EXTREME SPOILER ALERT.
THIS IS YOUR WARNING.
The final climb of a queen stage is a place of desperation.
It is a place where men’s dreams go to die and their bodies are pushed to the absolute limits of physical, mental and emotional tolerance. It rips apart pelotons, decimates teams, reshuffles race standings, and puts pain on strong, tight-lipped faces. If one cannot win a queen stage, the best, if not the only thing one can do is try to hold on, though it’s more like clinging than holding. In such a hostile environment, after already carrying oneself through hundreds of kilometers of what is usually quite strenuous terrain, survival is no easy task. This is not only due to sheer exhaustion, but because the final climb is the key opportunity during which others go for glory, launching themselves up those steep, winding roads, their little leg-lung-heart engines firing on all cylinders to do so. In this, even their failures are successful — at the very least, others have suffered, their chances of making it to the end becoming that much slimmer. The only respite comes at the finish line, and the men who cross it do so changed, often from winners into losers, losers into winners.
To win a queen stage is glorious.
The scene is Port Ainé, a ski resort in the Catalan Pyrenees, its craggy, steep mountaintops blanketed with white snow in contrast to a sea of verdant conifers. At an altitude of over 1650 meters, the air is thin and frigid, hitting the lungs hard, its depleted oxygen offering little satisfaction to burning muscles and quick-beating pulses.
Today’s stage of the 2021 Volta a Catalunya is 166 brutal kilometers, encompassing three climes, two of them being hors categorie — climbs so long and arduous that they fall outside of the usual categorization. The final ascent at Port Ainé is 2000 meters of elevation gain spanning 18 kilometers in length with an average gradient of 6.8% and a maximum of 12%. In short, it is terrible.
Let’s start our story at ten kilometers to go.
Steven Kruijswijk of Team Jumbo Visma decides to attack first. Kruijswijk, a rather tragic figure for reasons I’m sure we’ll get into later on in this newsletter, came to Volta a Catalunya as Jumbo Visma’s general classification contender and having placed well in the time trial, it looked as though he had a pretty good shot. However, after a poor performance on yesterday’s stage, he’s out of contention for the GC and thus, he doesn’t have that much to lose. Kruijswijk doesn’t have that much left in him, either, and he’s reined in by the peloton within the next kilometer. It’s not an important attack, but it’s the one that breaks the tension, the one that gives others the signal that now is a time to try things, to test the waters. This is, in fact, the point of the maneuver in the first place — to provoke others and glean useful information on the strength of this peloton, to suss out what the other teams are thinking.
Kruijswijk is swiftly hunted down by the quartet of riders from Ineos Grenadiers who have, in more ways than one, taken control of the race.
To put it bluntly, the team Ineos has put together for this one-week stage race is the cycling equivalent of bringing a machine gun to a knife fight. Included among them are three grand tour podium finishers and a world champion time trialist, all of whom are on domestique duty for Adam Yates, the man who currently wears this race’s leader’s jersey, having won the mountain stage yesterday by a considerable margin. The train Ineos forms is powerful and unrelenting, each link in it strong and capable, experienced and patient. It is their job to make sure Yates retains that jersey at all costs, and thus far they are doing very, very well.
The Ineos strategy is simple: keep the pace high and make everyone else suffer. Seeing as they are the only team with the firepower able to continue at such a tempo, the rest of the group has to burn through their resources just to stay in the wheel, something that doesn’t leave much room for any funny business. It’s brute strength and it works beautifully — like I said, bringing a machine gun to a knife fight. In the face of such fearsome opponents (three of whom are already placed in the top 4 of Volta’s current GC) it seems as though any attempt to get away this far out would be, frankly, futile. Ridiculous. Strategic suicide.
However, at 7.2 kilometers to go and despite the very, very high probability of failure, someone tries.
Esteban Chaves of Team Bike Exchange has gone 664 days without winning a bike race. Many cyclists have had far longer losing streaks, but not many of Chaves’ caliber. He’s a podium winner in both the Giro and the Vuelta and a decent one-day racer as well, having won Il Lombardia back in 2016. However, Chaves is no stranger to hardship. In 2013 he suffered an almost career-ending crash, took a few years to fully recover, and went on to springboard to the top of the peloton in the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Sadly, his luck ran thin once more in 2018, when the Colombian came down with a rough bout of mononucleosis, one that knocked him out of contention for that year’s Giro and kept him off the bike for three months. Since that illness, the going has been tough for Chaves, his victories having gone from relatively frequent to frustratingly sparse. The last race he won was a stage in the 2019 Giro, an event that took place almost a full two years ago.
