Nicolas Roche: 'It's been a long hard season, this will be my last race of the year'
Saturday September 12, Stage 20: San Lorenza de El Escorial to Cercedilla (175.8km)
With four first category climbs ahead of us, today's penultimate stage was always going to be hard fought.
As well as the battle for overall victory though, everyone knew it was their last chance for a stage win before the sprinters take over tomorrow, so it was no surprise to see riders warming up on home trainers before the start.
When the flag dropped, Sylvain Chavanel of IAM was the first to jump up the road, sending the bunch into one long line as scores of riders followed suit.
A group of 10 riders had merged at the front and were holding a lead of half a minute or so when we hit a little rise after 10km and I jumped up the left hand side and pulled five riders clear.
I kept riding and we got 20 seconds or so but the twisty nature of the streets meant I wasn't sure if the group chasing us was another splinter group or the peloton.
Thankfully when we were caught about 6km later, it was by a bigger group containing my team-mate Sergio Henao, so we kept riding hard and opened a six minute lead on the peloton, while the original breakaway group were now a minute ahead of us.
The front group held that lead the whole way up the first climb and down the descent, where I punctured my back wheel at the bottom.
With groups all over the road, I had to wait a little bit for the wheel change and had a bit of a hard ride to regain contact.
While Ruben Plaza of Lampre had attacked the front group and gone over the top 40 seconds ahead, we continued our pursuit of his nine colleagues on the second climb, the Puerto de la Morcuera.
I was caught in the second half of a split in our group when two riders crashed on a bend on the descent but we managed to regain contact just as everyone merged in the valley after 85km, to form a 29-man chasing group behind Plaza - who was now two minutes ahead, with the peloton 11 minutes back.
Although everyone bar his two Lampre team-mates were rolling through most of the time, Plaza had opened a gap of two and a half minutes on us by the time we tackled the Morcuera again, this time from the other side, after 116km.
There were plenty of attacks at the bottom of the climb, but I wasn't on a great day and followed the wheels until 2.5km from the top, where I attacked and was caught by a five-man group containing Sergio at the top.
Our quintet was reeled in on the descent but with Jose Goncalves and Alessandro de Marchi also now up the road, nobody wanted to ride, so Sergio attacked and went clear in a group of five as we headed to the last climb.
Behind us, the peloton had really sparked into life with a huge battle going on between the overall contenders splitting the bunch in pieces.
Our best placed rider, Mikel Nieve, had begun the day in ninth place overall and although he had been dropped by some of the guys ahead of him, he had managed to ride away from Daniel Moreno (8th), Alejandro Valverde (6th) and race leader Tom Dumoulin and could move up the GC if he took enough time out of them.
With Sergio up the road, I was asked to drop back and give Mikel a hand on the climb, so 8km from the top, I let go of the group, rode the rest of the way at an easier pace and waited for him to catch me.
Mikel caught me about 5km from the top and I helped him open about a minute and a half lead on Dumoulin before my pace dropped and he shot off on his own 2km from the summit.
While I was caught at the top by a 17-man group containing Dumoulin, Valverde and my team-mate Vasil Kiryienka, Mikel was on his own for the 6km plateau and 10km descent to the finish that followed.
He did a great ride to finish 39 seconds ahead of us and move up one place to eighth overall, but afterwards I was disappointed at not being able to help him more.
Looking back, if I'd let go of the group 2km higher up the climb, I would have been able to ride for him on the flat and the descent as well, but it was very difficult to judge how fast they were coming up from behind and Mikel caught me a bit quicker than I expected.
With a kilometre to go, I eased my way to the line, glad to have this Vuelta almost over.
After the stage however, there were two car parks for the team buses and unfortunately I picked the wrong one, which meant by the time I had realised my mistake and ridden back to the right one, I had done an extra 10km.
Sunday September 13, Stage 21: Alcala de Henares to Madrid (98.8km)
In recent years there has been a penchant for moving the start of final stages of Grand Tours to late in the evening.
While this evening's 5.35 start might have been good for the spectators, for us riders it made for a pretty long day spent mainly waiting to get this race over.
To pass the morning, I went out for an hour and a half on the bike with Ian Boswell after breakfast before packing my bags and having lunch and a bit of a siesta before leaving the hotel at 3.45 for the stage start.
As usual when the racing started, there was little action until we hit the finishing circuit in Madrid where the pace really ramped up ahead of the first intermediate sprint, which would decide who went home with the green jersey of points winner of this Vuelta.
Having begun the day just two points ahead of Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez' unfortunate puncture just before the sprint saw Valverde go home in green while Rodriguez had some consolation of taking home the white jersey as winner of the combined classification.
To say I suffered a bit on today's stage would be an understatement, so I'm glad this race is over now.
I came here with hopes of a good overall placing, but got knocked off that target by a couple of crashes.
Still, I managed to have quite a good Vuelta with two thirds, a fourth and eight top 10s in all. But winning stage 18 was really important for me. It was nice to actually win a bike race again.
Although the Vuelta is over now, there is no big party arranged like after the Tour de France.
Instead, some of the guys are driving home tonight, while the rest of us have organised our own little dinner in a local restaurant before flying home tomorrow.
It's been a long hard season for me, so this will be my last race of the year and I won't be riding the world championships in America.
I'm looking forward to the break and will begin to unwind at my sister Cristel's wedding on Tuesday in Antibe before getting ready for my own next month.