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four things about the 2023 vuelta
what a mess!
I. The Solidarity Jersey
After winning the 2nd stage of La Vuelta, Andreas Kron was given a solidarity jersey for dedicating his win to his recently-deceased Lotto Dstny Development Team Tijl De Decker. As far as I can tell, this is the only time such a jersey has been introduced to cycling, and while I don’t think it’s necessary to issue one every day of a grand tour, I do like the idea of rewarding acts of sportsmanship and solidarity and would like to see more such jerseys in the future.
Cycling is a team sport. Aside from the exceptions of time trialing (ITTs, I would argue, also rely on team resources but in a different way, and TTTs are group wins) the efforts of these teams are spent securing victory for an individual rider, whether it’s a leadout train on a sprint stage, climbing domestiques in the mountains, team efforts for securing positions in early breakaways, and the rare instances (as seen in Stage 2) of teams interfering in the natural pattern of racing on behalf of their leaders (more on this later.) While there is a team classification in grand tours, I find that many cycling fans are deeply touched by sportsmanship and a reward for such a thing, if only symbolic (one wouldn’t want to monetize something like this anyway), highlights an important part of the sport.
I can think of many instances such a jersey would be issued. Riders who help competitors after a crash, for example, or labors such as the mountain domestique’s in the mountains, where he stays by the side of his teammates until the bitter end, regardless of whether that teammate wins. What about riders who give competitors their extra gels or bidons or riders who take control of the race in extreme conditions (the 2020 Tour de France comes to mind)? After all, cycling is not always about competition, but about stories enacted by human beings. Recognizing the nice parts sets a good example for young cyclists, as well as for all of us.
II. We Ride in a Society
The peloton is a kind of society that operates by certain sets of unspoken rules. In some ways it is a capitalist society: ruthless competition between teams often takes the form of technological gains or extremely micromanaged routines of eating, training, and sleeping. In most ways, however, it better resembles feudal society, and because of this, cyclists often behave in ways that may seem counterintuitive, ways that appear more like chivalric code than anything else.
The unwritten rules of cycling used to be much more explicit, especially in terms of respect for the leader’s jersey, the idea of a Merckxian patron of the peloton, and an emphasis on passion and zeal above technological or training prowess. It is within this chivalric behavior that we can also understand why cycling culture loves a noble loser. Cycling teams when riding in the peloton are like feifdoms more than companies. They hold within them a certain allocation of resources to be used and exploited, and within teams is a hierarchy of servitude in favor of a leader, though sometimes even the lowliest knight can have his day of glory. Teams also form political alliances not for the capitalist aim of long-term resource stability, but only when it benefits them in the short term. So too do riders, especially in situations like breakaways. The oft-cited analogy of cycling tactics to chess is in many ways accurate. After all, chess was a game developed as a reflection of feudal society.
On Stage 2, we saw an interesting example of cycling functioning as a kind of feudal society. While red-jersey bearers dsm-firmenich were chasing the break in favor of their leader Romain Bardet (who would have received the red jersey if the following events did not happen), their leader’s jersey power was superseded when Jumbo Visma co-leader Primož Roglič crashed in a slippery roundabout. In response, Jumbo Visma, aided by Remco Evenepoel (who in many ways behaves as the peloton’s patron) temporarily blockaded the chase to enable Roglič to get back on. Being the bearers of the red jersey, dsm-firmenich were, of course, not happy about this and visibly complained, partially, perhaps, about the lack of respect.
And yet, confonted by more powerful teams who had built up respect over time, they eventually complied with what was being asked of them. They could have chosen not to, but didn’t. Whether Jumbo Visma was being fair with their blockade ultimately matters little — they had the strength to do it anyway and convinced others to relent. Evenepoel’s team benefited from the slowing of pace in a chaotic stage, and arguably, so too did most teams. In the end, the peloton caught the breakaway but dsm-firmenich’s time in the red jersey was over. Whether one agrees with the move or not, it was a rare glimpse into the still-traditional inner-workings of a peloton that is in many ways contemporary.
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III. Whither Jumbo Visma
The alleged Jumbo Visma superdominance, expected from a team boasting Jonas Vingegaard, Spain-era Roglič, and superdomestique Sepp Kuss (among others) has proven surprisingly scarce. On stage 1, extreme weather conditions allowed an unexpected dsm-firmenich team time trial win while Jumbo Visma pedaled anemically (and with a puncture for Vingegaard) to the finish. On stage 2, Roglič already found himself in one of his many mishaps after sliding out in a roundabout. On stage 3, Remco Evenepoel attacked in the final kilometer of the finishing climb, caught a daredevil move from Sepp Kuss and absolutely smoked both Roglič and Vingegaard.
