Man... is it me or is the Vuelta’s grand overseas depart in France running a bit long?
Holy shit you guys! The Tour de France is happening!! Over Labor Day weekend!! Yeah, haha, we get it, this is a weird year, but it’s worth taking a moment to contemplate where we are, no? For me, the summer has been one long string of days that sort of blend together, with no work commute and no vacation to provide context for anything until last week when the family and I drove around much of Oregon with mountain bikes and a dog, at least one of which was a good idea. But still, this is Labor Day week in the US, a time when most of us are accustomed to summer switching to fall. Not literally, but so many kids go back to school either this week or next that even if you don’t have them, you can see how everything has changed from a summer footing to a non-summer footing.
For me, the week is usually spent on Orcas Island in a rented beach cabin with very little wifi (sort of the point), where I have sometimes driven to town for an Angliru stage or whatever, and some blogging. The Vuelta is the race that occupies this transitional time, and it’s nice, because you can care about the Vuelta or not — totally optional — and if you do, chances are your faith will be rewarded. But the Tour? In this weird space?? I mean, we will make do of course, but for all the things that people are talking about how maybe this COVID-related change will just become permanent even after the pandemic is over, moving the Tour to late August and September is not one of them.
Anyway, this is what we have to work with. And with a couple nervous stages under our belts and the race beginning to take shape, it’s time have some fun with this Tour-ish thing we are watching. To wit... a poll!
[The science behind this poll should become obvious after about two or three entries. If you still have questions about the scientific principles behind the ranking, all I can tell you is that we generated 450,000 computer simulations before arriving at this ranking, so I think you should have confidence in the results.]
1. Wout Van Aert
Previously: Write in candidate for King of All the Belgiums
New Developments: Sizing up the Gent Altapiece for inclusion. Maybe a new door or something.
Wout has been the story of the cycling season so far, winning Strade Bianche (to nobody’s surprise) and Milano Sanremo (to some people’s surprise, although fuck them, what sport were they watching?). Then he got added to the Tour de France squad for Jumbo-Visma, a friendlier, continental version of the beloved past editions of Team Sky, not because we thought he could contribute to their dominance of the climbs but because why the hell not? Except on the big(ish) climbing stage to Orcières-Merlette, he bloody well did contribute to the team’s climbing dominance, setting a tempo that frightened away all competition and set up his teammate Primož Roglič for the stage win. That led some people to tweet that Wout Van Aert is a Golden god.
Wout Van Aert is a Golden god— Damiano indossa una maschera (@CPodiumcafe) September 1, 2020
Then the next day he won a sprint stage. I have nothing left to say, except that he’s probably not getting knocked out of the #1 spot on this poll anytime soon.
2. The Maillot Blanc Competition
Previously: Moderate. Sure, a teenager won the Tour, but mostly against a bunch of old boring guys (and Nairo Quintana).
New Developments: Pretty much devouring the maillot jaune competition, except for Primož Roglič, who is secretly not that young.
OK, that may be overstating things — the Tour is not habitually a young man’s game — but there are four legitimate contenders for the win (Bernal, Pogačar, Mas and Higuita) who qualify for white, with a fifth in Dani Martinez not that far out. We also nearly had Marc Hirschi take yellow for a day, and stage wins by two other U26-ers Ewan and Wout. The kids are taking over, we knew that already, but now it’s happening before our eyes. Obviously Bernal is the heavy favorite for White (and Yellow), but if you aren’t super excited to see if some of these other guys can make him sweat, I just don’t know.
Previously: Low. Weren’t you the only one who gave a shit about them?
New Developments: They matter! As you probably heard, Julian Alaphilippe had to surrender the race leadership after receiving a bottle from the sideline at the 17km mark, acknowledging that they did so because there was nowhere earlier on the course to safely hand out their “finish bottles” to riders who need a last bit of fluid before the finale. Probably nothing to fuss about, right? Yeah... except since when does the Tour strip a Frenchman from yellow for a rules violation? The last time was... er, I don’t know, probably when Bernard Hinault threatened to beat up the entire race jury over something.
Mostly it wasn’t really a shock or a tragedy — Ala had the jersey for a couple days, after a long and heroic run in it last year, and aren’t we all pretty sick of watching reruns by now? There were even rumors that Quick Step intentionally did the bottle maneuver so they could ditch the jersey rather than burning matches in week 1 to defend it. Not true, I think, but indicative of how much anyone should care about this. And given the long, relentless history of cycling making everyone incredibly frustrated, confused and sad about how the rules are enforced, it’s nice to see a pretty straightforward one enforced without fear or duplicity.
New Developments: The bottle is having a moment! Just a few days ago it was revealed that the UCI, ever seeking new ways to win hearts and minds, announced an investigation into the contents of a bottle taken off the broken body of Remco Evenepoel, lying in a ditch with a cracked pelvis following a horror crash in the Daphine that we are all thankful he survived. The implication was that the UCI wanted to know if they should kick him while he was down for maybe having banned substances on his body. Because riders go to the finish area with banned substances protruding from their pockets in plain sight of everyone now? I dunno. Anyway, Remco resented the implication, saying he cried in his dad’s arms after reading what was implied, which made me start crying, which prevented me from blogging about how horrible this was, for fear of dripping tears on my keyboard.
