Nicolas Roche: 'Riders flew past Chiara's car window at 80-90kph'
Tuesday, September 7, Stage 10: Tarragona to Vilanova i la Geru 175.7km
Today's stage was really fast. We started on a motorway and went up one side, before turning around and coming back down the other side and into Tarragona again.
Joaquin Rodriguez had started the day in second place overall, equal on time with race leader Igor Anton of Euskaltel. Rodriguez knew there was a time bonus sprint after 42km and if he could place himself in the top three in the gallop to the line, he would take a few seconds off his overall time and become the new leader of the Vuelta.
With points as well as time bonuses of six, four and two on offer for the first three over the line in the village of Valls, points competition leader Mark Cavendish also wanted to try and distance himself from Tyler Farrar, who began the day just three points behind Cav in the green jersey competition. So there was plenty at stake.
Rodriguez's Katusha team were forced to work overtime as numerous riders tried to go clear in the early kilometres. Almost none of those guys had any interest in the overall classification and were too far down to be any threat -- they just wanted to get away and build up a lead to contest the stage win. The pace was frantic for the first hour and we covered 51km in that time, catching one last group just a kilometre before the first bonus sprint.
As I had started the day just one second off seventh place and just three seconds off sixth, I too wanted to contest the sprint in the hope of nabbing a few bonus seconds. I spent the final kilometres leading up to the sprint shouting into the microphone of my team radio, which is clipped into my jersey, asking for one of the guys to help in the sprint. I was angry when nobody responded but found out later my radio wasn't working.
The sprint line itself was in a dangerous place. I saw Rodriguez setting up for the sprint as we descended full gas off the big motorway. Suddenly there was a tiny roundabout at the end of the motorway and the bonus sprint was just 100m after the roundabout.
I went into the roundabout at the same time as Vincenzo Nibali, the Italian leader of the Liquigas team. Nibali started the day in third place overall, so he knew if he won the sprint and got the six-second bonus, he could take over the lead of the Vuelta.
As we leaned into the corner, we collided accidentally and were both lucky to stay upright. There was a bit of shouting as Nibali wanted to know why I was going for the time bonus. I told him I could move up to sixth, the same way he could move up to first if he won it. The argument didn't last too long, though, and both of us got more of a fright than anything else and we both apologised a few metres later.
Cavendish won the sprint from Farrar, with Rodriguez taking back two seconds for third, making him the virtual leader of the Vuelta. I think I was fifth and Nibali was sixth, so neither of us got anything. The relentless pace continued after the sprint as a 13-man group went clear. Most of the guys were way down on GC, but danger man Belgian Philippe Gilbert was also in the move. Gilbert led the Vuelta in the first week and has been riding out of his skin.
Gilbert started the day 14th overall, a minute and 51 seconds back and none of the other overall contenders were willing to let him slip away in a break that could possibly take five or six minutes by the end of the stage.
All of the other guys in the break knew this and although I wasn't up the road, I presume they 'politely' asked him to sit up and go back to the bunch.
Gilbert was caught between a rock and a hard place. He knew if he continued his efforts up front, the break would never succeed to the finish as Rodriguez, Anton and Nibali would all put their teams on the front, let them hang out there for most of the stage and then bring them back on the first-category climb with 30km to go, where Gilbert would more than likely pay for his efforts and lose even more time.
After a few kilometres more chasing, and arm-twisting from his colleagues up front, Gilbert sat up and let the rest of the break go clear. Once the Omega Pharma Lotto leader was back in the fold, the peloton relaxed a little and the elastic between us and the breakaways snapped and we never saw them again.
Today we had the first-category climb of the Alto del Rat Penat to tackle, with the summit coming just 30km from the finish. The climb was hectic. The Xacobea team set a ferocious pace and then Liquigas took over. My Ag2r team had looked up the climb on google maps the night before and we new that parts of it were 18pc gradient.
I decided to keep my 'granny gear' of 39x28 on for the stage and was happy I did. I got over the climb in the top 20 riders or so, but could feel my legs were a little sluggish after Monday's rest day.
The descent was rough -- potholes, cracked tarmac, storm drains and even lumps of clay. My girlfriend Chiara travelled in the team car today and she nearly had a heart attack on the way down the mountain.
Drivers in the cavalcade all have their own little signals and know what to look out for on the way down a mountain, but Chiara was both shocked and amazed at the speed and skill of both the drivers and riders on the narrow road as the guys who were dropped on the way up flew past her window at 80kph-90kph in an effort to regain contact on the way down.
The last 15km was fast again as Liquigas piled on the pressure in the hope that they could catch the breakaways and their sprinter Daniele Bennati, who was one of those riders who got back on after the descent, could win the stage. They left it too late, though, and Spaniard Imanol Erviti soloed clear of the rest of the front group and won the stage.
It was his second Vuelta stage win, having beaten me in a photo finish at the end of stage 18 in 2008.
Maybe if I concentrated on going for stage wins instead of the overall, I would have more big stage victories now, but I need to know how far I can go in these big Tours. When you are close to the race lead, you are never going to be allowed slip away in a break and contest a stage win, as Gilbert found out.
I'm still learning and when I find my limit, then I will maybe change my tactics.
Wednesday's stage is going to be tough. As anyone who ever went on a skiing holiday to Andorra will tell you, the road up to the summit is very long and steep. Hopefully I'll still be in contention after the stage.
Vuelta a Espana, Live, Eurosport, 3.0