Stage 16: Sanlúcar de Barrameda to Tomares
They call the sun-browned stage
pancake flat. A few bumps.
The finale, a launchpad
for rocket-booster legs.
The heart is always jammed
in the throat during such things.
We’ve seen failure before.
The rockets cease their climb,
crash back to earth, fins askew.
It’s always shocking. Always
breaks us. Small pancakes of
blood pool on the dark tarmac
beneath the defending champion
heaving great gasps of pain &
blinking away sweat. The sport
sometimes demands too much.
Stage 17: Aracena to Monasterio de Tentudía
The race has changed again,
& it is diminished.
The red jersey is more-or-less
on its final pair
of shoulders. Secure & hard-fought
for what it’s worth,
while the challengers disappeared
in sickness or blood
or simply off the wheel. Every winner
finds doubts & what-ifs
wheel-sucking for most of the race.
This time though
it truly was a desperate battle for a while,
violent sprints & crashes.
The race goes on for every other rider.
Breaks must be paid for
in decimated energy stores until
the finish line is crossed.
Charges forward & uphill must gambled,
legs must implode.
Now is the time for last chances & redemption,
jumps in the standings.
Stage 18: Trujillo to Alto de Piornal
Heartbreak comes in waves.
More of the peloton felled
along the roadside even as
they continue their march
toward Madrid. The race
starting to feel as if it were
re-creating a fraught anabasis,
classical like Xenophon’s story or
more cult-classic like the film
The Warriors. Either way,
the riders must feel hunted
by now. They’ve come out
to ride, practice their trade
of suffering on two wheels,
& so they suffer. Polka dots
clatter on the pavement,
an emergent rider cruelly
taunted & captured by gravity.
A brave lieutenant caught
before the line, mere meters
from avenging his fallen leader.
These stories have been told
& re-told. We’ve heard many
iterations. But the race goes on.
The red jersey is less dream & more
reality. Another win proves it so.
Stage 19: Talavera de la Reina to Talavera de la Reina
under the sun.
of the long
fuzz the sky
like a fishnet
of a sailboat.
a fast day,
be a spear
through the air.
But they are
on the roads,
for the race
to come to
has enough left
Stage 20: Moralzarzal to Puerto de Navacerrada
The last big day of challenges,
a day of shadows. The trees darkening
the smooth roads. A stray cloud.
The riders shadow each other,
seeking a win, earning mountain points,
or just keeping tabs on their rivals.
Many are shadows of themselves
at this late point in the race, almost
to Madrid. Shadows chasing shadows,
the laser-focus of simply finishing
now a doorway of light at the tunnel’s end.
The new polka dot jersey must feel
that bright warmth. Another win
in the mountains. The red jersey crossing
the penultimate line, emotions heavier
than the days of climbs & crashes.
He is already bathed in the light of victory,
the race, an affirmation & a relief.
Stage 21: Las Rozas to Madrid. Paisaje de la Luz
Madrid—green & gold
& pale blue—sees a day
of celebrations & endings.
The first Belgian Vuelta
in decades & the last grand tour
for a pair of past winners.
The riders almost frolicking
on the long, processional
neutral start—jokes & knocked
shoulders & champagne—
until they enter the center
of the city & the shadows of
the white buildings—the dusky
sun soft & bright over the red
rooftops—& the speed begins
to ratchet up. One last surprise
before the parties & photos—
a lead-out man takes the final line.