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Notes From the Bilbao Mahaia (That’s Euskadi for Desk, Y’all)

Rider Issues, Summer Fun, and a Spicy Vuelta

Straw oster hares in village Photo by Nicolas Armer/picture alliance via Getty Images

Hey, guess who is back! No, not me, I mean Egan Bernal! This is a very exciting thing, and I will get to that in a moment.

But first... my usual August apology for stepping away. I’m not actually sorry, and I wouldn’t even go so far as to feel bad for anyone who was deprived of my “wisdom” since the end of the Tour de France. Really, everyone came out ahead. But anyway, I’ve been suffering a mix of exhaustion (in the sense of having-something-to-say), vacation obligations (go to Alaska. Seriously), and the physical and emotional drainage involved with dropping off a child at college 800 miles away. I didn’t cry as much as I should have, but then again my eye doctor says that my tear ducts are too degraded from looking at a computer all day, so that’s probably the explanation.

Anyway, I am back... for a couple days, then away, then back, then away... you get the picture. And I’d like to plug back in by checking on some stuff I’ve been chewing on for a while. Plus the Vuelta, which just got super interesting after a week whose previous high in drama involved guys getting out of small boats in Utrecht.

CYCLING-DEN Photo by BO AMSTRUP/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

Egan Again!

OK, to start with good news, it really is true that Egan Bernal is back on his bike, in competition! He started the Denmark Tour last week, although for reasons I don’t fully understand, he was a DNF in the final stage — possibly a result of INEOS burning through guys to set up Magnus Sheffield’s unsuccessful shot at the overall win. The race finished with 5.5 local circuits, so I suspect Bernal and several others just climbed off at the finish line with a lap or three to go.

Anyway, he’s right back at it this week riding the Deutschland Tour which is two stages into its four events, and so far Bernal is just going through the motions. But it should get interesting on Saturday when for the first time in his comeback he is given a legitimate mountain stage to test his legs. Stage 3 to Schauinsland spends nearly all of the last 20km going uphill, including a final maybe 11km climb to the finish atop the Holzschlagermatte. Most of Bernal’s injuries from his horror crash last winter are of the type that, when healed, should not affect his ability to ride, but he also broke his femur, and the recovery from that injury might be the sort of thing that would warrant keeping your expectations in check until next season. Anyway, tomorrow will at least be a chance to see how far along the comeback trail the 2019 Tour de France champion really is.

109th Tour de France 2022 - Stage 21 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Nairo-Gate Update

As you likely know, Nairo Quintana returned a couple blood samples from the Tour de France, on stages 7 and 11, that contained evidence of tramadol, a pain medication which is banned from in-competition use but is not considered a “doping” violation. Quintana is expected to appeal the finding and bailed on riding the Vuelta to focus on clearing his name. His appeal is due by Saturday, I believe, and we can expect an expedited process to resolve this. Like I said, it’s not “doping” per se, so it’s being treated with less process and hysteria.

But it still matters for us, for one reason (at a minimum): the FSA Directeur Sportif. Quintana is on 102 teams, thanks to his friendly pricing of 8 points, and is having a solid season for that category of rider, nearly catching his 2021 output at 706 points scored. With the Vuelta looming, he was set to be a major bargain. Now... not so much.

If Quintana’s relegation is upheld, he will lose his results from stage 7 onward. That would wipe out his amazing second place on the unforgettable Col du Granon stage, where Jonas Vingegaard staked his claim to a leadership he would hold until Paris, as well as Quintana’s haul of points for his sixth place overall in Le Tour — a total of 315 points on the chopping block. This could upend the competition (it probably won’t, but you never know), given that five of the top 20 teams have Quintana on their roster, as well as one of those teams, Cacaramus, sitting fifth in the combined ranking.

So how will we deal with this? In a way that will probably piss someone off... this being cycling and all. It has long been our practice to respond to disqualifications as soon as they are official, but in the realm of doping, that often doesn’t happen for months or even years, so we have another policy that says that once the FSA DS is done scoring for the year, the results are final. The last day of the 2022 cycling/FSA DS season is October 16, so if nothing has changed by then, Quintana keeps his points, in accordance with the Tour de France and UCI policy of not making the disqualification official until the rider has exhausted his appeal.

