"SAN JUAN THANK YOU MAM" - Ned Boulting
So, this is the first time that the Vuelta a San Juan, formerly San Luis, has been on the telly, and what a pleasure it is.
I tuned in last night to see Julian Alaphilippe simply riding his bike away from Tiesj Benoot and Nairo Quintana (although my Road Book colleague Cillian Kelly was quick to take to social media and mutter something darkly about the use of, in his word, a “derny” by the Frenchman – but like another Frenchman, Arsène Wenger, I didn’t see anything). It was an impressive result and left no doubt about the kind of shape he’s in at the start of 2019.
But, more significantly, it was good to see the race, since up until now, it’s remained hidden from view, untelevised, internationally, save for the occasional, and hilariously uninformative “live finish line camera stream” that it tended to offer up by way of visibility to a global audience. If you’ve never watched coverage of a bike race from a “live finish line camera”, then you will perhaps not know that all you see is four hours of a static shot of an empty road, barriered off and slowly filling with fans, followed by a chaotic blur that lasts a handful of seconds. Only cycling would consider insulting viewers like that.
Anyhow, yesterday’s stage revealed an inspiring glimpse of the dramatic area of Argentina (a country I’ve little knowledge of, and have never visited) through which the race is passing. It looks big and it looks dry and it looks really hot. It’s probably all three of those.
San Juan is the regional capital of this area, due west of Buenos Aires. It’s known as the Oasis City, not because of anything to do with Liam Gallagher, but because of its extreme geology. The mountain range that hems it in, a kind of gigantic spur of the Andes, is arid to say the least. Its rocky slopes still yield up, from time to time, the vast skeleton of a dinosaur or two, which are dusted down and hung out in the museum down below.
In January 1944, San Juan was struck by a cataclysm. A huge earthquake, whose epicentre was alarmingly close to San Juan, just 30k to the west, razed the place to ground, destroying 90% of the buildings, many of which were constructed along Spanish colonial lines from adobe. A third of the population was made homeless. 10,000 died. Bear that in mind when you next tune in.
Nowadays, for this modern, re-built city to work at all, its inhabitants have had to dam the San Juan river in several places, forming colossal reservoirs, whose waters irrigate the expansive vineyards, where soft red grapes like Syrah and Malbec produce characteristic wines, full of hot sun during the heat of the day, cooled by mountain chills in the evening.
As the peloton skirted a route to the north of the city heading gradually towards a finish at the site of one of the famous dams that allow life and industry to flourish, the cameras afforded a glimpse, albeit fleetingly, of this vast, intimidating wilderness which looms over San Juan.
All the while, with Deceuninck-QuickStep team leading the line, the television pictures featured a jerky horizon of reddish/yellowish mountains gliding along as if they were a distant CGI chimera, a video game. It was rather beautiful. And the people by the side of the road were worth watching too; my first glimpse, from thousands of miles away, of regular Argentine folk, waiting, often stripped to the waist, by the side of the road, to throw buckets of water over the roasting peloton. I think they were trying to help.
And, in the end, the fireiest of all the riders got to the top first. Alaphilippe’s attack on the climb teased out Benoot and Quintana, both of whom held on for as long as they could be bothered to, before thinking, ‘Oh sod it. What’s the point?’ The newly named Deceuninck-QuickStep (and boy, that still takes me long time to type) have picked up where they left off, it seems, with Elia Viviani scoring in Australia and now the Furious Gaul winning in Argentina.
Other than that, we’ve not learned much about the form of the main players, and we were probably never going to. These races are of marginal significance to those whose main targets lie in July. Quintana looks like he’s on a training ride. Gaviria looks ready for action. Sagan looks hungry, even if a little unfamiliar in his non-rainbow bands (incidentally he’s the ONLY rider, as Cillian pointed out in true Cillian fashion) to take on both the Tour Down Under and the San Juan.
And Mark Cavendish looks a long way from peak form just yet. Ninth for him on stage one, and yesterday he did a pull on the front with about ten kilometres to run, then dropped anonymously back, knowing that the finish wasn’t for him. It’s tentative stuff.
It’s just so good to have cycling back on the telly, albeit at strange times of the day and night, and in disorientating heat, as we, only now, start to properly shiver in Northern Europe. But the true star of the race so far? Argentina.
Can’t wait for this evening’s episode.