If you ever find yourself with exactly sixty minutes in which to demonstrate the Vuelta Espana to a complete novice, the final hour of today’s stage seventeen through the Basque country would be your weapon of choice.
Quite what circumstances would lead you to this situation are unclear. And perhaps the word ‘weapon’ is the wrong one – I’m not suggesting anyone should get hurt during the process.
But I’m nothing if not prepared for all eventualities.
Today, as we headed for the final climb, the race was rolling through the lush green of the region, friendly-looking Basque cycling fans cheering at the roadside.
And then, from nowhere, it turned left up the side of a hill.
One look at the concrete ‘road surface’ tells you that ten days ago there was no road there. There was a track, at best. Maybe even a path.
The organisers of La Vuelta often spend the months pre-race tantalising the cycling press with mystical tales of the new, steep, and as yet unridden cols that await. I’m not convinced the upper slopes of the Balcon de Bizkaia ever fitted that description.
This was a big hill with enough access to get a concrete mixer reasonably close – et voila!
We have our big, bruising, unridden col.
As this strip of unwelcoming concrete unfurled itself up this big hill we were led, a notch at a time, up the Vuelta-o-meter.
The road got steeper. Grinding along at fourteen, even fifteen percent, before launching into the mid-twenties – the mid-twenties! Designed to be an exciting spectacle, but the truth is no-one attacks on a twenty-five percent gradient.
They’re too busy maintaining forward momentum.
And trying not to look silly for the TV cameras.
It’s a race, in slow motion.
On the steeper sections the fans form a cacophonous guard of honour, screaming encouragement and giving their favourites a little push (or a fondle, depending on their personal tastes). Basque flags fly, and Valverde the Spaniard lurks menacingly.
The fans shake fists at their hero.Embed from Getty Images
As the group of main contenders thins to the strongest, and bravest, whoever is in charge of atmospherics pulls the lever marked “fog” and a blanket of the stuff descends.
Only Michael Woods, in EF Education First pink, is visible, and by this point he’s the lone attacker out front – the bent, agonised figure of BMC’s Dylan Theuns in sluggish pursuit.
Further back are Valverde, Yates, Mas, and brother Yates, pushing on their pedals in the assumption that the road does, indeed, continue in this general direction. Perhaps they’re beyond caring. Were they to pedal off the edge at least the pain their legs and lungs would stop.
One way or another.
The four didn’t so much hit the finish line as collapse across it, to be wheeled away by a helper for a cuddle and a little lie down.
And that, condensed into a single hour, is your Vuelta Espana.
(Flag: via pixabay.com)