Quintana’s case might help make more sense of this principle. We have said that innocence until proven guilty is the guide, which was super popular when guys like Riccardo Ricco were winning races and holding on to their points while they appealed their incredibly obvious doping convictions. [Insert extreme eye roll.] But here, the defense is suggesting that the tests found metabolites that the Tour testers have assumed to have come from tramadol, whereas Quintana insists he’s never taken the substance and that the metabolites must have come from some other (potentially allowed) source. He might actually be innocent. At worst, if he can’t prove his innocence in time for our competition to deal with it, at least we aren’t talking about an infraction which should change your view of the rider. Maybe he has much darker secrets underneath it all, but for now his case is more of a technical disqualification, in my view anyway. And since he skipped the Vuelta, he won’t be propelling anyone to an FSA DS victory over the final two months of the season.

So that’s our explanation for how we are handling the FSA DS response. Stay tuned, of course.

77th Tour of Spain 2022 - Stage 4 Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Flipping Scripts in Spain

Today’s Vuelta stage from Bilbao — just out of view from our desk — to Pico Jano was just one day out of the race’s “are we sure it’s only three weeks?” format. And by Tomorrow... OK, Sunday, we might have swept away all memory of what happened. But for now, what happened was something of a sportswriters’ dream.

First, let me say a few words about sportswriters, because running this site hasn’t necessarily taught me much about cycling, but it has taught me a lot about writing about it. It’s a grind. I sympathize with the people who do it for an actual living, especially at this point in the season, because prior to and including the Tour de France, at least you can sense a building excitement that rises up to its late July crescendo in some or other glorious fashion. After that... you have people who just spent the spring riding around Belgium and Italy chasing some races, then May riding around Italy grabbing meals and sleep on the fly, then a brief pause before a much more intense and difficult version of the same death march in crowded, sweltering France. And now you’re supposed to go to Spain and do it all one more time, for far less views, under a baking hot sun? No thanks.

To top it all off, those people have to find something interesting to say about that race in Spain, and at least there the race has frequently delivered. But with Primož Roglič favored to win for the fourth time in a row, we were headed to a dark place for those suffering scribes. But! Two days after Rogs tried to lay the smack down on all those hopefuls, the script has been flipped, in a huge and rather odd way.

77th Tour of Spain 2022 - Stage 6 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Exhibit A: Jay Vine

The stage victory today went not to one of the ace climbers, or even one of the recognizable forçats de la route who get their moment in the sun sometimes. No, it went to Zwift Guy.

Jay Vine got signed ... not literally out of his living room, as at least one story would have you believe. He was on an upward trajectory toward a pro cycling contract before Vine became something of an online sensation in 2020, while much of the sport, especially at the level below World Tour, was shut down. He won the Zwift Academy competition and got rerouted from his Nero Continental team to Alpecin-Fenix (now Deceuninck) and quickly transitioned to big-time pro cycling. Unlike some devotees of the Peloton bike, he does in fact know how to stay upright, ride in a pack, and even descend at the sport’s notoriously demonic levels, compared to normal human standards (which is to say, no f—king way am I doing that, but cool for you bro).

Vine’s appearance at the head of today’s stage might shock some, and it’s tempting to look at the way he hammered out the Pico Jano climb like a guy who crushes it on the trainer. But before things shut down in 2020, he was wrapping up fifth place in the Jayco Tour, just behind the likes of Jai Hindley, Sebastian Berwick, Damian Howson and Neilson Powless. He had put 40 seconds into Simon Yates on the Mount Buller stage, showing his climbing chops. Then he didn’t race outdoors again until more than a year later, though again he was terrific, second overall, at his first event for Alpecin at the Tour of Turkiye. Vine even earned a start in the Vuelta, which he finished off in Santiago de Compostela, albeit with no big results. That’s a terrific debut season. This year has been up and down as Vine has struggled to make his mark in a World Tour race, before today. But don’t say that his win came literally out of nowhere, or his living room.

77th Tour of Spain 2022 - Stage 6 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Exhibit B: Spanish Contenders???

The next big development on the day, equally out of nowhere as far as popular perception was concerned, were the performances of two living, breathing Spanish climbers of note who might actually do something at the Vuelta. That was third-placed Enric Mas and fourth-placed Juan Ayuso.

