Nicolas Roche: The last five days have been hell for me, I can't wait for rest day
Monday, September 7, Stage 16: Luarca to Ermita del Alba (184 km)
After another long post-stage transfer, we arrived to our hotel so late last night that I was only finished massage at 11.30, which is the latest I've ever had massage on a race.
Usually you look forward to getting a rub after each stage, loosening out stiff muscles after a hard day in the saddle but after crashing twice on this race, I've sometimes been in more pain on the massage table than on the bike.
While the cuts and scrapes on my right knee, hip and elbow have healed up nicely, my knee and hip have really swollen up over the last few days and massage has become almost as torturous as a big mountain stage.
Despite our late arrival to last night's hotel, we were up early again this morning for another mammoth day in the mountains.
With seven categorised climbs on the menu today, and over half of the 185km stage uphill, we had to be careful not to burn ourselves out chasing moves or trying to get in the early breakaways this morning.
I think everyone else was scared of today's saw-tooth stage profile too, because when a group of five riders went clear as soon as the flag dropped at the bottom of the third-category Alto de Aristebano, the peloton had about as much interest as a cheap Credit Union loan.
When the gap grew to three minutes, a few more attacks came on the climb and by the top, after 14km, five more had joined the lead group.
With no team willing to take up the chase on the front of the peloton though, we rolled along, taking it quite easy over the two uncategorised climbs that followed as well as the second-category Alto de Piedtratecha after 45km.
Even though the 10 leaders opened a massive gap, which peaked at 23 minutes, with Franck Schleck of Trek factory Racing the best-placed rider in the move, over 40 minutes down on race leader Fabio Aru, there was no panic in the peloton.
Then, slowly but surely, the Katusha team of Spanish rider Joaquin Rodriguez, who had begun the day just one second behind race leader Aru, began to up the tempo and the lead was cut to around 15 minutes as we approached the second-category Alto del Cordal after 140km.
Even though there were two more climbs to come after that, the Tinkoff-Saxo team ramped up the pace for their third-placed Polish climber Rafal Majka and the sudden acceleration saw the fatigued peloton explode.
I went backwards almost immediately and found myself in a little group with team-mates Geraint Thomas and Salvatore Puccio, while Vasil Kyryienka, Ian Boswell and Sergio Henao clung onto the front group with our best-placed rider Mikel Nieve.
Usually when the peloton splits like that with 40km and three mountains still to get over, there are shouts of 'grupetto' and everyone gets together and forms a big group to share the work to the finish.
Today though, there were genuine fears that if we didn't continue to ride hard we might finish outside the daily time limit of 20 per cent of the winner's time, and be eliminated from the race.
Having begun the climb 14 minutes behind the leaders already, everyone kept riding at a steady tempo to the top.
On the descent there was a crash on the first bend and our group, which had swelled to about 15, had to really slow down as we squeezed past the medical cars and motorbikes attending the two fallen riders.
After the back portion of the peloton merged on the 6km descent, it was time to go back up again, this time tackling the 10km long first-category Alto de la Cobertoria.
Soon there were riders all over the place and by the top, two big grupettos had formed with one more climb remaining.
The final 6km Alto Ermita de Alba ascent was nuts hard and was so steep that everyone just did their own thing to get to the top as the race for this Vuelta unfolded further up the slopes. I rode up the Especial Category climb in a tiny gearing of 39x32 but was still struggling to haul myself to the line in the last 3km, finishing somewhere in the middle of a bedraggled and well-spread-out group of 100 riders over 28 minutes down on stage winner Schleck, while the second grupetto finished a further four minutes back.
In the fight between the overall contenders, Mikel managed to distance his nearest rivals Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, Esteban Chaves of Orica GreenEdge and Daniel Moreno of Katusha to finish 13th on the stage and move up to fifth place overall, which is a fantastic result.
Thanks to Mikel, Sergio and Boz we held onto our lead in the team classification today but our overnight advantage of 11-and-a-half minutes over Movistar has been slashed to just two-and-a-half minutes now.
As he is in the top ten overall, Mikel got a helicopter ride to our rest day hotel in Burgos, courtesy of the race organisers, while the rest of us are now on the team bus.
The last five days have been hell for me, so I can't wait for tomorrow's rest day to come.
I just have to get this 300km transfer out of the way first.