Nicolas Roche: For once I hadn't messed it up and let out a triumphant roar as I took the stage win
Thursday, September 10, Stage 18: Roa to Riaza (204km)
Published 11/09/2015 | 02:30
With 3,000 metres of climbing ahead of us on the Vuelta's second longest stage, our team had two aims this morning: to look after Mikel Nieve, who began the day in ninth overall, and to get somebody in the day's breakaway - to try and keep our lead in the team classification and attempt to win the stage.
Having been closely marked for the past few days by nearest rivals Movistar, I found myself beside one of their riders on the start line.
"It'd make it a whole lot easier if we just agreed to put one man in the break for the next three days instead of spending the whole morning chasing each other down," he laughed before we rolled off.
With the GC contenders watching each other, everyone else knew that today was one of three last chances to get a stage win before the finale in Madrid on Sunday, so huge groups soon attacked and counter-attacked each other.
While Vasil Kiryienka looked after Mikel, the rest of us took turns to jump up the road.
After about 25km, I found myself in a big group of 30 riders with my American team-mate Ian Boswell.
When the group swelled to 50, though, it became disorganised and the attacks restarted.
With 51km raced in the first hour, I got into a new group of 15 riders, which merged with another group of 10 up ahead.
As we opened a little gap, my German team-mate Christian Knees came on the radio from the peloton behind. "Nico, persist! It's going!"
When I heard that, I put the pressure on. A few guys in the group must have got the same information and we really put the hammer down and began to pull away.
Although it was hilly, we had a lot of powerhouses in the group and we worked quite well for a long time and opened a maximum lead of six minutes.
I was able to get information from 'Gabba' Rasch in the team car, who told me who was looking tired in the group and who was looking strong, as well as what was going on in the peloton behind .
When we heard that Astana had started to pull on the front of the peloton with 40km to go, we knew we had to up the pace and needed about two and a half minutes' lead at the bottom of the last climb, with 25km to go, to have any chance of staying clear.
Pretty soon riders started thinking about the stage win and the attacks started on the hills leading to the climb.
I chased Cyrille Gautier of Europcar on the descent leading to the first-category Puerto de la Quesara but a little group caught us and immediately stopped working so everyone else came back up.
At the bottom of the climb the attacks were flying in but I was trying not to get carried away as I didn't really know how I was feeling, let alone how the others were.
The climb was 10km long, so I let the others attack each other until 3km from the top, where Jerome Cousin of Europcar went and opened a fair bit of a gap.
I waited for a moment until the group stalled and then attacked from the back and jumped after him. I slowly caught and passed the Frenchman and looked behind to see Haimar Zubeldia, a good climber, coming across the gap but just kept going and hoped he wouldn't attack me when he caught me.
The Spaniard caught me just as the top of the climb came into view and we went over the summit, at 15km to go, with 25 seconds on the rest of the break and just a minute on the peloton.
Zubeldia and I had a five-second conversation and agreed that riding flat out together was the only chance either of us had of staying away and winning the stage, so there was no time for messing about. Our only focus was staying ahead of the chasers, even when I felt the sting of a bee on the leg.
At the bottom of the descent, with 4km to go, we had Jose Goncalves of Caja Rural chasing us at 15 seconds, with the peloton just 44 seconds behind.
Having just come off the front, I struggled to hang onto Zubeldia as he stormed up a short hill and was praying he wouldn't attack me before I forced myself around him at the top and accelerated a little bit to let him know I was still there.
With a 50-50 chance of getting to the finish we encouraged each other to keep riding hard and collaborated into the last kilometre, where we still had 20 seconds on Goncalves.
What has killed me on previous occasions I've been in this position has been the game of cat and mouse slowing the pace before the sprint and having to kick hard and pick up speed again.
When Zubeldia slowed down with around 800m to go, I realised that if I played his game I'd lose, so I went to the front and rode tight to the barriers on the left so that I could keep an eye on him coming on my right. At least from the front I could do my own sprint and take care of the pace.
As the line approached, I wound it up until I was sprinting as fast as I could with 200m to go.
Having been beaten on the line a few years ago in a similar situation, I glanced under my arm, half expecting to see the shadow of Zubeldia's bike coming up my right-hand side and even though it never came, I wasn't making the same mistake again and didn't even put my hands up until after I had crossed the line.
For once I hadn't messed it up. I let out a triumphant roar and a huge smile spread across my face.
When I woke up this morning I had no idea I would take my second Grand Tour stage win today, but the team have been really good this week, allowing me to take it easy in yesterday's time trial and use it as an extra recovery day on top of the previous day's rest day.
Even though I haven't had a bad Vuelta, I was a bit disappointed when my ambitions of a top GC place went out the window after my crashes.
Since then, I've been struggling a bit, mentally as well as physically, but the great thing about sport is the unpredictability of it. One day goes against you and another day goes for you.
Today went in my favour and it makes up for all the days I've crashed or I've been caught on the line and makes this Vuelta a little bit sweeter for me.
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