Nicolas Roche: 'It's been very stressful and demanding but I'm loving every minute'
Saturday, September 11 Stage 14: Burgos to Pena Cabarga, 178km
For the past two days on the bike, I have been doing as little as possible, hiding in the bunch, saving energy for this third week of racing. For the past two weeks off the bike, I have been doing even less. While my team-mates could sit around having a chat after dinner, I've had to go to bed.
When we had a late start on Friday, the guys went shopping for gifts. I sat in my room and watched a bit of TV. The cyclist's motto of 'never stand up when you can sit down and never sit down when you can lie down' has been strictly adhered to. All of it has been to arrive in this final week of the Vuelta in the best possible position.
After two relatively flat days, today was the first of three very hard days in the high mountains. I began today's stage in ninth place overall and knew that if wanted to stay there I would have to fight tooth and nail on these climbs. Today we had four mountains to tackle but by far the most important would be the six-kilometre climb to the finish at Pena Cabarga. I had to be well positioned going into the climb and then hang on for a long as I could on the way to the summit.
Because it's so important for the overall contenders to be one of the top-10 riders into the bottom of the climb, you have 10 teams trying to position their team leader in the best place possible at the foot of the mountain. You have 10 team managers, in 10 cars, telling all of their riders to get to the front at the exact same time.
This results in a melee in the bunch as everybody tries to fit into the same space, which can cause crashes.
As we approached the bottom of the climb of Pena Cabarga, we were doing 75kph as each team tried to overtake each other on the main road and get their leader into the best position.
I was a bit far back in maybe 25th position but I had Rinaldo Nocentini and Biel Kadri with me to bring me nearer to the front. Knowing that the slightest touch of wheels can bring the whole lot down like a house of cards, I told the guys to bring me up on the right-hand side of the peloton, because I didn't want to ride in the centre. I was hoping that by being on the edge of the peloton I could run up on the grass and ride around anybody if they fell in front of me.
Simply riding in somebody else's slipstream uses 20-25pc less energy than if you had to ride out in the wind and Rinaldo and Biel did a superb job for me again, thundering along on the edge of the peloton, cutting into the wind. But suddenly, there was a bang and the unmistakable sound of bike metal scraping off the road. Somebody had crashed.
I glanced across to see race leader Igor Anton fly over his handlebars at about 75kph in his red jersey. There was a big wave in the peloton as his bike flew across the road and cut down more riders, who in turn, created a domino effect behind them.
I found out later that Anton had hit a piece of wood in the middle of the road. Just because you crash, though, doesn't mean the race waits for you, so he tried to get back on his bike, which is always your first reaction.
If you crash at a slow part of the race, there's a good chance you will be able to regain contact with the bunch. You hop on your bike, chase hard and regain contact with the peloton. Only then do you start looking at your wounds and the race doctor can treat you on the move so you don't lose time.
Anton crashed at the fastest point of today's stage, a crucial point. Even if he had superficial injuries he would have had trouble getting back into contention and probably would have lost his race lead, but by finishing the stage, he could have fought another day.
Blood streamed down Anton's arms and legs as he picked himself up off the ground. His shorts were torn and his race leader's jersey was in shreds. Still he wanted to carry on. As soon as he threw his leg over the saddle, though, he realised something was wrong. As well as having a few serious looking lacerations on his legs and arms, his elbow was broken and his Vuelta, a race that he looked capable of winning, was over.
As soon as I heard the clatter, I shouted into my microphone to Biel to ride as hard as he could to get us out of the danger zone. Not caring about his own prospects for the stage, Biel suffered into the wind for the next two kilometres as the final mountain approached and he did a great job, delivering me to the foot of the climb in sixth place.
Roman Kreuziger led his Liquigas leader Vincenzo Nibali onto the climb first. With Anton gone, Nibali knew he would become race leader if he didn't lose time to the rest of us on the mountain. I was riding at the back of our little group which also contained Rodriguez, Schleck, Tondo, Velits, Danielson, King of the Mountains David Moncoutie, Mosquera and Garcia.
Garcia attacked on a really steep hairpin with maybe two kilometres to go and the group slowed down. I remembered how they slowed down and then kicked again on the climb to Andorra and didn't want to lose time like I did there, so I immediately went to the front and led the group at my pace.
I didn't care when one by one Rodriguez, then Nibali, Mosqeura, Schleck and Tondo attacked me. I just wanted to keep my rhythm going to the line. Although the others stayed away, myself and Moncoutie eventually caught Schleck and Tondo again and as we came to line I put in a dig to try and gain a few seconds. I finished fifth and clawed back one second on Schleck.
