In recent years, time trials have become the bane of my life in stage races. Usually I can hang in relatively well in the mountains, manage to get myself into a decent position overall in the first week or two, only to lose time in the time trials and drift back down the classification.
I've done a few decent ones over the years but my time trialling has been so inconsistent that I suppose I had begun to dread the race against the clock.
Today, though, I had no such fear. Instead of worrying about the stage and wondering if I would lose to the guys on GC, I was ready to attack the stage and get stuck in.
I don't know where the new positive mental attitude has come from -- maybe my stage win, maybe my day in the leader's jersey has boosted my confidence -- but today I never got out of focus from the minute I got up this morning.
Thanks to my Saxo-Tinkoff team staff, everything was organised to the last millimetre. My bike was polished to the nth degree. My wheels were checked and double-checked, my gears were clicked through a thousand times by the mechanics, my drinks lined up by my soigneur and I could sense that the whole squad was really behind me. I felt like a special rider, a superstar.
After a 40-minute session on the rollers before breakfast, I spent until lunchtime lying on my bed in the room, resting up. After lunch we drove to the stage start and arrived about two and a half hours before my start time.
This was just as well because the polka-dot skinsuit of King of the Mountains that the race organisers had ready for me was tiny.
The classification jerseys I've been given so far have all been medium and fitted me grand, but for whatever reason the skinsuit wouldn't fit an Action Man and they had to print up a new one, which only arrived 40 minutes before the start.
I ended up wearing an extra large, which was still very tight on the shoulders.
With the team bus parked down a side street, far away from the start, I was able to warm up before the stage without fear of being interrupted by someone looking for a photo or autograph and I was in my own little world, focused on the task in hand.
Team boss Bjarne Riis pulled me aside before the start. Everything was planned, where to accelerate, where to change sides of the road to get the best line, the best shelter from the wind.
Bjarne doesn't say much but when he does, every word is thought out and he also gave me little psychological boosts.
"Today is your day Nico... This time trial suits you... You've progressed a lot... You're in good shape. I know you can go and get the jersey back."
Although he has drifted down the overall standings and could have used today as a sort of rest day, my room-mate Roman Kreuziger said he was going to ride the climb flat out and give me some feedback when he was finished. When he did, he echoed Bjarne's sentiments.
"Nico, I've done the course. The climb suits you. The descent isn't technical and it's more for a powerful rider. Believe me, it's made for you."
Behind me, Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Joaquin Rodriguez were just 39 seconds and 47 seconds back, and rather than worrying about trying to match world time trial champion Tony Martin or former world champion Fabian Cancellara in the race against the clock, I simply had to try to take time out of those guys, or at least limit my losses to them, if I wanted to hold onto my good overall position by the end of the 38km stage.
Having started out smoothly, gradually increasing my speed until I got into the tuck position, I tried to keep my heart rate around 170-175 beats per minute. After 11.5km, I was on exactly the same time as Nibali -- 17 seconds behind the fastest man on the road, Cancellara -- and was 20 seconds up on Valverde and 42 seconds up on race leader Horner.
I must have faded a little bit near the top of the climb after 18km because Nibali was three seconds faster than me there. Valverde had also clawed a few seconds back. I went through the check just three seconds quicker than him but had opened my lead on Horner to 46 seconds.
I knew that once I got over the top, I had the advantage of being able to use a bigger gear than most of the other climbers on the downhill section to the finish. My concern was Valverde. When Bjarne told me in my earpiece that I was 15 seconds off him at the top, I was ready to take maximum risk on the descent. Having Bjarne in the team car really helped.
"Come on Nico... 1km more... You can do it... You're doing a good ride... Get out of the saddle."
At the bottom I was told I was clawing time back on him I and coming into the finish I knew I was a few seconds quicker than him but Nibali was 23 seconds faster than me.
I was definitely surprised to be told I'd finished sixth on the stage. I was hoping to be in around the top 10 or 12 but if you look at the results, apart form the two time trial specialists in the first two, the next riders are all GC guys.
I said before that I didn't really care if I was only 30th on the stage, once I didn't lose time to those guys around me on GC so I'm really happy with today's performance.
I'm now up to second overall again, 33 seconds behind new race leader Nibali, but it's really close behind me with both Valverde and Horner just 13 seconds back and Rodriguez in fifth two minutes behind them. I also lead the Combined classification again and will wear the white jersey tomorrow.
As I sat waiting to go up on the podium to collect my jersey I found myself sitting alongside Valverde and Horner and we had a brief chat about how tight the skinsuits were today. Horner's jersey actually tore at the shoulders under the strain.
This weekend is going to be hard, with three mountain-top finishes one after the other. I'm going to have to be focused and tenacious if I want to hang in there. But I'm not letting go without a fight but I think my head is a lot stronger than other years. I'm mentally ready to go to the limit.
Vuelta a Espana
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