Friday, September 11, Stage 19: Medina del Campo to Avila to (185.8kms)
fter a visit to the podium yesterday to collect my trophy and a bottle of Cava, which I was disappointed not to be able to bring back to the team bus with me, I had a few interviews to do before hopping into the team car for the trip to our next hotel.
Although I only arrived about 20 minutes after the guys on the team bus, we were split in two for dinner and massage so I didn't get to see all of them straight away.
After massage, I had dinner in the kitchen truck with Vasil Kiryienka, Sergio Henao, Ian Boswell and Mikel Nieve before meeting up with the rest of the lads in the hotel at 10.30, where the team produced a bottle of champagne for us and had a little toast to celebrate my stage win.
My former team, Ag2r, were also staying in the same hotel so the team got a bottle for their table too and it was quite nice to be able to share the celebration with some of the riders and staff that I've raced with or worked with earlier in my career.
Although I was feeling drained by the time I went to my room, I'd left my phone on the bus after the stage so when I picked it up it was full of congratulatory messages from friends and family. I spent the next half hour or so replying to them, which got me a bit hyped about my stage win again and it took me a while to go to sleep.
After a few pats on the back and handshakes from guys in the peloton this morning, I found myself lining up alongside my former team-mate at Tinkoff-Saxo, Daniele Benatti.
As we waited for the flag to drop, a few of us guessed how long it would take for the break to get away.
Judging by previous days, most of us expected a huge battle to get up the road and guessed anywhere from the 50km to 70km mark, but there was no reaction when a huge group went straight from the gun, which shows how tired everyone is.
My team-mate Christian Knees was one of 24 riders in the move, while our nearest rivals for the team classification, Movistar, had two riders up there.
This meant that whatever time they took by the end of the stage would be doubled and they would likely open a big lead over us.
Although the Giant Alpecin team of race leader Tom Dumoulin set a steady pace at the front for most of the stage, today was a lot harder than I expected.
We spent much of the day riding through the desert and the open roads and crosswinds made for a hard day in the saddle.
The crosswinds also caused a few incidents in the bunch, with two of my team-mates, Geraint Thomas and Salvatore Puccio, hitting the deck in a crash that also saw Dumoulin and second-placed Fabio Aru of Astana fall after 50km or so.
Giant stopped riding for a while to let their race leader regain contact and things calmed down a bit. With the 10km-long second-category Alto de Paramera coming with 30km to go today, I think everyone in the break was still expecting a huge fight between the GC guys there, so they seized their chance and the gap suddenly went out to a huge 16 minutes.
Although the stage would be decided between the breakaway group, Movistar took it on and nailed it up the climb, putting everyone in peloton in the gutter on the right-hand side of the road and scrambling for shelter.
In the struggle to stay on the wheels, there was a crash a few places ahead of me so I instinctively moved to the left to give myself a bit of space to avoid it but almost ran over the Cofidis and FDJ riders who were suddenly sitting on the road.
By that point, I was already on the limit, but Mikel was still in there as the peloton got whittled down and I didn't want to leave him on his own so I sprinted to get back onto the group. The effort put me into the red, however, and it wasn't long until I paid the price and was soon riding last man and hanging on.
When somebody ahead of me sat up, I found myself in a group of five or six riders just before the top, with Boz in the group just behind me. When his group merged with mine on the descent, it somehow split again with Boz going with the front part and me left behind as we approached Avila.
With the break having finished 16 minutes earlier and Mikel safely in the favourites' group ahead, I eased up once we hit the cobbled climb to the finish and rolled to the line a minute or so behind them.
Christian got ninth on the stage today but with Movistar duo Andrey Amador (4th) and Fran Ventoso (10th) also picking up time, they now hold a 22-minute lead over us in the team classification, which will be hard to get back.
A late attack by race leader Dumoulin managed to get another three seconds on Aru at the finish today but with just six seconds' advantage going into tomorrow's final mountain stage, the Italian climber won't be giving up too easy.
Movistar managed to blow the whole race to bits in 3km today. Tomorrow, the first 20km are up a mountain and there are three more first-category climbs after that, so they have plenty of opportunity to do it again, a lot earlier in the stage, and so do all of the other overall contenders.
With only three minutes separating the top five, everybody has to play their last card tomorrow.
There's a lot to be won and I expect war between the GC guys.
It's going to be hell. I'm expecting the worst but hoping for the best.
Vuelta a Espana,
Live, TG4/Eurosport, 11.30
Irish cycling mourns 'iron man' Murphy
A true legend of Irish cycling, Mick Murphy, passed away unexpectedly at his home in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry.
The 'Iron Man' rose to fame when he won the Rás Tailteann in 1958, despite having only taken up the sport a year earlier.
He won two stages of the Rás the following year, despite sleeping rough in Dublin the night before the race and he was known as much for his eccentric lifestyle as his sporting prowess. A former wrestler, boxer and circus strongman who performed sword-swallowing and fire-eating among other feats, Murphy was one of the first in the sport here to train with weights, albeit home-made ones.
His exploits on and off the bike, including many legendary tales, have earned him a place in Irish sporting history.