After yesterday's rest day, the start line in Calahorra was a pretty nervous place to be this morning. With just five days of racing left, the tension in the air was nearly as strong as the gusting wind that greeted us as we rode out of town.
Immediate attacks saw the peloton strung out into one long line for about 10 minutes until suddenly everybody started shouting 'whoah,' at the front of the bunch. Obviously there were a lot of tired legs despite the rest day and nobody wanted an hour-long dogfight before the breakaway got established.
Adam Hansen and Javier Armendia managed to get clear before the Lampre team of sprinter Max Richeze went to the front in an effort to discourage any more attacks, and the duo built up a maximum lead of eight minutes.
While the tempo was steady behind, we had a side-wind all day long so the bunch was pretty strung out out for most of the stage – I made sure to wait for a sheltered section before asking any of my team-mates to drop back to the car for bottles or food so they wouldn't have to kill themselves getting back to the front.
I rode today's route in a previous Vuelta and remembered the two third-category climbs and most of the finish and knew that after the second climb, the Alto de Valmala with 30km to go, we would enter a long section of unsheltered road where the crosswind would be at its strongest.
With the two leaders still dangling ahead, my Saxo-Tinkoff team-mates moved near the front on the plateau before the short descent so that we would be in a good position going onto the unsheltered section.
Every morning my team has lots of plans but we never know which one is going to be put into action until we see what way the stage pans out. One of the possibilities today was to try and put the team on the front in the crosswinds and split the race in pieces, hopefully catching out some of the riders ahead of me in the overall classification. As we crested the climb, team boss Bjarne Riis came over the team radio. "Alright guys, we've got a strong team. If we have the opportunity, we go for it."
We came out of the town at the bottom of the descent with myself and my team-mate Matteo Tosatto in the first four or five riders. Matteo is one of those guys who gets total satisfaction out of doing his job right, and trying to split the peloton by riding flat out into a crosswind is his job. He is brilliant at it. I only have to ask Matteo to ride at the front and he does it until either I tell him to stop or he physically has no choice.
As we came onto the unsheltered section, Matteo hit the front and went flat out, with me on his wheel. He rode so hard that when I turned around there were only two of us and the peloton was exploding just a couple of metres behind us. I knew we weren't going to stay away for 30km so we eased up and let the front portion make contact. When they did, one of the Movistar guys came to the front but Matteo was still doing most of the pulling. We didn't get much help until Fabian Cancellara joined the party a few minutes later and gave him a hand. The two of them nailed it for about a kilometre and soon we were opening a decent gap to the rest of the race, which had been split into four groups under the pressure.
As our 40-strong group got established, the rest of my team-mates; Michael Morkov, Nicki Sorensen, Oliver Zaugg and Rafal Majka were able to make their way to the front and rode flat out with Matteo at the head of the race.
A few kilometres later we heard that fifth-placed Domenico Pozzovivo was caught in the third group on the road, alongside seventh-placed Thibaut Pinot and the duo were already half a minute down. When the guys heard that, they just pulled even harder, knowing I would leapfrog Pozzovivo into fifth if we could stay away.
While our little climbers, Ollie and Rafal were having a hard time in the wind, they dug as deep as they could. Ollie almost cracked a few times but every time I thought he'd been dropped, he kept coming back from behind to get to the front and pull again.
Having opened a minute on the second portion of the peloton with 10km to go, we hit a short, steep hill. Having given everything to establish the gap, my team-mates' legs were gone and they went out the back as other riders began hunting for the stage win and took over at the front.
With about 2km to go, there was a stall in the group as everyone jockeyed for the final sprint. I was worried we might lose a few seconds to the chasers, but suddenly Rafal dragged himself from the back of the group and almost killed himself to get us to the final kilometre before Bauke Mollema attacked with 900m to go and won the stage.
I wanted to get a good result in the sprint to reward the guys for their efforts but I chose the barrier side of the road and with Tyler Farrar weaving all over the place in front of me, I touched the breaks a couple of times and finished 10th, which is my only disappointment about today.
The guys showed so much dedication that I was really overwhelmed with emotion when I crossed the line. It took a while to get things organised but once we did, it was superb. There was no pretending, no keeping it for tomorrow. It was all about today and making a difference.
At the speed we were going I knew we were going to put time into the group behind us but I was delighted to see that we had opened a minute and 31 seconds on Pozzovivo and Pinot and I have now moved into fifth place overall, with a minute and 26 seconds cushion to sixth and two minutes and 24 seconds to seventh.
The team plan here is always to ride aggressively and to try different things. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't, but nobody can say we don't try. Today, the guys sacrificed everything for me and it's an incredible feeling to have such a strong team backing me up. I was so humbled at the finish that I could barely speak.
The guys were so spent after their efforts that only myself and Rafal finished in the front group, but I made sure to wait and hug and clap each one of them on the back and thank them as they crossed the line. As we made our way back to the team bus, we got a huge round of applause from the crowd, which was amazing – it's great to be part of such exciting racing.
There are still three very hard days ahead but now, more than ever, I really want to do well to reward all the hard work that everyone's been putting in for me, from the masseurs, to the mechanics, the directeurs and the riders, everyone's really backing me up and I'm proud to be part of this team.
Vuelta a Espana,
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