‘With the peloton screaming along at 55kph, my front wheel exploded’
Vuelta a España Diary
Friday, September 1 - Stage 13: Coin to Tomares (184.5km)
Having come out of the high mountains for a day, most of us expected a bunch sprint finish to end today's stage as we rolled out of Coin this morning.
After three or four days where it took around 50km of flat-out racing for the break to get clear, today four riders jumped up the road within minutes of the start and opened a gap of 25 seconds.
Usually the reaction to the first big attack sets the tone for the start of the day.
If the peloton chases, or other riders try to get across after they've established a gap, then the counter-attacks keep coming and like the past few days, it can take over an hour or more for the break to establish itself as we tear along after everything that moves.
For this reason, my Italian team-mate Alessandro De Marchi always complains when he sees someone kick-start the bunch back into action by chasing a group that everyone else seems happy to let go, so when we went around a huge roundabout soon after, I was surprised to see Demma jump off the front and go after the lead quartet and made a mental note to give him some stick for it after the stage.
With strong men Thomas De Gendt from Lotto, Alexis Gougeard of AG2R, Arnaud Courteille of FDJ and mountains leader Davide Villella (Cannondale-Drapac) also in the move, the sprinters' teams weren't taking any chances, even when Villella dropped back having accomplished his mission of claiming maximum points at the top of the day's only categorised climb after 27km, and each put a man on the front of the peloton to keep them on a tight rein.
Having begun the day with the mercury tipping 40 degrees, we sent our second team car up the road this morning to hand out bottles at the top of the climb, but with Demma's group around three minutes clear by then, they were called into the gap behind them so Kilian (Frankiny) and Damiano (Caruso) dropped back to our other car behind the bunch for bottles. As Quickstep, Cannondale and Lotto Jumbo set the pace at the front, I found myself riding alongside Russian rider Maxim Belkov of Katusha.
I don't really know Belkov that well, apart from being in the odd breakaway with him, but having become an internet sensation last night after a video emerged of him being pushed off his bike and over the barriers by a 'fan' on yesterday's final climb. It went viral and I couldn't resist asking him about it.
"I saw the video of you being pushed over the barriers last night," I said. "What the hell happened there?"
"I'm fine," he smiled. "But it's going to be a great WhatsApp video on Eurosport!"
It turns out that although yesterday's final climb was only 6km long, a lot of stuff happened on it.
Alberto Contador attacked on the way up, Chris Froome crashed twice on the way down. Belkov got pushed clean over the barriers by somebody on the roadside. Another fan ran out to touch Contador and fell into the path of an oncoming motorbike and we had a pair of wheels nicked from the side of the road in the blink of an eye that it took our soigneur to hand up a bottle to one of the guys , all of which shows how vulnerable we all are at any point in the race.
With both the finish and the peloton closing in on the escapees, Gougeard and Courteille gave up the ghost with 20km to go, leaving Demma a minute clear with just De Gendt for company.
When De Gendt blew up 8km later, Demma continued alone - dangling just 45 seconds ahead of the Quickstep-led peloton, while I hit a huge pothole in the middle of the dual carriageway and suffered a front-wheel puncture.
With the peloton screaming along at more than 55kph, my front wheel had exploded in the middle of the peloton.
I was on the rim and couldn't take my hands off the bars to let everyone around me know I would be drifting back, so the rodeo call of "Whoa, Whoa, Whoa!" had to suffice as I tried to hold my bike up while the whole peloton whooshed past me.
Because we were going so fast, I wanted to give the team car a chance to get from 11th position in the cavalcade to the back of the peloton so that I wouldn't lose too much time waiting for a new wheel, so I didn't stop riding immediately.
Usually in the case of a puncture, you radio into the little mic under your jersey and let them know which wheel you've punctured so the mechanic can have the spare one ready to slot in when the car stops.
The problem today was that our directeur sportif Max Sciandri was giving us instructions on the radio at the same time, which meant we couldn't tell him until he stopped talking.
"Okay guys, we have a roundabout coming up... The shortest route around it is to the right..."
As I had my hands full, Damiano, who was riding alongside me, made the call when Max stopped talking.
"Nico, front wheel puncture! Nico, front wheel puncture!"
When we drifted to the back of the peloton, Damiano pulled over to the right-hand side of the road with me and stopped as I opened the skewer on my front wheel.
By the time the mechanic changed my wheel a few seconds later, I had Daniel Oss and Rohan Dennis waiting in the cavalcade to help pace me back to the peloton where Damiano brought me to the front with around 7km to go, just as Demma was unfortunately reeled in.
I knew the final 5km was going to be pretty technical, with lots of roundabouts and corners but I had no idea the final hill was going to be as hard as it turned out.
In the back of my mind I wanted to be near the front on the drag and maybe have a go in the sprint if there was an opening but when we hit 3km to go and I saw a steep incline in front of me, I knew we had underestimated the finish.
As Quickstep began to lead Matteo Trentin to his third stage victory, somebody let a wheel go in front of me coming out of a corner with 300 metres to go but I managed to close the gap by diving into the next one and took tenth on the stage.
Although most of the GC guys finished in the same little front group as me, I gained seven seconds on a few of those around me in the overall classification.
Those seven seconds would have put me in the red jersey of race leader last week but unfortunately now that I'm over four minutes down in 11th place overall, it doesn't really make much difference.
Still, it's always better to take time than lose time.
Vuelta a Espana,
Live, Eurosport 2, 2.0