Mas wasn’t stellar, but unlike everyone else who began the final climb in the GC group, he could at least, just barely, hold Remco Evenepoel’s wheel more or less to the finish. His one-second loss, added to time bonuses, left him a mere 28 seconds behind on GC, 33 seconds up on Roglič. Ayuso, meanwhile, accelerated away from the Roglič group and tried in vain to hunt down the top two guys after Vine, and clawed back 40 seconds on the rest of his rivals even in “defeat.” Ayuso has been a revelation all season long, and if Mas has better results right now, all of the commotion behind him has to do with Ayuso not turning 20 until after the Vuelta. I almost went insane typing that sentence.

77th Tour of Spain 2022 - Stage 6 Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

With two overall second place finishes at the Vuelta, Mas is no slouch, though at 27 we are waiting to see if he has a big result in him, and starting to wonder if the ship is about to sail. He was a close second to Simon Yates in 2018, which got us very interested, and then second to Rogla last year by a less interesting 4+ minutes. Very glass half full/half-empty results. And today’s stage is about in line with his career performance. All during a period in which Spain’s only other serious contender for anything — don’t even get me started on the Tour or the Giro — is 78-year-old Alejandro Valverde.

So while Mas’ ride today looks like more of the same with an added glimmer of hope, that’s not going to move the needle. Ayuso shooting up the standing is another story. Ayuso-Cam, in effect throughout the stage, is here to stay. With MTFs both Saturday and Sunday, it will be really intriguing to see what comes next.

77th Tour of Spain 2022 - Stage 6
Pereiro daps up the kid
Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Exhibit C: Are We Sure Remco Is Not God?

Ah, finally, the Belgian media can have its day too. Finally, the One Who Was Promised has arrived in style.

If you think I am being hyperbolic right now, you aren’t from Belgium. I don’t know what is the single most satisfying subject to its natural constituency in the wide wide world of sports, but the Belgian Climbing Sensation taking the lead in a grand tour is right up there with the England soccer team crashing out of the World Cup. It’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Beyond his home country (which he really should flee for the sake of his sanity before it’s too late), Evenepoel’s prospects as a grand tour rider have not been taken very seriously. From the day he debuted in the peloton, shockingly winning the Clasica San Sebastian in 2019 just months into his pro career, he has had plenty of people willing to question his mastery of the sport’s finer points. And while nobody was happy to see him fall off the road in Lombardia the next year, it confirmed his reputation as a bad bike handler whose future riding in large packs looked decidedly mixed.

When he came back in 2021 to try his hand at the Giro, more or less fresh out of a few training camps once his injuries healed, he was dogged for threatening the leaders for a few stages, then fading, then quitting the race in the final week. Maybe all those one-week stage race wins represented his true skill, and the grand tours would be beyond him.

Well, now that he is leading the Vuelta... the doubters might still end up being right. My only point is, we have no idea one way or the other, based on his current results. The 2021 Giro flop is the epitome of bad data, a small sample with lots of flaws in its predictive value, and it’s only because expectations are so absurdly high for him that people felt compelled to criticize his performance. If you want to criticize Quick Step for sending him there so unprepared, fine, but even that to me is understandable — the season was rapidly moving on and Remco needed to do something with it, pronto, before the Tour took over everyone else’s lives. Plus, since when is it so bad for a guy his age (21 at the time) to go to a grand tour and take his lumps? Put Remco down as yet another young rider who just needs people to shut the hell up and let him figure out the sport on anything resembling a reasonable timeline.

So now here we are. His buildup to the current Vuelta has been nothing short of ideal — six one-week stage races, where he notched two modest wins, won lots of young rider comps, took a prestigious final time trial at the Tour de Suisse, and... did some one-day races like Liege-Bastogne-Liege which he won commandingly. He didn’t overtax himself on any grand tour circuits, with the Giro being too soon and the Tour being too much. So now he comes to Spain (via Holland) having burned far fewer matches than I think maybe all of the other contenders. If chapter 2 in his grand tour education is to see if he can compete at the highest level of the sport’s third-best event, this time Quick Step got his preparation just right.

I don’t want to predict where this will go because there is nothing to base a prediction on. However, if he is still in the lead by Sunday, after three days of pressure and back-to-back mountain stages testing whether his ability to recover is as advanced as his ability to rip off the occasional breakaway... then we might start to see what we have here.