Nicolas Roche: 'If I don't do well, all I will remember from this year are the crashes'
This year's Vuelta Espana was brought forward so Spanish holidaymakers could flock to the roadsides in the opening week, but I could have done with an extra week's holiday myself.
I was pretty wrecked after the Tour de France at the end of July. It took longer for me to recover than last year and while I felt I could do with a break, I also knew that if I let myself slip I wouldn't be in good form for the Vuelta.
After a lazy day in Paris immediately after the Tour, I wanted to get away from the cycling bubble and headed to the one place I knew would take my mind off it.
What I love about Eurodisney is it takes you out of the real world and transports you back to being a kid. It can make you laugh and scream at the same time.
Although I have no problem hurtling down a mountain at 80kph or driving a car or motorbike even faster, I don't trust roller-coasters. At least on the bike or in the car, I'm in charge.
Normally, I won't even go near the local funfair, so I was absolutely terrified as my girlfriend Chiara persuaded me to conquer my fear and line up for the Tower of Terror. I then spent the next hour or two building up the courage to ride the Rockin' Rollercoaster.
Afterwards I bought the usual souvenir photo and was delighted to see Chiara and everybody else in the picture was screaming just as much as me.
Two days after the Tour, it was back to business and I flew to Norway for a criterium. On the Thursday, I flew to Belgium and drove to Luxembourg for another crit.
On the Friday, I took another flight to Bilbao for the San Sebastian Classic, where I felt okay but was over-confident and attacked too much. There were maybe a dozen of us left at the top of the Jaizkibel climb and from then on it was attack, attack, attack. I went a fair few times but got dropped with former Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso in the last few metres of the last climb.
I've ridden every day since then but took it easy for a week or so after San Sebastian. I spent a few days in Nice, where I enjoyed a couple of spins with my dad. By the time I went back to my base in Varese, I had maybe four days of really hard training to do before leaving for Benidorm and the Vuelta.
With no results to speak of and only one UCI point to my name this year, I'm going into this Vuelta with a bit of pressure on me for the overall classification. The whole team is here to ride for me and we have no back-up plan.
I don't want to say this Vuelta could make or break my season, but it's probably true. If I do a good ride here, then I can look back on 2011 and a good Vuelta. If I don't, all I will remember from this year are the crashes.
Normally, August and September is the part of the season where I do best. I like the Vuelta. I was 13th overall in my first attempt at it and almost won a stage. Last year, I was very consistent and finished seventh overall. I like the heat of Spain. The roads are a lot safer and there usually aren't as many crashes as there are at the Tour de France, while the shorter, sharper Spanish climbs seem to suit me more than the 25km long Tour climbs.
Also, the media scrum disappears. At the Tour, you have guys who've set up a website a few weeks before, think they're journalists and all want an interview. In Spain, you cross the line, maybe sign a couple of autographs and you're off. It's a lot more relaxed.
I feel I've recovered from the Tour but still don't really know how my form will hold up in the high mountains of Spain. A good Vuelta for me would be a top 10 overall. I'd love to say top five but I don't think I'll make it this year after such a disrupted season.
I think Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha), Michele Scarponi (Lampre) and Igor Anton (Euskaltel) will be fighting for the podium while Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma Lotto) and Janez Brajkovic (Radioshack) could all be there too if they have recovered from their Tour crashes.
My cousin Dan Martin is riding his first Grand Tour as a leader for the Garmin Cervelo team too. He was flying a couple of weeks back at the Tour of Poland, where he won a stage and finished second overall, and if he can hold his form will also be in contention.
In three weeks' time Dan and I could be fighting for the same top 10 spot, which would be great. I'd prefer to be fighting with Dan for sixth or seventh than somebody else and it would be great for Irish cycling if both of us could get up there.
I'll find out early if my climbing legs have followed me to Spain as the first big mountain stage comes on day four. It will be an extremely hot stage in the Sierra Nevada. If I lose 25 minutes there, obviously everything changes.
My Ag2r La Mondiale team for this Vuelta is a completely new team for me. Cyril Dessel is probably the most experienced of us all. He has worn yellow and won stages in the Tour de France. This is his 10th Grand Tour.
Dmitri Champion, Guillaume Bonnafond and Lloyd Mondory are well used to my grumpiness and me shouting at everybody when things are not done right while the rest of the guys -- David Lelay, Matteo Montaguti, Mathieu Perget and Steve Houanard -- are all young and very motivated.
Our first task is a 16km team time trial on Saturday in Benidorm where, at the moment, it's 38 degrees. We tried to ride the course today but it was pretty chaotic with traffic.
Unlike Dan's Garmin squad, we are not one of the best teams in the world in this discipline so I'm hoping we can finish inside the top 10 and not lose more than a minute to the top teams but it's a very demanding and technical time trial. Once everybody stays focused and puts in a big effort we should be okay.