The queen stage of any grand tour is always meant to present the greatest challenge to the peloton. For me, that was certainly the case. From the first kilometer I was suffering and with the 224km stage culminating atop the Col de Peyresourde, the suffering didn’t end until I crossed the finish line.
I would love to be able to report on how the race was won but honestly I did not see the front of the peloton past the first 10km of the race. From then on I was merely a sheep in the herd, simply following whatever was perched in front of me!
Today’s start was one everyone feared; a 25km climb commencing 5km into the race. In a dream world the break would go at kilometre zero and a peaceful couple of hours would follow. Yeah right! This was only going one way: full gas! Again, everyone wanted to be in the break and as usual someone was always missing out and chasing it down.
I was in a world of hurt straight from the gun. It was quite chilly this morning, 10-15C, and as a result my rib was aching and with it my lungs did not want expand my rib cage. I knew if the pace was on today I would struggle to stay in the group so I started the climb right at the front and it took about 5km before I was unceremoniously spat out the back.
I didn’t panic; I knew it was coming and also knew it was best to ride my own tempo for the climb as opposed to trying to follow others and putting myself in the red. As long as I kept my power around the 350-380 watt range for the climb then I would not get too far behind and would be able to rejoin the group once the break got established and things calmed down a bit.
It was a great plan, but as I found out today sometimes even the best-laid plans can go a little wrong!
I found myself back in the convoy of team cars settling into my rhythm. Those same horrible sensations from yesterday began to return: cold, pain, lungs closing up, can’t feel my legs, etc. I had to look down every now and then to check to make sure my legs were still spinning! Fortunately all the pain is trapped in my chest and anything below has not even felt like it’s part of me.
I finally found a few guys in a similar situation to me and we stayed calm together. We were not too far back and as long as we kept up our momentum and stayed in the line of cars we would be just fine. In a moment like this you know you are on the edge of leaving the race. If you switch off for a moment, that’s it. You drop further behind, and being only 30km into a 224km stage you will have no chance of finishing the stage. The most important thing is to stay calm and remain focused. Sadly this happened to about five riders on this climb today so I can count my lucky stars I was not one of them.
Over the top I went with a couple of others and we were still in contact with the main field. Well, I could see it around 1km ahead and I had a nice long line of cars to weave my way through to get to safety of the peloton. After a hair-raising 30km decent I finally tacked onto the back of the main field. I took a few risks going down the descent and at one stage hit 102km/h! I had Dario with me telling me to keep the legs spinning. With it being so cold he knew the importance of keeping the blood circulating to keep them warm. He truly is a gem to have in all situations during the race.
Problem number two for the day was the second climb. Around 25km in length I had calculated that as long as I got over this monster in the main field I should be able to comfortably make it to the finish inside the time limit and live to fight another day. The temperature warmed up in the valley before the climb and I instantly started feeling normal again. I started the climb right at the front and was feeling splendid. All of a sudden I was starting to believe it might be a good day! Wrong.
The rain started to come down and the temperature dropped. My body went back into survival mode. I learned an important lesson on the first climb and used these skills to survive the second. I stayed calm and remained in the front group until 5km to go. At this point I decided to drop out the back of the peloton and try and sit no more than 50-100m behind the main field and to ride my own tempo.
Here in the convoy you can sit comfortably among the first team cars and have a little rest and get some shelter. Word has certainly spread in the bunch regarding my rib fracture so it was really nice to get so much support from the various team directors during the race. Just small things like, “500m then it flattens off, so stay calm and recover a little … good job.” Hearing these comments from your peers is very comforting in a moment like this and helps ensure I stay calm knowing that more than just your own team are looking out for you. A big thanks to those who made those few kilometres much less painless than they might have been.
My plan worked out to perfection and I came over the top no more than 50m off the back of the bunch which let me enjoy a relaxing descent amongst the cars for a nice recovery.
Once down the other side of the climb I had a huge sense of relief. I had survived the first two climbs and now knew I only had to stay safely protected in the peloton and I would survive until tomorrow. I found my teammates and we had a bit of a laugh at my absence for the whole day. It’s the first time they had seen me all stage! I told them I had been busy back in the convoy ensuring all the directors were behaving themselves! I always try and make light of the difficult moments, always at least try and stay positive.
The next target was the second last climb where the gruppetto was sure to form. The gruppetto is the group that contains all the riders solely interested in arriving at the finish inside the time limit and not wasting any excess energy to do so. Making this group was my final objective for the day.
Again in the valley before the climb the sun started to shine. Instantly I felt spritely and was looking forward to a nice relaxing final 50km of racing to the finish. But then 5km before the base of the climb my rear tyre went flat. Bugger! Had this have occurred before the first two climbs I am certain that my day would have been finished. Not to worry — with the sun shining I felt so relaxed that I simply called up Mario on the radio, pulled over to the side of the road, leant my bike up against the fence, and had a nature break while I waited for Mario and Moreno changed my wheel.
I hopped back on and made my way back through the cars. The surprising difference was that spark had returned to my pedals! The sun was shining, I was no longer in pain, and I was able to concentrate on putting power to the pedals. It was an incredible feeling. I regained contact with the field just as the climb started, and right to script the gruppetto formed and I was safely part of it. From this point on I had a smile on my face all the way to the finish line. Deep down I knew I had really dodged a bullet today!
While I was doing a brilliant job of patrolling the tail end of the race, Paterski was demonstrating his powerhouse abilities by once again making it into a hard man’s breakaway. In the team meeting this morning, our sole objective was to ensure Ratto got to the finish. He used a lot of energy yesterday. In much the same way we looked after Ivan in the first 15 stages, it was now important to make sure Ratto uses as little energy as possible. I was not much help to him in the first 100km as I battled on alone, but I ensured I was right by his side for the final two climbs to assist where possible. In the end we all got to the finish safe and will reload ahead of tomorrow’s final day in the Pyrenees!
Tonight I really need to good sleep!