Nicolas Roche diary: 'I'll be the one who's grimacing the most'
Friday, September 6, Stage 13: Valls – Castelldefels 169km
With three huge mountain stages looming before Tuesday's second rest day, today was the last opportunity for a while for some of the lower-placed riders to try and escape the clutches of the peloton and grab themselves a stage win.
Because of this, today's start was hectic, with the peloton like one huge elastic band, being stretched by attacking groups, only to whip back on itself each time they were reeled in.
The stop-start nature of the early kilometres saw a pretty big crash near the front of the bunch. Only about 20 guys were unaffected as those of us that were fortunate enough to have stayed upright were forced to stop and negotiate the seven or eight riders who weren't.
Almost all of the GC contenders were caught behind the crash but in fairness to race leader Vincenzo Nibali, who had been in front of the crash, the Italian sportingly persuaded the front portion to ease up as they approached the third-category climb of Alto de la Torreta after 13km and the rest of us got back on.
On the descent, one of the Belkin riders missed a turn at 70kph and hit the guardrail. His bike bounced backwards and struck my team-mate Oliver Zaugg but he remounted and thankfully he seems to be okay.
Approaching the 4.5km long first-category climb of the Alto del Rat Penat, after 115km, the break still hadn't established itself enough for the peloton to ease up and with the gap down to around a minute to the leaders, we began to catch some of the team cars following the break as we climbed.
My Saxo-Tinkoff team-mates had done a great job to get me near the front on the climb and as Katusha rider Giampaolo Caruso drilled it on the front with his team leader and fifth-placed Joaquin Rodriguez behind him, I was on his wheel in third place.
With the TV camera motorbike insisting on being right in front of us, we tried to slalom through the team cars on the way to the top. This caused another split with the three of us going clear. I didn't really notice because I was just concentrated on the wheel in front of me, but I soon got a message in my radio to ease up as it was mayhem behind.
The Astana team of Nibali came to the front at the summit and got the race under control, taking the descent carefully as the 10 riders left up front stretched their advantage again.
With about 7km to go, we turned right and went under a tunnel where the first guy in the peloton, one of the Quickstep riders, took the corner too fast and crashed straight into the kerb, taking a few others with him.
As the break now had enough advantage to contest the stage, there were a few shouts at the front of the peloton about neutralising the final few kilometres.
At the time, we were on a big dual carriageway and I thought, "f**k it lads, you've got brakes, plug your brain in and use them," but by the time we got to the last kilometre I was pretty happy that we'd agreed to slow it down.
With two hairpins and a roundabout on a really narrow road it was chaotic and could have been a disaster if we had all flown into it.
On the little kicker of a hill to the finish though, everyone forgot about the agreement and sprinted anyway, even though we were over two minutes behind the leaders and were only battling for 10th place.
Once again, the overall contenders stayed pretty close to each other at the front as it would have been stupid to lose a few seconds if the bunch split in the gallop to the line. I finished 17th on the stage with all of the other contenders either immediately in front of me or behind me and am still 31 seconds behind Nibali.
The next three days are going to be key days in this Vuelta, with tough mountain-top finishes on all of them. In second place overall after two weeks of hard racing, obviously I want to stay there but anything can happen in the next three days.
I retained my white jersey again today but I've worn so many different classification leader's jerseys in the past two weeks that people have said I'm hard to spot. Tomorrow it'll be easy. I'll be the one grimacing the most.
Vuelta a Espana
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