Nicolas Roche Diary: 'Once I headed out into the wind, it was like riding into a brick wall'
Thursday, September 12, Stage 18: Burgos – Peña Cabarga, 186.5km
An extremely strong headwind this morning meant that it took about 40 minutes before the day's breakaway group went clear.
While there was no shortage of attacks and the speed was high, it was one of those days where you felt really strong in the shelter of the peloton, but once you went out into the wind it was like riding into a brick wall, so most of the escapees were literally blown back into the peloton.
Eventually, a 15-strong group of riders, including my team-mate Chris Anker Sorensen, went up the road and began to open a gap. When the group got over a minute, we hit a one-kilometre drag where the peloton put in one last effort and really tried to close the gap. When they hadn't caught them at the top, they just gave up.
A lot of riders took the opportunity to have a breather and stop for a pee and as we rolled along steadily for the next few kilometres, the break opened 10 minutes before the NetApp team started to chase.
The Katusha and Movistar squads took over later on and closed to within five minutes of the leaders as we approached the fifth and final climb of the day, the 6km first-category Peña Cabarga.
In the valley leading into it, there was an absolute drag race to get to the front. I was feeling pretty comfortable with my Saxo-Tinkoff team-mates Nicki Sorensen, Matteo Tosatto, Rafal Majka and Oliver Zaugg keeping me out of the wind as the Radioshack and Katusha teams fought for supremacy at the front of the peloton.
Nicki brought me into a good position as the Radioshack team drilled it onto the bottom of the mountain at 60kph. The first kilometre and a half of climbing was really flat-out and the peloton soon whittled down to just eight riders.
It was great for my morale to have my team-mate Rafal still there. He has been really focused on helping me this week and as we got over the first part of the climb and hit a flatter section with about 3km to go, he came up to me and said he would ride tempo on the front.
Initially, Rafa wanted to bring me up to Alejandro Valverde's wheel, who was riding in second place in the line, but he ended up at the front of the group.
As I moved up to his wheel, I realised Rafal's pace really suited me so I told him to keep going and he rode hard until we got to the steeper section with around 2km to go.
Having accidentally bumped shoulders with Valverde on one of the hairpins, it took a few seconds for race leader Vincenzo Nibali to make his way up to them, but he was soon in trouble and was dropped as I climbed a few metres behind with Valverde.
Although Vasil Kiryienka of Sky had already crossed the line ahead of my team-mate Chris to take the stage win and three more of the breakaways had managed to stay clear and take the top spots, Horner attacked again near the top to finish sixth, taking 20 seconds out of Rodriguez in the process.
As Nibali tried to cling onto his race lead ahead of us, I sat hanging onto Valverde in the final kilometre. I knew I was just a few points off his green jersey and as I was sheltered behind him, I felt I could push it a bit more, so with 500m to go, I tried to go past him to take a few points off him.
When I made my move and went out into the wind, however, it was a different story, and he came back onto me with 300m to go and flew past, taking five seconds and another two points off me as I finished 11th.
While I didn't make any inroads into the guys in front of me, I held onto my fifth place overall. I'm also second in both the points competition and the combined classification and sixth in the King of the Mountains.
The combined classification is totalled by adding your position in the overall standings, the King of the Mountains competition and the points competition. The rider with the lowest number of points wins. At the Vuelta, it's always a GC contender who wins it because there are so many mountain-top finishes that you have to be up there in all of the competitions to be up in the race overall, so even though I am only four points off Horner's white jersey, there is little hope of me jumping four places in any of the classifications in the last three days.
Even though I'm second, just nine points off Valverde in the points classification, I can't really think about the green jersey either.
Don't get me wrong, if I could come out of this race with the green jersey it would be absolutely amazing, but there is a difference between fighting against a sprinter on the climbs and fighting against someone like Valverde, who can climb and sprint.
I'm going to have to be up there in the next two days in the mountains if I want to hold onto my fifth place. Last year, Valverde only won the green jersey on the last day in Madrid, so it's still in the back of my mind.
Realistically, it's going to be extremely hard to beat him but I'm not giving up on it.
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