Sunday, August 31, 2014

THE Vuelta Stage 9: We weren't hot today

My luck with the piano yesterday ran out quickly. I went down to play before dinner only to find some sort of party going on in the next room with their own music. So I decided to wait until after dinner, at which point other guests were dining next to the piano…which normally wouldn’t have been a problem, but their meal was a giant leg of smoked and dried ham. That ham leg was parked 12 inches (25.4cm for my metric readers) from middle C. I awoke in the morning to find the same dead animal obstructing my out-of-tune relaxation. On to the next hotel, where maybe my luck will turn around.

The stage would be a tough one, at 185km. Rain was forecast from the midpoint on, which had me a bit less than excited. I don’t have a problem getting wet—it’s the roads that worried me. The bartender at our hotel said the last time they saw rain was May. If it was going to rain, it needed to RAIN…anything less than a complete downpour would just turn the descents into warzones.

I need to confess something that I’m not proud of. Everybody does it at some point, but most try not to acknowledge it, instead pretending as if nothing happened. But I admit my mistakes: after the last climbing stage finish, my sock got a solid chainring mark. I was trying to move out of the way to allow room for the motos and other finishing riders, and knew as soon as it happened what I’d done. So I hurried down the mountain before anybody saw it. Unfortunately, it didn’t wash out. What I’m trying to say is that the decision of which socks to wear in the rain today was an easy one.

Our plan for the day was based entirely around protecting Warren as long as possible for the tough climb to the finish. With no interest in the break, we all just floated in the field during the really fast start. We had a mild tailwind, but the first 50km were also false-flat uphill. Attacks were going like crazy, and we covered 48km in the first hour.

A huge group of 30 got away, and Nikias managed to jump on to give us representation. Behind, things became more controlled, but we were still moving fast:  47kph average for the first 2 hours. As we neared the first real climb of the day, the sky started to look a bit more ominous. I think my legs are still coming around anyways, but the cooler temps had me feeling really good on the climb when the pace was clearly high. We reached the top and it became clear that the mountain was holding the storm on the other side. 1k into the downhill, we were completely soaked. We could at least be certain that the roads were clean. It was more than a downpour—the descent was fast, making the rain hit us so hard that it was really painful.

We reached the bottom safely, and then the task became getting Warren to the penultimate climb at the front. Things got a bit chaotic and I lost the guys when they worked their way to the other side of the road. Thankfully Koen was there to get me back to the front just as the climb started. The pace was high, but controlled, and I was still feeling good.

Tobias was making sure that Warren never touched the wind, while I was keeping an eye on them both from a little further back. Tobias was done after the plateau, after which I stayed with Warren in case he had a problem. Everyone sprinted over the top to start the crucial descent at the top, but I lost speed when somebody dropped anchor in the middle of the field, so I started too far back in the group. Warren, at least, was near the front.

In the rain, of course some gaps opened, and my chase group had to use a bit too much energy in the 2k before the climb. We almost got back to the lead group, but not quite. I was Warren’s last support, so I had to go full gas until the team car passed me. Then he was in their hands. So for 9 minutes I dangled just 15 seconds behind them. Around 6km to go, I was able to back off and ride a good tempo up the climb. I wanted to take it easy, but I wanted more to get out of the cold rain.

In the last few kilometers, I chatted with Tony Martin a bit about how anytime I wanted to feel like I didn’t exist, I’d just ride next to him. Seriously, every spectator we passed said his name like they thought he’d forgotten it. He told me that 5 years ago, he felt the same when riding next to Philippe Gilbert. So maybe they’ll shout my name someday!

Half of the break managed to finish ahead of the main field. Nikias was able to protect Warren for a bit after he was caught, before the real attacks began. Warren had another great climb to stay in the top-10 on GC.
The finish was at nearly 2000m altitude(~7000’), but the bus was at the bottom of the climb. We immediately put on a few jackets and headed back down the mountain.

Some fans had painted my name on the road and were very excited when I climbed by, but seemed quite upset when I didn’t stop on the way back down. If you all happen to read this, I want to say that I’m sorry about that! I wanted to stop and take a picture with you, but I really needed to get out of my soaking clothes that were getting colder by the minute. It just wouldn’t do to get sick!

And with that, we have reached the first rest day!

9 down, 12 to go!