When a top tier cyclist goes that long without winning, their career begins to be questioned — their future, their legacy, their form, their role on their team, everything — which only increases the pressure to win, which only makes any disappointment that much more brutal, which only increases the questioning. It’s a vicious cycle, one that’s a reliable form of media punditry, both in the press and in the commentary box alike, regardless of the effect this constant negative attention has on the riders and their teams.
Things are looking up though, it seems, for our erstwhile protagonist. In yesterday’s mountain stage, he took a surprising second place after attacking from a chasing group with 3.8 kilometers to go. This moved him up into ninth in the GC thus making him an Official Threat. Unsatisfied with second, but now riding with a renewed sense of confidence, Chaves attacks, springs forth from the bunch as the dense conifer forests thin out onto a rocky bald, the varicose veins of the snow-weary asphalt blurring into a mottled gray beneath his tires.
This isn’t a machiavellian touch and go maneuver like Kruijswijk’s.
Chaves is going for it.
Ineos Grenadiers are not happy. This isn’t some little breakaway specialist or a GC lost cause like Kruijswijk. This guy is only a minute and twenty-one seconds down from being in the leader’s jersey, and there’s still plenty of climb left for him to wreak havoc on those time gaps. Oh no, no, no, they have to pull him back.
Richard Carapaz is in the drops, out of the saddle, his teammates Geraint Thomas, Richie Porte, and Adam Yates in tow, and it’s carnage behind, instantly. Riders who have managed to hang on for almost 150 kilometers thanks to the race’s earlier, uneasy brinkmanship are finding themselves thrown out the back of the peloton, dangling like cans tied to the bumper of some newlyweds’ car.
Soon, Chaves has daylight: five seconds, ten, seventeen. With five kilometers left, he needs around thirty seconds for the stage win to be viable. He’s on a mission, and it’s David versus Goliath.
Meanwhile, Goliath is pulling and pulling hard. Carapaz is burning himself at both ends to drag the rest of them up the hill as fast as possible, making every meter insufferable for those behind, especially those who are isolated, left without the morale and shelter of a teammate. If this current time gap holds, Chaves will move up four places in the general classification, unseating Geraint Thomas. That cannot happen.
3.8 kilometers to go. Enric Mas of Movistar attacks. The attack is ambiguous. One is unsure whether Mas is trying to bridge the gap to Chaves and contest the stage or whether he is working in the interest of Alejandro Valverde, who sits sixth on GC. Valverde is racing what is supposed to be his final season as a professional cyclist, marking the end of one of the sport’s most remarkable careers; a podium in a stage race would be quite a lovely send-off indeed. He sits in the wheels of the peloton watching with sagacious eyes, the corners of his lips forming a scowl framed by his graying stubble. He’s patient, biding his time, unconcerned. Snow now appears in small piles at the sides of the road and the air is getting ever-thinner — as is Chaves’ gap, which has shrunken to eleven seconds.
Things are looking grim for our plucky protagonist.
However, something happens. Either Mas’ attack has distracted the peloton or Chaves has found something left in him, because the next time the motorbikes do a time check, he’s got sixteen seconds again. Meanwhile, Carapaz is throwing his bike in little jerks and surges, fighting like hell to reel Mas in, not wanting him to catch up to Chaves. Why? It’s simple: Chaves being isolated puts him at a distinct disadvantage. A solo victory is hard at 3.2 kilometers to go on a climb like this, but its even harder from 7.5. The odds are not in Chaves’ favor, but in this moment, Chaves cannot dwell on the odds. He has to focus on conserving his energy in the most efficient way possible, has to measure both his physical and emotional efforts, has to devote himself to the task ahead with a self-discipline unimaginable to us normal people. The second he starts thinking about failure, he has failed.
Three kilometers to go, and it looks like Mas is going to be caught. This is normally the part of a queen stage where the winning moves come to pass, the part where those with the legs to attack will do so, leaving only a small group of contenders to fight tooth and nail to the end, languishing all the while under each other’s painful accelerations. Maybe someone goes solo, maybe. The pace slows down as riders mark each other; a glint is caught in Nairo Quintana’s eye — will he go? Carapaz relinquishes the front of the peloton to his teammates Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas. The camera catches the Ecuadoran dropping back, his shoulders heavy with exhaustion, his work done.
