Lleida, our Catalonian finish town on stage eighteen, is an old place. Really old. Settlements are recorded here as far back as the bronze-age. In Roman times it was a flourishing city of some importance.
Records suggest it pre-dates even Alejandro Valverde’s first win as a pro-cyclist.
For the riders today, I imagine any history and culture was lost on them.
On the way to Lleida they were preoccupied with the pain in their legs and the mountains of Andorra on the horizon. Post-stage they’ll be flat-out in a hotel room, everything they need within their wingspan, trying to ignore the pain in their legs and the mountains of Andorra on the horizon.
I’ve never ridden a Vuelta Espana – in fact I’ve been consistently overlooked for all the Grand Tours – but I’ll hazard a guess that by stage eighteen, after racing a few thousand kilometres, the cultural significance of the start and finish towns has become a moot point.
At the start of the day the microphones were being shoved into the face of the likes of Viviani, Nizzolo and Sagan. The sprinters. The largely flat profile didn’t so much promise a sprint as swear on its mother’s life, no word of a lie, I’ll leave my Rolex with you as insurance.
It’s a sprint.
Which it was. Kind of. But in a super-exciting edge-of-the-seat will-they-won’t-they the-breakaway-has-only-gone-and-hung-on-by-about-three-metres kind of way.
Out front all day, Sven Erik Bystrom (of UAE) and Jelle Wallays (of Lotto Soudal) had a lead of about fifteen seconds into the final kilometre. As Bystrom led, with Wallays glued to his wheel, the peloton wheeled into view down the lens of the finish line camera.
Usually, from here, comes heartbreak.
The breakaway loses.
The sprinter wins.
Everyone forgets how close it was.Embed from Getty Images
With a few hundred to go Sagan launched a hail Mary sprint to bridge the gap. Meanwhile Wallays got the jump on Bystrom. A seething peloton’s worth of fast finishers gasped and snorted just behind.
For a brief moment all one hundred and seventy-odd riders were going to cross the line at exactly the same moment, but Jelle Wallays wasn’t having that – he took it with Sagan three metres short.
The break hung on, and we got our sprint finish.
And THAT, cycling fans, was exciting!
You might even call it culturally significant.
(Cyclists art: publicdomainpictures.net)