Monday 22 January 2018

Cycling: 'Cycling is described as poker on wheels. Now, I'm the only card we have left'

Thursday, September 16 Stage 18: to Vallodolid to Salamanca 148km

Having dropped from fifth place to eighth overall after Wednesday's 46km time trial, I was in really bad form after the stage. It took a long time to come around, but once I had mumbled and grumbled to everyone and anyone about it for a while, I calmed down a bit and by dinner time, I was almost back to normal -- whatever that is.

Before dinner we had a debriefing after the time trial and I also spoke to my dad on the phone. We looked at my performance and kind of worked things out scientifically. We reasoned that while I didn't do a great time trial, I didn't do a bad one either. Some other guys just did a better one than me.

My dad told me to keep focused and reminded me that I don't have a time trial bike at home and therefore don't get time to get used to churning the bigger gears in the more aerodynamic position. The team agreed that it's an elementary mistake for someone at my level not to be able to train on the time trial bike, and the pain in my arse muscles since I got out of bed this morning makes me think they are right.


I felt a bit better mentally this morning but was still hoping for an easy day today. The team plan was pretty simple. Team manager, Julien Jordie told everyone to "Stick with Nico."

Normally on stages like today's, we try and put a man into the early breakaway group in case it stays away to the finish. Today though, everybody was told to just look after me. Keep me sheltered from the wind. Keep me fed and watered. There was no discussion about anybody going up the road or trying to get in a break.

Our team plans for a stage win have been left by the roadside in an effort to see me take as high a position on the overall classification as I can. All our eggs are in one basket and everybody is hoping the basket won't break.

Eight guys went clear from the drop of the flag this morning, but they weren't allowed too much of an advantage by the sprinters' teams for fear that their numerical strength could combine to steal their glory.

The strong three quarter head-crosswind meant that my Ag2r La Mondiale team couldn't be caught down the back even for a few minutes today. If we were down the back and a team went to the front and split the peloton, I could lose a lot of time. In a crosswind, to get shelter, you have to ride on the opposite side of the wheel in front of you. You ride higher or lower up along the bike in front of you, depending on the angle of the wind.

If a certain team wants to cause a split they ride as hard as they can into the wind, but only pull over far enough on the road to give their own team-mates shelter and behind that it's chaos as everyone rides in the gutter in a vain attempt to get some shelter. The Belgians and Dutch are specialists at this type of racing, but luckily none of them are up on the GC at this Vuelta.

At one point, Spanish squad Caisse d'Epargne tried to split the peloton, but the wind just wasn't strong enough at the time. Every team knows a split can occur any time the wind picks up, or changes direction, and they all ride in a sort of mobile huddle, with their respective leaders tucked in out of the gale. It's a war of nerves as everybody looks at each other any time the wind picks up. My Ag2r guys are mainly lightweight climbers, so it's harder for them on these kind of stages, but once again, they did a great job today.

There's been a lot of effort put in to get me to the mountains in the best position possible on Saturday. They know I have a lot of responsibility, and also that I can have a bad day or a good day on Saturday, but they trust me to do the best I can. Sometimes cycling is described as 'poker on wheels'. Well, I'm the only card left and we're going all in.

Today's stage was relatively short, at 140km, and went by really quickly. We were done in three and a half hours. The last 20km was mental, really stressful. They brought us to within one roundabout of the finish in Salamanca and then we did a loop through the little, tight, streets of the town.

Maybe it was good for the crowds, some of whom who got to see us twice, but with lots of roundabouts, traffic islands and speed ramps to be bunny- hopped, all at around 60kph, it wasn't great for my nerves. I was left on my own for the last few kilometres as the guys tired and Biel tried to help our sprinter Seb Hinault in the gallop to the line.


I learned afterwards that there were a couple of splits in the bunch in the final kilometre and I gained four seconds on three of the guys in front of me. Even though everybody is usually given the same time in a bunch sprint, if there is a gap of over a second between any wheel, then that rider's deficit is taken not from the wheel in front of him, but from the wheel of the first guy in the bunch. Today there was a gap between Biel, who was 13th, and Aussie Johnny Walker in 14th. As the time taken to Walker's wheel was from stage winner Mark Cavendish's front wheel, I lost five seconds to the first 13 riders, but luckily, not to anybody of any consequence.

Two places behind me though, there was another split and Xavier Tondo, Tom Danielson, Joaquin Rodriguez and even race leader Vincenzo Nibali lost nine seconds to Cavendish, so I gained four seconds on all of them. I'm now just four seconds off seventh, 14 seconds of fifth and 19 seconds off fourth.

Every Grand Tour I ride, I try and stay as close to the front as possible in the sprints, in case a split occurs. I've been fighting and using energy to stay up there every day but eventually, today, I've been proven right to do so, even if it is only four seconds. I wasn't as near the front as I wanted to be. If I had finished with Biel, I'd be sixth overall now.

One of our younger riders Guillaume Bonnafond is very sick now. He has a 'flu and it's getting worse. Tonight for the second time on this Vuelta, I was supposed to be rooming with somebody. I was a few minutes later into the hotel than the others and all of the guys had picked their rooms. The only bed left was with Guillaume in his room. The staff, though, decided it wasn't a good idea to be rooming with somebody who has the 'flu, and two of them roomed together and gave me a single room.

Friday is another very long day. The stage is 232km long, but we have a 13km neutralised zone, which makes for a ridiculous 245km 'road to perdition' day.

I feel drained tonight, probably more mentally than physically. Today was a very nerve-wracking day in the saddle and maybe the pressure of it all is getting to me. Somebody asked me if I use a sports psychologist to help me with the mental stress of racing. We have one on the team, but I only see him two or three times a year. What do a need a sports psychologist for when I can tell you guys my problems?

Vuelta a Espana,

Live, Eurosport, 3.0

Irish Independent

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