Marzio Bruseghin and Rigoberto Uran and Ruben Plaza all lost time today and with Anton leaving, I jumped up four places to fifth overall, behind new leader Nibali, Rodriguez, Mosquera and Tondo. Fifth is the highest place I've ever been in on a Grand Tour and to be in it with just a week to go is great. I'm my own worst critic, but I'd have to be stupid if I wasn't pleased with today.
I have a good opportunity to take a top placing in this Vuelta now but know that there's still a long way to go and we all have our good days and bad days but I'm prepared to fight to stay where I am.
Sunday, September 12 Stage 15: Solares to Lagos De Covadonga 187.3km
My fifth place on Saturday certainly got the attention of people at home. I had more texts than I've ever had before, even after winning races.
My dad was delighted with my performance. At the pre-stage team meeting, my team-mates and managers expressed how happy they were with my performance and were talking about what a good experience we were going through, fighting for the overall classification.
Today we only had one mountain to climb, but it came right at the end of the stage and was one of the toughest on the race. The ascent to Lagos de Covadonga is one of the legendary climbs of the Vuelta and is the Spanish equivalent of Alpe d'Huez in France. I'd never ridden up it before, so I was a bit nervous before the stage.
The first 80km today were hectic as breaks tried to go clear. Having seen how hard it was to get two seconds on Schleck or Tondo on the climbs the day before, I figured I'd go for one of the early bonus sprints if I got the chance -- I managed to get second and picked up four bonus seconds.
Leading into the final climb, as the rain started to come down for the first time in two weeks of racing, I had the whole team around me and they were psyched to try and get me into the best position at the bottom. In fact, I had to tell Guillaume Bonnafond to calm down a bit as he was getting carried away driving on the front of the bunch.
A breakaway group of six riders had already entered the climb with a seven-minute advantage on the peloton, but as they were all way down on the overall classification, none of us cared. For me, and the rest of the overall contenders, there was another battle going on.
The climb itself started off okay but got steeper and more irregular as we went up through the trees. Spanish climber Ezequiel Mosquera started the day third overall, but was on his favourite territory now and in an effort to take over the race lead, he attacked us with five kilometres to go.
Mosquera's change of pace put a strain on our group and only a handful of guys remained. Surprisingly, one of my direct rivals, Xavier Tondo of Cervelo, went out the back door. I knew if I could open a big enough gap on him, I could move into fourth overall, but I'd need a minute and 21 seconds on him by the top.
Tondo went out of my head, though, when race leader Nibali put the pressure on two kilometres later. What kills me, looking back, is that it wasn't even on the steep part of the climb.
Nibali just rode really hard on a slight downhill section and nearly killed himself as he slid into a gutter on a corner in the rain. When he managed to straighten himself up again, he had dragged second-placed Joaquin Rodriguez, Peter Velits and Tom Danielson with him.
I had let the wheel go and lost a huge amount of energy trying to chase them on the little descent and when the road started to head skywards once more the quartet just disappeared into the mist. Velits had begun the day just 17 seconds behind me in sixth, and I knew he still had about three kilometres left to eat into my advantage.
As they rode clear, I was left with Franck Schleck, who started the day just a second behind me, and Carlos Sastre. We knew Sastre wasn't going to help us, as we were riding away from his Cervelo team-mate Tondo.
Franck just nodded to me and said 'come on Nico' and we knew it was to our mutual benefit to ride together to the top. There was no point in attacking each other and losing more time to the guys up ahead, so Franck rode hard on the steep bits and I took over on the flatter sections.
At the top, I finished 12th on the stage. I had dropped one place to sixth overall but I can't be too disappointed as I've moved closer on time to fourth.
It would be unfair to be disappointed today. Velits had a better day than me today, but I had a better day than Tondo. I am only 18 seconds off fourth place now. Behind me, though, Schleck is still a danger, even though I took those four bonus second out of him today, while Danielson is just a minute back
Today I lost team-mate Jose Luis Arrieta to tendonitis. The Spanish veteran had been suffering the past few days but struggled on until midway through today's stage. He is due to retire at the end of the season and this is his last Vuelta, so he was pretty disappointed to be leaving his home race in this way.
So far, this race has been an amazing experience for me. It's been very stressful and demanding but I'm loving every minute of it, even though I know it's far from over.
With three first-category mountains, including the climb to the finish of Cotobello after 181km on Monday, anything can still happen. Hopefully, it won't be raining, because the descents will be tricky if it is.
One thing is for certain, nobody will be saving their legs for the following day as we have a rest day on Tuesday, so expect fireworks. The plan, as usual, is too hang on for as long as I can.
Vuelta a Espana ,
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