Tuesday 21 August 2018

‘It’s easy to forget I won a stage here three weeks ago’

Team Sky’s Chris Froome
Team Sky’s Chris Froome

Nicolas Roche

Saturday, September 9, Stage 20: Corvera to Angliru (117.5km)

Although today's penultimate stage was also the second shortest road stage of this Vuelta, a 12km climb immediately after the start that didn't even register for the mountains competition gave an indication of how hard it would be.

That 'blip' on the profile was followed by two first category mountains to get over, before a summit finish atop the dreaded Alto de l'Angliru.

Ranked as an Especial Category climb, l'Angliru was introduced to the Vuelta in 1999 in an effort to replicate the Tour de France's iconic Alpe d'Huez.

One of the toughest ascents in cycling, the 16.5km roughly surfaced l'Angliru is narrow, winding and pitches up to gradients of 24pc in the last 3km.

With just a flat stage into Madrid left tomorrow, today was either one last chance to grab a stage win or one last chance to move up the overall classification, perhaps even overthrow race leader Chris Froome.

Having been in the day-long breakaway on yesterday's mountain stage, I rolled out of Corvera this morning tired, with heavy legs and neither of those things on my mind.

Lashing

Gusting winds and lashing rain caused the race to be stopped before we even got out of the neutralised zone as the 'kilometre zero' banner had been blown away in the storm, so being in another breakaway was the last thing on my mind. However, that's where I was after 12km.

Seeing a big group with a lot of good riders go clear 4km from the top of the opening climb, I took a chance and tried to bridge across.

Having started the day in 15th place overall, I reckoned we'd either stay away, gain some time and I could maybe move into the top 10 overall, or we'd be caught at the bottom of l'Angliru and I'd blow up and drop down a few places, which didn't matter much anyway.

As the rain eased, we opened a gap of around a minute on the descent, but when the Trek team of Alberto Contador started chasing us straight away I knew he wanted to go for the stage win.

There would be no big gains today. Our cards had been marked.

As we rolled through at the front, Simon Yates turned to me.

"Typical... this is the first break I've been in!"

"You picked the wrong day mate!" I laughed.

We hit the first category Santa Marina, with a minute and 20 seconds advantage after 71km, but when the attacks came at the bottom our group split in half.

I was disappointed to be one of the first dropped on the 8km ascent, but continued at my own pace in the hope I'd get to the next climb before the peloton caught me.

With more teams now leading the chase behind, I had 45 seconds at the bottom of the Alto de Cordal after 90km and knew I had to go hard enough to get as far up the 6km climb as I could, but also had to keep something in reserve for when they caught me halfway up.

By then there were only 20 riders left at the head of the peloton and with 500m to go I was on the limit, just dangling off the back of them.

"Okay Nico, don't overdo it" I told myself. " You know the descent. You can make it back on to them."

As I regained contact, 11th placed David de la Cruz and second placed Vincenzo Nibali were among many who hit the deck on the greasy descent, as did Marc Soler of Movistar - who fell while leading.

As we began the final climb of this Vuelta, I was suffering but hung on to the group of overall favourites until the attacks came and I was dropped again after 3km.

With a 36x32 lowest gear on I could probably have done with a 34 at the back, but while the road was wet, at least the rough surface meant traction wasn't a problem.

Seven minutes after stage winner Contador, I reached the summit and moved up to 14th overall by virtue of De la Cruz's crash.

Sunday, September 10, Stage 21: Arroyomolino to Madrid (118km)

After we got to the hotel last night, a lot of the team staff had already left for next week's World Championships in Norway, so the rest of us celebrated the end of a tough Vuelta with a couple of glasses of wine before bed.

Although the final stage didn't start until 4.45pm, we had a coach trip to the airport at 9am.

Our team bus left at 8.30am and was at the start a half an hour after us, so I don't see why we couldn't have just taken the bus rather than an hour's coach ride to the airport, where we waited for an hour, flew for and hour and then got another 45-minute coach to the hotel.

After lunch and a few hours hanging around and making sure everything was packed up for the trip home this evening, we lined up for today's final stage.

After the customary photos of the winning team and the race leader with a glass of champagne, we rode 70km towards the finishing circuit in Madrid, where Contador was allowed roll off the front and wave to the crowd in his final Vuelta.

With the intermediate sprint on the next lap, racing began in earnest.

As well as leading the race overall, Froome began today as leader of the points classification, 26 points clear of the best sprinter in the race, Matteo Trentin of Quickstep.

Although triple stage winner Trentin was hot favourite to take maximum points in both the intermediate and final sprint to the line, when Froomey went for the intermediate sprint it was clear he wanted to win the green jersey too.

After the sprint, with around 30km to go, Demma escaped with Rui Costa and Nicholas Schultz, but the trio never got more than 15 seconds and Trentin's squad reeled them in just before the bell.

As I rolled across the line in the middle of the bunch, Trentin took his fourth stage win here today, while Froome contested the final sprint, finishing 11th on the stage, ensuring he finished two points clear in the points competition as well as winning the overall and the combined classifications.

Three weeks ago, I had a few goals for this Vuelta. I wanted to win a stage, I dreamt of spending a day in the race leader's jersey and hoped to be consistent enough to finish in the top 10 overall.

Hardest

I came into this Vuelta in great shape, which is just as well because it turned out to be probably the hardest Grand Tour I've ever ridden in terms of racing, course design and the level of riders taking part.

Losing 17 seconds in a split on a flat sprint finish to stage two cost me the leader's jersey, while a couple of bad days in the high mountains cost me a place in the top 10 overall.

In previous editions I'd been able to limit my losses on the longer climbs and put a few seconds into the GC riders on the short punchy finishes, but there weren't enough of them this year and, for me, there were too many long mountains.

After a tough three weeks, Nimes seems so long ago that it's easy to forget that I got a third career Vuelta stage win here this year when my BMC squad won the team time trial on the opening day.

After that, I spent two days in the Mountains leader's jersey, was third overall after 10 days of racing, came close to another stage win on Friday and ended up 14th overall.

I don't think I could have done much more.

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