viva la vuelta

my first few days at the best and most prestigious grand tour

Not for nothing, but if you show up at your first World Tour race in a state of acute sleep deprivation, you are going to have A Weird Time. 

I’m not great at planning ahead, and I’m terrible at flying. I’m not afflicted with any sort of false modesty — those are just two items that would show up on any comprehensive list of my shortcomings as a human being. Usually, I’m not traveling alone, so I think those qualities probably register as something mildly inconvenient and annoying for my companions to deal with in the moment, and perhaps (I hope) endearing and funny to reminisce about later. 

What I didn’t account for, because I am not great at planning ahead, is the fact that most of the reason I’m terrible at flying is because I’m exceptionally bad at sleeping on planes or in airports.  As such, the decent-length layovers I built into my itinerary to make sure I didn’t miss any connections meant more time without sleep. 

I arrived at the airport in Málaga with a slightly more tenuous grasp on sanity than usual, but remained in touch with the importance of the task at hand. Steeling myself, I picked up my rental car and made the drive to Córdoba to meet with Kate and get acclimated. I hopped in the burnt orange Citroën C4 that we’ll be spending much of the next week and a half in, and got on the road. 

Once I’d adjusted to the confusingly enormous turn radius and the peculiarities of driving in an unfamiliar place, the drive was incredible. Mountains! They have mountains here — lots of them! The grade is often steep enough going downhill that you actually have to take your foot off the gas and feather the brake the entire way down. Maybe this registers as an insane thing to find exciting or interesting, but as about ninety-nine percent of my driving experience has taken place in the mostly endlessly flat Midwest, it was a strange thing to process and I had to be mindful not to fly through radar-monitored speed control zones.

After arriving in Córdoba and meeting Kate in person for the first time in the press center, I went to the race’s permanent office to pick up my accreditation, attempting to make use of my abysmal Spanish in doing so. I did obtain my accreditation, an outcome my Spanish ultimately had very little to do with. I’m working on it.

When I’d put the PRENSA (press) stickers on the car, Kate let me know it was time to make our way to the finish line. We walked a short way over from the press center past the finishing gantry and into the mixed zone, where we waited for what would be my first actual face-to-face encounter with the riders. It’s very hot in Andalucia at the moment, but only a degree or two warmer than it’s been at home in Saint Louis lately, so, in isolation, not a problem.

One fundamental difference between “in isolation” and reality is that in my sleep-deprived haze I’d almost completely neglected to hydrate myself in the last several hours, which added considerably to the fever dream-like quality of an already surreal-seeming situation. 

In an additional twist, at this finish line, unlike most, there was no screen showing the race feed that could be viewed in the mixed zone, which meant that everybody resorted to hunching over and watching the end of the race via streaming apps on cell phones, all of which were about a minute behind what was actually taking place. 

This, needless to say, was confusing as hell.

At some point around the time when Jay Vine was caught by the reduced peloton with just under a kilometer remaining, everyone collectively gave up on trying to actually watch what was happening, owing to the realization that the riders would actually be arriving in the mixed zone before we would have seen the outcome. To my addled brain, this felt oddly like trying to parse the intricacies of quantum mechanics at work in hypothetical time travel.

“Wait, so who won?” somebody yelled.

“It’s Cort! Magnus Cort Nielsen!” came a reply.

And sure enough, there Cort was, with his extremely recognizable mustache upturned by a huge grin, being bear-hugged by a jubilant-looking EF Education-Nippo staffer. Everything happened so quickly — the mixed zone went from empty to utter chaos in seconds, and suddenly dozens of the riders I spend much of my time watching, discussing, analyzing and writing about were passing through my field of vision, or stopping to talk to members of the press, who were now, I guess, my colleagues?

Holy shit, how the hell did I get here?

Here was Miguel Ángel López, all wiry and sinewy and impossibly lean with a vague snarl on his face, the reason for which I couldn’t quite discern. There, suddenly, was Primož Roglič, who appeared no worse for wear after crashing for the second time in three days, surrounded by Jumbo-Visma teammates. I held up my phone in front of Romain Bardet in order to catch some audio from a TV interview for about fifteen seconds before realizing the interview was for Eurosport France, and therefore in French, and therefore utterly unintelligible to me. 

I don’t often experience anything I’d even loosely describe as sensory overload, but this qualified.

Eventually, I retreated from my first mixed zone experience, sobered slightly by the realization that I haven’t done something approximating real journalism in several years, and while perhaps the idiom about riding a bike applies, there’s no corollary about relearning to ride your bike while deliriously tired. 

We drove back to our hotel in the old, historic, definitely-not-designed-for-motor-traffic part of town, and after getting cleaned up, took a brief walk around the area. Kate is, you may have heard, an architecture critic, and explained several things about the probable history and features of the cathedral, all of which I found fascinating and none of which I remember. It was really cool, though, look:

We sat down for some excellent tapas and a bottle of a very full-bodied Rioja — my first brush with the dangers of a culture in which it is customary to eat frankly unconscionable amounts of food over multiple hours beginning at 8:30 PM, and in which bottles of excellent wine at restaurants cost approximately what average bottles of wine cost at grocery stores in the States. 

