'I thought I'd chance it and go a bit early but I was pipped on the line for second'
Veulta A Espana Diary: Friday, August 4, Stage 13: Calatayud to Tarazona (178km)
With three huge days in the mountains coming up, today's 'transitional' stage gave us a little taster of things to come, with two third-category climbs and a first-category coming before a swooping descent and flat final 7km into Tarazona.
The day began on quite a wide road but the surface was so bad that there were numerous punctures on the 12km long opening climb, which wasn't even categorised in the race manual.
I punctured just at the top and although I got a great wheel change from the team car, it took me a long time to regain contact on the undulating roads that followed.
Then, just when I made it back onto the tail end of the peloton, a blustery crosswind section saw somebody let a wheel go and about 20 of us got dropped again.
Just as I was about to write my day off, though, we turned into a headwind after about 20km and managed to close the gap and get back on.
I tried to recover a bit on the next uncategorised climb about 5km later and began to move up as we approached the third-category Alto Collado de Oseja after 35km.
Up front, the lads had been doing a fabulous job of covering the bigger breaks with Christian Knees, Sergio Henao, Salvatore Puccio and Ian Boswell all getting into various moves, only to be reeled in as another attack came.
With eight riders clear as we hit the climb, I tried to give the lads a hand to cover the counter-attacks, jumping on a wheel about a kilometre from the summit and slotting into a bigger group on the descent.
At the bottom we went straight back up again, this time hitting the slopes of the first-category Alto de Beraton after 61km, and our group merged with the lead octet to form a new lead group of 24 riders, which also contained Sergio.
Because there had been so much fighting to get into the move, we took the climb at a quite decent pace, so I was able to recover a little bit. We had two minutes at the bottom but a really strong three-quarter tailwind on the plateau at the top saw the break split in two.
It had been quite frustrating up until then, with guys skipping turns and shirking the workload, so when we turned right into a headwind we decided we might as well get organised and from there we all got into line and started rolling through.
With almost everyone taking turns on the long but gradual 30km descent, we had about four minutes by the feed zone after 102km, even if nobody was pushing really hard and you had a chance to recover while on the wheels on the descent.
After another uncategorised hill and the intermediate sprint after 120km, we came to the final climb of the day, the 8km third-category Alto de Moncayo.
With 24 riders still in contention and just 40km to go, everybody had the same idea. It was time to get rid of some of the opposition and start attacking.
The attacks came the whole way up and having gone over the top in second place, I was in a group of five riders trying to get across to Pawel Poljanski of Tinkoff-Saxo on the 3km plateau that followed. We were all giving it full gas and I wasn't even able to grab a bottle from the team carer at the top of the climb.
I was sure we had opened a proper gap on the others, so when I turned around at the top I was pretty disappointed to see the rest of the group regain contact as we began the descent.
Having attacked three or four times on the climb, I decided to gamble a little bit on the descent and drifted to the back of the group to recover as the others counter-attacked each other in the wind.
Although Lampre rider Nelson Oliveira had gone clear going over the top, I only found out he was up front with 10km to go, when I saw the Shimano Neutral service car go by.
When our team car picked up the team carer at the top of the climb, he must have hit something or sat on something and knocked the team radio off, so I didn't know there was one guy up the road until my friend Maxime Monfort, who was also in the break, told me.
With two team-mates shutting down anything that happened in our group, Oliveira did a great ride to take the stage victory up ahead as Sergio got me into position for the sprint in the last couple of kilometres.
A lot of manoeuvring in the last 900 metres or so, though, saw me lose his wheel as I had to brake.
I moved to the left to get some space and, as we had a tailwind, thought I'd chance it and go a bit earlier than usual.
With 300m to go, I sprinted flat out but Julien Simon of Cofidis pipped me on the line for second place on the stage. It's funny how things turn out on a three-week stage race. If someone had told me after 12km this morning that I was going to get into the breakaway and finish third on the stage I wouldn't have believed them.
I tried to ride the stage in two phases: I was very aggressive on the last climb and when that was unsuccessful I reverted to another tactic for the final kilometres.
My third place today leaves me just seven points off the green jersey of points leader now, but the way the points are distributed here means the race leader or one of the climbers will likely go home with that, so it's still a bit of an unrealistic target.
Having Sergio and myself up the road saw my Sky squad bolster our lead in the team classification to over 11 minutes on nearest challengers Astana, while my Spanish team-mate Mikel Nieve is still eighth overall, just under two minutes down on race leader Fabio Aru, so we still have plenty to fight for before we reach Madrid on Sunday week.
Tomorrow is the longest day on the Vuelta and kicks off three really hard days in the race.
People thought Andorra was hard but the one on Monday could be even harder.
La Vuelta, Live, TG4 / Eurosport, 3.00