Thursday 18 January 2018

Nicolas Roche: 'I became a human yo-yo, clawing my way back only to be dropped off again'

September 2 – Stage 10: Torredelcampo to Alto Hazallanas 186.8km

Nicolas Roche (left) in the King of the Mountains jersey alongside (left to right) Ivan Basso, Alejandro Valverde, Thibot Pinot and Joaquin Rodriguez in the closing stages of yesterday's stage of the Vuelta a Espana
Nicolas Roche (left) in the King of the Mountains jersey alongside (left to right) Ivan Basso, Alejandro Valverde, Thibot Pinot and Joaquin Rodriguez in the closing stages of yesterday's stage of the Vuelta a Espana

Nicolas Roche

Today was the biggest climbing stage so far, with the 8.5km-long, first category ascent of the Alto de Monachil after 159km followed by the 15km-long trudge up the special category summit finish at Alto de Hazallanas.

Like the 'Hors Category' at the Tour de France, the 'Especial Categorie' at the Vuelta is reserved for the longest, steepest, toughest climbs of the race.

While I knew this morning that I only needed a single second over Daniel Moreno to take back the leadership, I also knew that there were a dozen or so very strong riders within a minute and 42 seconds of that jersey.

On a finishing climb like today's, good legs could see you go from 12th overall to leader with one solid attack while bad legs could see you go in the opposite direction just as quickly.

The remnants of a 10-man breakaway were scattered on the road ahead of us as we crested the first mountain. Although I didn't know exactly how many were ahead, I went to the front at the summit to try and add a few more points to my King of the Mountains jersey and also grabbed a bottle from our team soigneur at the roadside.

I nearly came a cropper on the 75kph descent when I decided to unclip my foot and stretch my leg on one of the straight sections, only for team-mate Rafal Majka to overtake me at the same time. We collided for a second but managed to bounce off each other and stayed upright.

Chris Anker Sorensen, Michael Morkov and Oliver Zaugg got myself and Rafal to that final climb in a good position and from there on it was all about trying to stay there.

Like yesterday, Basque rider Igor Anton was the first one to attack our group, about 6.5km from the summit, and pretty soon there were only eight or nine of us left.

When overnight leader Moreno was dropped with 5km to go, I knew that if the status quo remained to the top I would take over the lead again. But I also knew that, with tomorrow being a rest day, the favourites would be keen to get the last joules of energy out of their legs on the climb in order to gain a few seconds and the attacks would come.

As we reeled in the last of the day's early escapees, I was hanging on to a seven-man front group as Giro d'Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali and Ivan Basso set the tempo. Also present were Spanish pre-race favourites Alejandro Valverde and Joaquin Rodriguez, Frenchman Thibaut Pinot and American Chris Horner.

Like a car running on empty, my red light had been flashing for ages and an attack by Horner with 4.5km to go saw myself and Pinot jettisoned on a steep switchback. I knew that I had to dig deep and keep riding as hard as I could or all the work I had done to get this far would be for nothing and my chances of a high overall finish in Madrid on Sunday week were over.

Just 500m later, the quartet in front of us began to look at each other and slowed slightly. Pinot made a beeline for the rear of the group while I got the grappling hook out and regained contact with the Frenchman.

A counter-attack by Nibali with 3km to go saw me exit the rear door again, although this time Pinot didn't get dropped with me.

I managed to claw my way back a few hundred metres later only for Basso to attack and see me dropped again. As Basso and Nibali traded attacks at the front of the group, I became a human yo-yo, clawing my way back to the group, only to be dropped again with the next surge off the front.

When Nibali eventually got clear in the final 2km, Valverde, Rodriguez, Basso and Pinot spread out across the road ahead of me and I regained contact for the last time. My legs were screaming at me to stop but I was determined to stay there to the finish and even tried to bluff them in the last kilometre, making my way to the front.

When the sprint for third place opened in the final 500m, however, I simply had no response. I'd been riding at the absolute limit of my physical capabilities for the previous 5km and had nothing left. All I could do was keep going and I finished eight seconds behind the quartet for seventh on the stage.

I've slipped down a place to third overall now and am 53 seconds behind today's stage winner and new race leader Horner, with Nibali 10 seconds ahead of me in second place.

Satisfaction

Although I'm a bit disappointed to lose time today, I have the satisfaction of knowing there was nothing more I could do. I gave it everything I had.

Having held the red, green, white and polka-dot jerseys at some stage during the past week, I lost the last of my classification leads today even though they presented me with the mountains jersey again after the stage.

Horner's maximum points at the top of the final climb today give him a three-point lead over me in the King of the Mountains competition. But as he is race leader, he will wear the red jersey and I will still wear the polka-dots of best climber again on Wednesday.

It's been a great tour for me so far. If you'd said to me a couple of weeks ago that I would be third overall after 10 days, with a stage win and a day in the leader's jersey already in the bag, I wouldn't have believed you.

After today's finish we had a 1.5km ride to a hotel where each team was given two rooms to shower and get changed in an hour and a half before a bus transfer to Granada Airport, a flight to Zaragoza and another 40-minute bus trip to our next hotel.

Tomorrow we have our first rest day of this Vuelta. I can't wait.

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