Nicolas Roche: 'The way I've been climbing during this Vuelta, I feel like I deserved fourth place'
Saturday, September 18 Stage 20: San Martin de Valeiglesias to Bola Del Mundo, 172km
When I got up this morning I knew today's stage would decide this Tour of Spain. Everybody did. The last mountain of the race, the savagely steep, 22km-long Bola del Mundo, loomed at the end of the stage and we all knew it would be the last place where any of us could open a big enough time gap on our nearest rivals to make a difference in the overall standings.
Because today was so important, I cut myself off from the world and didn't even answer my phone to friends last night. I started today in seventh place overall, just 14 seconds off fourth-placed Joaquin Rodriguez of Katusha and 13 seconds off fifth-placed Luxembourg champion Franck Schleck. But just two seconds behind me, American Tom Danielson was waiting for me to slip up on the mountain and overtake me. For me, 'the globe of the world' would be the place where, if I had a bad day, I could possibly lose my top-10 place, or if a couple of others had a bad day, I could move into the top five
The start was really fast today and there were attacks on all three of the first mountains. Katusha and Caisse d'Epargne were fighting for the team prize, and were trying to get men up the road and chasing each other down all day.
Once again, my Ag2r La Mondiale team did a great job for me today and I had them all around me as we approached the final climb. Youngster Guillaume Bonnafond gave me one last bottle at the bottom of the climb and, suffering from his effort, started to drift down the back on the lower slopes. I called him back up on the team radio. I told him it was the last hard day and I needed him to ride in front of me until he couldn't ride anymore. In fairness to him, Guillaume came back up and rode as hard as he could. When he couldn't go anymore, he just blew up and drifted back to suffer his way to the top.
At the beginning of this Vuelta, Guillaume had it in the back his mind that he could get a top-30 or 40 placing overall. He wasn't fully committed to riding for me and was trying to save a little bit for himself every day. The team director had a chat with him and explained that 40th was not the goal of the team. The aim was to get me into the highest possible position overall. It took him a while to cop onto that, but every day since, he has done more and more and today he was fantastic again.
In that respect, this race has been completely different than the Tour. Everybody put their own ambitions to one side. For example, Sebastian Hinault, our sprinter, worked for me every day on the flat sections into the wind. In the mountains, Seb did everything he could. He carried my rain jacket. He grabbed my food bag every day at the feed zone. Because he's a sprinter Seb's also great at accelerating into the bottom of the climbs to get me in a good position.
The team gave me 100pc today. Biel Kadri was in the break, while Christophe Riblon, Rinaldo Nocentini, Ludovic Turpin and Hubert Dupont were great on the climb. I actually had Hubert with me until five kilometres to go, doggedly riding to one side, just in front of me, to keep me sheltered from the headwind on the climb. With five kilometres to go, the pace went down slightly, and knowing that I wanted to keep the pace steady, Hubert turned to me and said "Nico, I'm on my last legs, I can't ride for much longer, but if you want me to ride, I can give you one last hand."
Just as we were talking though, Schleck put in a little dig at the front that whittled the group down to just the top seven riders on GC. The increase in pace saw Danielson dropped, so that was one less to worry about.
Schleck jumped again with 4.5km to go and a few metres later, Mosquera attacked race leader Nibali and was soon trying to gain the 50 seconds he needed to win the Vuelta, with the Italian in hot pursuit. Tondo had been dropped with the acceleration of Mosquera and I knew if got eight seconds' advantage on him, I'd move up to sixth overall. Schleck accelerated again and I was struggling. Tondo caught me and I sat on his wheel for a few minutes before jumping again and regaining contact with Scheck, Rodriguez and Velits.
I was still ahead of Tondo but was suffering alongside the other three on the steep slopes. We turned off the main road with three kilometres to go and hit a tarmac road with a 20pc slope that went all the way up to the top of the mountain. The surface was brutal, with holes, cracks and gravel everywhere. It was ridiculously hard.
