Monday 23 July 2018

‘In full grimace mode, my legs were screaming to sit down’

Chris Froome punches the air as he crosses the line to win the ninth stage of the Vuelta a Espana. Photo: Getty Images
Chris Froome punches the air as he crosses the line to win the ninth stage of the Vuelta a Espana. Photo: Getty Images

Nicolas Roche

With the top of the short but brutally steep first-category climb to Xorret de Cati coming just 3km from the finish today, the rest of the stage was mainly irrelevant for anyone hoping to hold onto or improve their positions in the overall classification.

Saturday, August 26 - Stage 8: Hellin to Xorret de Cati (199.5kms)

Although we had a very hard, undulating 196 kilometres before that, the final climb was always going to decide the outcome of the stage and possibly even the destination of the red leader's jersey afterwards, depending on the climbing ability of those nearest to overnight leader Chris Froome.

My BMC team had youngster Loic Vliegen, riding his first Grand Tour, in a large group of 21 riders that finally went clear after 35 kilometres of almost incessant attacking, but as the group contained Movistar rider Nelson Oliveira, who began the day just three minutes down on Froome, Sky had to work hard to keep them at a reasonable distance all day.

Having held an advantage of over four minutes at one point, the escape group's lead was cut in half as we neared the bottom of the climb and my team-mates did a great job again of keeping myself and Tejay (van Garderen) out of trouble and out of the wind as the Sunweb team of Wilco Kelderman tore along the narrow road leading us onto the ascent.

Gradient At the bottom, with 5km to go, eighth-placed Simon Yates of Orica Scott attacked straight away and instantly the peloton began to thin out around me.

My roommate Tejay, who began the day fifth place overall, rode across to Yates in a little group containing Esteban Chaves, Ilnur Zakarin and Michael Woods - all of whom were lying close behind me in the overall standings. But I was having a hard time on the gradient so rather than put myself into the red straight away, I tried to ride at my own pace and limit my losses to the summit.

A few really steep ramps at the bottom and in the middle saw me utilise my lowest gear of 38x30 and I think I spent the rest of the ascent in a 38x28. On a climb like that, even 50 metres seems eternal and every time we turned a corner I hoped to see the top through the wave of fans screaming in my ears.

When Alberto Contador attacked with Froome a kilometre later, the duo rode away from everybody else and I found myself a few metres off the back of a nine-man group containing Kelderman, de la Cruz and a few others as another group began to fall apart in between ours a few seconds further up the climb.

Although I crested the summit on my own, I remembered the climb from the Tour of Valencia last year and was confident I'd make it back on the 2km descent.

After a couple of hairy corners, I regained contact with the group in front, which now also contained Tejay.

A minute and 55 seconds after and Julian Alaphilippe took stage victory from the break, I crossed the line in a ten-man group 11 seconds off most of my rivals and 28 seconds behind Contador and Froome,who increased his race lead.

I'm still third overall, now 41 seconds back, but there are plenty of riders closing in behind me.

While Froome doesn't look to be in any danger of losing his lead, the past couple of days have shown that Contador is not done yet.

He has three minutes or so to make up, but if he keeps chipping away at it like he has the last couple of days, he won't be long getting closer to the podium.

Sunday, August 27 - Stage 9: Orihuelo to Cumbre del Sol (174km)

For the past two days on this Vuelta there have been loads of Irish flags on the side of the road and this morning I met quite a few fans at the start, which was great to see.

Although today was a bit shorter than yesterday on paper, a 13km neutralised section made it the same length in reality.

Strangely, we had two ascents of the Alto de Puig Lorenca to tackle, the first one of which was ranked as a second-category climb while the second time up it was ranked as first category.

The reason for this was that we didn't ride the final kilometre to the top the first time around, after 130km, instead we turned left and went out on a large finishing circuit that would bring us back to face the slope again, this time with a bigger sting in its tail.

When the early break went, Sky and Cannondale controlled the gap all day - much to the delight of one of the Trek guys beside me who expected to have to ride for Contador. As we got closer to the town of Calpe after 11km the pace increased dramatically.

I think around 80 per cent of the peloton train here in the winter so all of the teams know the roads leading into today's final climb and how important it was to be at the front at the bottom.

I was getting a bit worried as we hit the bottom of the climb the first time around because my team-mates had done some really strong pulls on the front of the peloton and I wasn't sure if they'd be around to get myself and Tejay into position for the second time up it.

But as we approached it second time around, we still had five or six guys around us and Demma made sure I was near the front as we started to climb.

Like yesterday, I tried to ride the climb at my own tempo.

Although the early break had been reeled in, I knew I wasn't going to win the stage with the likes of Froome and Chaves in the group and was expecting attacks on the really steep final section.

When the first attack came from Romain Bardet and two others with 3.5km to go, I was riding 16th in a front group of 20 that also contained Tejay, as Sky's Spanish climber Mikel Nieve set about bringing them back for his leader Froome.

Nieve's pace saw a few more go out the back door as we neared the final kilometre while I hung on at the very back of the group.

When Froome attacked for the stage win and the 10-second time bonus on offer at the line, with 700 metres to go, the only ones able to follow him were Chaves and Woods, although even they didn't quite stay with him.

The acceleration saw me lose contact slightly with the rest of the group but I knew the climb pretty well and also knew that if I tried to close the gap straight away, I would blow up within seconds.

plugging I kept plugging away but could only watch as the rest of the guys edged away from me until the 500m to go mark where I just told myself, 'Right, tomorrow is a rest day, You have to go as deep as you can to the line. Now!"

We turned right and I began my sprint.

With my face in full grimace mode and my legs screaming at me to sit down, I began to claw my way back into the group and even managed to pass a few riders to take ninth on the stage at the summit.

I lost 14 seconds to stage winner Froome but stayed within touching distance of the rest of those around me in the overall classification.

After nine days on this Vuelta, I'm still third overall, now a minute and five seconds behind leader Froome, while Tejay is just 20 seconds back in fifth. We're in a good position at the moment, but there is still a long way to go.

Irish Independent

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