This little slowdown has given Chaves almost 30 seconds, a razor thin margin considering there are still 2.3 kilometers of excruciating climbing left to go. Ineos ups the pace and fast and the result is immediate carnage. UAE Team Emirates’ Brandon McNulty, tenth in the GC, is the first victim. He cracks, unable to sustain this hellish tempo any longer, watching with bleary eyes as the line of riders winds its way up the snaking road without him.
The gap to Chaves goes down 9 seconds in less than a kilometer.
Two thousand meters left, and Chaves is grimacing, his big teeth grinding as he continues with his intrepid effort, trying his best to keep steady, consistent, to not let the twin beasts of doubt and exhaustion claim him because then the peloton will too. Mikel Bizkarra of Euskatel-Euskadi is dropped, the only rider from a continental-level team to make it this far. He’s followed by Enric Mas, who sinks like a stone, his job for Alejandro Valverde — whatever it was — now finished.
The trees form a dark and impenetrable expanse on one side of the road, a contrast to the rocky embankments of the Pyrenees on the other, and when faced with such a hostile, sublime landscape, one wonders how these roads came to be in the first place. 1400 meters to go, and Deceunick Quick-Step’s Fausto Masnada, the only remaining helper of João Almeida, who’s currently 3rd on GC, is claimed by the steepness of these hills. He’s followed shortly by Lotto Soudal’s Harm Vanhoucke, this group’s only remaining member of that team. Most of the men left in the peloton are alone now, teammate-less, their comrades having done all they can to help them reach this point. The exception to this is, of course, our GC leader Adam Yates who still has two powerful compatriots insulating him from danger and the elements, working as hard as they can to ensure that Esteban Chaves won’t have his little moment in the sun.
The flamme rouge, 1000 meters left to go, and the gap stands at 13 seconds for Chaves.
On a flat road, this would be enough, but on a climb this steep after such a long effort, even now, one has to look at a possible victory with skepticism. The gradient is an agonizing 11 percent, enough to choke the life out of most legs. As he passes under the banner, the tree-line recedes and snow now blankets the cliffsides in direct, absurd contrast to Chaves’ short sleeves. Shivering, famished, totally exhausted, he rolls his hips in time with the bike trying to get as much torque out of it as he can, every little wrench and pedal stroke contributing towards the still nebulous final outcome of this endeavor.
664 days, Chaves must be thinking. Six hundred and sixty-four days. He pedals in time with the number, rolling it over with each rotation of wheels, a pure, simple beacon piercing through the fog of his smothering fatigue. Six hundred and sixty-four days. Right around six hundred and sixty-four meters left to go (though he surely did not plan this consciously) Esteban Chaves finds a little bit of speed left in his legs and he jolts forward, a last gasp. The gap is twenty seconds now.
Finally, it is possible.
One can tell Ineos is still working hard because behind them, riders are going backwards left and right, the peloton being whittled down to a small, elite group composed of some of the world’s best climbers including Adam Yates himself. In the final 400 meters of the race, Almeida cracks, the last to do so. The gap shrinks to fifteen seconds, twelve, ten as the group behind accelerates dramatically. Three hundred meters. They’ve got Chaves in their sights now.
Esteban Chaves rounds a corner, looks back over his shoulder, sees the Ineos Grenadiers closer than they’ve ever been since he first broke away. Where is that fucking finish line? he thinks, gritting his teeth, rocking the bike back and forth. Where is that fucking line? Another corner, one last turn, and, finally, after such a long and arduous and tumultuous journey, there it is. Barely able to keep his fist raised in the air in celebration, he crosses it, a redeemed man.
Chaves has won the stage — but he has won more than that. Now sixth in the general classification, he has been relieved of what must have been a painful and difficult burden: the expectations of others and with them, a prevailing doubt that he’ll ever be able to satisfy them. He’s told all of his critics and his colleagues in the clearest way possible: I am not done yet and I will not be forgotten, and for a little while longer, no one will question whether or not Esteban Chaves deserves to be here. In short, he’s won back his confidence and the confidence of others.
One cannot imagine a sweeter prize.