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A perfectly incredible day: La Vuelta eTapa 17e

Wednesday,  09/13/06  04:44 PM

So, I’m in Granada, Spain, and I’m going to watch stage 17 of the Vuelta a Espana, which finishes one street over from my hotel.  I want to see the last climb of the stage, a Cat 1 climb up Alto de Monachil, a legendary black hole for cyclists, and I ended up riding it myself.  Here's a play-by-play...

[ Note: this post was retroactively added on 6/14/08 ]

First thing today I walk the streets of Granada looking to rent a bike…

The trucks are clogging all the streets, getting ready…


The city is still asleep…


The barriers are waiting to be stuck in the street…


The police are ready!


Many many many trucks.  You can’t believe how many…


Hey, I found a bike shop!  They have a few bikes :)


So I rent a bike.  It worked!  Nice bike, too, with a nice big old granny gear.  Oh, and I buy a helmet.  They don’t rent them but I do want a helmet.

Okay, off we go.  A quick study of the map, and now I have to find the Alto de Monachil, a mere 30km outside the city.

The police have all the streets blocked.  They wave bikes through like you’re royalty, though.


This bridge has barriers already.  Look, I’m a tour rider!

I almost hit that blue car while looking at that girl in the red pants.  Oops.

More blasting down empty streets with barriers.  This is fun.


Ah, decision time.  Let’s see, I want to head for Monachil.  Which is below the Alto de Monachil, as you might expect :)


Ah, there it is.  See that notch in the mountains?  That’s the pass to Monachil.


Straight ahead is the notch.  It is getting closer…


Aha, I reached the notch, and here comes Monachil.  I must tell you some objects are farther than they appear…


The valley of Monachil.  The road hugs the left hillside.  This is already a tough ride, and I haven’t even reached the hill yet!


The road continues, and continues… this is what cyclists call a “false flat”; it looks flat, but it isn’t…


Aha, the town itself.  At the back of the valley.  Now what?


These kids are playing a game called “Vuelta”.  Yes, the road is tilting up…


The early part of the climb.  I’m taking it real easy because I have no idea what is coming.  Well that’s not true I’ve studied the stage profile carefully and I have a very good idea of what’s coming, so I’m taking it real easy.


Carretera means highway.  The “hill” and “winding road” symbols are universal.  Note the barriers have begun!


If you look carefully, you can see the road ribboning up the mountain…


This part of the climb is 4%.  Trivial.  If you’re a pro tour rider.  For me, not trivial.


Man, it keeps going, and going, and going.  By the way there is an endless stream of cars, trucks, motorbikes, and bicycles up this hill.  I’ve been waiting for a “clean” shot as an excuse to catch my breath.


This guy passed me while I was resting taking a picture.  The road is covered with graffiti from fans, encouraging their favorites.


I’ve been climbing steadily!  That is Granada, in the haze off in the distance, with Monachil nearer.  Whoa.


4% my ass!

I think this is at least 5%.  Or 20%.  Feels like it.

The road passes a number of cafes.  Each has bike riders lounging and drinking.  A beer would be nice stupid.


I passed these guys, then turned and took a picture.  They don’t think it is 4% either.


Still climbing!  Wow!  I’m pretty sure this is the highest hill I’ve ever climbed, and I’m not even on the hard part yet.


Definitely not 4% any more, and definitely I am not in Kansas, either.  I think this part was 6% but I forget.  It is hot.  It is dry.  It is steep.  Wow.


Barriers along a lot of the road.  The road is narrow and there is a lot of nothing over the edge.


Crap.  Here comes the first 12% section.  Crap.

I am oh so very glad my bike had a nice comfortable granny (low gear).  I can tell you the tour riders won’t be using this gear, but I did.

More climbing.  A lot of people along the road now, even four hours before the race.  Lot’s of bike riders.  Yes, this is still 10%.


Looking back – wow, I’ve climbed really high.  Amazing.  And still the road continues…  at about 8%.  Ouch.


Oscar has his fans.  These guys obviously think he won the tour, they have him in yellow.  He’s in the Vuelta but not in contention.


I saw this banner and thought I was at the top!  Whew!  Take my picture!!


Hmmm…. The road continues… and many of the spectators are bovine.


Hmmm… the road is climbing again.  Crap.


When I saw this, I started crying.  No not really but can you see the road climbing endlessly to the horizon?  At least it isn’t too steep right here.


Uh, spoke too soon.  The road is tipping up again.  I look at my chart, yep, this is 8%.  Crap.  My legs really hurt.  Back to the granny!


A considerable time later…  Yay I really made it.  All the way.  That clump of green on the horizon in the distance is where I thought the climb stopped, but now I am actually at the top.  Wow.  I am so proud of myself.  And so tired.  And thirsty.


This warning is not for the tour – this hill is used a lot by local riders.


These guys are putting up the banner at the top of the climb.  Yes it is still early, about three hours to go.


Yay, we have a banner.  Can you guess who is sponsoring this stage?  More on that later….


Hey, get that fool out of the road!


Bike parking is plentiful!


I’ve picked my spot.  The final turn leads to a small section which is really steep.  Not bad for the riders because they can see that they’re almost there.  But not good for the cars, more on that later.  From here you can see a lot of the stage, all the way back to that clump of green.  Excellent!


There is a steady stream of cars, trucks, and bicycles.  The place is gradually filling up.  This van is for a club which rode up to the top, and gets a ride down in the van.


I took this picture because I liked the car.  No wait, I like the Illes Balears racing team.


OMG it’s the Specialized Angel!  She seems to be calling me…


Oh, okay, I’ll take a picture with you.  Anything for my fans :)

I must tell you the women here in Spain are rather astonishing.  I’ve never been to Spain before but I may have to come back.

