Nicolas Roche: 'The gusts made it feel like riding in a washing machine'
Wednesday, March 20 - Sant Cugat to Camprodon (153km)
Last night the race organiser announced that today's route, due to end with a summit finish at the ski station at Vallter 2000, would be changed due to the bad weather - which included gusting winds, snow and a minus-20 chill factor at the top.
It has snowed so much here in the past three days that as well as the final ascent to the finish, two climbs in the middle of the stage were also pulled off the route due to a red avalanche warning in the area.
This morning in the team briefing we knew that the stage suited race leader Alejandro Valverde and that his Movistar squad would try and control things for him and whittle things down on the new finish climb, which dragged its way to the top from about 14km out, so we were happy to let things develop and see how they played out.
Despite a gale of a headwind again this morning, five riders, including Thomas de Gendt of Lotto went clear after 15km and held a minute's lead 10km later.
De Gendt took a three-second time bonus at the first intermediate sprint in Ventelles after 45km and crested the first climb of the day at the front to take maximum points in the mountains competition atop the first-category Coll de Bracons after 101km,
As the leaders opened a two-and-a-half-minute maximum lead, I felt sorry for Movistar rider Imanol Erviti as he singlehandedly led the chase at the front of the peloton for about 20km along a motorway.
The wind was full on in his face and it must have felt like riding with the handbrake on for him as we freewheeled along sheltered behind him in places.
After the Mitchelton Scott squad of Simon Yates took up the chase and rode full gas on the front for about 30km, we were half a minute off the leaders at the feed zone after 120km and with just 33km to go I was full sure of catching them before we even hit the final climb.
Just as we were about to catch them though Mitchelton Scott stopped riding, Movistar called their bluff and we slowed down to such an extent that half the peloton took the opportunity to stop for a pee at the side of the road and the escapees opened a gap again, with De Gendt going clear on his own up front.
My cousin Dan Martin had a go on the final climb before a quartet containing Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, Swiss rider Mathias Frank and pre-race favourites Simon Yates and Nairo Quintana went clear as we entered a long tunnel.
In the half-lit tunnel I was swinging off the back of a group of six or seven riders led by Giovanni Visconti and Matej Mohoric of UAE as they shut out the daylight that was opening between us and the now whittled-down front of the peloton.
For the last 10km I tried to keep Tejay van Garderen out of trouble and out of the wind but the gusts were so strong and there was so much pushing and shoving that it was like being in a washing machine, with everyone changing positions suddenly and going from one side of the group to another.
Riders would fly past only to hit the wind and literally stop in front of you.
With about 4km to go, I was on the wheel of Sky's Sergio Henao when a gust of wind almost blew the little Colombian off the road and I was really close to crashing a few times in the finale.
With 3km to go, some of those who had been dropped on the climb, including my team-mate Brent Bookwalter, swelled our numbers and although De Gendt had flown the coop and was on his way to winning the stage by then, the chase was on to bring back dangermen Yates and Quintana.
With about 600m to go and Yates and Quintana's group dangling just metres ahead of us, a crash on the left-hand side of the road, involving the other Yates brother, Adam and a few others, cut our group in half.
I was on the opposite side of the road and managed to avoid it.
Maybe I'm getting old but there seems to be more risks taken lately, even in small groups and crashes are more and more common lately.
Although we managed to catch the four-man chase group on the line, De Gendt was in full beast mode today and, as well as picking up the mountains jersey, the Belgian now leads the race by 23 seconds from Valverde, with myself and Dan 35 seconds down.
Tomorrow we have another summit finish to La Molina but after today, that could all depend on the weather.
Tour of Catalunya,
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