in the Tour. Richard Carapaz, Sam Oomen, and Wilco Kelderman all made top tens in the big circuits, along with slightly older, hard-charging Primoz Roglic (28). Egan Bernal, the shiniest object in cycling, won the Tour of California. Matej Mohoric won the BinckBank Tour. Sepp Kuss won in Utah, and turned a few heads in Spain. And those are just the stage racers (I can barely even form coherent sentences about Michael Valgren).
Yates, at 26, sits in the middle of all this, but is in effect one of the leaders of a youth movement that is set to claim the sport from those decrepit old folks at Team Sky. He went from sixth in the Vuelta two years ago to seventh at the Tour last year, to stocking his closet with pink and red jerseys this year. That’s a dream progression in the real world, and if this is his ceiling, so be it. But all those other guys I just named, all those glittering young talents, will be aiming to make the same kind of leaps that Yates just did. They won’t all pull it off, or of they do I am not sure how we would know. Is there a limit on how many guys can be on the podium? Anyway, advantage Yates for now.
...a vast image out of Spritus Mundi troubles my sight...
Why W. B. Yeats was so against modialization is beyond me, maybe he was too singularly focused on getting the Brits out of Ireland. [Things that never go out of style: getting the Brits out of (insert country) (also cycling).] But as Britsy as cycling seems now, we are still experiencing a sharing of the wealth in some ways, ways which continue to expand the sport’s horizons. The win by Mitchelton-Scott is an Aussie team first. Thomas’ win was a milestone for Wales, which is part of Britain when it’s convenient and an independent entity when it sounds cool. Tom Dumoulin broke the Netherlands’ dry spell last year, a prospect so exciting that he and his team lost their collective minds and wasted his 2018 Tour chances chasing a second Giro win. The Colombians are knocking on the door at the Tour de France, the only prize as-yet-unclaimed by the Climbians. We have seen high finishes from Ecuadorians (Carapaz), Austrians (Patrick Konrad), Slovenians (Roglic), and Kiwis (George Bennett, Dion Smith). We even saw a Frenchman, Rudy Molard, leading the Vuelta for a few precious moments.
Here’s a quick break for a Future Grand Tour Winners’ Countries Power Poll:
- Colombia — assuming Bernal makes a full recovery after his San Seb fall.
- Netherlands — I’ve been burned too many times before.
- Spain — Tough to put it all on Mas but... sheesh.
- Colombia again. Or maybe Australia.
- Blah blah
- United States — we have our own Sepp!
- blah blah blah
- blah blah blah!
I just hurt my own feelings. Of course, the immediate future is firmly in the hands of the UK, but this can’t last forever. Doubling back to the rise of the kids, I note that Thomas and Froome are both beyond what we conventionally call one’s athletic peak. Steven Kruijswijk’s window seems to be opening and closing at the same time. Nairo Quintana... I could go long on this topic, but for whatever reason he just doesn’t seem to have it anymore. And by “it” I mean that last little bit of climbing brilliance that makes him a threat to every cyclist alive; without that he’s pack fodder, waiting to be ganged up on and whittled away at until a time trial ends his hopes for good. I don’t want to make too many assumptions about his current team, but if everything about his Movistar career is wrong, then the opposite — a move to somewhere else — must be right. Or maybe he just doesn’t want it enough. In interviews he comes off as charmingly normal, which makes me like him more, but like his chances of that dream Tour win even less. This is sports, and usually champions are either freakishly talented or freakishly competitive or both.
Anyway, not only is this diverse array of young talent looking good, their forebears could be making space for them starting two days ago. The future is bright! [Unless it turns out it isn’t!]
...and everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned...
And finally the bad news. One theme for the year is marginal gains, and unfortunately that’s come to be coded language for jiffy bags and everything else you want to hang on Team Sky. Who went on an historic winning streak, only to finally be stopped by... another Brit, who was previously popped for overusing his inhaler.
Yates’ spotty record, consisting of a single brief ban for an inhaler substance, might not alarm everyone, and Mitchelton have enjoyed a pretty good reputation for not cheating, as cycling goes (meaning there’s at least a 50 percent chance they aren’t cheating at this very moment). But for the less trusting, Yates’ win looks not so much like a reversion to the wild west of 1990s EPO but rather the confirmation of a subtle yet still cynical path forward by skirting the very edges of legality, like a trials rider balancing a Pinarello Dogma on a hand rail. Me personally, I don’t hang quite that much sin on Yates — he apparently has dealt with asthma since childhood and claims he didn’t know Terbutaline was even present in his inhaler. His results trajectory from before and after his brief four-month ban look about the same. At the same time, doping has evolved from the era of “I can’t believe I transfused the whole thing!” to “a few tiny drops of doping won’t hurt anyone,” and it would be naive to just explain away all the “administrative errors.” Yates’ win shouldn’t freak you out, but it shouldn’t cause you to let down your guard either.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I’m searching for some photos of Team Sky going sightseeing in Israel before the Giro, but I’m not coming up with anything good. Anyway, apocalyptic visions are cool, if you’re a poet and you know all the best parties to attend, but I think we shall let the new Yates off the hook now and put the old Yeats to rest. The plainest version of the truth is that the young Brit just turned in a smart and efficient three-week race where he was just a bit better than everyone at practically everything, including the art of not blowing yourself up a couple days too soon. No doubt Yates’ first coming, his Giro miss, was a disappointment, but he learned from it and he had enough of the team’s and his brother’s faithful support to make it all work out right the second time around. Simon himself is quick to downplay his “future stardom,” and we will take him at his word there too, given the strength of the competition these days from both young and old. But winning a grand tour is a special accomplishment, and Yates has earned the sport’s full attention after his smashing Spanish success.