NO COUNTRY FOR FAST MEN
Act one, Scene One
[A quick note: This was written just before Nacer Bouhanni dropped out of the Vuelta, with timing I’d describe as “typical”. Also, when I still thought we’d see a bunch finish in stage 12. I don’t want to re-write it without the Nacer jokes, so please, suspend disbelief briefly, and imagine he was still riding in a sprinty stage 12.]
Thursday, near Faro de Estaca de Bares. The peloton is moving towards the end of stage 12, trains are forming and the race is getting more rapid, but there is time to talk. Two young men, ELIA and NACER, find themselves side by side.
NACER: Hey, bro, this is great. You’re winning, I’m winning. I keep seeing all these hills on the horizon, but we aren’t going near any of them. Like, look over there. The map says we aren’t going inland today – thank God, hey?
ELIA: Enjoy it while it lasts!
NACER: That’s what my teammates say. I don’t know what you all mean! Most races, I’m on the way home by now, so I thought it’d get harder, but this is cool, you know. What’s tomorrow? More of the same, yeah?
ELIA: Well, no, not exactly. Tomorrow won’t be a day for you and me.
NACER: Roberto won’t tell me what’s coming up. He says I can’t read. He says I can’t even understand pictures. But I can, man! He just doesn’t like an alpha male. Can’t you please tell me what’s going to happen, Ells?
ELIA: Show him, Green Bum.
As this conversation started, KASPER was in front of ELIA. At the sound of his nickname, he raises his head slightly, reaches into a pocket and pulls out a folded map. As he shows it to NACER, we see this.
Nacer’s face falls.
NACER: Bruv, this isn’t real, right? We’re going up there? There isn’t, like, a road around it? I mean, we did mountains on Sunday! That wasn’t enough? I miss France! The commissaires are all bell-ends, but most days are flat!
Way up in the front of the line of men in red we see LUIS. He is dressed in blue and white, he doesn’t speak, but you can tell he’s listening. As the camera focuses on him, we see his shoulders shaking with supressed laughter. He is a smaller man than NACER, and, right now, a happier one. He peels off his line and drops backwards, smiling broadly. He is ready for Friday. NACER is not.
ELIA’s line begins moving faster, and the camera pans with him. NACER, still complaining bitterly, disappears off screen as we:
FADE TO BLACK.
On the stage
I imagine you were all too busy following the dramatic twists in the plot to notice, but there was the beginnings of a stage preview for Friday in there. If you were really following the detail, you’ll realise that profile will have a profound impact on the way this particular drama pans out.
First up is Puerto de Tarna. It won’t be easy, but nor is it likely to be decisive. It is the ideal leg-softening climb, and it’ll get some riders out of the way. Of our “scene one” riders, Luis Angel Mate will presumably hope to be in the break to pad his lead with the cat one points. Back in the field, the question is which team(s) will be interested in controlling the break and setting tempo for the business end of the day. My expectation is that we’ll see something of a power struggle between Astana and Movistar, and I have no idea who is deeper. On paper, it’ll be Movistar, but neither are looking particularly fresh through the depth in the mountain trains.
In any event, there’s a chance for a regrouping after that climb, and in truth, beyond that climb and the finishing slopes, there isn’t too much going on through this stage. The finish, though, is tough. It is very different to La Covatilla, shorter and much steeper, on narrow country lanes and with some ultra-steep pitches and inconsistent gradients throughout. The official preview shows it looking like this:
I think we’d all agree with Nacer on this one. That 25% ramp is enough to frighten anyone. The climb above Sabero is newly paved, which means that the surface will be good but also means it is new to the race and to most of the riders. Expect the unexpected. Also, suffering. Expect suffering.
Finding a winner
As I’ve said, I think we’ll see a break go clear and get scattered on the first climb, and I think we’ll see Mate pad his KoM lead. I think we’ll see an Astana and Movistar led peloton (with, perhaps, a little help from Lotto or Sunweb) heading onto the final slope, and I think there will be enough of a race between the bigs that the break will be reeled in.
We are yet to see team leaders open the taps and go all out for time. Stage nine was far from a damp squib, but it wasn’t a knock-down drag-out from the bottom of the hill, either. If you say “no fireworks today, this will be defensive,” you’ll be right a lot of the time in grand tour riding. Still, like predicting “no hurricane today” it is worth at least musing on the possibility of a serious GC fight. The slopes would make it more than possible if someone wanted to. Who might?
The “one big climb at the end” thing means this is, in some ways, a pretty similar stage to Sunday, and what we saw then will be instructive. Sepp Kuss looked the most valuable domestique (and, goodness me, what a revelation he’s been in the last few weeks) that day, and he’ll be giving invaluable assistance to both George Bennett and Steven Kruijswick. Both will be looking to cement themselves in the top ten and to move up, and either could go well.
Rigoberto Uran has climbed well with little support, and we can expect him to be among the principals. The same is true for Simon Yates, who has received less help than we might have expected. He looked excellent on Sunday and may use the steeper slopes here to launch an attack. He’s among the favourites, though I remain slightly sceptical of his ability to maintain his form.
For Tony Gallopin, clinging onto the top ten is a primary goal, but I think it is probably beyond him. He’s done well to last this long. It would be harsher to say that the same is true for two others in the top ten, Ion Izagirre or Manny Buchmann. I think both will be able to stay close enough to remain involved overall, but this doesn’t look like a day that will suit either rider. However, I’ve been surprised by both of them so far, and maybe I will be again.
Will Alejandro Valverde, given his GC standing, be willing to play domestique to Nairo Quintana? One assumes not, but both will be up there among the favourites for this stage, with Quintana looking as good as he has in a couple of years and among the likeliest of winners, having won here and taken the red jersey in 2016, en route to taking the overall.
From outside the top ten, Fabio Aru will be hoping to continue his run of good form, whilst Ben King, surely, can’t find another day when he wins? Wilco Kelderman looked to be climbing at his best last weekend and can’t be ignored as he seeks to pull back time he was unlucky to lose.
It won’t surprise you to hear that I don’t see any of these guys winning. I’m plumping for Miguel Angel Lopez, who will enjoy the steeper pitches and can get away from the best here. The best of the rest, I think, will be Quintana, Kelderman, and Uran.