After stumbling back to the hotel, I had a long think about the experience of the last day and a half of my life, and how badly I’d wanted to be exactly where I was now. Everything about being at this race was foreign and exhilarating and undeniably very cool, but I needed to reckon quickly with the reality that doing the work I came here to do wouldn’t always be effortless or comfortable. I’m here, but it isn’t a given that I deserve to be here. 

The next day in the mixed zone before the stage, I had my first successful interview with a cyclist: Deceuninck-Quick Step rouleur Josef Černý. I asked him a series of reasonably well thought-out if fairly banal questions about the confidence of Fabio Jakobsen, the sprinter he was leading out, whether he felt they could successfully defend the green jersey, and if anything about their approach to lead-outs would change with opponent Jasper Philipsen abandoning the race. 

What I didn’t ask Černý, unfortunately, is what he thought about a hypothetical scenario in which, say, Jakobsen would get dropped by his own lead-out causing a split, and in which Jakobsen’s close friend Florian Sénéchal would sprint in his stead and claim a career-high win, and in which an irritated Jakobsen telling Sénéchal “Congratulations, man, but if you don’t look back, you are no lead-out.” would be caught on camera and go viral. 

And… all of those things happened. Apologies for the lack of foresight on that one, I suppose. Jakobsen’s remarkable recovery, improbable return to dominance, and gracious public demeanor had been the feel-good story of the Vuelta. Was he being a bit of a jerk now? 

The jury still appears to be out, although a slightly downhearted-looking Jakobsen could be seen giving simultaneous interviews a few feet away from Sénéchal in the mixed zone prior to the next day’s start.

I didn’t catch everything, but from what I heard, he seemed to be copping to speaking out of frustration. The wolfpack way, huh?

Speaking of yesterday, it marked the first of a pair of consecutive stages that could be perceived as potential traps for Roglič as the presumptive overall favorite. On either of these days, if a large break went up the road, with satellite riders prepared to wait as helpers for their GC candidates, it could spell danger and potentially large time gaps. 

“Yeah, we’ve been talking about that scenario as well,” Jumbo-Visma road captain Robert Gesink said before the stage. “If today, it’ll probably be a bit later on. It’s more likely that it will happen tomorrow, but you never know, so we need to leave all our options open, and in any case, we’re in the lucky position of having a pretty strong team to control any situation.”

After lunch at the press center, Kate and I jumped in the car of a couple of colleagues and recent friends, César and Juan Carlos of Colombian network Win Sports, to make our way up to the finish line at the top of Pico Villuercas. They’re a walking buddy comedy — two of the funniest, quickest-witted and ultimately kindest and most welcoming people I’ve met. 

They dedicate most of the drive to helping us improve our (reasonably competent, in Kate’s case, and again, abysmal, in mine) Spanish with lessons and examples primarily built around ribbing one another. For instance: “Ah, but you’re forgetting the difference between ser and estar again. See, ser and its forms are more permanent, like, ‘Juan Carlos es estupido.’ We know that’s never gonna change.” 

At the top of the climb, we settle in around a television hung from a small marquee that is literally swinging slightly from the wind at the top of the mountain, and watch the riders toward the end of the stage. 

As Gesink predicted, a big group did go away today, but no long-range, strategically complex attacks from GC riders. Instead, Romain Bardet attacked from the break with about six kilometers remaining and went solo to the top, displaying some absolute vintage form to claim his biggest win in years, as well as a commanding lead in the King of the Mountains competition. 

Behind, the GC group stayed mostly together, with López attacking during the closing kilometers, and quickly gaining a twenty-two second gap before being stifled by the headwind, and only claiming about five seconds in the end. All in all, the day was mostly without consequences for the overall competition, with improbable leader Odd Christian Eiking surviving to ride another day in the red jersey. He seems almost entirely at peace with the fact that he’s  renting this prestigious position, and determined to enjoy every minute of it. 

“Yesterday, you said ‘I think I will manage to keep the leader’s jersey, if the peloton don’t go too fast.’” Juan Carlos asked Eiking at the finish. “That happened… So, tomorrow could be the same? If they don’t attack each other, you can keep it again?”

“Yeah, it can be, or it can be the complete opposite.” Eiking said, chuckling. “It can be hard from the beginning, and I get dropped.”

“This one’s for you, Kate!” César says exuberantly on the drive down from the climb. César, who has very persistently stuck with a running joke about Kate being from California (for those unaware, she is absolutely not), has just begun blasting Dani California by the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the car’s stereo. Everyone sings along, with startlingly good recall of a song nobody’s heard in years, including the guitar solo. It’s thoroughly ridiculous, and everyone’s good mood is more or less invincible.

All in all, it’s been a good first few days. I go into each stage optimistic that I’ll receive more good quotes from riders than I hit snags in traffic, but like Eiking said, “it can be, or it can be the complete opposite.”

In any case, it’s been the time of my life so far (heavy sweat due to lack of air conditioning in today’s press center notwithstanding), and there’s still a great week of racing left to come, a tight GC left to be decided and lots more writing to do.

Viva la Vuelta.