A Bad Case of the Vuelta Blues

“Hi everyone. My name is Howard and I’m a Grand Tour addict. It’s been a week since my last fix.”

I’m in France, on holiday, sans WiFi and television. There is a Grand Tour going on and I haven’t got a clue what is happening. It’s the first time I’ve been out of touch with such an event since 2010. It feels very wrong. It’s getting me down. I’m tetchier than usual – even when you factor in spending so much time with a six and seven year old who know there is ice cream around every corner. There’s no doubt about it: I’ve got a bad case of the Vuelta Blues.

Our last two family holidays have also coincided with the Vuelta but they have been in Cornwall and, thanks to the proximity of our rented apartment to the beach, I’ve been able to sneak inside at regular intervals to check on progress. Plus there is 3G on the beach so race reports have never been out of reach. Here, in the Vendee, with roaming charges likely to exceed the cost of the fortnight’s accommodation, that is not an option. In fact I might as well be halfway up the river of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness such is the dearth of connectivity. I find myself staring intently at ‘proper’ cyclists as they pass by on our way to the beach – looking for a sense of Grand Tour knowledge etched into their faces. ‘Are you experienced?’ I silently implore of them. ‘Do you know where to score?’

Nothing. I’m in a cycling news black hole and have therefore decided to go full-on cold turkey. The last update I had was Stage 3 – a snatched TV report on the cross channel ferry to St Malo tantalisingly feeding me the unlikely headline that Chris Horner had not only taken a stage win but also the Red Jersey by a few seconds from Vincenzo Nibali. Lord only knows what has happened since then… That snippet just served to stimulate my desire for more information and my poor brain, starved of it’s usual daily doses, has now started speculating.

We all know that Lampre and Cofidis will have been conspicuously absent from everything except the morning signing-on ceremonies and that Caja Rural, Netapp and Euskaltel will have featured plenty in the breaks but failed to actually make anything stick. Those are hardcore solid facts; as predictable and pervasive as the smell of a camembert which had been left out in a hot chalet all day. It’s also way too early for Rodriguez to show his intentions, whilst BMC in general, and Philippe Gilbert in particular, are presumably still having the same Annus Horribilis as they have endured for the rest of 2013. All of which narrows the options a bit – a bit but not a lot.

Stage 5 update. “It’s been 2 full days since my last Grand Tour fix”.
Today looks a good bet for Dan Martin. He has done a lot of racing this year and he may want to take his chances early rather than risk running out of legs later in the race. For OPQS, Stybar should also be looking to build further on his recent form and again the earlier the better would seem to be the order of the day for him. It would have been great to see him duking it out with Martin in the final kilometres whilst the GC boys watch each other not far behind. Also, lets not forget that Horner’s victory casts a unwelcome shadow over one of the bigger names in the race; his team leader Fabian Cancellara. Spartacus may also have fancied some of the early lumpy stages like Stage 4 and a nice little run in red before J-Rod, Nibbles and Valverde start playing for real but will he now be content to play Sancho Panza for Horner’s probable last tilt at the windmills? Cancellara has already done enough this year to call 2013 a success, plus he will also have at least one eye on Florence and the upcoming Worlds. Add all this up and things bode a good deal better for Horner’s chances of a few days in the leader’s jersey. If he is able to cling on past Stage 5 that is. Oh, so many possibilities and nowhere to check them.