Yellow Jersey tours organized bike tours that ride all the grand tour courses ahead of the actual race.  Every stage.  Wow.  Someday I’d like to do that for the Tour de France.


Showtime!  1600 is when the riders were expected to crest this climb.


The view from my spot.  Nothing yet except a steady trickle of cars and motorbikes and bicycles.


Hey, this looks official!  Lots of honking.  LOTS.


Aha!  Now we know they’re really coming!


I took this picture because, well, okay I guess I really liked that guy’s camera.


Spanish TV is on the job.


And the crowd roars!  A really slow police motorcycle, lights flashing, siren wailing.  This is it!


Tom Danielson of Discovery is leading!  All by himself!  This is excellent, if I could have named the rider to lead this race, it would have been Tom.


This next shot requires some explanation.  If you look above, you’ll see the officials are following Tom closely in their red car, like they always do.  But remember I said Ford was the sponsor?  Well, the officials are in a Ford.  And remember I said this is where the road gets really steep?  Well, it does, and when the official’s car reached this corner it lost traction and started spinning its wheels.  Finally the wheels bit and they almost ran Tom over.  Now that would have been a story.

A lot of the cars riding through were Fords, and they all had trouble with the corner, vs. about 0% of all other cars.  The crowd started yelling Olé when a Ford would get stuck on the corner, and then spin its wheel and blast up.  I don’t think Ford got their money’s worth out of this sponsorship.

And here comes Alexandre Vinokourov with a couple of other riders, about fifteen seconds back!  Not a big gap but Danielson descends like a stone.  He’ll need it against the Kazak.

It is really steep at this section.  Great for viewing because even the pro riders slow down.

Here comes AlejandroValverde!  He is wearing the Gold Jersey of the Vuelta leader.  But he is about 45 seconds down in the stage, so maybe he won’t go to bed as the leader because Vino is in 2nd.  Wow.

Valverde got the biggest cheer from the crowd.  But judging from his position, he was in the break and got dropped on the climb, so he’s got some work to do.

Carlos Sastre was next.  Also with a bit of a gap, he was probably shed from the break, too.  I can hear Paul Sherwin now – “Looks like Carlos Sastre is in a spot of bother….”


And here comes Andrey Kashechkin, Vinokourov’s Kazak teammate who is in fourth.  Also by himself.  Reading the accounts later, I understood that Kashechkin attacked on the steep part of the climb and splintered the break, but then paid the price and dropped back himself.  Still, he sprung his teammate Vino ahead of Valverde.

Kashechkin powered by this section in a massive gear.  No granny for him!

Here comes Iban Mayo with a couple of other riders – he’s won the Vuelta before, but he doesn’t have it this year.  The crowd gives all the Basque riders (orange shirts) a kind of low moan – not sure if it is a boo or some kind of "in" cheer.

Mayo is a spinner.

And here we have Discovery’s Egoi Martinez, presently leading the King of the Mountains competition.

Note that unlike the Tour de France, leaders of classifications other than the overall don’t wear colored jerseys.  Igor is ahead of Pietro Caucchioli, his main rival, so looks like he’s collecting points.  He is hurting, though.

Ah, there’s Pietro, about ten seconds back.  Still in the KOM time doesn’t matter, just place.


Now we have a bunch of riders I can’t identify, because I don’t recognize them and I don’t want to look up their numbers.  Anyway the whole front of the pelton dribbled over the hill, there was no clumping at all.  That more than anything else tells you this was a serious climb.

This rider is from a brand new team called Relax.  He didn’t look too relaxed.  And bright red, for Relax?  I don’t get it.


Another Discovery boy crests…

Ah, I recognize this guy – it’s Michael Rasmussen, aka the Chicken, winner of the King of the Mountains in the last two Tours de France.  And he rides for Rabobank.  Anyway I think he was burnt after the Tour, he hasn’t had a strong Vuelta.  Of course he’s still ahead of the majority of the field, that’s how strong he is.


Well, here’s a clump (that’s a technical term used in bike racing):


And here’s another…  you can tell these guys are not pushing as hard or going as fast.


Finally, a good 45 minutes later, here comes the peloton!

In a hilly race like this the also-rans form a big clump called “the bus”.  The race will drop any rider who doesn’t finish within 20% of the leader’s time, unless there are more than 25 riders in the group.  So by having a big group, they can take their sweet time.  Of course that’s relative, they all rode 100 miles in the heat and then rode up this hill, without stopping to take pictures.

Well, that’s it for the climb, now to ride back down the Alto de Monachil and hurry back to catch the finish.  I didn’t take pictures, but it was fun.  12% is much more fun going down than up!

Back in town!  And it only took about “that” long, too.  The race has already come by but the roads are still closed off with barriers, and bikes can ride down them.  So you can pretend you’re finishing the tour stage!

Nobody much cheering me on, though.

Well I missed the finish of the leaders, but caught the finish of the peloton.  But the pictures are all blurry.  Must have had a lens malfunction.  Anyway after the race I followed the bikes up the path, and guess what?


Hmmm…  that cyan color, who is that?

Yep, it is Alexandre Vinokourov himself, coming out of the doping control trailer.  He was right there.

The mob surrounds him as he gets on a bike.  Everyone is congratulating him!

From the fact that he had to give a sample, I assumed he was now the overall leader, since I know Danielson won the stage.  (After a stage both the stage winner and the overall leader are tested.)

Well I decided to follow him – what the heck!


He’s just riding through Granada like any old rider – like me, in fact!

There was a ton of traffic because cars were routed away from the main drag used for the race.

So he stops at a light.  And I stop behind him and take this picture:

And then I rode up to him and said “congratulations” and stuck out my hand, and he shook it.  He had a big smile and said something in Kazak and rode off.

Pretty much the perfectly incredible end to a perfectly incredible day.