Thursday 22 August 2019

Conor Dunne's Giro d'Italia diary: 'Everyone was rattier and grumpier than usual on another tough day of climbing'

Wednesday May 29: Stage 17: Val di Sole to Anterselva (181km)

Conor Dunne descends on stage 17 of the Giro d'Italia.
Conor Dunne descends on stage 17 of the Giro d'Italia.

Conor Dunne

After yesterday's epic six-and-a-half-hour mountain stage, it took us two hours to get down to our hotel.

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The mountain road was chock-a-block after the stage and for some reason, there was a set of unmanned roadworks with one automatic traffic light, holding the whole race convoy up.

After each stage we try to split our riders between the bus and the team cars because the cars can usually negotiate the narrow roads quicker, which means some guys have their massage done before the bus gets to the hotel and the next lot can take their place.

It's always more comfortable on the bus though and yesterday the guys who took the cars spent almost two hours sitting a few hundred yards up the road from us with their feet up on the dashboard in an effort to stretch out their legs.

The same journey took 20 minutes today.

After a late dinner last night, I didn't get to bed until midnight but thankfully we had a bit of a more relaxed start to this morning and I was able to sleep until 9am.

Still, after three bowls of sugar puffs – a dramatic change from my usual porridge - and numerous cups of coffee, I could still feel the effects of yesterday's stage and couldn't stop yawning. I wasn't the only one though. In the middle of breakfast, somebody noticed that Awet wasn't at the table and they had to go and wake him.

There were a lot of Irish fans at the start today, and some of them came up to me this morning to wish me well and say how much they've enjoyed reading these diaries.

To be honest, I didn't think there'd be as much of a reaction to them as there has been but with coverage in French newspaper l'Equipe, La Gazzetto Dello Sport in Italy and on RAI TV and Eurosport, people from all over the world have been cheering me on this week and it's really nice to have that support, especially when I'm struggling or having a bad day.

This morning in the pre-stage team meeting, my teammates Ruben Plaza and Kristian Sbaragli were the ones who harboured ambition to try and get into the early breakaway and go for a stage win, while our Latvian champion Krists Neilands said he was feeling a bit better and might have a go too.

The rest of us were focused on survival, simply getting over the mountains and on to tomorrow's flat stage.

With one fourth category and two third category climbs on the stage route ahead, the talk at the start was that it was going to be an easier day today, but that proved untrue as soon as the flag dropped.

I don't think there is such a thing as an easy day in the final week of a Grand Tour and for anyone with tired legs - which is probably two-thirds of the peloton now, today was the worst-case scenario.

At least when the break goes clear early on, everyone forgets about them, the race settles into a rhythm and you get half the stage over before you feel the burn of lactic acid in your legs. Today though, the attacks just kept coming so all I could do was batten down the hatches, weather the storm and hope to God a group would escape soon and everyone would give up on it.

That didn't happen either.

It was maybe 40km into the stage, after the first uncategorised climb – which, typically, was just as hard as the categorised ones - when the break went clear and by then there were groups everywhere and I was out the back in one of them.

About 50 riders came together on the 15km descent that followed but it still took us until we got down into the valley below, after about 65km of flat out chasing, to regain contact with the other half of the peloton. And that was only because they'd let the break go and sat up.

With the breakaways out of sight in the valley, the Movistar squad of race leader Richard Carapaz went to the front and set a tempo that was a lot more sustainable and I used the next 40km or so to refuel for the three climbs to come at the end of the stage.

Up front, Krists had managed to get into the 18-man escape, which had six minutes on us as we started to climb again with 80km to go.

As we rode uphill again, I could really notice the tiredness in the bunch today. When the pressure really came on, people couldn't hang on as long as they could last week. There are a lot guys like me, who are just trying to survive these mountain days, so at least I didn't feel alone today.

I suffered up the first one, just getting back in on the descent, but then the grupetto formed on the penultimate climb of Terento with 50km to go. The grupetto usually contains a mix of non-climbers, riders who are trying to save their legs for another day and, by this stage in the race, anyone who's too knackered to stay with the front-runners and just wants to get to the finish inside the daily time limit.

As the racing kicked off up front, we rode up the Terento steady enough but after the 15km descent we started riding pretty hard for the last 35km. A bigger group than usual today meant there were differences of opinion on how fast we should be riding and after two-and-a-half weeks of racing, everyone was a bit rattier and grumpier than usual.

The last 20km today were pretty heavy, draggy roads and with some guys wanting to ride hard, some guys wanting to ride easy and others too tired to notice the difference, there were shouts and roars at every change of pace or whenever somebody just gave up and let a gap open between the wheels.

In the end, we chopped on and off at the front for what felt like an eternity, until everyone eventually calmed down and eased up about 5km from the finish. Even though the road had got much steeper by then, it was the only time I could relax today and I rode in chatting with Cimo, our group crossing the line half an hour behind stage winner, Frenchman Nans Peters of Ag2r la Mondiale.

Just under two minutes behind Peters, Krists clung onto a group of three to take fifth on the stage.

It was a great ride by Krists today. I knew he was starting to feel a bit better because I had to tell him to slow down a couple of times on the Mortirolo yesterday but I didn't expect him to get into the break today, let alone get fifth on the stage.

It's the team's third top five of this Giro and while we are happy with that, tomorrow's flat stage gives us another chance to try for that elusive stage win.

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