'Froome was unable to follow as our group split'
Wednesday, September 6 - Stage 17: Villadiego to Los Machucos (180.5km)
At the sign-on this morning I chatted to Dani Moreno of Movistar about the chances of a breakaway staying clear to the finish today.
Even though Astana had stated that they wanted to ride today, Moreno reckoned that the flat opening 100km meant that the breakaway had a chance and he was going to have a go.
At the pre-stage meeting this morning the plan was for Demma (Alessandro De Marchi) and I to have a go at getting into the break but while Demma was convinced that a small group had a chance today and followed everything this morning, I only jumped into groups of around ten or 11 riders.
A block headwind meant that while it was easy riding on the wheels in the peloton, a lot of the early moves were blown back into the peloton without any real chase. After 5km the only other Irish rider in the race, Conor Dunne, dragged his Aqua Blue team-mate Stefan Denifl up the road and rode flat out to open a gap for him.
Conor has probably done this numerous times on this Vuelta but today it worked and as he pulled over and drifted back to the peloton, Denifl stayed up there and was joined by Demma, Moreno and Danish rider Magnus Cort, King of the Mountains Davide Vilella and stage winner Julian Alaphilippe went across to them soon after and the main breakaway of the day was gone.
Knowing that we had three very hard climbs at the end of the stage and with nobody of consequence up the road, the Sky team of race leader Chris Froome used the early flat roads to set a calm pace behind that allowed the escapees a maximum lead of nine minutes.
We were told it was raining on the far side of the second-category Portillo de Lunada after 90km so I dropped back to the team car for a gilet before Astana took up the chase as we approached the climb. I pulled it on about three kilometres from the top, just before we rode into the dark mist. For the first 6km of the descent I couldn't see more than a couple of bike lengths in front of me. There were riders letting wheels go all over the place and the peloton was split into about seven groups.
I was caught in the second part of the peloton, which was about 30 seconds down on the front part, but the road surface was brutal and it was very hard to make any inroads into the gap. On the way down I rattled past Polish climber Rafal Majka, a good friend of mine from our two years as team-mates at Saxo Bank. His glasses were fogged up and dangling off the end of his nose so that he could see.
"Follow me Rafal, hang onto my wheel!"
"I'm s***ting myself, Nico!"
We regained contact in the valley and the penultimate climb of Puerto de Alisas after 152km was actually okay, even if there were only around 30 of us left in the peloton after Simon Yates and Esteban Chaves of Orica attacked at the bottom.
After a much better descent, we hit the bottom of the final climb, the Especial Category Alto de Los Macuchos just a minute and 19 seconds behind the breakaway, which had already fallen apart on the steep slope.
At 7.5km long it wasn't the longest climb on this Vuelta by any means but with a 30 percent gradient in the middle it was definitely the steepest and was so narrow it was hard to get around anybody in front of you.
While some riders used a 36-tooth inner chainring today, I'm more used to standing up than sitting down spinning on climbs and used a 38x32 on it. When I saw Chris Froome was in trouble and unable to follow as our group split with 6km to go, I rode around the Sky guys and tried to get across to the group containing Vincenzo Nibali, but a flatter section saw me waste a lot of energy in no man's land for a while before the 30-degree hairpin with 3km to go brought me back into the fold.
As Alberto Contador, Nibali and most of the top 10 rode away from the race leader, the group fell apart again and I just paced myself to the top, crossing the summit in 22nd, 39 seconds behind Froome and over two minutes behind Denifl, who took a fantastic stage win for the first-year Irish-registered Aqua Blue squad.
Vuelta a Espana,
Live, Eurosport 2, 2.0