Sunday 17 December 2017

'I sprinted flat out and held on by half a bike length'

Nicolas Roche

We've been in the same hotel since last Wednesday and, while it was nice not having to keep packing and unpacking our bags every day, we were happy to be leaving it this morning.

The rooms were okay but we had no internet and the food was crap. The rice was full of water and the pasta was really overcooked. At dinner last night Steve Houanard only had a bowl of rice and a couple of apples after his long day in the break.

At first I thought it was because the food was horrible, but it turned out the doctor had given out to him because he is a couple of kilos overweight and his body-fat percentage is too high.

I only know Houanard a week as we haven't ridden the same races all year. I'd already given out to him for going against team orders and getting into a breakaway that was doomed to failure from the off.

He's riding his first major tour and is just inexperienced, but at the start this morning I had a word with him and told him that he couldn't just go from one extreme to the other if he wanted to survive a three-week race.

I also had a chat with my friend Chris Sutton this morning. He couldn't believe he had won a stage of a Grand Tour. Having taken over as leader of the points competition too, this morning he was decked out in a green helmet to match his new jersey.

Today's stage was mainly flat with just two third-category climbs. Although the stage looked like it would be decided by a large group, the final climb of the Altos de Santa -- the summit of which came with just 13km to go -- was sure to play a part.

When five riders went clear after just six kilometres, the Leopard Trek team of overnight race leader Daniele Bennati weren't too worried, especially when one of them ended up back in the peloton shortly after being stung by a bee, but the group contained two very strong riders: French champion Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) and Movistar's veteran Pablo Lastras. They soon opened a big gap.

Our plan was for the team to stick with me and give me a hand all the way to the bottom of the last climb. That's what they did.

The guys were around me all day, moving me up the bunch, keeping me out of the wind and bringing me bottles and food. It was very hot again today, around 42 degrees, and I drank between eight and 10 bottles during the stage.

The first climb was okay. There was a bit of a stall before the bottom as the Leopard Trek team of race leader Bennati decided to stop chasing the breakaways, but then the Katusha team took over and the pace increased again.

Leopard Trek took up the chase again briefly before they decided that it would be too much work to bring the four escapees back and left it to other teams to close the gap. This saw the pace go up and down for the rest of the stage as we chased, stalled and then chased some more.

With 20km to go we entered the finishing circuit and as the guys kept me near the front for the final climb, I noticed that there was a little ramp up with 600m to go after we came out from under a bridge. I've said I wanted to be more aggressive in this race so I decided to have a go there next time round.

Everybody was around me at the bottom of the last climb and then I did my own thing, moving up to the second row of riders as Team Sky set a good pace at the bottom for their leader Bradley Wiggins.

Even if it was only to keep Wiggins out of danger on the descent, it showed they were taking responsibility and I think Brad could be a dark horse for this Vuelta. He definitely showed today that he's here to go for overall victory.

Liquigas took over on the front halfway up the climb and the pace increased again. Plenty of guys had gone out the back door on the way up, including sprinter Mark Cavendish and Bennati.


There were 44 of us left in the peloton at the top and while we had no chance of catching the four breakaway riders, their advantage had been halved to just under two minutes with 13km to go.

On the descent to the finish, Liquigas continued riding on the front for their sprinter Valerio Agnoli, who was hoping to move up in the points classification. I was sitting in about 10th wheel as we exited under the bridge with 600m to go. I jumped hard to the left and opened a bit of a gap.

I sprinted flat out to the line and held on by half a bike length from Dane Matti Breschel and Agnoli to take fifth on the stage and my biggest result of a disappointing year so far.

Whereas last year I had almost 30 top 10s in big races, this year has been hampered by crashes and injuries, so it was nice to get some kind of a result and hopefully it won't be the last of this Vuelta.

My cousin Dan Martin finished 20th on the stage and moved up to 21st overall while I moved up to 40th, just under two and a half minutes behind stage winner and new leader Lastras.

Tonight my team-mate Cyril Dessel has promised to buy us all a glass of wine, so I'm looking forward to that.

Vuelta a Espana,

Live, Eurosport, 3.0

Irish Independent

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