With five massive mountains to be covered, including the ultra-steep finale to Bola Del Mundo, today was the last-chance saloon for anybody hoping to improve their position in the overall standings.
When I noticed a few of the other GC guys like Tomasz Marczynski (13th) and Maxime Monfort (16th) were following groups, I tried to go with them but eventually 20 other guys got clear, including my team-mates Maxime Bouet and Matteo Montaguti.
When I saw my Aussie friend and training partner Simon Clarke get across to the move I was delighted for him. Currently leading the King of the Mountains competition by just two points, we had a chat yesterday about his chances of winning the title overall and he knew that he would have to get into the break today and try and mop up as many points as he could on the earlier climbs before the big boys came to the fore on the final ascent to the ski station at Bola del Mundo.
Even though he is a very good rider, Simon had a hard job turning pro. A couple of teams he joined folded. I tried to get my Ag2r team to sign him once but they messed him around and he ended up riding for some very small teams before being picked up by Orica GreenEdge this year.
After the first climb, Simon's team-mate Wes Sulzberger rode alongside me and told me he got maximum points, so I knew he had a good chance of winning. As the break opened over five minutes on us, Simon crossed every climb, bar the last one, at the front of the race and won the jersey outright.
We hit loads of mountain storms today, with the temperature dropping from 36C to 13C on a few occasions. The first one came on the first descent, but it was so twisty and dangerous that we had to wait until the valley afterwards to pull on our rain capes.
About 20km later, it was sunny again and I handed mine to Lloyd Mondory at the bottom of the next mountain but by the time we descended and crossed the top of the third climb it was lashing down again.
Here, my team-mate Ben Gastaeur rode up and handed me his rain jacket for the descent. Ben has been exceptional this week. On the big mountain days he has always been around to get bottles and food, keep us at the front, grab rain jackets, everything. Today he was the only one left with me and Rindaldo Nocentini and had to do everything on his own.
We hit the bottom of the final climb with the remnants of the break still over four minutes clear but there was still ample climbing left to sort out the final General Classification if anyone had the legs.
Around 6.5km from the summit, Benat Intxausti (10th overall) attacked and was followed by Igor Anton (ninth) and Robert Gesink (sixth). I was on the Dutchman's wheel so I went with them and was hoping we could get a bit of a gap on the likes of Gorka Verdugo, who began the stage one place ahead of me in 11th, before the war broke out between the top three a few kilometres later. Although we caught Intxausti, it didn't work out as the group stalled when Anton attacked us and we were closed down.
As we turned on to the steeper white concrete road that led us up the final 2km to the ski station summit, there were only a dozen or so of us left and it was just a matter of hanging on for as long as I could. The road was so narrow, we couldn't overtake and the fans were going mental, screaming in our ears as the dead road sucked the life out of my legs.
When Alberto Contador, Joaquin Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde accelerated I was left with Intxausti on my wheel for most of the climb. Whilst I spent the last 1.5km trying to drop Intxausti, Verdugo had dropped both of us so I knew I wouldn't be breaking into the top-10 even if I did get rid of my Spanish leech.
When Intxausti symbolically attacked me with 600m to go, I just thought 'f**k it, you're already in front of me anyway' and I just kept riding to the finish. I caught my mate Simon -- who had been dropped by the break, his job done -- about 400m from the summit and he finished on my wheel. I threw an arm around him just after the line and we rolled the next few metres together. It was a nice way to finish the mountains and I'd love to get that picture as a souvenir of this race.
Sunday, September 9, Stage 21:
Cercedilla -- Madrid 115km
Sometimes on a short road stage, if a rider is a planning to try and win he will try to be as aerodynamic as possible in order to have a better chance of victory, using a lighter bike, tyres filled with helium instead of air, overshoes, closed-vent helmets and a skinsuit -- a one piece shorts and jersey -- in an effort to cut through the air on their solo attack.
My dad wore a skinsuit to win a short mountain stage to the Col d'Aubisque in the 1985 Tour, so I'm sure there were a few heads turned in the peloton when I turned up in one this morning for the final stage, one usually reserved for the sprinters.
"Has Roche gone mad? Does he think he can solo away from the bunch at 70kph to win the stage?"
The truth was, I had no illusions of winning the stage. I also had no other clean jersey, after the one I planned to start in came back from the wash almost black. In fact I was lucky to not have ended up riding the stage in the nip as the rest of my stuff had already been packed and sent to the finish in my suitcase.
But the stage went pretty much according to the script with an easy start followed by a hectic finale and a fifth stage win for German sprinter John Degenkolb of Argos Shimano.
Last night, our directeur sportif Julien Jurdie organised a special dinner for the team to celebrate the end of the race and chill out a bit. I think the general feeling was that everybody was happy it was nearly over and we all just wanted to go home, even if it will be for only a few days. The team are generally happy with the way the race has gone. Mondory had four or five top-10s, Nocentini had two, Max Bouet had three.
While I finished 12th overall, rather than in the top-10 as I had hoped for earlier, Ag2r weren't worried about that anyway as any points I scored will go to my new Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team in January. But they were pleased that I rode aggressively and said that I attacked more times in this Vuelta than I did in all of the other tours and were happy that I gave all that I had for the team.
I've enjoyed my four years with Ag2r La Mondiale but will ride my last race with them next Sunday, when we tackle the inaugural world team time trial championship in Holland. A week after that, I'll do the road race for Ireland and my season will be over.
Those two races will bring my race days up to 94 for the year, which is more than enough. I think I've given everything I have at this stage and am exhausted now and looking forward to a rest.
But I'll be home on October 6 for the Nicolas Roche Classic leisure cycle in Tayto Park. There will be something for everybody, from families and beginners to more experienced cyclists, so I hope to see you there. Thanks again for all the support this year.