Look, I don’t know what’s in Remco’s blood, or any other rider’s, but you’d hope that nobody would imply anything without at least a bit of evidence besides “hey, that guy’s pretty strong.” Is a bottle now probable cause? Like tinted windows, you can’t see into them, so I guess you can let your imagination run wild. And in the century or so since their invention as a cycling accessory, they have had plenty to answer for over the years. Still, should we blame the bottle or the person filling it? I think this is an important distinction and I plan to stand by the bottle. That bottle never hurt nobody.
5. Nairo Quintana
Previously: 8th in the Tour, if first in some of our hearts.
New Developments: Did you see the crosswinds in Wednesday’s stage? Did you notice our man Nairo, tucked behind the ever-attentive Ineos train like he was their missing fifth GC option? Did that not change everything you thought you knew before?
It did for me. Quintana’s career, while highly successful already and far from done, has been marked by occasions at the Tour where he kicked away precious minutes through inattentive behavior on stages like this. But everything is different now. In fact, isn’t it worth wondering whether not only were Movistar holding him back in general, but maybe they were undermining Nairo in crosswind stages? Did they tell him, no problem, just ride toward the back? Did a Movi rider then let a little gap out which sealed his fate? This is one of those games within the game that most people don’t know about. In crosswinds, you don’t have to lose a wheel to cause a split. Just look like you’re about to. That sets off a frenzy, whereby nobody trusts you and does everything they can to get around you before you cost them the race. That activity causes someone to let out a gap, and the deed is done. It’s like mumbling “fire” in a crowded theater, just loud enough for others to hear. Worth looking into...
Previously: Right up there with time trialling, consistency, and buying an armada of classy domestiques.
New Developments: Probably ditches crono performance, although the armada thing is definitely still a big thing. In fact, let’s make those the package deal here, team climbing. This all-southern France Tour just climbs and climbs and climbs. There are big climbs and small climbs. So far we have had two legit climber stages with MTFs, two more where the non-climbers were up against it, and two more that would have killed a mere mortal, if not any of these guys.
Next up? A stage dusted with climbs, then two Pyrenean stages, then two flat ones, then two transitional climberish ones. Then the Alps, a lumpy stage out of the Alps, a beastly uphill ITT, and the finish in Paris. It’s borderline absurd.
So if you were wondering, as most people were, why Mathieu van der Poel isn’t at the Tour, going head to head with Wout, this has to be it, right? Well, that and the fact that his team wasn’t invited. But that seems like something could have been worked out if MvdP had told ASO that he wanted in. Anyway, this is a climbers’ club, and that won’t be changing until... oh, the Grand Depart in Copenhagen maybe?
7. Face Masks
Previously: unranked. Like, not even considered to be ranked. This is cycling, not Halloween.
New Developments: Don’t even get me started. Still, given that they are everywhere in and especially after the race, I think we haven’t really gotten started in the masks realm, have we? Masks are canvases which, if you leave them blank, they’re blank. But why would you do that? Isn’t this sport full of people looking for surfaces to put an ad on? Aren’t we, the denizens of the cyclosocialmediasphere, full of clever ideas about how to design a cool mask? Yes, we are. The Tour has some designs to go with jerseys, which is a start, but also so obvious that I now own two polka dot face masks (and a Lion of Flanders that I’m saving for next month). Jumbo Visma have a team logo mask, and probably some other teams too. Hell, you could just put out green ones and project stuff on to them as ad money flows in. You could project political slogans, or live zoom images from the living room of Tom Boonen or your club superfan. Get on this, Cycling.
8. Sam Bennett
Previously: Frisky! No Tour results but obviously a guy to watch.
New Developments: We are watching now. Mostly we want to see if he can stop Peter Sagan from what could be the most boring Green Jersey title of a generation. Sagan was born to win the points competition, which is awesome, but he’s done it a ton, and it was more fun a) before it happened every year, and b) when he could win a few sprints to go along with it. Now? I’d like a little more competition please. Bennett is certainly unproven as an actual points winner, but he did win a few minor points comps in the last couple years, and he was the highest-ranking non-climber in last year’s Vuelta points race. Sagan won’t win on reputation alone this time, that’s for sure. Bennett can sprint, on the rare occasion that skill will come in handy.
Also yesterday someone interviewed Roglič about helping to support Bennett, on the theory that George Bennett (JVS) and Sam Bennett (DQS) are the same person. I look forward to more Bennett-related hijinx to get us through the slower early days of the Tour.
9. The Maillot a Pois Competition
Previously: [Stifling a yawn] I dunno. Somewhere?
New Developments: I could still be super bored about the KOM stuff, but this Cosnefroy kid, he might be fun to watch. Also winning this year’s jersey will require a lot of days on the attack, a true feat of strength and determination beyond the usual trolling the climbers for a few days and then sagging off the back. So sure, put it here.
Negative Infinity. The Maillot a Pois Itself
Previously: High. One of the world’s most beloved cycling jerseys.
New Developments: The Maillot a pois has been rearranged so that the polka dots line up in a perfect vertical/horizontal grid, and frankly I think this is the worst decision anyone has made since that crazy Serb shot Archduke Ferdinand. Literally everyone hates it. Literally. I don’t even want to talk about it anymore.