Nicolas Roche: 'Everybody in the top 10 is nervous about this stage. It will be savage'
Friday, September 17 -- Stage 19: Piedrahita to Toledo 231km
Today was the longest stage of the three weeks of racing at this Vuelta. We had a 232km stage, preceded by 13km of neutralised riding to get to the start proper, making a total of 250km or 150 miles in old money.
On top of that, the race organisers put an eight kilometre second category mountain, which turned out to have an 8pc gradient and was one of the hardest climbs of the whole Vuelta so far, at the very start of today's stage. On the third last day of racing? Ridiculous.
Luckily enough, plenty of other riders were very tired and p***ed off at such a hard start and decided among themselves to neutralise the mountain. Everybody spread out across the road and rode a steady tempo up the Puerto de la Chia. At one point on the climb, somebody tried to get through a gap and attack. I couldn't see who it was, but he was met with shouts of derision from the rest of the riders, his jersey was grabbed and he soon got the message he was going nowhere.
The thing is, if we had gone to war on that climb, 50 riders would have gone home tonight. The non-climbers, the Grand Tour virgins, the sick, the injured and the guys who have been suffering through this Vuelta, working for their team leaders for the past three weeks, would have lost contact and finished outside the time limit if we had raced flat out the whole way to Toledo. A shorter stage, with maybe a harder finish, would have been better for everyone.
After we got over the climb, the tempo picked up and four guys went clear. They got a maximum of 11 minutes but were caught with 13km to go. During the stage, I stayed sheltered and tried to ride lower gears to save my legs for tomorrow. We got a bit of rain today, but it only lasted 10 minutes, which was lucky because the finish would have been chaotic.
I wanted to ride aggressively today and went into the stage with the mindset of being able to do something at the finish. I radioed the guys in the team car to give me a good idea of what the finish was like today. I knew there was a hill in the final four kilometres of racing and it would be a good place to attack and maybe try and win the stage. I didn't know how hard the last two kilometres were though, so I asked the guys.
The tactic for me was, if one of the big guys attacked on the climb, I was to follow and then we'd have only a two kilometre descent and a little drag to the finish. When Spaniard Luis Leon Sanchez attacked with four kilometres to go, I knew he was a really good descender and decided he would be a good wheel to follow, so I jumped out of the peloton and headed after him.
The problem was, I never made contact with Sanchez's back wheel. Instead, I sat in the wind, maybe five metres behind him, as both of us rode flat out in an effort to go clear. The hill wasn't hard enough to get a big gap and we both got caught two kilometres later, but to my surprise, the drag to the line afterwards was harder than expected.
The climb to the finish was so hard, I was hyperventilating at the top. I had already made my effort just a few kilometres before and wasn't expecting to have to make another one just to stay in contact on the rise to the line. I was prepared for the first climb, then a kilometre-and-a-half descent followed by a kilometre-and-a-half drag to the line. It was different to what I expected. We hit an uphill cobbled section, turned a sharp left-hander and went onto a steep 400m section, before another 200m rise to the line. The second hill caused splits in the peloton as three weeks racing and accumulative tiredness saw the bunch disintegrate in the last 500m.
Even though I was riding at my limit on the hill, I lost nine seconds to stage winner Philippe Gilbert, eight seconds to the next nine riders on the stage and two seconds to the next group of five riders. I fought to hang on to a little group of five riders though, finished 16th on the stage and actually took time out of everyone else behind me. Sastre lost four seconds on me while my nearest rivals Schleck, Tondo and Danielson lost six seconds each and I leapfrogged Danielson into seventh overall.
When I got to the team bus, though, I was going mental; screaming with frustration. It's my way of letting go of the pressure and stress of three weeks of racing. I was giving out that we should have had more information about the final climb. In the road book, the final climb looked like a slight drag, but it was way more than a drag. The book said the hill was around 4pc but it turned out to be 10pc at some points. Having a 400m section with a 10pc slope on it is a lot different than being told, "there's a bit of a drag" to the line. "You can't expect me to attack and then be there at the finish as well," I shouted. Directeur sportif Julian Jordie got the full brunt of it. He was as stressed as I was and told me to "look at the f***ing book. It says a 4pc drag. It's not my fault if they can't get the book right."
We also had a soigneur at the line, who had driven up the climb to the finish a couple of hours before we got there. When relaying back the info to the team car earlier, his interpretation of the climb was "it kicks up a bit". I asked him "what the f*** does that mean?"
Our sprinter, Sebastian Hinault, who had finished fourth on the stage, tried to calm me down. Seb is good on these type of finishes. He rightly said maybe I got overexcited when Sanchez attacked and shouldn't have moved until somebody like Gilbert or one of the bigger guys went. I was waiting for the Belgian, a specialist at this sort of finish, to attack on the climb and was wondering why he didn't. Obviously, Gilbert had better information than I had.
In the end we agreed that it was nobody's fault in particular and I was as much to blame as everybody else, but in the heat of the moment, I let fly. Shoot first, ask questions later. After I had calmed down, I admitted I was wrong for getting overexcited during the finale, but I also reminded them I could have lost a lot of time because of a lack of information.
I'm up to seventh overall with two days left. I'm 16 seconds off fourth but 18 seconds away from 10th. Saturday is the big day. We have one third category and two first category climbs, before the 22km long ascent to the finish at Bola Del Mundo.
We all know that Saturday's mountaintop finish will decide the race. I've ridden the climb once before but on Saturday they are adding an extra bit, a minor road to a telecommunications mast. It's supposed to be steep, 19pc and rises 300m in three kilometres. On a gradient like that, you can lose everything in a few hundred metres.
I'm nervous. Everybody in the top 10 is nervous. Even though we are direct rivals, we have a chat during the stages. Franck Schleck, Xavier Tondo, Tom Danielson, we all get on and have good fun when we can. We have a quick chat about how hard the previous day was or how good or bad we are going during each stage, and we all know we can finish fourth overall or 11th overall at the top of that climb.
There is no plan for Saturday apart from get to the top as quickly as possible. Everybody wants to send a team-mate up the road in the early break so if we catch the break, we will have somebody to give us a hand on the final climb. It's going to be savage.
Vuelta a Espana,
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