Stage 7 update. “It’s been 4 full days since my last Grand Tour fix“.
I have to confess some ignorance on the sprinters in this years’ edition. With 11 summit finishes the big names have wisely steered well clear of the Vuelta this time around so stages 6 and 7 look wide open for a smash and grab raid by a lesser known fast man, presumably before a tactical retirement later in the race. Talking of which, OPQS ‘team leader’ Tony Martin must be wondering how the hell he ended up on the start line of this monster sufferfest and will be peering sadly into the distance at the small speck of a single time trial on Stage 11, desperately trying to ignore the many mountains in between. Hauling himself all the way to Madrid doesn’t look to be the best preparation for the upcoming TT at the Worlds either. Surely he’s a dead cert for a withdrawal on Stage 12.
I lay awake last night pondering this and also wondering if OPQS are counting on Uran’s showing for Sky bringing them a result by default when he switches teams next year, and then I spent considerable time wondering if there is a conspiracy going on between OPQS and Sky to make this plausible. Similar crazy thoughts kept me awake until dawn. As with all symptoms of withdrawal, the nights are definitely the hardest…

Stage 8 update. “It’s been 5 days since my last Grand Tour fix”. The weekend. When the best racing usually happens. The first two proper mountain stages in the far south west. The little print out map I managed to grab before leaving the UK doesn’t detail the mountain names or their categories leaving me a little lost for a moment. In my anxious state my addled brain automatically equated mountain stages in the South West of a country as being the Pyrenees. And that’s when I realised I’ve reached rock bottom – once there are a collection of short numbered lines criss-crossing it I can no longer even tell the difference between a map of Spain and map of France. It’s a new low point in my journey to kick the Grand Tour addiction. I feel like Renton in Trainspotting, nailing himself into his flat and having visions of the baby crawling across the ceiling. Speculation also is crossing into the realms of the absurd. Katusha to withdraw en masse as all 9 men are sold to Manchester Utd as part of shady Russian oligarch’s deal to bring Rooney to Chelsea? SaxoTinkoff’s Nordic SAS training camps to be revealed as going a little too far when the team roll out in full camouflage and then call in an airstrike on a rogue breakaway which they failed to infiltrate? Carlos Betancur to finally cross the line in first place instead of his usual second and to celebrate by ripping off all his Lycra and standing motionless on the line, arms aloft, legs apart, until every last rider is home; an act which earns him a video clip on A Question of Sport’s ‘What Happened Next’, a move to one of the more liberally-minded Dutch teams and a 37 Swiss Franc fine from the UCI. Shell-shocked, I retreat to the solace of copious amounts of red wine.

Stage 9 update. “It’s been 6 days since my last Grand Tour fix”.
Just when I thought I’d broken the back of my addiction, just when I’d battled through the cold sweats and the delirium tremors and had emerged scarred but intact on the other side, a new trial for my Herculean labours comes calling at my chalet door. Temptation comes home to roost as my partner arrives back from the shops with a whole week’s worth of WiFi code. What the hell do I do now? Do you not see what I have just been through? In my weakened state that sort of unfettered access could kill me as I recklessly binge on all things Vuelta. Have you ever actually tried to read a 300 page UCI race handbook in one sitting? In my unhinged state that’s just the sort of foolhardy thing I might try. Instead I fight to keep a level head and rationalise. Should I now simply succumb without a fight and sink back into the blinkered twilight zone of a constantly checked Twitter feed, topped up with hourly hits of cycling forum Grand Tour chat, before being rounded off with an evening speedball of Eurosport highlights and team reports until I pass out and sweet oblivion reigns for a few short hours before next stage starts and the pangs come gnawing again? Well, that would be the easy option..

Or do I try to stay on the wagon? Do I harness some of the suffering I’ve undergone and try to turn it into self control? Should I ignore the fact that Steephill, VeloNews, RaceRadio, CyclingTips and the other sources of cycling info are now just a few quick keyboard taps away and instead continue to enjoy the extra hours I’ve found to read and write and swim and cycle. I know I spend far too much time ‘following’ cycling in my regular life (without having the genuine excuse of it being my job to do so) so maybe this is the watershed moment. The turning over of a leaf, the rebalancing of priorities. That would be the hard option.

One more night off the sauce maybe. Just one more night. I’ll use the WiFi to post this up and then tomorrow I’ll go out and buy a copy of L’Equipe and try to improve my French at the same time as getting my fix..

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