A bumpy stage with a climb to finish, and the smart money was on another mano y mano between Valverde and Kwiatkowski. Journalists, commentators, riders; all agreed this was the likely outcome.
Conditions were hot.
Sun was beating down and the parched Spanish landscape was looking more wild-west than ever. One or two of the towns en route were, I swear, nothing more than clap-board frontages hiding movie-set saloons and whorehouses.
The peloton, sluggish, allowed a good break to go clear. Before long we knew our winner would come from one of eight.
Valverde and Kwiatkowski, of course, not among them.
The number crunchers in modern cycling ensure that any rider who’s a threat to overall race victory is never allowed to escape like that. American Ben King, at just over four minutes, was the closest escapee to the red jersey.
And with less than twenty kilometres to go King – an unheralded twenty-nine-year-old pro – became the “virtual” leader of the Vuelta Espana. For a moment that won’t, in two-and-a-half-weeks time, even attain the status of footnote, it was unreasonably exciting.
Any cycling fan with a heart beating in their chest and a rudimentary understanding of the lure of an underdog was now willing him on. And for a bit, it looked do-able. An ambush, amongst the desert scrub of the south.
Alas, on the final climb circumstances conspired.Embed from Getty Images
Down to two, King’s companion was the Kazakh unknown Nikita Stalnov. We armchair fans had it all figured out. We’d done the deal for them. Stalnov does his work and helps King to the red jersey, and in return is gifted the stage win at the line.
So they had their little chat. It didn’t look to go well. The Kazakh, impenetrably, had his own ideas. For a while he took to riding alongside King. Alongside!
There’s two of them.
This makes no sense.
Either take turns, ride ahead at a pace of your choosing, or sit on King’s wheel and have him tow you. Those are your three options from the “Big Book o’ Cycling Tactics. Heavily corroborated by “Physics for Dummies” and “Oh My God What The Hell Are You Doing Have You Ever Ridden A Bike Before!”
Combined with a burst of energy from the main group back down the road this nonsense ensured the gap was cut and red jersey ambitions went out the window almost as soon as they’d rapped on it and whispered: “hey…whaddya reckon?”
Pleasingly, when the two leaders reached the end game, King dispatched his nemesis with a burst of speed to take a first Grand Tour stage win. Air was punched. Cheers were heard.
All of which leaves me to briefly mention the other big winner of the day.Embed from Getty Images
Remember the Giro d’Italia back in May?
Tiny British cyclist Simon Yates was utterly dominating the race – he was dancing up the mountains of Italy like a goat on a promise.
With 90% of the race ridden, to suggest someone other than Yates were going to win would’ve seen you banished from the sport and forced to watch golf, in shame, for the rest of your days.
And then, on the day of Froome’s miracle on the road to Bardonecchia, Yates’s (sporting) world fell to pieces. To say he cracked would be like saying Cristiano Ronaldo is reasonably comfortable with his looks.
His self-destruction was utterly heart-breaking (again, perspective fans, in a sporting sense).
I felt sure, mentally, he’d struggle to recover from that. I heard rumours he’d grown a big beard and gone to live off-grid in a log cabin. Rumours that may have originated with me, but rumours nonetheless.
No smoke without fire etc. etc.
And yet, while Ben King was trying to decipher Stalnov’s tactics Yates had assumed that funny little upright climbing position of his and was calmly dispatching the best climbers in the race. Gaining time. Laying down a marker.
Casually wearing the largest recorded pair of shades in the western world.
Again, air was punched.
This time, though, I might hang fire on the cheering.
(Fist Image: via pixabay.com)