vuelta stage 17

We are in the mountains.

Dark in the shade, the lushness of them proclaims itself through the dripping rocks and the moss and the things that are alive in them, the ferns and the well-behaved vines. Men try their luck on the climb in Euskaltel kits and bikes from ten years ago that still look fast. But on this hill, on these Asturian slopes, even the best amateurs turn wheels over one at a time, their efforts tangible. Meanwhile, on our press bus, reporters who have been absent these last two weeks, minor characters from the backdrop of the Tour de France, the Slovenians the Germans, suddenly appear and have questions we asked a week ago. Somehow the whole race was just waiting for today.

The tree-line thins to reveal the plush grass and craggy white rocks. In the distance, the snow-line, barren and cold. Pink crocuses emerge from the sponge of green. Cows chew cud and ignore the spectacle. This is just another day in their quiet lives here, one that’s slightly more florescent. The small lago, the walls of stone, it reminds me of the best parts of Tignes, the severity of it, without the infrastructure of leisure. No skiing here, maybe, no mega-chalets, for sure. Two weeks I’ve been in Spain, and everything so far has been brown, save for the pale sand and the silvery leaves of the olive trees of Andalusia. Most of it has been desert-like, flammable. And now, it’s green, lush, saturating through everything, the mountains respirating with life that can be tasted in the metallic air. Finally, I need my jacket.

It occurs to me, as we wind up in a bus with dozens of other journalists, that I have been here a long time; that time is sucked up in these races. I can’t remember when I last published something, but it was always somehow yesterday. In this time here, I’ve come to know people better. Colleagues. Riders, too. There’s always one I think, per grand tour, that I get to know better than the others, usually one I’ll be profiling. And once I know them, afterwards they are simply there with me, almost like a friend. (Every day, Primož Roglič passes like a ship in the night, our interactions transpiring in the seconds before microphones are shoved in his face. I’ll get what he says from a colleague, or the press officers. There’s a lot of sharing.)

To talk a little bit about the job, most of what I get on the day I use for flavor later on, amassing a library of moments usually taken before or after everything changes. I am still always trying to find the best balance of intimacy and access, especially when private off-race conversation is involved. But most of the time, I just need things from them. Can we talk tomorrow, I’m not going to the start today. And when I send the messages, I think, this is too much, I’ve gone too far, even though it’s nothing. A journalist’s job is annoying people. It can be difficult when the people involved are ones we rather like. Sometimes, I can’t lie to myself that the talking isn’t just to shoot the shit, a pleasant conversation after a long day. Everything is a tightrope, and yet when the conversation starts, it seems so simple to unravel. Easy. The anticipation is the worst.

When we get to the press room, Jan Polanc has just been caught. As I’m typing this, a break begins to form. Mikel Landa’s in it, and I remember that first day when Gino Mäder told me that as long as Landa was here, he and the team would work for him. That dream cracked on Picon Blanco, the day when our rental car got scratched up. When Roglič was in red. Yesterday and forever ago -- how can it be three weeks and not a lifetime? How can it be three weeks and not three days? How can it not be just one long, continuous day of sleeping and driving and talking and being anxious about talking, about anticipating things that happen and those that don’t, about the race offering no surprises and yet being unexpected all the time, from hotel room to hotel room, mixed zone to mixed zone, direct message to direct message?

So long ago, Gino was there in Burgos in his time trial gear, telling me about the dry heat and his haircut. I’m writing a profile on him, so I find him when I can. However, this method for me is also one of the best ways to see how a race progresses, because every day you get that rider’s plans, their tasks, their dreams, and the day either goes the way they want or not. Tomorrow, they have to get up and do the same thing again, regardless, until they run out of days. When I’ll eventually sit down to write my piece about Gino Mäder for Procycling, I will have known him rather than merely observed him. That’s my choice, my methodology, and it comes sometimes with painful consequences, like having to see Matej Mohorič deal with the raid and the doping accusations during the Tour. Even then, that’s part of the story, too.

For weeks, we’ll talk in snippets, and when it’s all over, we’ll exit this bubble, this entire small, self-contained world, and return to our lives, until the next race. The time after is for processing, for writing. You can’t really do that here, sit with yourself, sit with the weight of your conversations and your intimacies and your emotions. You’re too busy driving and asking each other if the breakaway has gone yet. Translating obscure Spanish dishes on your phone.

Things are splitting apart in the race on the second climb. At the front, a large group including Sergio Henao and Jay Vine is at the front of the race, thirty-five seconds, fifty. If they keep riding like this, with every single slow-twitch their bodies can produce, they’ll collapse at some point, and yet, the pace stays high. Then, Mikel Landa, suddenly in this race after two weeks of what happened? He bridges effortlessly to the small group out front, which now also includes the rather dangerous Michael Storer. 100 kilometers left to go. That group seems a lot less hopeless now.

