Saturday 18 November 2017

'We reached scary speeds of 110kph on the long descent'

Thursday, March 24, Stage 4: Baga to Port Aine (172.2km)

Nairo Quintana on the podium after yesterday’s stage in Port Aine. Photo: Josep Lago/Getty Images
Nairo Quintana on the podium after yesterday’s stage in Port Aine. Photo: Josep Lago/Getty Images

Niicolas Roche, Catalunya Diary

With a 10km climb to start today's stage we left our team hotel a little bit earlier this morning to give ourselves time to warm up on the home trainers before the stage start.

On the way, we had our team meeting and decided to try something a little bit different on a stage that ended with three very tough mountains and the summit finish to Port Aine.

Myself, Ben Swift and Ian Boswell were given the task of infiltrating any big moves that went clear in the opening kilometres, which is easier said than done.

Two years ago we rode a similar stage in this race but back then the first climb was neutralised and we didn't start racing until we all got over the top.

Today, we started racing right at the bottom, which meant the next 10km were spent trying to follow attacks in the hope that one of us would get in the move that stuck.

After marking everything that moved for the first half of the ascent, a group of eight or nine riders went clear with none of us in it.

Crash

Swifty was caught in no-man's land in between bunch and break for a long time but made a huge effort to get across the gap before the top as my Welsh team-mate Geraint Thomas was caught up in a crash in the peloton.

With his gears mangled, 'G' had to change onto his spare bike but with the Ettix Quickstep team of my cousin and race leader Dan Martin still chasing the escapees, he was a minute and a half behind the peloton soon after, but regained contact when they gave up the ghost and settled into a steadier tempo at the front of the peloton a few kilometres later.

With ten very strong riders out front, the breakaways had built up a lead of ten-and-a-half minutes after 80km and with Swifty up the road, we looked at our options.

We decided to make the race hard in a couple of different spots, the first of which was at the foot of the Especial Category Porte de Cano climb which came immediately after the feed zone 100km into the stage.

With the first half of the 24km-long ascent the steepest part of the climb, it was here we decided to go for it. While we didn't want to spend all day on the front like we had yesterday, we didn't want everyone else to have an armchair ride to the final climb either.

We also wanted to bring the gap down a bit and knew that Swifty was in a good position up ahead and could be called back to help out if he was needed later on.

I went to the front at the bottom and drove it as hard as I could until we hit a more open flatter section and Froomey told me I'd done enough.

I swung over and the Ettix Quickstep boys came back up but they rode a lot steadier so most of the guys that had been dropped managed to get back on before the top. The descent was 20km long and as it was on a big wide road we reached some pretty scary speeds of over 110kph.

At the bottom, with 42km to go, we hit another second-category climb, the 10km-long Alt de Enviny, where I was supposed to repeat my effort but didn't need to as Ettix set a good tempo before my Dutch team-mate Wout Poels launched his pre-planned attack near the top.

Wout had started the day less than 40 seconds off Dan's race lead and with Swifty dropping back from the front group to help him, he had 25 seconds going over the summit and a minute-and-a-half as they hit the final climb, making him virtual race leader on the road.

I stayed with the rest of the guys in case they needed a hand getting into position at the bottom of the 22km-long mountain before swinging over and spent the next hour riding to the snow-capped summit with just Alex Gaumont from Ag2r for company.

Up ahead, Wout was caught by the whittled-down group of overall contenders with 5km to go as they began to attack each other in search of the race lead.

Just over a minute after Belgian Thomas de Gendt had taken stage victory, Nairo Quintana of Movistar had opened a big enough gap on the favourites' group to take second place and propel himself into the race lead.

The little Colombian climber now has an eight-second lead over Contador, 24 seconds over fourth-placed Dan and 46 seconds over Froomey, who is now in eighth place.

When I got back to the bus I looked around for my room-mate Boz but he wasn't there.

I don't know why yet but it turns out that Boz has abandoned today, which is a shame as he was riding really well.

With no more mountain-top finishes to come in the last three days, it will be hard to shake Quintana out of the race leader's jersey so we will have to change our tactics for the rest of the race.

With Nacer Bouhanni having pulled out of the race through illness, Swifty is the fastest sprinter in the race, so hopefully we can get a stage win for him before the week is out.

Volta a Catalunya, Live, Eurosport, 2.30

Irish Independent

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