While there’s still a long way to go in this Vuelta, things are not looking ideal for the team that was supposed to have won already. Cycling predictions suffer from not knowing about things like, say, the weather, which in Spain can change quite rapidly. How riders behave in the rain is one thing, but the rain bringing unfortunate luck is another. But it isn’t quite accurate, after stage 3, to blame solely the weather for Jumbo’s troubles.
An essential question, gradually emerging, is what will happen between Roglič and Vingegaard as co-leaders. Roglič wasn’t looking as good on the final climb in stage 3, but that could be because of his crash the day before. Vingegaard, showing a glimpse of his elusive personality, acted surprisingly as the patron of the peloton in stage 2 by neutralizing the chase in order for Roglič to get back on. Not exactly the behavior indicative of a secret feud. The pair have been in races since Vingegaard’s surge in fame. Vingegaard helped Roglič win the Dauphiné in 2022 when he clearly was in the form to win himself. Roglič, in turn, after his crash in the Roubaix stage of the 2022 Tour, was out of GC contention and devoted himself to aiding Vingegaard in dealing what ended up being the fatal blow to Tadej Pogačar on stage 11. Roglič later quit the race. However,
Vingegaard was originally not supposed to start the Vuelta. At his Slovenian press conference shortly before this year’s Tour, Roglič made no mention of him in his plans for attempting a fourth Vuelta win and portrayed himself as the sole leader. The addition of Vingegaard (though Jumbo Visma claimed otherwise) seems to have happened after his Tour run and with it the team’s realization that they had a genuine shot at attempting that which has never been done: winning all three grand tours in the same year. The Greeks, of course, would call this hubris, and it certainly seems that fate is not on the side of Jumbo Visma. It also remains to be seen how Roglič will perform as a healthy domestique should Vingegaard really emerge as the stronger of the two. Not to say that Roglič isn’t a team player, but being a domestique requires a certain set of skills and tactical thinking that Roglič since his ascendancy hasn’t had to employ much. Regardless, it looks like the two of them have a real challenger in Remco Evenepoel. Whether they pull a 2022 Tour on him later in the mountains is the core question at the heart of the GC battle. Still, it’s kind of nice to see a diverse list of winners headlining the start to what has been a chaotic grand tour. Which brings me to:
IV. What the Hell, ASO?
The problems started on day one. Horrific rains, which, while unpredictable were known before the race began, produced catastrophic riding conditions in the opening team time trial. A long drought ensured that the roads were ice-rink slick, and the off-ramp looked more like a slip-n’-slide. As a result, the times of the teams were significantly slower than the organizers anticipated when planning their evening Barcelona start time. The last few teams finished their time trial in the dark. Remco Evenepoel took to the press calling the conditions dangerous, something he has repeated over the course of the last few stages.
It got worse and continues to get worse. The wet conditions continued into the second day causing a myriad of crashes even though the organizers tried to mitigate the damage by way of forcing a partial suspension of the final part of the stage for the GC riders, taking the times at 9km to go instead of the usual 3. But that didn’t stop the almost clownish incompetence that has plagued the race and the riders. Tacks scattered by a spectator caused myriad punctures around 100k to go. The organizers didn’t have a cameraman on an intermediate sprint and ended up asking spectators for their phone footage in order to know who won. In general the race direction for television has been laughable with many important moments in the race being completely missed.
On day 3, Remco Evenepoel, who’d posted up and was heading at speed after his victory in the uphill sprint, careened into a team staff member who was standing too close to barriers that were themselves too close to the finish line. Evenepoel fortunately suffered only a rather ugly cut to the eyebrow but with such a blow to the head he’s lucky to not have had a serious concussion. “It’s breaking my balls,” he said to the press about the poor organization. Continuing the trend, the run-in to the sprint finish today suffered from too-wide roads causing a serious washing-machine effect, multiple crazy roundabouts, turns, and other obstacles that were additional feul for crashes and other mishaps. Remco is right: this race is a total shitshow.
This isn’t the first time the riders have had serious issues with the Vuelta organizers. On Stage 10 of the 2020 Vuelta, Roglič was placed back into the leader’s jersey instead of Richard Carapaz due to time gaps taken by the commissaires, which after-the-fact changed the categorization of what was an uphill sprint into a flat stage. In protest, Carapaz’s then-teammate at Ineos, Chris Froome, organized what was essentially a sit-down strike at the beginning of stage 11. Riders refused to start, including Jumbo Visma who benefited from the change, out of solidarity. Only when a negotiation was established between the teams and the commissaires did the race begin again. Ultimately, the UCI rejected the appeal (classic UCI) but the point is, the riders used their collective power to force talks.
As things get worse and worse in what is already a comically incompetent Vuelta, maybe it’s time to look towards more aggressive negotiation tactics, and with the CPA being in a better position under Adam Hansen than it has been in a long time, whatever negotiations arise could prove successful.
Regardless, something’s got to give.