OYONNOX, France (VN) — The big buzz Saturday morning at the Tour de France was the video clip showing Movistar’s Enric Mas and Ineos Grenadiers’ Michał Kwiatkowski exchanging words at the finish line Friday.
Unfortunately, PR staff on both teams froze out the media to have any chance to ask exactly what happened. Neither Mas nor Kwiatkowski would stop for questions Saturday.
With the media kept stashed away into “media mixed zone,” and the team paddock off-limits due to COVID-19 health controls, it’s easy for riders to ride past the waiting journalists without saying a thing. Team managers and sport directors are rarely available for comment.
— Diego Ayús (@soydiegoayus) July 2, 2021
So what happened?
Late in Friday’s Liege-type brawler of a stage, Richard Carapaz went on a solo flare and quickly opened up a 30-second gap on Tadej Pogačar.
The surge in the Tour’s longest stage in 20 years was putting pressure on Pogačar, who was left without much help from friendly UAE-Team Emirates jerseys.
Also read: Movistar and its goals for 2021 Tour
It’s just that kind of aggression that could blow open the Tour, and break the Slovenian’s ever-tightening stranglehold of the GC.
So who took up the chase? Movistar.
Of course, they were not the only team chasing. EF Education-Nippo and others did not want Carapaz to get too far up the road either, but everyone latched onto the Movistar jerseys at the front, and quickly made their own conclusions after seeing the finish-line video clip.
The Spanish WorldTour team has become a favorite punching bag on social media, with armchair sport directors quick to deride the team’s sometimes-puzzling tactics.
And admittedly so, it is sometimes hard to figure out exactly what they’re doing.
Movistar is often churning at the front, pulling like crazy to try to blow up the race, yet oftentimes, it’s their own team they blow up in their faces.
Movistar is undoubtedly one of the strongest teams in the bunch, but they no longer pack a strong rider at the center of their tactics. Mas and Miguel Ángel López are both quality, but neither are at the same level as the likes of Tadej Pogačar.
The team’s sometimes-erratic tactics have led to a few run-ins, most famously in the 2019 Vuelta a España when Movistar started to pull in crosswinds just as many of the GC favorites, including race leader Primož Roglič, crashed on a narrow descent.
Everyone cried foul, and in today’s 24-7 social media landscape, the vitriol went viral in real time.
In fact, it was now-Movistar rider López, then on Astana, who called them out, describing their tactics as “stupid,” and harshly criticized the team as “always doing stupid things like this.”
Cooler heads prevailed in that situation, and all sides apologized, including Movistar which insisted they were planning to attack on the flats after the village from the very start.
Also read: Riders blast Movistar in wake of attacks
Flash-forward to Friday, and it was obvious that Ineos Grenadiers were exasperated to see Movistar and others helping to chase down Carapaz when the Ecuadorian’s aggression might have helped cracked Pogačar.
Of course, what happened during the stage and the tussle at the finish line might not be related at all. Some say it was because Mas was blaming Kwiatkowski for provoking a crash in the feed zone with a tangled-up feed bag.
It was a surprise to see the pair, generally both cool characters, in each other’s faces in such a dramatic way.
But if Movistar was chasing, what was it doing? Protecting Mas in the GC, of course.
Mas, fifth overall in the 2020 Tour, started Friday’s stage 14 seconds behind Carapaz. The Spanish climber came into this year’s Tour hoping to inch closer to the podium. So when Carapaz bolted free, it was a clear and present danger.
Can Mas realistically expect to beat Tadej Pogačar during this Tour? Probably not, but that is what he and his team are paid for, and they’re certainly not going to let a would-be podium rival snatch time.
So pull they did, and with the horsepower Movistar brings in the middle of its team, Carapaz was caught right at the line in Le Crouset. No time gained.
Days of paybacks are in the past
Others speculated if it might have been payback for Carapaz, who bolted Movistar after winning the 2019 Giro d’Italia for a big-money contract with Ineos Grenadiers. There was a lot of mud-slinging in the wake of that high-profile transfer, but Carapaz was gone.
We’ve seen attacks in Tour’s past carried out in spite, either for past grievances or other real or perceived slights. Lance Armstrong notoriously chased down Filippo Simeoni late in the 2004 Tour after the Italian testified against Dr. Michele Ferrari. We all know how that story ended.
I remember the Armstrong/Simeoni incident in 2004 like it was yesterday. It was the first time I got the "Armstrong Glare" – these stills were taken 8 seconds apart after I repeated my question to him about Simeoni. pic.twitter.com/QdQCFX79Dt
— Ned Boulting (@nedboulting) February 13, 2019
There’s a lot less of that going on in the peloton these days, mainly because the overall level is so high that no one can afford to waste energy on settling scores or other trivial pursuits in a race.
As much as what some people wanted to make of it, Friday’s chase was for purely sporting reasons.
And who’s to say when and where Movistar, or any team, can apply their tactics? Everyone is trying to fight and scrape their way to Paris as best and highly placed as they can.
Nothing is free at the Tour de France
Of course, 24 hours later, Pogačar incinerated the Tour, blowing up any plans Ineos Grenadiers, Movistar, and every other team that might have been trying to hatch.
The Slovenian is taking a sledgehammer to the 2021 Tour, and we’re only one week into the race.
On Saturday, Mas and Carapaz finished together in the same group, and each moved up the GC, with Carapaz in sixth and Mas in eighth, respectively.
No way is Movistar or any other team in the top-10 simply going to let any GC rider move up the road uncontested. The race isn’t only for the yellow jersey, and every placing on GC comes at a very high price, and teams will race to defend a seventh-place, even if it might not appear to be very important to someone watching at home.
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) July 3, 2021
Movistar is one of the longest-running teams in the peloton, with its DNA reaching back into the 1980s. Its Miguel Indurain glory days might be behind it, and it’s been 15 years since the team won the Tour with Óscar Peireiro under Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears colors. Its last Tour podium came with third in 2016 with Nairo Quintana.
It proudly chases the team classification — this year it’s well off the pace so far —yet Spain’s “blues” are still is one of the few teams that have won a grand tour in the past five years. Some fans also make light of that, but it puts the team on the podium in Paris, and the classification means a lot to any team and sponsors that win it.
What’s sure is that the kerfuffle will provide some interesting content for the next edition of the Netflix documentary series, El Día Menos Pensado (The Least Expected Day).
The documentary makes for engaging viewing of how bike racing is often like making sausage: you don’t want to know how it’s made so long as it tastes good.