Nicolas Roche Diary: 'It is so steep that you have to lean over your handlebars to keep your front wheel on the ground'
Friday September 13, Stage 19: San Vicente Barquera to Alto Naranca, 181km
San Vincente Barquera is a nice little Spanish town on the western coast of Calabria where tourists come in their droves to visit the beaches and nearby historic monuments.
For some reason though, cyclists seem to want to get out of there as quickly as possible. I think I've started four stages of the Vuelta there in the past four years and every one of them have started as if the finish line was just up the road.
Today, 18 riders went away after just 2km of racing, but unlike other days, there was no waving them goodbye and settling into a nice rhythm behind. Instead the Katusha team of Joaquim Rodriguez took up the chase immediately and 18km later, the group only had 20 seconds.
Although they eventually managed to get around a two and a half minutes' advantage on the peloton, there was no respite in the chase until over 160km later when we got to the finish.
As Edvald Boasson Hagen of Sky crested the third category ascent of Alto de San Emiliano alongside Georg Preidler of Argos Shimano after 148km, the duo had two minutes, with the rest of the breakaway group spread all over the climb behind them.
Race leader Vincenzo Nibali decided he wanted to go full gas on the descent and, as the Italian is one of the best descenders in the world, there were only about nine of us left in the peloton at the bottom as we approached the penultimate climb.
With all the favourites still at the head of affairs, there was a bit of a regrouping in the valley before a chase group set off in pursuit of the leaders on the penultimate climb of Alto de Manzaneda with about 15km to go.
I had team-mates Rafal Majka, Ollie Zaugg and Chris Anker Sorensen with me and they brought me up the outside of the peloton and into a good position on the outskirts of Oviedo approaching the 6km-long final ascent.
Having looked at the race manual last night we knew the steepest 13pc section came with 3km to go and decided to hit the front with 5km to go to put the pressure on and see if we could get rid of anybody. I wasn't necessarily thinking of a stage win, but we had nobody in the break, I had all the guys there with me and the plan was to try and go for the best result.
One by one, the guys rode as hard as they could for as long as they could until the escapees were reeled in and only Rafal was left on the front with 3km to go. I told him to ride flat out on the steepest section and looked over my shoulder a couple of times to see if we were doing any damage.
"Keep going Rafal, there's only 10 guys left. Good job."
Once again Rafal did an exceptional job today, but we had misjudged the climb, thought the middle section was going to be harder and thought we could keep the team on the front for longer. With 2km to go, Rafal was tiring.
"Keep pushing it Rafal. Keep it up."
"Nico, I can't."
"One more kilometre Rafal, keep it going all the way."
"I can't. I'm f****d."
In fairness, when you're riding at your absolute limit there is now way you can ride any harder or any longer and Rafal did a great job today. He rode himself into the ground to get me as close to the top as he could and actually kept driving for another 500m before finally coming to a halt just 1.5km from the summit.
When he swung off the front, exhausted, I knew I had milliseconds to weigh up the situation.
I was hoping that because I was over three minutes off the race lead, Nibali wasn't going to chase me down and would instead be focused on marking second-placed Chris Horner. I reckoned Horner wasn't going to chase me straight away either, because he could afford to wait for a few minutes and still get the three seconds needed to take the leader's jersey off Nibali.
The only ones I thought might chase me were Alejandro Valverde, as he wouldn't want me to take points off him in the green jersey competition, and Rodriguez who might go for the stage win. Again, I thought if he did he would leave it until nearer the top.
Rafal swung over and I attacked immediately. I was right about there being no reaction from Nibali or Horner, but I'd only got a few metres before Rodriguez countered and shot past me in search of his stage win.
Rodriguez is a real threat to the overall lead so the others went after him. I stayed with them until about 900m to go, where they attacked each other. Horner and Valverde rode away near the summit and Horner got the three seconds he needed to take over as race leader and another three seconds as a cushion over Nibali.
Valverde took sixth on the stage, taking nine seconds and another four points off me for the green jersey, while I finished three seconds behind Nibali for 10th on the stage.
Today I really thought I could do something on the stage, but those guys just seem to have that little kick at the end that I don't have.
People will say: 'Ah, Roche went too early today,' or 'He should have waited for someone to attack,' but the problem is that when you're in the race and your team-mates have pulled on the front for the previous 5km and they have no more to give with 1.5km to go, the pace suddenly stops and you have a decision to make.
I had two choices today, ease up and hope that nobody attacked me, or I could attack them. I went for Plan B, but in hindsight, maybe should have waited for someone else to go. As a small consolation however, I managed to take more time out of the guys behind today and now have a two minute 10 second cushion to sixth placed Domenico Pozzoivo.
Tomorrow we have the last four mountains of this Vuelta. We begin with a third category climb and cruelly build up gradually to a second category and a first category before finishing on one of the hardest climbs in cycling, the 12km ascent of Angliru.
At a gradient of 7pc, the first five or six kilometres are hard enough, but Angliru is only starting to get going then, with a 21pc section thrown in to keep you awake shortly after.
About 3km from the summit however, you come and face this huge wall in front of you and with some sections at 23pc the rest of the climb is a nightmare. Team cars aren't allowed up it in case they get stuck or burn their clutches out and it is so steep that you have to lean over your handlebars on some sections simply to keep your front wheel on the ground. If it rains, you have to sit down because your back wheel can't get traction in the wet.
Horner (left) now leads the Vuelta by just three seconds from Nibali. Valverde is third at a minute and six seconds. Rodriguez is fourth at a minute and 57 seconds and I'm fifth at three minutes and 49 seconds. Angliru is a beast of a climb where you can lose minutes in a kilometre or two. If you have a bad day there, it's game over so anything can happen.
Vuelta a Espana,
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