Nicolas Roche Diary: 'I've won more jerseys in past three weeks than in the rest of my career '
Saturday September 14, Stage 20: Aviles – Alto de L'Angliru 142.2km
Last night I went to bed with the final 3km of yesterday's stage replaying in my mind. It was like I was still racing. The second category climb to Alto Naranco had suited a powerful rider like me more than the little punchy climbers and looking back, it was a decent chance of a stage win.
I'd hoped to at least take back a little bit of time and a few points on the green jersey of Alejandro Valverde at the summit and lay there imagining what would have happened if I had held my attack until later in the stage rather than with 1.5km to go.
I knew yesterday had been my last real chance to move up from fifth place overall and with the ultra-steep Angliru as today's grand finale, from the moment I woke up, it was all about holding on to what I had.
The 12km ascent of Angliru is so savagely steep that in 2008 Scottish rider David Millar, who had begun the day in ninth place, got to within half a metre of the finish line before dismounting, throwing his bike to the ground, ripping off his race number and placing it on the road. Instead of riding the final half metre of the stage, he quit the Vuelta in protest.
Formerly used to herd goats, there are long segments of the slope as steep as 23pc, which meant that today I had a mountain-bike gearing of 34x32 on to help me get up it. Angliru is a cruel way to finish a stage and even worse if it's the penultimate stage of a three-week race.
Angliru is too hard for me and I know that. Its sheer gradients just don't suit me. I've done it three times now and every time it's been roughly the same; I've been at my absolute limit and hanging on for dear life as the featherweight climbers dance away from me into the distance.
Having begun today in second overall in the combined classification, this morning I was given the white jersey to wear as competition leader, Chris Horner, also led the race overall and would be wearing the red jersey.
Although it's great to be wearing a classification leader's jersey on any tour, I did think about the fact that the only other day I wore it on this Vuelta, was the cold, wet day to Andorra where I lost three-and-a-half minutes and dropped from second to sixth place overall and I hoped it wouldn't happen again.
On the team bus this morning, the plan was simple. I was highly unlikely to gain time on the four climbers in front of me today, so it was all about not losing any time to the guys behind me, especially sixth-placed Domenico Pozzovivo of Ag2r.
My Saxo-Tinkoff team-mates had orders not to go in the breakaway, but to stick with me all day long, make sure I didn't need anything and got to Angliru in the best possible position.
With a 30-strong breakaway group having gone clear earlier, the peloton was driven along by the Movistar team of third-placed Valverde on the second category Alto de Tenebredo after 75km. With the pace shelling half the peloton out the back door, I was already suffering a bit, but a quick glance around the group told me that I wasn't the only one.
On the first category climb of Alto del Cordal after 120km, Damiano Caruso of Katusha was driving relentlessly on the front and the peloton was whittled down to just 25 at the top as I moved over to the right-hand side of the road to grab a bottle from the team soigneur.
The group split on the descent and I had to take a few risks to stay in the front part, but it had to be done today.
Two Movistar guys led us on to the 12km climb, but both were gone with 9km remaining. As the breakaway group splintered ahead, Daniel Moreno rode on the front for his fourth-placed team leader Joaquin Rodriguez, while race leader Horner, third placed Valverde, second placed Vincenzo Nibali, Pozzovivo (6th) , Thibaut Pinot (7th), myself and my young Polish team-mate Rafal Majka made up the rest of the group.
I wasn't comfortable, but was feeling okay and telling myself to keep going. As Valverde grabbed a can of Coke from the roadside and handed some of it to Nibali in front of me, I crammed an energy gel into me with 8km to go, just before we hit the really, really steep part.
Beijing Olympic champion Sammy Sanchez accelerated on the first almost-vertical ramp and Nibali went after him, the Italian trying to regain the three seconds from Horner that would give him back the race lead.
Immediately, I was in trouble. If I tried to follow the rest of the group, which included my nearest threat, Pozzovivo, there was a distinct possibility that I would explode nearer the top and lose a lot of time. I knew I had a two-minute margin over Pozzovivo, though, and reckoned that if I could keep a really steady rhythm for those last 6km, I could afford to lose a minute or a minute and a half to the diminutive Italian climber and I'd keep my fifth place.
I knew it would be tight, but I had to play it safe. Rafal had been riding directly behind me and I waved him past and told him to set a steady tempo to the top as the others rode away. I was really on the limit and it's hard to stay focussed when the guys you're supposed to be with are riding away from you. Even though you don't get any real draft when you're going 9km an hour up such a steep climb, having Rafal in front of me was more about having something to concentrate on and I focused on sticking to his back wheel.
