Monday 20 November 2017

Nicolas Roche: I knew it would be a hard day but I wasn't expecting that - I took a beating on the way up

Wednesday September 2, Stage 11: Andorra to Els Cortals de Encamp (138km)

Astana’s Italian cyclist Fabio Aru celebrates on the podium after claiming the leader’s red jersey
Astana’s Italian cyclist Fabio Aru celebrates on the podium after claiming the leader’s red jersey

Nicolas Roche

With six major mountains on the way to Els Cortals de Encamp this morning, we knew today was going to be a pretty epic day in the saddle.

After signing-on in Andorra, we had a meeting on the team bus to discuss tactics for the stage and to organise things for the day.

Our aim was to try and put somebody in the early breakaway, while our three highest-placed riders, myself (4th) Chris Froome (8th) and Mikel Nieve (11th) would try and pace ourselves over the early climbs so that we could hopefully be in contention at the first category summit finish.

As it had lashed rain all night and more was forecast for later on, I opted to take one drink on my bike this morning, cutting the top off my other bottle to stuff it with my sleeveless rain cape. With team carers positioned on all the climbs, I knew I could grab more bottles and food whenever I needed it.

With such a hard stage ahead of us, most of the peloton warmed up on home trainers before the short neutralised section to the foot of the first climb, where riders took to the footpaths to get to the front for the start of racing.

The attacks began as soon as we started the 9km opening climb where, just a few kilometres into the stage, disaster struck for Froome when he crashed hard on a corner. I'm not sure how it happened but I think he hit a really low timber guard rail along the footpath and walloped his foot and shoulder really hard.

Read more: Nicolas Roche falls out of contention in Vuelta

With the peloton splitting on the ascent, Vasil Kiryienka and Christian Knees waited for Froomey.

I went over the top near the front of the bunch with Mikel, while our young American team-mate Ian Boswell had gone clear in a large breakaway on the climb.

As Froomey regained contact with the peloton just before the second climb after 22km, the bandages on my elbow from Monday's crash were flapping around in the wind so I dropped back to the team car to get them fixed.

The Astana team of fifth-placed Fabio Aru set a tempo on the 16km ascent that should have been pretty manageable, but I soon began to feel weak. When I looked behind and saw most of the peloton still in contact at the top, I knew I wasn't on a good day.

I put my rain jacket on for the 30km descent, giving it back to the team car as we faced the third mountain, where we decided to go to the front and Knees set a pace to keep everyone together but dissuade others from attacking us.

We planned to do the same again on the hardest climb of the day, the Especial Category Col de la Gallina after 87km, but when Astana suddenly put the hammer down near the top, everything went into panic mode.

Suffering from the effects of his crash, Froomey was the first of us to get dropped with 43km to go, so Kyri waited for him, with Geraint Thomas following suit shortly after.

The increase in tempo had put me in trouble too and within a few minutes, I was out the back door as well.

At one point, all of us apart from 'Boz', who was in the break, and Mikel, who had managed to hang on to the front of the peloton, were all fighting to regain contact but about 2km from the top, Froomey got dropped again and 'G' waited for him while Kyri stayed with me.

After a fast descent, Kyri rode absolutely flat out in the lead-in to the penultimate climb, where I struggled again. Kryi tried to keep me going and we were just over three minutes down approaching the final climb, so I thought 'okay if I keep fighting, and limit my losses I might be able to fight my way back into a decent position over the next 10 days'.

Once we hit the last climb though, my lights went out.

I'd been struggling for over 30km and the final 10km incline was the end. The tank was empty and even in a tiny gear of 39x32, I struggled to move forward and Froomey, who'd been seven minutes back, caught me with about 4km to go.

Sergio Henao encouraged, cajoled and nursed me to the line while Maxime Bouet of Etixx-Quickstep, Mikael Cherel of Ag2r and Pierre Rolland of Europcar gave me a tap on the shoulder and a few words of encouragement.


But I had nothing left and took a beating on the way to the top, losing 14 minutes. I was expecting a hard day today but wasn't expecting that.

Even though the warning signs were there when I struggled to hang onto a big group on a flat finish after crashing on Monday, I hoped for the best today and was very motivated this morning.

Myself and Froomey's hopes are out the window as far as GC is concerned now, which is a bit of a tough pill to swallow for me because in six Vueltas this is the first one that hasn't gone to plan.

But it wasn't all bad for us today.

Mikel is now up to eighth, a minute and 11 seconds behind new leader Aru, while 'Boz' had an exceptional day and took third on the stage, in his first Grand Tour. Boz has been doing a lot of riding for us in this Vuelta so it's great to be able to see him make the most of theopportunity he had today.

Hopefully I can recover a bit now because when I'm feeling a bit better I'll go on the attack.

Vuelta a Espana

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