Meanwhile, our erstwhile leader, a hero in his own right, Odd Christian Eiking, drops. A minute slips from his lead in under a minute. Atrophy is beginning. The race opens its mouth and waits to swallow the stragglers. For Eiking now, the seemingly hopeless business of pursuit, in which each hairpin is rounded and when it is, the stone clears to reveal that no one is there, for agonizing kilometers. Until they are, and the sigh of relief is lost in the wind of descent. Groupama’s Le Gac attacks, and the race is all over the road. Ineos works, then Jumbo. This is all unsustainable. The chasers are caught with 71 kilometers left. Only Le Gac remains. Alone. In the old days, before radios, this was a reliable win condition, sneak out ahead and have everyone forget about you in the chaos. But surely now they all know Le Gac is out there and that his attempt is useless. The bunch is 45 seconds behind, bearing down.

62.7. Ineos is at the front, burning matches as Jumbo sits in the wheel. It’s dark as dusk and raining, the glow of the motorbike lights forming streaks in the road. Water collects at the bottoms of barriers. Le Gac is caught in the dismal conditions. And so we wait. Eiking is lost. Landa is lost. The day’s early protagonists struggle once more. I’m here in the press room, a giant, womb-like inflatable, looking for Roglič. Droplets on the camera that last week’s desert longs for. Bernal and Roglič use the wet chaos to launch. That’s nervous of them, but Roglič can’t just let Bernal go. The bunch is tugged along like a string, playing chicken with one another until the pair’s elastic snaps. Movistar have to chase now too, Lopez out on his own. Guillaume Martin struggles at the back. (Per the press officers, he was “pessimistic” this morning.) Roglič and Bernal have thirty two seconds - by the end it will be almost two minutes. The breath is sucked out of the room as we wait for this to resolve itself. It won’t until the end. Lopez is caught, Vlasov is dropped.

Bahrain chases, Mäder at the front, the white jersey riding away from him. And yet, with Vlasov dropped, the top 10 is within his grasp – only Großshartner stands in his way. Bernal almost crashes around a slick hairpin, but hangs on. The duo is gaining time somehow. It is wet, the ground is like ice, they slip and slide around every corner, each met with collective hisses in the press room. When will this end? And then, a crash in the red jersey group, it was bound to be someone. Eiking just skids out on the wet, can’t handle the turn. Vlasov is hurt. He doesn’t get up. The camera pans away. Is Eiking back on his bike? We don’t know. Ah, he is.

The duo out front follow the headlights of the car before them. They cooperate. They’ve made some kind of deal. The men, in trickles, enter the valley, and soon we will have to leave the press room to go to the finish. It’s a short hike, and when we’re up there, the TV goes in and out. Roglič drops Bernal and goes 7 kilometers solo, while, behind, the rest is absolute madness. Bahrain sends Poels to do the work, which he does diligently, and the effort sheds the group of Martin and Großshartner, and a few others. It’s raining something awful, and yet, there’s Roglič out alone, his face one of calm exhaustion, his doleful eyes peering up at what still remains in front of him. He’s decided that today is the day he takes on this Vuelta. Today is the day the speculation stops.

Behind, Haig’s the one calling the shots. Mäder is now protected in GC and it’s only when Poels can commit himself no longer that Gino works with three kilometers to go. There are various attacks. Mas, Kuss, Yates. But it all comes back together, and soon, Bernal, too, is absorbed by the reduced group after his long day in the wind and the rain and the harrowing turns and the possibility of something greater than what he’s ended up with. That’s bike racing, as brutal and unkind as it is, even to its champions.

When Roglič crosses the line, he yells out the loudest yeah I’ve ever heard in my life, even the mountain air can’t swallow it. He rides to a stop in front of me before his soigneur carries him to safety and warmth. The rest come in, shivering but finished, finally, and with them comes Gino. He doesn’t know he’s in the top ten yet, and neither do I when I speak to him, though I suspect it. He talks about the motorbike and the descents and Wout Poels pulling on the final climb. When asked about the finish, all he says is, “You ride as hard as you can. Maybe you'll go up. Maybe you'll make it to the finish. We don't know.” He laughs, clearly on a good day. “But we all made it through in one piece.”

In the mixed zone, Gino is the only one who stops for me, because we are working on a profile together. The rest go back as soon as they can, drenched with rain and freezing, eager to get something in their bellies, a few extra layers on. Odd Christian Eiking rolls through right before we descend from the top of the mountain. He’s nine minutes down. But he’s laughing, too. He’s exhausted and delirious and he’s done his best. He’s already a hero in the books of many, even though his time in the sun was only ever going to be temporary. Having sat in press conferences with him, I can tell you that he enjoyed every single day in the red jersey to the fullest. As I watch the riders descend down the hill, in the opposite direction of the upcoming traffic, I can also tell you that I’ve enjoyed this role to the fullest as well, despite all it’s put me through, as you well know.

A colleague took a photo of me talking to Gino, and in it, I’m all dressed in a burly sweatshirt and rain jacket, my hair in tangles, my eyes closed.

“The third week, it’s full gas racing,” Gino says to me. It’s hushed on the mountain and his voice stands out, modulated and warm.

“For sure,” I say.

“But it’s really fun,” he smiles, wiping the rain from his weary face, continuing our little theme of deciding whether or not the race is enjoyable on the given day. “It’s really fun racing.”

I’m smiling back because it’s true for me, too, despite the cold and the wet and the cow shit.

That’s the moment the picture was taken.