Saturday 20 January 2018

'It was incredible to see Dan winning the stage'

Nicolas Roche

My Italian team-mate Matteo Montaguti got into the early breakaway this morning. He went clear with Heinrich Haussler of the Garmin Cervelo team just before the start of the first-category climb of Puerto de Mijares after 37km.

At the summit, 20km later, Matteo went over the line ahead of Haussler to take 15 points towards the King of the Mountains competition, with a handful of chasers about a minute behind them.

The two were later joined by Julien Fouchard and Adriano Palomares and built up a maximum lead of over 10 minutes on the peloton. Matteo crested the next two mountains first to give him a total of 25 points, and with Spanish King of the Mountains leader Daniel Moreno trapped in the peloton behind, my team-mate would take over in the polka dot jersey.

Back at the ranch, I was busy keeping out of the wind and getting ready for the ultra-steep 3km climb to the finish. Steve Houanard did a fantastic job to get me up the bunch and into the top seven or eight as we hit the bottom of the penultimate mountain with about 38km to go and the gap to the break down to just over three minutes,.

The Katusha team set a fierce pace up it as the next climb to the finish suited their leader Joaquin Rodriguez down to the ground. The little Spaniard is built for these type of finishes and everybody knew he was the one to watch.

I knew that there wouldn't be much room to pass on the little narrow climb and I had to be well positioned going into it. I rode across the top of the descent in the top 10 and made sure I stayed there on the descent. At the bottom I started climbing alongside former Giro d'Italia winner Denis Menchov and bounced along the cobbled sections as Katusha continued to pile on the pressure at the front.

The climb went up in steps, with some very steep sections interspersed with little bits of false flat. With about 500m to go I was in fourth place in the line behind Michele Scarponi, Jurgen Van de Broeck and Rodriguez.

With 200m to go, Rodriguez moved to the right and flew away. I could see it coming. I was in the perfect position but it was so steep that there was no way I could follow him. When Rodriguez goes, it's just incredible. He is so explosive.

I don't think anyone was expecting it to kick up so hard near the end. By the top Rodriguez had taken nine seconds out of Scarponi and Van Den Broeck. Bauke Mollema went past me straight away as I fought with my bike to stay in contact. Riding flat out on a 39x19 gearing, I could only watch as Jakob Fuglsang and then Igor Anton followed suit just before the line.

I took seventh on the stage and moved up two places to 23rd overall. I'm happy enough with today. I seem to be able to climb really well on these steep climbs but am not going so well on the long drags. Tomorrow is a big day again with a mountain-top finish at Cotavilla. Hopefully I can move into the top 15 or so on GC.

although he won all three mountain sprints yesterday, Matteo never got to wear the King of the Mountains jersey.

Instead, the race organisers announced that there were only 10 points on offer for the first climb instead of the 15 shown in all the official race books and manuals, which meant that Matteo was tied on time with home rider Daniel Moreno, and was screwed out of the jersey on countback.

With just two climbs on route today, we decided we would try our best to get a disappointed Matteo into the polka dot jersey this morning. The whole team led him onto the third-category Puerto de la Cruz de Hiero and he took maximum points at the summit after 8km of racing.

We worked out the points and knew that unless Moreno got top four on the stage or David Moncoutie or my cousin Dan Martin, who were fifth and sixth in the competition, won the stage, we would have the polka dot jersey on the team by the end of the day.

Today's stage ended with the 18km first-category ascent of the Sierra de Bejar de Cotavilla. Before the bottom of the finishing climb I was pretty well placed and didn't want to lose my spot if the group swelled up near the front at the foot of the mountain.

Our sprinter Lloyd Mondory was riding beside me and looked over to see if I was okay. I gave him the nod and told him to 'go' and he hit the front pretty hard to the bottom of the mountain.

I was feeling pretty good today, especially on the harder, steeper sections of the climb.

When defending champion Vincenzo Nibali attacked with six kilometres to go I was first one across to him and as he slowed, I was waiting for someone else to jump in the hope that I could go clear with them.

The next person to go clear turned out to be my cousin Dan. When I got across to him I was thinking 'this could be great', that when we got to the flatter bit the two of us could ride hard together, but when Dan saw me on the wheel he accelerated, so he mustn't have thought the same thing.

At the start I was feeling okay, but then Dan accelerated a second time and it started to hurt a bit. With 5km still left to climb, I knew it would be better to let him go rather than risk blowing up early and losing a lot of time.

As Nibali rode across to Dan, Italian climber Michele Scarponi caught me and I stayed with him until a bigger group containing Bradley Wiggins of Sky caught us and I slotted into the wheels.

On the hard parts of the climb today, I was feeling great but for some reason the others were much stronger than me on the sections where you had to up the gears and put the power on.

Having gotten over the steepest section pretty well, I completely exploded on the flatter bit with 2km to go where Chris Froome hit the front for his leader Wiggins. The top of the climb was really exposed and Froome forced us all into the gutter by riding tight to the edge of the road, giving just Wiggins shelter from the strong crosswinds.

I wasn't expecting the top to be so windy and was really struggling to hold the wheels.

When I got dropped, I put myself in the red trying to get back onto Wiggins' group so when a group containing Denis Menchov, Rein Taaramae, Haimar Zubeldia and a couple of others caught me I was already at my limit and they dropped me straight away.

I couldn't understand how I'd felt so strong on the really steep sections and then be getting dropped on the flatter sections and I just got angrier and angrier as the group ahead rode on.

The angrier I got, the slower I seemed to be going though and a six-man group containing Chris Sorensen (Saxo Bank) and Maxime Monfort (Leopard Trek) also passed me just before the line. I finished 19th on the stage, 47 seconds down and instead of moving into the top 15, I only moved up to 19th overall and was pretty disappointed with my day.

When I got onto the team bus, I glanced at the TV screen to see a repeat of Dan winning the stage, which was incredible. It was a fantastic ride and I'm really delighted for him.

He's an amazing rider when he's in form. He rides really aggressively and is a real winner when he gets into those situations.

People might think there is a bit of competition between myself and Dan on the bike, but there is absolutely none.

We're not fighting to be the first cousin or even the first Irish rider. We are both fighting to be the best in the race and today Dan showed that he is one of the best riders in the world.

To get a stage win in a grand tour is amazing. I'm delighted for him, which is more than I can say for Matteo Montaguti. Because Dan won the stage, Matteo never got his moment on the podium as King of the Mountains. Dan now leads the competition by two points.

Personally, I feel I should have done much better today. I wanted to attack at some stage which is why I was riding aggressively. Hopefully I can do a good time trial tomorrow. I have no choice now.

Vuelta a Espana,

Live, ITV4, 2.45

Irish Independent

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