Friday 28 July 2017

Nicolas Roche: 'I wasn't happy that I didn't get any help'

Nicolas Roche

I began today a bit apprehensive of what lay ahead. After yesterday's rest day I wasn't sure how my body would react to another hard day in the mountains. In the past, I've suffered on these post-rest day stages, especially if, like today, they start at the bottom of a climb.

There was a big battle to get into the breakaway today with groups coming and going off the front of the bunch for at least 35km. As he was lying just one point behind my cousin Dan Martin in second place overall in the mountains competition, my Italian team-mate Matteo Montaguti was eager to get into an early move so that he could contest the first three climbs before the final 30km ascent to the ski station at Manzaneda.

Although the peloton were still together at the top of the first climb, the third category Alto de Fumaces after just 8km, Montaguti timed his sprint to perfection to take maximum points at the top. He also made it into the 15-man group that spent the day out front and was first over the summit of the second category Alto de Gonza, 61km into the stage.

By then, French rider David Moncoutie, who has won the King of the Mountains competition at the Vuelta three times and is hoping to become the first person ever to win it four times, had made his way across to the group. Although Montaguti beat him on the second climb, Moncoutie reversed the result on the third and penultimate climb of the day, the Alto de Hermida after 130km of racing.

With only the final ascent to the ski station at Manzaneda left, Montaguti had a 16-point advantage over Moncoutie and as there were only 15 points on offer for the first rider to the summit of the final climb, we knew that even if the Cofidis rider won the stage, Montaguti would finally get to wear the polka dot jersey he has been chasing since last week.

Although they were now starting to split, Montaguti 's breakaway group had over seven minutes' advantage on us as we entered the lower slopes of the climb with around 30km to go. Race leader Chris Froome had his Sky team setting the tempo on the front of the peloton and we knew that while we may not catch all of them before the finish we would certainly eat into their lead by the top.

With all of his team-mates used up with about 10km to go though, Froome was forced to the front. Although he was race leader today, the man with the best chance of winning this Vuelta for Team Sky is British champion Bradley Wiggins and Froome, knowing he would lose his race lead if he kept it up, selflessly set the pace for the rest of the climb with Wiggins in his slipstream.

Once the others sensed Froome was weakening, however, the attacks began. Vladimir Karpets of Katusha dragged a five-man group clear about 8km from the top. In this quintet were the three guys directly behind me on GC. Steven Kruijswijk of Rabobank began the day one place behind me in 18th while Katusha's Daniel Moreno (19th) and Chris Anker Sorensen of Saxo Bank (20th) were also there.

I knew if they stayed clear they would leapfrog me in the GC but I wasn't too worried about it. I was sitting comfortably in the middle of the group and had plenty of time to do something if I needed to. Froome continued to chase and brought them back about a kilometre later anyway but both Moreno and Sorensen didn't give up and attacked again twice before the top.

The pace increased again as my cousin Dan dragged a handful of riders clear with 3km to go, but he brought Rabobank rider Bauke Mollema, who began the day in seventh place overall, with him, which forced Froome to use up all his resources to reel them in too.

Double stage winner Joaquim Rodriguez then jumped clear with 2km to go. This sparked a big reaction in our group and, as Froome died a death, Wiggins hit the front and went into time-trial mode, knowing that if he could get rid of Sorensen he would take over as race leader by the end of the stage.

Wiggins' spurt had seen me drift to the back of the group, which had been reduced to just 16 riders by then. It was getting harder but I was still okay. All I had to do was stay there for the next 2km and I was guaranteed to move up the GC.

In this race, though, my legs just seem to be on a switch and with 1km to go, somebody turned them off. All of a sudden, they wouldn't respond the way they should and the group drifted slowly away from my front wheel. I rode the last kilometre fuelled by a combination of anger and frustration, telling myself: "Not again! Come on Nico! You can't let yourself be caught by that group behind you. Come on!" After a slogging match to the line, I finished three seconds ahead of them.

I said I wanted to finish in the top 15 on each of these mountain stages and if you take away the breakaway riders, I almost did that today. I finished 23 seconds behind Wiggins' group for 26th place on the stage, so I'm not exactly riding s**t, but I'm not happy. I seem to be stuck in no man's land on these mountains at the moment, riding on my own, in between groups. If I'd put 20 seconds into the group behind me I would have been happy today because I would have moved up three places into the top 15 on GC.

Both Moreno and Sorensen overtook me in the GC today but Tiago Machado of Radioshack lost time so I only dropped one place to 18th overall which, I suppose, is some consolation. But I'm neither strong enough to stay with the front group nor to distance the group behind.

Gasping

Last year I was able to completely empty myself on these climbs. I'd finish absolutely wrecked, gasping for air and collapse on the ground after the line. After dinner, a massage and a good night's sleep I was able to do it all again the next day. For some reason, I don't seem to be able to do that this year. My legs just don't seem to have anything more to give and I'm getting really frustrated now.

At the bottom of the last climb our sprinters Lloyd Mondory and Steve Houanard had put me into a good position but I'm missing the likes of Hubert Dupont on the climbs here. I had four team-mates at the back of my group for some of the final climb today and I called them a few times on the team radio for help, but they never came up to me. I wasn't happy that I didn't get the help, but it's easy for me to say that when I was riding at the front of the group and they were swinging off the back.

Montaguti is delighted with his new spotted jersey as leader of the mountains classification. He's been really motivated to get it for the last few days and, but for a bit of luck, could have been wearing it all weekend. 'Montoguzzi' is a nice guy and a good worker for the team and I'm really happy for him. It's nice to see him get rewarded for his hard work, although his habit of drowning his pasta in balsamic vinegar means I won't be sitting near him at dinner tonight.

Vuelta a Espana

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