Every time we rounded a hairpin or Pozzovivo came into view, I was counting how far up the road he was. I wasn't counting one, two, three, four, five, but I knew roughly by looking up the road how far 30 seconds was and how far a minute was. As long as I could see him, I knew there were roughly 40 seconds between us and I still had another bit of a cushion if things got any worse.
Rafal was super strong and dropped me every time he accelerated. I had to tell him to ease up a few times, but he was fantastic today and really kept me going. "Come on Nico, let's go get that top five... Come on Nico, he's only got 30 or 40 seconds... Come on Nico, hang in there."
In the last 4km we were riding in fog and I lost sight of Pozzovivo. In fact, I had no idea where anyone was.
I was on the limit, but was trying not to go over it. My heart rate was between 170-172bpm and I knew that as long as long as I didn't push it too far over that I could hold on for the 10 minutes or so that was left.
Nearer the top, we began to catch Astana rider Paolo Tiralongo, who had been in the early break. The road was really narrow and there was a neutral service car in between us. Although Rafal was screaming at him to pull in, the car didn't see us with the fog and we had to ride into the crowd to get past.
Up ahead, Horner had effectively won the Vuelta by dropping everyone and catching all of the early escapees to finish second on the stage. I really emptied the tanks in the last kilometres, but by the time I had dragged my bike over the line behind Rafal, for 19th place on the stage. I'd lost three minutes and 16 seconds to the American. Even though I finished seventh of the overall contenders on the stage, I'd lost almost the same amount of time to Horner on Angliru as I had done over the rest of the whole race.
Pozzovivo had finished seven places ahead of me, but, thankfully, had only gained a minute and 12 seconds, so I held on to fifth place.
Absolutely shattered at the summit, the minute I got off the bike, my legs went. Luckily, there were some guys from the race organisation who grabbed me as I was falling. They pulled up a chair and sat me down.
I was so fatigued, I didn't really have a clue what was going on as I flopped down beside Daniel Moreno from Katusha. The man who had snatched the race leader's jersey off me by a single second earlier in the Vuelta took one glimpse at me and offered me a chocolate bar and a Coke and in a few minutes I felt a lot better.
After changing into some dry gear, we all cycled back down the climb, riding through the thousands of fans walking back to their cars. It took close to 40 minutes to get back down, but a lot of the fans recognised me and gave me some huge cheers which was a pretty good feeling.
This morning, I gave one of the soigneurs some money to buy some ham and cheese and a couple of bottles of wine which we had with some pizza on the team bus. We have plenty of time to eat it as we now have a five-hour bus transfer to our next hotel.
Sunday, September 15, Stage 21: Leganes – Madrid 109.6km
There must have been a few riders with early flights booked for this evening as today's pace was hectic and the stage flew by. Aussie Michael Matthews took the inevitable bunch sprint, while I finished safely in the middle of the peloton to retain fifth place overall.
It's been a really good Vuelta for me, a breakthrough Grand Tour, with my first ever stage win, my first ever leader's jersey and my highest ever finish overall. Having led all four classifications at one point or another, I've won more jerseys in the past three weeks than in the rest of my career put together, but, as you can imagine, I've had quite a few demands for them.
Some are going to charity and some to my team-mates, but there are a lot of people who would like to have them. I'll try and please as many people as I can, but I know a lot of people will be disappointed.
At the moment I live in an apartment and have no room to put my red jersey of race leader on the wall, but when I eventually settle down in a proper house I will get it framed and put it up somewhere. My reminder of the day I led the Vuelta.
It's been mentally hard, but I think there's been a change in me on this Vuelta. I've been more focused and more confident in this race. Maybe that's because I got my win on the second stage and the elation of finally winning a Grand Tour stage lifted the pressure early.
The support has been fantastic from all of the riders to the mechanics, masseurs, team chefs even the bus driver, it's been brilliant and has added to my confidence and morale for the past three weeks.
Tonight we have a final team dinner with sponsors and guests before heading home tomorrow. I wont' be there long, though, as we head to Italy for the world championships on Thursday. I'll ride the team time trial with Saxo-Tinkoff before competing in the individual time trial and road race for Ireland.
After that, I have the Tour of Lombardy before coming home for the Nicolas Roche Classic in Tayto Park on October 19. This year the chosen charity is the Down Syndrome Centre and, as he's never been to Ireland, my team-mate Roman Kreuziger is going to come along too.
The charity ride is a great way of meeting people and thanking them for their support over the year and as usual we will have a 50km spin, a 90km route and our 9km family spin, so I hope to see some of you there.
Thanks a lot for the support over these past three weeks, whether it's been a text, a tweet, or even a shout at the telly. It's been great to have something exciting to write every day. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.