Sunday 24 September 2017

'It was so cold that 14 riders abandoned with hypothermia'

I don't function properly when the mercury drops – my legs were like blocks of wood and I didn't have the energy to care

Nicolas Roche in action during yesterday's stage of the Vuelta
Nicolas Roche in action during yesterday's stage of the Vuelta

Nicolas Roche

Although we had four major climbs on today's stage, including the 40km ascent of the 'Especial Categorie' Port de Envalira after 39km, this morning I was more worried about the weather than the mountains.Saturday, September 7, Stage 14:

Saturday, September 7, Stage 14:

Baga – Collada de la Gallina 155.7km

Although they didn't say anything on the bus this morning, the guys told me afterwards that I looked really worried as we all wrapped up and headed to the start with rain jackets in our rear pockets.

I wasn't too concerned about the rain, but one of the reasons I've never gone well at the start of any season is that I just don't function properly in cold weather. Today the temperatures dropped to about five degrees and we had rain, sleet and even a bit of snow along the way.

After a 45-minute uphill neutralised section, the stage began with a 40km descent. To protect against the wind chill, I had knee warmers and two rain capes on and ate three energy bars, a banana and a gel in the first hour and a half.

NUMB

Still, on the Envalira I was starting to feel the cold. Even though my soigneur handed me a bottle of warm tea on the climb, I took my energy bars and gels out of my back pockets and put them under the front of my jersey so they would be easy to reach if my arms went numb going down the other side.

By the bottom of the descent my teeth were chattering so much I couldn't even open them. It was so cold that 14 riders, including seventh placed Ivan Basso, abandoned the Vuelta with hypothermia, while my Danish team-mate Michael Morkov, who'd been at my side whenever I needed anything in the first half of the stage, almost blacked out and can't even remember the last 20 minutes of the stage.

I had so little movement in my arms that it took me three attempts to take my cape off as we approached the final climb. As soon as the road began to rise, though, I knew it wouldn't make much difference.

When Robert Kiserlovski of Radioshack accelerated with 7km to go, my legs were like blocks of wood. I knew I had to stay in the group, at least until we got to the flatter bit with 5km to go, if I was to limit my losses. But I couldn't even get out of the saddle.

I knew I was going to lose my second place overall and also my white jersey of combined classification leader but I was so numb that I didn't even have the energy to care. I wanted to get the pain over and get warm and dragged myself to the top, losing a precious three and a half minutes to my main rivals.

I've dropped four places to sixth overall now but I know today was just a bad day. I just hope it's the only one and that the weather gets better tomorrow.

While I didn't feel sick at all during the stage, I spent 20 minutes afterwards with my head in the toilet on the team bus, spewing out water and all the food I hadn't digested in the cold.

After a hot shower, I donned a thermal jacket and beanie hat for the trip to our next hotel. It took me a couple of hours before I could eat again but there's not one rider in the race who isn't suffering from something after a day like today.

Sunday, September 8, Stage 15:

Andorra – Peyragudes 224.9km

Usually, on a tough mountain stage like today the team plan for me is simple. I try to follow the wheels on the final climb and hope that I can hang in longer than the others.

This morning, at the team meeting, it was made very clear that we needed to have one or two riders in the early breakaway in order to have options later in the stage so, when 28 riders went clear after 23km, we had Oliver Zaugg and Rafal Majka in the move.

Although it rained again at the start I was better prepared for the weather and spent the first half of the stage in a sleeveless jacket, arm warmers, knee warmers and long gloves.

In the valley before the penultimate of today's four climbs, the Col du Port Bales, I even went back to the car and changed into dry knee warmers, arm warmers and rain jacket but as the temperature went back up to 21 degrees soon after, I took them off again.

As we approached the 19km climb, my Saxo-Tinkoff team boss Bjarne Riis radioed to see how I was feeling. Having replied that I felt a lot better than yesterday, Bjarne asked me to attack with my Danish team-mate Chris Anker Sorensen about 6km from the top.

When Frenchman Thibaut Pinot responded straight away, I asked Chris to keep riding hard for as long as he could. I wanted to try and get rid of some of the GC contenders' team-mates so that if I attacked again later on, they wouldn't have so much help chasing me.

Having asked Chris to bury himself on the climb, I felt an obligation to try and do something when he pulled off the front, 2km from the top. There was still 29km to go to the finish and I didn't want to ride flat-out straight away, but I jumped clear and set a good tempo to crest the summit 20 seconds clear.

As soon as I attacked, Bjarne radioed to Oliver to sit up from the now splintering breakaway group ahead and wait for me on the descent. With me sheltered in his slipstream Ollie rode flat-out to the foot of the final climb and we opened a minute's lead on Vincenzo Nibali's group before his legs gave out at 12km to go.

As we'd been catching Rafal's group up ahead, Bjarne then asked Rafal to wait for me too. Once I got up to him, Rafal set a fast tempo without putting me overboard but consistent attacking in the favourites' group behind had cut our advantage to just 25 seconds with 6km to go.

When Rafal finally pulled over with 3km to go, I knew I had to go flat-out to the finish to try and stay away. With only two of the day's escapees ahead of me, I could see Michele Scarponi dangling ahead within the final kilometre. I tried my best to catch him but finished four seconds behind the Italian for third place, with Alexandre Geniez winning the stage, and pulled back 17 seconds on the guys ahead of me in the overall standings.

While I'm still sixth overall, I've closed the gap to fifth-placed Domenico Pozzovivo to just six seconds and also opened a minute-and-10-second lead over seventh-placed Pinot.

Today's move was a bit risky and it could have gone wrong if I'd been caught and passed by Nibali and Co on the final climb but having lost three and a half minutes yesterday, I had to do something. It's going to be tough to get back up there but I'll take it one day at a time from here on in and I'm going to keep fighting.

Vuelta a Espana,

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