Stage 20 of the Vuelta was considered to be the final real stage before tomorrow’s parade into Madrid. Everyone who arrives at the finish today, barring mishap, tomorrow should finish this year’s Vuelta a Espana.
They certainly designed a hum-dinger of a stage and everyone in the bunch knew there would be no free kilometers pedaled today. The GC battle was separated by seconds so that race was going to come down to the final climb. For the rest of us, simply making it to the top of the feared Angliru was the final major obstacle of the Vuelta.
After yesterday’s display by Katusha it was inevitable that the GC teams were not going to leave anything in the tank as they tried to shake up the race. Us Cannondale boys had one clear objective from Mario again today: be in the breakaway. Conveniently the organisers had found a couple of those annoying climbs that peloton tends to scale up at warp speed inside the first 20km, so the breakaway was bound to large and full of some of the strongest riders in the bunch. As per our instructions all our boys were in all the moves straight from the gun. When the escape group finally formed and the peloton behind was scattered all over the place after 20km, our breakaway king Paterski was away in the group who would go on to contest the finish. He’s a specialist at inflicting pain on himself to ensure he represents his team in such breakaways which always takes the pressure off his teammates.
Radioshack immediately swarmed onto the front and drummed out an uncomfortable tempo for everyone. Be it in the valleys, on the descents, or on the climbs. They set a pace which didn’t make you feel like you were about to get dropped, but you certainly never felt like you could comfortably take a drink or something to eat either! For about a third of the peloton, including me, this point marked the surrender zone where the final two climbs would decide the outcome of the race and the rest of us would simply do whatever was required to get to the finish inside the time limit.
In the bunch we were rolling along at a nice place and it wasn’t until the second climb of the day where the first fireworks went off. Radioshack were swarmed by Movistar who decided to shatter the peloton in final steep 1.5 kilometers of the climb. They certainly made their presence felt and riders were dropping everywhere. Even the Movistar workers who set that strong pace at the top of the climb had dropped their team leader Valverde. Of course Horner and the rest of the big guns were at the front so it was a plan that backfired. But hats-off to them for reminding us all that it is a bike race after all.
With Valverde dropped a stalemate occurred as we rode to the base of the first major climb 25km from the finish. Soon after the gloves were off and the bright orange Basque jerseys along with Katusha cranked up the pace on the front. This suited me – the faster they rode, the faster I got to the surrender point! My rib was now feeling a little pain from Movistar’s acceleration and the body was asking for mercy. Longo and Dalla had set up camp for us up the front and I could enjoy this 30km stretch without having to fight for the wheel. Sure enough as we got close to climb the argy-bargy began and my self preservation instincts kicked in and I was quickly in the only position you don’t need to fight for: last wheel in the bunch!
As soon as we turned right and hit the climb about 60 riders put up the parachute and the gruppeto instantly formed. From here the race would be about the strongest riders in the bike race, a few survivors from the break, and GC kings from within the peloton. I can only go on what I have heard about the race but the star of the show was Nibali. Being the champion he is, he did all he could to try and win the race, but in the end Horner had too much left in the tank to be shaken off. Like I said the other day, its’ so great to see the GC being fought for by two classy riders. Both from very different generations but champions that we can celebrate and salute. Along with Froomie, all the Grand Tours this year have been won by remarkable individuals and all very nice guys. All are great ambassadors for our magical sport.
Back in the gruppeto we were having a little party of our own knowing that the suffering was almost over. We finally started to believe we could survive what’s been a brutal thee weeks. Three weeks that I am certain every rider in that group had a moment somewhere along the way that would not even make it to Madrid. The best comment of the entire tour however came from Michael ‘Bling’ Mathews today.
The Angliru is made up of 2 parts: an initial 5 kilometers of normal climbing of 6-8%, 1 kilometer of false-flat, then BOOF! 6.5 kilometers at 11% up into the clouds and onto the finish. I was chatting with Bling saying how happy I was that he had survived these past days as he’s had a few tricky moments. As we were shooting the breeze we both looked up and suddenly saw the road ahead which shot straight up into the sky. What Bling said next I will never forget.
I said, “Gee that does look nasty.” Blings response: “Yeah, it’s like laying there on your boogie board waiting for a wave and all of sudden a massive set forms and is going to break right in front of you…there’s nothing you can do but suck it up and deal with it!” What a great way of describing what we were about to face that so many of us can relate to: having to bail from the board, dive down, get flicked upside down, inside out, and every other way you can imagine. Being forced to drink copious amounts of sea water and just hope that you eventually resurface and still alive! Often you go though it all again for a few more waves in the set!! It’s a feeling that I’m too familiar with!
Bling summed up the past three weeks pretty damn accurately with this analogy. There have been countless times in this race when I have had to simply grit my teeth and suffer like never before. In the first week when Ivan was still in the race we were able to dish it out ourselves a few times. A good feeling indeed. Unfortunately I’ve also found out what I’s like to have the shoe on the other foot and have to brace myself for multiple beatings. That’s the beauty of this sport: expect the unexpected. The changes in fortune that can occur in three weeks of racing are incredible! The prospect of the unknown is what gets me so excited to be on the start line every day. Battling through those difficult days makes the good ones all the more special!!