On paper today’s stage looked like it would go off like a fire cracker — and that’s exactly what happened. Before each stage officially begins we have a neutralised section of between 2 and 20km where the peloton does a bit of a parade through the host city at the start of the race. Once we’re safely on open roads with less obstacles to negotiate they drop the flag and off we go.
What you don’t often see on TV are the initial kilometres of the race which can be the most hectic of the day as riders scramble to get themselves in the day’s breakaway. For this reason it’s best that the initial kilometres of the race are ridden as far away from extra hazards as possible.
Today the neutral zone was extended by 8 kilometers to avoid such problems while we came out of the city center. Unfortunately the hazards that the organisers tried to avoid would wreak havoc on the field and ended up being more destructive than if we had have raced through the city at full gas.
The first problems occurred when we hit a series of small speed humps and half the field lost their bidons. When they hit the ground they roll around like a bunch of hand grenades waiting for someone to ride over them and explode. This explosion of liquid makes the road slippery, so multiply this by 100 bottles and you can guess what happened. We were doing around 50km/h when this occurred and unfortunately our Canadian Cannonball, Boivin, went down like a bag of bricks and we suspect he has a fractured hip. I was unaware of his crash initially but it would not be long before I would become far too aware of his situation for the wrong reason.
Further down the road still in the neutral zone, everyone was getting twitchy for the start of the race. This is the thing about the neutral zone: being at the right place when the flag drops can often make or break your day if you’re looking to get in the opportunistic breakaway. When half the field has this mindset, it’s even more nervous than coming into a sprint finish because we’re travelling relatively slow which means everyone attempts to move to the front. The most annoying part about this nervousness is the fact the race has not even officially started yet!
So like I said before, Boivin was in an world of hurt at the back of the field after his crash. Little did I know that my turn was also just ahead at the next roundabout …
My new mate in the bunch, Fabian Cancellara, was the next to have a couple bottles spring from his cages. I swear one on them must have contained his hair gel and the other had olive oil for his pasta. These two bottles caused absolute carnage as we entered the roundabout. Bikes were going down everywhere in front of me, but I felt like I had time to stop, when suddenly my bike also slipped right from under me.
I went down really hard and my bike fell in such an unexpected way that it knocked the wind out of me. For the first time in my crashing career my sunglasses flew straight off my head which probably meant that I took a nasty jolt and whiplash. Like always after a crash, adrenaline kicked in and I picked myself up as quickly as possible, found my bike and peddled back to the group before assessing the damage.
When I got back to the field they had now called a truce to wait for all the crash victims. It was then that I realised I could not take a deep breath and to stand up out of the saddle was excruciating. I then hit another pothole and winced in pain when I realised that I probably had a cracked rib or two.
Fortunately I’m familiar with how to survive in a race with a broken rib as I had the whole Tour Down Under last January to become accustomed to it. So with this little cracked rib problem under control I took stock and just had the usual lost skin and a bit of blood – no problem, I’ll at least survive to the finish.
My only issue was that I wanted some new sunglasses and my handlebars to be straightened, so I called the team car up and stopped for a nature break. No sooner than it took me to pull the old fella out to relieve myself, Matteo had adjusted my handlebars, tightened everything up and handed the bike back to me as soon as I pulled up my knicks. Talk about efficiency! I swear Matteo has experience working in Formula 1!
So with new shades on my face I wandered back to bunch which was still nearly idle while the crash victims all received medical attention. This is when I came across the Canadian Cannonball at the back of the field. The poor guy was crying with the pain in his hip. That’s saying a lot because he’s probably one of the toughest dudes I’ve ever met. I urged him to see the doc but he simply told me that if it’s broken then he’s finished anyway, so he may as well try and get to the finish. Talk about courage.
Unfortunately for Boivin he picked exactly the wrong day for this as the first 70km was littered with the types of climbs that World Tour riders will almost sprint up. Not long enough to encourage a steady tempo, but not short enough to simply smash over and recover. No, this was a good old-fashioned smashfest of 500 watts for 5 minutes — again and again! The peloton was in pieces and poor Boivin had to stop. It was heart-breaking for this kid who has looked absolutely flawless in his first 10 days of his first grand tour.
Back to the race. On a day like today you simply need to get yourself to the front and follow whichever wheel is ahead of you. It was absolutely full blast. That said, it’s important to follow a wheel that is not going to get dropped as there’s only so many times you can close the gap. Fortunately I have the luxury of being on Ivan’s wheel, but when I lost him and my other teammates in hectic manoeuvrings of the peloton I always seemed to find Nibali’s wheel.
I usually love these types of starts as you know everybody is on the limit and burning their matches. This makes it easier to do something in the final leg of the race if you have the legs. Today I knew I would have to take it easy on the final climbs as I did not want to dig myself into a hole after the crash. In fact when Ivan saw the pain on my face he immediately told me to get back and ride in the gruppeto and take it as easy as possible. So with that I was able to relax a bit and just focus on getting to the finish.
The race was broken to bits and after 65km a group finally broke away with our Polish Powerhouse Paterski making the move. This group was 20 riders strong and Katusha continued to push the pace trying to pull it back. Finally after 72km a smaller group of eight riders formed, again with Paterski in it, and off they went. We finally had a short breather in the bunch, but the real test was about to begin in only 60km.
With adrenaline now wearing off I was in strife, feeling very groggy and needed to slam down a couple of ice cold Cokes to snap me back into action. All I could do now was ensure Ivan was in a good spot at the base of the second last climb and the rest would be up to him. My assistance in the mountains would have to wait for another day.
On the run into the climb the Cannondale express train of Longo, Dalla, Heado, and Ratto placed Ivan in a perfect position. I was a little out of sorts and in no mood to fight for position today, so I sat just behind Ivan for as long as possible should he have any dramas.
One by one the Cannondale train peeled off; first Heado, then Longo, then Ratto, and finally Dalla calmly guided Ivan to the front position at the base of the climb. These teammates of mine are absolute stars. The do this all-out effort for Ivan with no regard for how they’re going to find the strength to get themselves over two more 8km climbs averaging over 10% is extremely impressive. I hung on to the front group for a couple more kilometres but my goose was cooked and the pain was taking the edge off. My body needed to idle to the finish, so that’s what I did.
Ivan was showing all the class that’s had him listed as a favourite for this year’s final podium in Madrid. Having crested the first climb with ease in a lead group of no more than 20, he then set about dismantling the rest of the field on the final 8km wall to the finish in the Sierra Mountains. He whittled it down to just four men, and while he had Valverde and Rodriguez on the ropes with some massive accelerations, they were always able to claw their way back to his wheel. But when Horner and Nibali slipped away in the final kilometres, nobody could hold on!
The mind games amongst the big men on GC have now began and Ivan is certainly the one causing them the most concern. They wouldn’t have banked on him being there and he is and showing he is here to play for the full three weeks. They know the best of Ivan will be seen as the race progresses.
The smile is wide on Ivan’s face and morale in the team is sky high with his unbelievably positive attitude towards the race. When you see him put in a 100% display like today you simply relish the opportunity to assist him in anyway you can to help him make the next steps!
The rest day could not have come at a better time!