Nicolas Roche: 'My condolences go out to Txema's family, his team and friends'
Vuelta Diary: Saturday September 4, Stage 8: Villena to Xorret del Cati 190km
This stage started on a pretty sombre note as we held a minute's silence at the start for Txema Gonzalez, a 43-year-old Spanish masseur from Team Sky who died during Friday's stage from a sepsis blood infection.
Although I don't know the full details, a lot of the Sky team have been sick with a virus and had to abandon the race. Txema had been hospitalised earlier in the Vuelta but nobody thought it would end in the death of a very popular member of the cycling family. The Sky team all withdrew from the race overnight as a mark of respect.
Cyclists, and athletes in general, don't like to talk about, or even acknowledge, death. A lot of guys don't attend funerals or even visit hospitals because it reminds them of how dangerous the sport can be at times. When you are hurtling down a narrow mountain road with less tar on it than a packet of Rothmans, and nothing but some lycra for protection, you don't want to be thinking about what would happen if you hit the deck at 80kph.
It's the elephant in the room for most sports people. Of course, there are far more important things in life than seeing who can ride a bike the fastest, and my sincere condolences go out to Txema's family, his team and his many friends.
Today's stage was always going to see the first real shake-up on the overall classification, with the ultra-steep climb of the Alto del Xorret del Cati coming just three kilometres from the end of the stage. Things began with a bang, as race leader Philippe Gilbert among others, crashed shortly into the stage. We went from doing about 60kph on a big, five-lane motorway to slowing right down as we changed onto a single lane road. I slammed on the brakes and didn't crash, but I was held up for a little while as guys picked themselves up off the road in front of me.
On the first climb of the day -- the third category Puerto de Onil after 24kms -- last year's King of the Mountains David Moncoutie dragged a group including my Ag2r team-mate Jose-Luis Arrieta, clear over the top and they spent the rest of the stage out front.
With 40km to go, they had over five and a half minutes' lead on us, but then Philip Deignan went to the front of the bunch on the penultimate climb for his Cervelo team leader Carlos Sastre and showing his class, single-handedly brought the gap down to three minutes 48 seconds in 12km.
Coming into the foot of the final climb, there was the usual jostling for position as we all knew this would be the make-or-break climb of the day. Biel Kadri's birthday cake last night must have worked wonders because he did a great job for me today. He led me into the bottom of the final climb, riding four or five kilometres out in the wind, so that I could get shelter behind him and save my energy for the final assault.
Although the break was still clear, we were just concerned with the whittled-down group of overall contenders around us as we hit the climb. Four or five Liquigas guys rode really hard on the first couple of kilometres of the four-kilometre climb, trying to get rid of some of their rivals for their Italian leader Vincenzo Nibali.
Then Sastre attacked but didn't get too much of a gap. I was in a pretty good position with about a kilometre to go on the climb. I was riding behind Spanish duo Igor Anton and Joaquin Rodriguez, who began the day joined on time for the overall lead. Also there, were Nibali and Xavier Tondo of Cervelo.
When we caught Sastre a few hundred metres later, Rodriguez attacked and I went out the back door. I maintained my rhythm however and latched onto the back of the group again shortly afterwards. I had just made contact with them when Anton attacked the group and the change of pace saw me dropped again. Guys like Rodriguez and Anton are 10-15 kilos lighter than me and are very explosive on steep climbs like today's. When I have to go a second or third time, it's just physics that's holding me back. I would have a lot more power than them but am heavier so I prefer a long, steady climb.
Only Rodriguez and Nibali could follow and the rest of us were left up to our own devices. I crossed the line 15th on the stage, in the same group as Italian Marzio Bruseghin, American Tom Danielson and Spaniards, Sastre, Ruben Plaza and Mikael Nieve. I moved up to eighth overall after the stage and am only nine seconds off fifth, but tomorrow is another hard day in the mountains.
Sunday, September 5, Stage 9 Calpe to Alcoi 187.7km
I found out this morning that the race organisers made a mistake in the general classification after yesterday's stage. The Italian Marzio Bruseghin had finished four places in front of me on the stage but they had given him the same time as the group in front of us, which took 12 seconds off his overall classification. They changed it this morning, so I officially began the stage in seventh place overall, my highest ever position on a Grand Tour.
Today's stage was another really tough day in the mountains. With seven mountains to be climbed on another blistering day and plenty of little hills that weren't even on the map, it was one of the hardest days of the Vuelta so far. Thankfully, it wasn't as hard as it could have been because when the break went, the peloton didn't really attack each other until the very end of the stage but it was up and down, stop, start, all day.
The Euskaltel team of race leader Igor Anton have a very strong team and they played their cards well today and let a 14-man break open a big gap during the stage. It worked out well for them, even though at one point it looked like Anton would lose his red jersey to Frenchman Jean Christophe Pereau of Omega Pharma Lotto.
Peraud had begun the day in 37th place overall, six minutes and 59 seconds behind Anton on the GC. When the break got a maximum gap of over nine minutes, Peraud became race leader on the road and would take over the red jersey if he could hang on and finish seven minutes ahead of the peloton. Also in this 14-man group was yesterday's stage winner David Moncoutie of Cofidis and my team-mate Biel Kadri.
Even though he is a first year professional and is riding his first ever Grand Tour, Biel has been doing great work for me on this Vuelta. The plan today was to send someone from the team up the road in a move and if the peloton split on the final climb and got across to them, I would have somebody strong already up there to help me.
If we didn't catch them, we would have somebody in a position to have a go for the stage win. Today, the breakaways held off until the finish and Biel took fifth on the stage and a couple of valuable UCI points for the team. I am really happy for him and he is delighted with his first big result.
Although Peraud didn't get the seven-minute advantage that he needed to go into the race lead, he did get enough time to leapfrog me in the General Classification, so my seventh place didn't last long and I'm now eighth overall. I was only four seconds off fifth place this morning and only one second behind Ezequiel Mosquera in sixth.
I knew coming towards the end of the stage that if I could get a little gap in the final metres, that I could move up a place or two overall. I tried to attack in the last bit of the stage to get even a second but it didn't work out. When I saw Rodriguez attack to try and get the one second he needs to get the red jersey from Anton, I followed the move.
When Rodriguez saw that he had Anton on his wheel, he sat up and, seizing the opportunity, I counter-attacked, hoping that I could get even a second and move up one place. But they chased me down and caught me on the line and there was no time gap.
The whole team have been doing a great job for me on this Vuelta. They have had to work extra hard because of the heat. The hotter it is, the more you drink. The more I drink, the more bottles the guys have to get and it's very tough having to go back to the car on a mountain, stuff a load of bottles up your jersey and in your pockets and then, carrying three of four extra kilos of weight, ride back up and hand them to team-mates.
Heading into the second week of the race, I am eighth overall. I don't feel too tired now and am happy with how things are going. I'm not getting over-excited because there are hard stages to come, like the Andorra stage on Wednesday but I'm looking forward to it.
I know I could move up a little when Peraud drops back down the GC but I also have guys like Schleck, Menchov and Sastre behind me so it will be hard to stay up there. I think Schleck will come right in the final week. He is just back after breaking his collarbone at the Tour and I reckon he will get better as the Vuelta goes on. After the stage we have a long, four-hour drive to our next hotel, as tomorrow we have a rest day in Tarragona. My girlfriend Chiara is coming to the race tonight, so maybe I'll get to have dinner with her, if we don't arrive too late.
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