independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

‘I was going at 7kph – I would have been quicker walking’

Monday, September 3, Stage 16: Gijon to Valgrande Pajares (Ciutu Negru), 184km

Today was the last of three very big mountain stages in a row before our second rest day tomorrow and, typically, the race organisers decided to leave the hardest stage until last. After a really tough start, Italian Dario Cataldo and Dutchman Thomas de Gendt went clear on the first climb of the day, the third category Alto de Cabrunana, after about 40km of racing.

As they began to build a maximum lead of more than 14 minutes, we descended towards the feed zone and, in the valley, I noticed how fresh the air felt as we rode under trees and alongside a river for a few kilometres.

But soon we were climbing the 10km first category ascent of the Puerto de San Lorenzo and the fresh air was replaced by a searing heat, like you get when disembarking a plane on your holidays.

Beads of sweat rolled down my forehead as we climbed, the salt stinging my eyes before dripping off my nose. With the Saxo Bank team drilling it along on the front of the peloton and the gap to the leaders tumbling down, I didn't even have the energy to wipe my face -- and we still had two more massive mountains to climb.

The rest of the stage was savage. I've been taking a bit of a whipping during the past couple of days and today was no different. While I had a strong first fortnight, the shorter, steeper climbs were more to my advantage than the really long mountains of this final week, and today was all about trying not to undo all the good work I had done to get into the top 10 overall.

The penultimate climb, another first category ascent, the 10km Alto de Cobertoria, saw no let-up in pace and while the top four riders on GC -- Rodriguez, Contador, Valverde and Froome -- sat marking each other in the second half of the peloton, I was struggling to stay in contact with the first half and went across the top the last man. That was the first warning that I was going to be fighting to survive today rather than get a top placing on the stage.

Although they missed the split, Contador and Rodriguez knew that with their team-mates setting the tempo on the front, if they got into trouble all they had to do was grab the little microphone clipped into their jersey and radio them to slow down but, with the luxury of a kick that ensured they could skip past half the bunch, they simply closed the gap. No problem.

The final climb to the ski station at Cuitu Negro was 19.5km long, with the 25pc steepest sections sadistically situated in the final 3km.

As we hurtled up the lower slopes at 35kph, I looked around to check the damage and saw that the only one behind me was my team-mate, Max Bouet. Although half the bunch had been dropped, there was about 16km left and I was in the hurt box already.

I suffered on, before blowing up with 12km to go and finding myself in a little group with Russian Denis Menchov, his Katusha team-mate Daniel Moreno -- who started the day fifth overall -- and my friend Maxime Monfort of RadioShack.

Knowing that Moreno needed to rejoin the group of overall contenders hovering about 20 seconds ahead of us, Menchov hit the front and absolutely drove us along. On the flatter sections I had to put it back into the big chainring and sprint to keep up.

I was hoping that if we did regain contact, I wouldn't blow up straight away but my legs were screaming at me and I knew I couldn't hold it together much longer. After 2km of chasing we got back on but I only managed about a kilometre with the favourites before they accelerated and I blew up again.

All I could do was swing out into the middle of the road and do my own thing, raging that I was the only one in the group of about 16 riders that blew up and I would have to ride the final 8km alone.

I just focused on keeping my revs high and not pushing too big a gear. In the past that has been a downfall of mine, trying to use power to haul myself over climbs rather than sitting down and trying to spin a little. Trying to use power, I would eventually blow and lose everything but a bit of experience has taught me to use a little gear and limit my losses.

Slowest

I could manage about 14kph on the easier bits but the last 3km up to the ski station were mental. I was all over the place on the 24pc gradient. It was like trying to ride up a wall and, at one point, I looked down at my speedometer to see that I was doing a whopping 7kph. I would literally have been quicker walking -- if I wasn't too tired to walk.

But looking at the TV pictures on the bus later, everybody was in the same boat and the finish was probably the slowest finish to a bike race, as Cataldo and de Gendt held on to fight for the stage victory in slow motion.

I finished 20th on the stage and lost six minutes and 58 seconds, more than I did in the first two weeks combined. Thankfully, I am still 10th overall, even if Tomasz Marczynski of Vaconsoleil is now only 39 seconds behind me in 11th. The Polish rider took a minute out of me yesterday and another minute today, so he's obviously going well enough to do it again on the big climbs ahead.

I'm really hoping I can recover a bit on tomorrow's rest day and will feel a bit better on Wednesday. I'm going to have to really dig in and hang on. I want a top 10 and will be really p***ed off if I have to settle for 11th at the Vuelta and 12th at the Tour.

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