As people dangled over our heads in ski lifts, I knew that at some stage, the three guys that I was left with would attack me and I could completely crack. I knew there was a time bonus for the first three riders on the stage but even I'm not that ambitious. Today was one of those days where everybody was flat out. There was no chance of surprising any of the better climbers to get third. I was hoping that when Rodriguez attacked, I could just stay with Schleck and maybe drop Velits.
That's what happened and I would have been happy with that, except Tondo clawed his way back to me with 200m to go and then attacked me. The Cervelo rider had ridden strongly on the climb, just letting me dangle ahead of him and came back at the top. He took fifth place on the stage but more importantly, gained three more seconds on the line.
I was so out of breath from the effort and the altitude that when I rode across the finish line, our soigneur Jo-Jo had to grab me to stop me keeling over. I was totally exhausted and it took me a good while to recover. Jo-Jo pushed me up the road a few metres and into the tent the race organisation had arranged for us to get changed in before we rode back down the mountain to our team buses.
Chiara was in the tent, handing out bottles and jerseys to the lads as they came in. She gave me a hug and Hubert came over and gave me a pat on the back. I shook hands with Tondo, Velits and Schleck and we had a few words for each other before riding back down. His work done earlier on, Guillaume was still climbing as I descended down and he shouted at me to find out how I'd done. We high-fived each other in the middle of the road as we met.
Today, I'm happy with the stage result but a little bit disappointed that I didn't overtake Tondo and move up to sixth. But I had a good stage. I tried attacking him coming to the finish to take a few seconds but it didn't work out, so I have no regrets. For me, the race for the overall is finished today. I'm not going to go for sprint bonuses tomorrow. Unless I win the stage, I'd never take back 11 seconds on Tondo, but I'll still have to be in the front, and make sure there are no splits in the finish.
Sunday, September 19, Stage 21: San Sebastian de los Reyes to Madrid, 85km
Last night we had a special dinner with all the team staff to celebrate my team-mate Jose-Luis Arrieta's career. He had planned to retire after this Vuelta but had to abandon the race last week with tendonitis. Instead of my usual bowl of plain pasta with olive oil -- which I've had every single day for the past three weeks, I had a lovely steak dinner. Knowing that the stage didn't start until 3.0 the next afternoon, we all had a glass of wine and relaxed as Jose reminisced about his career. We laughed as we realised he began with five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain as his team leader and ended up with me.
I didn't get much of a lie in this morning though, as I was woken up early by a knock on the door from the anti-doping officers for my fifth dope test of this year's race.
At 11.30, the team went down for lunch of pasta and rice, or so we thought. The hotel had nothing arranged for us though, so we had to have more bowls of cereal to stock up for the stage ahead. On the start line, they passed around trays of miniature cakes to everyone in the peloton, which helped fill the gap.
Although the stage started off slow enough, it just got faster and faster as the finish approached. Still close enough on time to overtake each other if we got a few seconds, myself, Franck Schleck, Xavier Tondo and Joaquin Rodriguez couldn't relax until it was over and we were eventually safely home.
I finished seventh overall, but was so close to fourth that I can't help being a bit pissed off. Looking back, fourth place was within my capabilities. The way I've been climbing on this Vuelta, I feel like I deserved it, but the two time trials let me down. Being so good on the mountains and so desperately bad in the time trial still gets to me. I lost three-and -a-half minutes in the 46km time trial. If I could have been just one minute faster, I'd be fourth overall now.
It's about time that all the climbing work I have been doing all year has paid off though. All I've done all year is train in the mountains. I've even lost weight to help me get up them quicker. Maybe that's why I haven't been so strong in the time trial and why my sprinting is not as good as it used to be either.
Overall, though, I'm happy. There are not too many guys who rode two Grand Tours for the GC this year, so I'm pretty satisfied. It's also the first time that I rode as a team leader with the full support of my team. At the Tour, I got help from some guys, not so much help from others and some just couldn't help me, so I was a bit limited in the mountains. This time, I had a real team backing me up and, as I finally flake out on the bus, everybody is happy. The soigneurs and the mechanics and the rest of the guys are chirpy and smiling. Next stop Australia and the world championships but first, I can't wait for my own bed tonight.