Nicolas Roche: 'When I crossed the line I was in bits and had to sit on the roadside to catch my breath again'
Monday, September 13 Stage 16: Gijon to Cotobello, 181.4km
The term 'queen stage' is usually reserved for the toughest day on each big stage race, typically the one with the most high mountains on the same day. With four climbs, three of them in the most difficult first category, and the third summit finish in as many days, today was the queen stage of this year's Vuelta.
Today was one of those days where the pace never slowed down. There were attacks in the mountains, in the valleys, on the descents. There were no rules today as everybody wanted to do something before the rest day on Tuesday. The start was so vicious that my Ag2r La Mondiale team lost three riders on the third-category climb after just 40km and, like many others, they never got back on.
The first big mountain, the Puerto de San Lorenzo, was officially 10km long, but we were climbing towards it for 50km. It was ridden at about three-quarter pace and I was near the front.
At the top there were a lot of guys left in the front group, so I didn't know if it had been as hard as I thought it was and wondered if maybe I was on a bad day. We had covered 88km in the first two hours and I knew I needed to be on a good day or I was going to be in trouble.
After a long descent, we had another first-category climb, the Alto de la Cobertoria. At eight kilometres long, the gradual incline wouldn't have been too bad on its own. But with the Liquigas team of race leader Vincenzo Nibili and the Saxo Bank squad of Franck Schleck gradually winding the speed up at the front, it was pretty hard.
Here, though, I realised I was going pretty well. More and more guys were getting shelled out the back as we rode towards the summit and by the top, there were only about eight of us left.
Although there was a breakaway group, including my team-mate Ludovic Turpin, already up the road, Schleck had attacked us near the top. But with 39km to go, I wasn't too worried. Riders like Schleck have a kind of cruise control on the climbs. They can ride faster than the bunch, but just under their own limit, for a long time.
The mountains are his playground, but I knew there was a strong headwind waiting for us in the valley, leading up to the final climb. With nobody to share the workload with, it would have been suicide for him to continue and after a few kilometres, he came back to us and the pace settled down a little.
Just before the top, Frederik Willems of Liquigas sat up out of the break to give his team-mates a hand pacing race leader Nibali for the rest of the stage. Although he had built up an advantage of over two minutes, Willem's job is to help Nibali and, like any good team-mate, he sacrificed his chances of a stage win to help his team leader in his quest to win this Vuelta.
Ludovic came back to help me soon after, but it wasn't out of choice. The pace was just a little bit too hot for him in the front group, but at least I had a team-mate to help me now if needed.
Going over the top, I wanted a bottle from our team car. The proper way to take a bottle is to go to the back of the group, put your hand in the air and wait until the commissaire signals for your team car to come up and give you a drink. But because all the team leaders were in my group, nobody was obeying the rules. There were cars blocking the road everywhere.
Alexandre Kolobnev was taking about five bottles on board to bring up to his Katusha team leader Joaquin Rodriguez.
He was taking ages, though, and I was getting p***ed off waiting as each time he'd hang onto each bottle for a few seconds longer than he should have and was blocking my Ag2r team car from coming through.
Some guys try to take advantage on a climb by hanging onto the bottle as the car is moving. Everybody does it to some extent but he was doing it for too long. When he was eventually finished, I said: "Hey Kolobnev, five seconds, not 20 seconds on each bottle."
I had no problem with him really, I was just thirsty. On the descent, Biel Kadri and Rinaldo Nocentini, who had been dropped on the climb, regained contact with my group, as did about 20 others.
Biel loves his new role of riding for an overall contender and was really motivated again today. He's been very dedicated and has done some awesome work for me these past two weeks. He also knows that I will do the same when it's my turn to ride.
In the valley after the penultimate climb, Biel came up to me and said he wanted to chase the front group down because he thought I could maybe get a top five on the stage.
I didn't want all the climbers to arrive at the bottom of the final mountain fresh, so I agreed, and told him to get to the front and ride hard.
Even though I was suffering, I was hoping that the smaller, lighter, less powerful climbers would suffer even more on the flat if Biel could set a fast tempo. The Liquigas guys were already riding tempo on the front and when Biel arrived they started giving out to him because he pushed the speed up even more.
They asked him what he was doing. He said he was "riding for Roche" and they just let him at it.
Garmin leader Christian Vande Velde then rode alongside me and said, "Hey Nico, do you know your rider is riding for you?"
Of course I knew. Garmin were a bit p***ed off about it because they had a rider in the break and his chances of staying away were getting slimmer with every turn of Biel's pedals.
Vandevelde tried to persuade me to get him to stop, but in a friendly way.
"Hey Roche, why's he riding so fast, are you that motivated?" Yep. I'm that motivated.
Once we got to the foot of the final mountain, the Liquigas rider Roman Kreuziger took over. It's incredible how steady and fast Kreuziger can ride on a mountain. The speedometer doesn't move an inch when he climbs and he can spend ages on the front, which suits me down to the ground.
When Schleck and Tom Danielson of Garmin attacked eight kilometers from the summit, I was worried because they were two of my direct opponents and if they got too much of an advantage on the climb, they would leapfrog me in the overall standings. Then when I saw Sastre go, I thought, 'Uh, oh, there's another one'.
But the idea was to stay as long as I could in the group I was in and not get over-excited.
The two guys just ahead of me on GC, Peter Velits and Xavier Tondo, were still there, so I couldn't lose time to them either. When Tondo got dropped with five kilometres to go, I started feeling a bit better; then a kilometre later, Velits got dropped. But I didn't want to try anything in case I blew up and went backwards in the final three kilometres or so.
With two kilometres to go, my manager told me in my earpiece that Velits had already lost 40 seconds and Tondo was at one minute. I had begun the day just 15 seconds behind them and was moving up the overall standings.
I wasn't worried about Nibali, Rodriguez and Mosqueura as they were already in front of me on GC, in the first three overall.
All I wanted to do was try not to lose too much time to Schleck, who was still dangling up the road, and try and get back onto Danielson and Sastre. I made the decision to attack.
I said at the start of this diary that I wanted to try and be a bit more aggressive than at the Tour this year, so I had nothing to lose. If I blew up, I would probably stay in sixth place. If I didn't blow, then I could move up a place.
When I kicked with 1.5km to go, Nibali was in trouble straight away, but all I cared about were the three guys up the road. My personal race was to catch those three before the line and maybe get a bit of a cushion on Velits and Tondo, who were already losing ground. Once I caught Sastre and Danielson, then I didn't care if I blew up.
My manager heard on the race radio that I had attacked and was shouting encouragement into my earpiece as I put myself into time-trial mode. I picked a point on the road ahead, rode flat out to there and then picked another one and did the same. There was no thinking about tomorrow or the rest of the race, everything was for now.
I was counting down the metre boards: 500m, 300m, 200m, 150m. When Rodriguez came by at 600m and then Mosquera and Garcia a few hundred metres later, I didn't even try to stay with them. I knew there was no point.
I was already on my limit. My legs were burning, my breathing was getting heavier and my heart rate was very close to my maximum of 196 beats per minute.
When I crossed the line, I was in bits, totally wrecked and had to sit on the roadside for a few minutes to catch my breath.
I'm very happy with my performance again today. Okay, I lost a little bit of time to Schleck but I moved up a position to fifth overall and now have a minute and 26 seconds cushion to Velits, in sixth. I'm feeling great.
I'm a bit worried about Wednesday's time trial but it's going to be a really exciting experience for me. Tuesday is a rest day in Penafiel, so I have a bit of time to try and recover. First though, we have a 300km transfer on the team bus to get there.