Conor Dunne's Giro d'Italia diary: 'I knew that I couldn't go home without finishing this Giro for them'
Saturday June 1, Stage 20: Feltre to Passo Croce d'Aune (194km)
Although we had five big mountains; over 5,500 metres of altitude and 95km of climbing on today's penultimate 194km stage, I knew there was no point in worrying about it as I got into bed last night.
Still, I didn’t have a great night's sleep, waking up loads and for some reason going to the toilet six times. I think I got about six hours sleep in total, without much deep sleep, which meant I didn't exactly get today off to a great start.
At the breakfast table this morning, things were very quiet and there was a sense of impending doom about the stage ahead. When our best and most experienced climber, Ruben Plaza, tried to crack a joke and said we all needed to cheer up, there was no response.
After a couple of coffees on the bus to wake myself up, the seriousness of today's situation suddenly hit me as I walked down the steps to grab my bike for the start. If I couldn't stay with the group over five monsterous climbs then I most likely would be out of the race after 20 days of struggle.
We had a 9km neutralised section to get out of town this morning and there were a lot of nerves in the bunch. You could tell it was going to be all-out racing today.
When the racing started we had just 8km of flat road before we hit the first mountain – the second category Cima Campo. At the bottom, when everyone - including the overall contenders for this Giro, started throwing their bottles away in order to be as light as possible for the climb, I knew it was going to be a brutal day.
Once the road began to rise, the attacking started and it was pandemonium in the bunch.
I'd been doing over 500 watts in the bunch and pretty soon found myself in a group of about 20 riders who were off the back and riding our own rhythm. I put out 430 watts the whole way up the 20km climb and the descent afterwards didn't provide any respite.
Knowing that we had to get to the finish, still 175km away, inside a certain percentage of the stage winner's time in order to start tomorrow's final stage and finish this Giro, we absolutely bombed down it. It was the fastest descent of this Giro and the first time I've taken risks on a downhill since the race started.
I'm a pretty good descender but I didn't actually enjoy it at all. We were really pushing it, going so fast that we caught a big group halfway down. There were a few incidents where guys wheels locked up on the corners in front of me and they almost hit the deck and when we dropped into the valley below someone asked me if I had seen the crash. Apparently Florian Senechal from Quickstep fell and broke his collarbone somewhere behind me, so I hope he's okay.
On the next climb, the first category Passo Menghen, we had 60 riders in the grupetto but we had so far left to ride that guys were panicking on the way up.
Italian Enrico Gasporotto was setting the pace on the climb and when you have a monument winner on the front for 25km uphill you know it's going to be uncomfortable. With the overall contenders well gone, my group split in three and I was suffering like a dog in the back grupetto of about 30 riders, getting in and out of the saddle to try and find a rhythm.
It was absolutely horrific, the worst climb I've ever done in my life. I knew that whatever happened, I had to hang onto the group all the way to the top but by the time I got there I didn't even know my own name.
The descent afterwards was fast but not too crazy and as we went down towards the feed zone, in my head, I told myself “Okay, at least that's the worst part of the day over.”
But when we started the second category Passo Rolle after 112km, I knew I was wrong.
After the struggle of getting over the first two climbs and then the long descent, my legs were dead at the bottom and I couldn’t get them going again. For the first three kilometres of the 20km mountain, I was yo-yoing off the back of the grupetto and really panicking.
That was the hardest 3km of the whole Giro. I was absolutely suffering, going through a really bad patch and I got quite emotional thinking of my son Jesse and girlfriend Stacey back home.
Jesse was only born a few days before I left for this Giro and leaving them behind was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. The lactic acid was filling my legs, my breathing was fast and heavy and I was fighting the bike, which felt like the brakes were on, to just keep it moving forward up the slope. I remembered all the sacrifices Stacey made for me leading into this Giro, even though she was heavily pregnant at the time. For those first 3km, Stacey and Jesse kept me going. My body wanted me to stop and go home but I knew that I couldn't give up, couldn't go home without finishing this Giro for them.
After those first 3km, I kind of broke through the wall, felt a little bit better and found a bit of a rhythm. When I say I felt better, I still felt terrible but when you've been racing for three weeks, everything is relative. I managed to hang onto the back of the group and we went over the top 24 minutes after the first rider of the day.
The descent that followed was 40km long and while we bombed down it again, I enjoyed it a lot more than the first one. Although we were at the back of the race, we were the fastest group on the road on that descent and actually took time back on the leaders.
While the first 170km or so had felt like we were riding away from a sprawling forest fire behind us, for the last 40km we knew we were okay time-wise and there wasn't such panic.
The penultimate climb of Croce d'Aune was pretty gradual so I survived it okay and the final 6km climb to the summit finish at Monte Avena brought a pleasant surprise.
Every day before the start, we get these route profile stickers to stick on our stem so that you can have an idea of what's coming up next. When I got to the bottom of the last mountain though, I was a bit confused because I'd written the altitude of all the climbs on my stem but had put the last one down as 2,100metres high. When I found out it was actually only 1,100metres high, I was delighted.
For the whole day I'd been suffering, and thinking “I've still got this brute to get up at the end” but I was totally wrong. When I got to the bottom and discovered it, it was like getting a new boost of energy.
Today was the hardest day I've ever had on a bike.
I was dropped but feeling alright on the first mountain, very iffy on the second, but on the bottom of the Passo Rolle I was in so much trouble that I wasn't sure what was going to happen - whether I'd be able to get to the finish today.
In the end, I survived by the skin of my teeth, crossing the line in the middle of a 40 strong group, over 40 minutes behind stage winner Pello Bilbao of Astana, where I got off my bike and slumped onto the road in relief that the suffering was all over.
We've still got a 17km individual time trial to come tomorrow but for me, and all apart from the few who harbour hopes of victory, the hardest part is done now.
Hopefully I can enjoy tomorrow. I'm already looking forward to getting home.