Tuesday 12 December 2017

I'll have to change my goal in this Vuelta to a stage win

Miguel Angel Lopez Moreno celebrates as he crosses the line winning the 15th stage of the Tour of Spain from Alcala La Real to Sierra Nevada. Photo: Getty Images
Miguel Angel Lopez Moreno celebrates as he crosses the line winning the 15th stage of the Tour of Spain from Alcala La Real to Sierra Nevada. Photo: Getty Images

Nicolas Roche

Saturday, September 2, Stage 14: Ecija to Sierra de la Pandera (175km)

After two weeks of racing now, our two younger riders, Kilian Frankiny and Loic Vliegen, both of whom are riding their first three-week tour, are beginning to struggle a little bit.

They've both been doing a great job all Vuelta, but as Kilian is the youngest on the team he has been the butt of a few jokes so far.

Yesterday he kept on asking for bananas from the team car, so when we went down to dinner last night the lads arranged with the chef to prepare a bucket of bananas and present them to him for dinner.

This morning before the start, the guys tucked a couple of bananas under their jerseys and stuffed them into his pockets on the line.

Today's start town of Ecija is nicknamed 'The Oven of Spain' because the hottest temperatures of the Spanish summer are regularly recorded there.

We lined up in 38-degree heat with a stage ahead of us that began 150m above sea level and rose continuously to a summit finish almost 1,900m higher. Hydration was very important, but having only been drafted in to the team a couple of days before the race start, Loic was given a day off bottle duty, so I didn't envy Kilian this morning.

Thankfully the day's nine-man break went clear after 20km and the racing settled down a bit, with Sky moving to the front of the peloton when they got three minutes out.

Maximum

With nobody of any threat to the overall standings in the front group, they had opened a maximum lead of eight minutes by the time we crested the third category Puerto de Mojon after 85km.

Here, Bahrain, Trek and Astana took over from Sky at the front, but the gap began to fall rapidly and we had cut it in half by the time we hit the second category Puerto Locubin after 145km.

As Katusha put the hammer down on the descent, Damiano, Fran and Demma did a great job for me and Tejay and we were lucky enough to be well up the front as we came into the town of Jaen, where the bunch split in half.

The 20pc gradient of the really narrow climb up through the streets of Jaen saw me lose my red jersey of race leader by a single second in 2013, but today the climb didn't even register for the climbers classification and we simply continued onwards to tackle another 14km ascent to the summit finish at Sierra de la Pandera.

On a brief respite from climbing with around 10km to go, as all but Rafal Majka began to come back to us from the breakaway, Spaniard Luis Leon Sanchez of Astana led us towards the final climb, with his Colombian team-mate Miguel Angel Lopez waiting in the wings to strike on the slope.

With 8km to go, I was in a decent position when we turned on to the poorly surfaced ascent, where Sanchez pulled off the front and his team-mate Pello Bilbao took over, whittling the group down to about 25 riders.

One by one, guys drifted out the back door, so I moved up a little bit to give myself some sliding room.

With 6km to go, Sky took over and I hung on for another 2km until Romain Bardet of Ag2r attacked and split the group in half, leaving me to fend for myself in their wake.

I rode the last 3km to the top on my own, finishing 2min 15secs behind stage winner Majka.

Losing a couple of minutes today wouldn't have been too bad if I hadn't already lost four minutes the other day, but this will make it harder to achieve my goal of a top 10 finish now, especially as we still have some of the hardest days on this race to come - starting with an absolute monster tomorrow.

Sunday, September 3, Stage 15: Alcula la Real to Sierra Nevada (129km)

With a really savage finale to today's stage, including a 17km first category climb and a 35km ride skywards to the summit finish of Sierra Nevada, the plan today was for Demma and Damiano to follow the moves and try and get into the early break.

Although they were both really active, non-stop attacking and an average speed over 60kph for the first half an hour meant it was a lottery to get into the right one.

When the break hadn't gone after 25km, there were a lot of riders worried that it might spur the GC guys into attacking on the first category ascent of Alto de Hazzellanas after 57km and the race would splinter in pieces with half the stage still to go.

About 5km later, eight riders went clear and the peloton eased up for a few minutes before Astana took up the chase, with Colombian climber Lopez in mind again for the stage win.

I know the Hazzellanas and all of the climbs today by heart from training and racing here, but it didn't help me much today.

The guys got me into a good position at the bottom, but even on the easier lower slopes, which were around a 6pc gradient, I knew I wasn't on a good day.

After 8km of climbing, we had a kilometre of downhill before tackling the much steeper second half of the climb.

As soon as we did I felt terrible.

The fact the peloton was still pretty big told me the pace wasn't as hard as it felt, which was hard to take mentally and a couple of kilometres later I was in crisis. Fran Ventoso and Rohan Dennis stayed with me, but eventually I couldn't even hold their wheels.

Demma caught us from a group behind and stayed with me over the top. He brought me back into a group ahead on the 20km long descent leading to the 35km summit finish.

With riders all over the place on the road, I didn't know what group it was in, but I knew it definitely wasn't the first one on the road.

I can't really explain what happened; maybe I hadn't eaten enough, or ate too early, but I started to recover and feel a lot better on the descent and was okay on the climb to the finish.

While some of the group we were in opted to climb at their own pace, Demma set a decent tempo at the front and with me on his wheel we began to catch a few riders.

Tempo

After 10km of riding skywards Demma was done and I went to the front of the group and set the tempo.

I knew I wasn't going to make any inroads into the front group, I was in foul humour, and just wanted to get to the top as quickly as I could.

After a while I only had Spanish climber Daniel Navarro from Cofidis on my wheel. He wanted to give me a hand, but was struggling to get around me.

"Danny," I said. "I appreciate it but don't worry about it. I'm in grumpy mode."

Having ridden the last 20km on our own, we crossed the line 16 minutes behind stage winner Lopez and I dropped down to 17th place overall, 21 minutes behind race leader Froome.

Losing so much time today means I will have to change my goals in this Vuelta now.

With a good overall placing now off the table, I will have to try and go for a stage win in the final week.

The bad news is that the final week is the hardest of the race.

The good news is I have tomorrow's rest day first.

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