Nicolas Roche: 'Cyclists have a David Blaine-like capacity to make food disappear'
Thursday, September 2, Stage 6: Caravaca de Cruz to Murcia 151km
One of the most derogatory terms you can call a racing cyclist is 'fat'.
Any type of racer, from amateur club riders to professional Grand Tour winners, are obsessed about two things: their legs and food. All day, every day.
The Atkins diet. The bikini diet. The cabbage soup diet. Forget them all. Get yourself a bike, ride a three-week Tour and you can eat what you like. Former Irish champion Mark Scanlon famously lost 6kg while riding for Ag2r in a mountain time-trial up Alpe d'Huez during the 2004 Tour de France. How long did it take him? 45 minutes.
Cyclists have a David Blaine-like capacity to make food disappear at a dinner table, especially amateur teams. An average male needs around 2,000 calories a day to maintain his weight. A Tour de France rider can eat almost 10,000 calories a day during the Tour and won't put on any weight. Six or seven hours in the saddle will see to that.
Any extra weight has to be hauled over the mountains, which is why you see the likes of multiple Tour stage winner Mark Cavendish, Tyler Farrar and other sprinters getting dropped on the high climbs.
Before and after each stage, our Ag2r team doctor weighs us to see if we have lost any weight during the stage. A few days before the Vuelta, we all got our body fat measured. Your average, healthy Joe Bloggs has around 15 to 20pc body fat, with an athlete's percentage ranging from 12pc to 15pc . Stage racing cyclists are notoriously lower than that. Mine is around 6pc. Skinny.
At 23 years of age, Biel Kadri is five foot nine and a half and weighs just 10 stone, or 165kg. He is a rake-thin French climber and won a stage of the Route du Sud earlier in the year. Of the whole Ag2r La Mondiale team, Biel had the highest body-fat percentage.
At only 8pc body fat, Biel is by no means overweight. In fact if you saw him walk past, or any of us for that matter, you'd probably say we all need a good feed. But to a cyclist he might as well be morbidly obese and we have been calling him "chubby" since the race began.
The food on the race so far hasn't been anything to write home about. Last night we were at another roadside motel and as we sat down to yet another self-service buffet, Biel walked over the table with a big grin on his face.
He had helped himself to a greasy pile of chicken and some tasty looking Spanish tortillas full of cheese and sauces. Just as he sat down and was preparing to tuck into his dinner, the team doctor walked over, whipped Biel's plate from under him and said. "Forget about it. Get something else." Cue even more slagging for poor Biel.
Today's stage was pretty mundane until about 15km from the bottom of the only climb of the day, the second-category Alto de la Cresta del Gallo. Everybody knew the climb was an ideal place to attack.
The top was only 18km from the finish in Murcia and the descent was brutal, with a really bad road surface and dangerous corners. If you were in a little group going over the top, you could maybe stay away and win the stage. Everybody had the same idea as we approached the bottom of the climb: get to the front at all costs.
The whole team gave me a hand to stay near the front as we approached the foot of the climb. They had their work cut out for them, though, because the constant surges and waves in the peloton meant that I spent about 10km going like a yo-yo from the front to the middle of the bunch in the lead-up to the climb. Each time the guys had to ride out in the wind and bring me up the outside of the bunch into a better position.
I had a good position at the bottom, though, and was comfortable enough on the climb itself, going over the top in about eighth or ninth place. On the way down, however, I lost two or three places because Rabobank leader and two-time Vuelta winner Denis Menchov and a couple of other guys were pushing on me to pass me any time I braked.
It didn't seem to me that the group was going to split on the descent, so I just let them by. I preferred to let them past than take the risk of someone cutting me up on one of the corners and maybe crashing.
There was a long flat bit after the descent and I had Ludovic Turpin and Rinaldo Nocentini with me heading for the finish. Rinaldowanted to try and have a go in the sprint as he hasn't been back to his best since breaking his leg earlier in the season. I told him to try his luck and we both agreed to do our own sprint in the final gallop.
I wasn't really happy with 10th today. I was hoping for a harder sprint but it was too high-speed for me. The finish was too flat for me, with a big tailwind which suited a bigger, more powerful rider. It was no surprise that Norwegian champion Thor Hushovd took the stage from two more sprinters, Daniele Bennati and Grega Bole.
Although the other two had been dropped on the climb, I knew it would be hard to get a good placing in the gallop when they came flying past in a little group with three kilometres to go. Sprinting is all about positioning in the final kilometre or so and I ended the sprint where I started it -- in 10th place.
I'm still 11th overall, but psychologically, it's better to be 10th because you're on the first page of the results on TV, which is the only page they show after the stage. I'm enjoying the racing so far, though, and with a bit of luck, I can be more aggressive and try my hand as the weeks go by.
Vuelta a Espana, Live, Eurosport, 3.0