Thursday 26 April 2018

'I forgot how steep the last 100m were'

Wednesday August 24 -- Stage 5: Sierra Nevada to Valdepenas de Jaen (187km)

Last night my Ag2r La Mondiale team stayed in the same hotel as the Garmin Cervelo team of my cousin Dan Martin. I congratulated him on his third place on the stage and asked him about his ambitions for this Vuelta.

He was pretty confident but said he's going to take it day by day and hope he can be good all the way to the end. This morning, Dan had the added bonus of wearing the white jersey of leader in the combined classification.

Awarded to the rider with the most points in each of the categories added together, Dan was actually third overall in the competition, but because the two guys in front of him -- race leader Sylvain Chavanel and king of the mountains Daniel Moreno -- were wearing other jerseys, Dan began today in white and was looking forward to not having to wear his black Garmin jersey on another scorching stage.

Having stayed at the top of the Sierra Nevada climb last night, today's 187km stage was made even longer by the fact that we had a 33km neutralised section before we even got to the start.

Instead of driving down the mountain in the team bus, the stage started at the top and was then neutralised down the descent for another 10km until we got through Granada, which meant we had almost 220km done by the end of today.

We had a minute's silence before the start for Xavier Tondo, the Movistar rider who was tragically killed three months ago when he was crushed between his car and a garage door as he was getting ready for a training ride on Sierra Nevada.

This time last year, I was fighting Tondo for a top-six place in the Vuelta. One day I'd drop him, the next day he'd drop me. Eventually he got the better of me, but we always got on very well and we gave each other a big hug afterwards and congratulated each other.

Tondo was a really likeable guy, with a smile on his face wherever he went. He will be badly missed.

It was pretty fast all day today and while a big break did go clear, the Katusha team -- who have Moreno and ace climber Joaquim Rodriguez in their ranks -- kept them on a tight leash and never let them get too far up the road.

My own team did a good job of looking after me again today. Once again, they kept me fed and watered and out of the wind, which is all I ask of them really. We're not a super team and I don't ask them to set the pace on the front like Rodriguez did today.

On the second-category climb of the Alto de Valdepenas, the top of which came with nine kilometres to go, Vladimir Karpets went to the front for Katusha and just drilled the bunch along in the hope that it would weaken the opposition.

Going over the top, David Moncoutie of Cofidis was on his own with a 35-second lead.

The Liquigas team went to the front on the eight-kilometre descent, knowing that their leader and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali would be in a great position going into the bottom of the final ascent to the finish if he just stayed in their wake.


Between the pace set by the Liquigas guys and another huge turn from Karpets on the descent, we were covering each downhill kilometre in just over a minute and five seconds and we caught Moncoutie with 900m to go, right at the bottom of the climb to the finish.

I had been trying to stay as near the front as possible on the descent, as the narrow one-kilometre climb to Jaen rears up through a typical Spanish mountain village's back streets, and there isn't much room to pass other riders until halfway up.

At the bottom, Rodriguez pulled clear with team-mate Moreni, and two Dutchmen -- Bauke Mollema of Rabobank and Wout Poels of Vaconsoleil. Having started the climb a bit too far back, in about 15th, I had to fight my way through the wheels on the slope and by the time we got into the last 300m, I was riding alongside Michele Scarponi of Lampre and a few others.

As the road flattened out for a few metres, I attacked Scarponi's group in the hope of getting fifth place but forgot how steep the final 100m were.

I'd made my effort on the flatter bit and my legs were now burning with lactic acid. I blew up with about 80m to go and Scarponi, Zubeldia and Danish rider Jakob Fuglsang came around me in the sprint and I took eighth.

I was in bits when I crossed the line, where the team soigneur caught me and pushed me through the massive crowd to get some air. When we found a clearing I sat on the side of the road, took off my helmet and gulped down a whole bottle of water.

While I would have liked a higher placing than eighth, I was happy enough. Everybody on the team was as disappointed as I was when I lost 51 seconds yesterday, but they rallied around me today and it was important to show them that I'm still here, still in the game. I gained 20 seconds on the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Jani Brajkovic and 27 seconds on Dan, who finished 30th, and moved up two places to 25th overall.

Much like Dan, I'll just take things day by day and hopefully at the end of the three weeks, we can both be up there challenging for a good position.

Vuelta a Espana,

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Irish Independent

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