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Today’s stage was an absolute cracka! Katusha took the race by the scruff of the neck and by days end the stage winner came from their ranks. The first few kilometers went to the usual script. Ratto was first to open the throttle and in a blink of an eye 17 men had joined him. Astana were immediately doing there best the block the narrow twisty road and let the break ride off into the sunset. But Katusha had other ideas…
Katusha knew after yesterday’s tough stage that many teams would be happy to sit in for the first couple of hours just to get the legs moving again. However, once the break had 20 seconds Katusha went straight to the front and set a searing pace that not only had the peloton in single file for two hours, but also sending a message to the break that they would not be having an easy day.
Katusha’s pace setting was seriously impressive. Our Cannondale boys are magicians in this situation and after some initial jostling we had ourselves comfortably lined up in the first 30 positions of the bunch. Sit any further back and the rubber band effect completely trashes your legs. sSit any further forward and you take on too much wind at that pace. Longo, Heado and Dalla are the captains of the ship when it comes to this type of positioning. All Sammy, Paterski and I had to do was follow them.
Once things settled in I got my head around the fact that it would be a full gas day. The remarkable thing was that I actually started feeling very good for the first time in 10 days. I have the most difficulty when I have to accelerate and decelerate over and over again, but when it’s constantly hard and I’m in a good position without stresses of fighting a the wheel, I’m as happy as a pig in mud.
In a blink of an eye we were 50km into the stage and next time I looked we were at 60km. It must have been at this point I realised I was just about to finish my first drink bottle and it was time to reload. All my teammates were in the same boat but also realised that they were not keen on trying to return to the front of the bunch who were travelling at 60kmph with a back full of bidons. I was probably feeling the freshest out of everyone so if there was a time my team mates needed me to be the bottle boy, it was right at that moment. So up went the hand and I made my way back to the car. The line of riders I saw is something I had not seen before. The peloton was absolutely strung out single file and everybody was on the limit. Finally I got to the back of the bunch and our directeur Mario was already right there waiting for me. He knew we were on the rivet and was going to make life as easy as possible for us. Soon I had a jersey full of bottles, which was actually quite therapeutic – like and ice pack for my ribs!
It must have been my lucky day. No sooner had I grabbed the final bottle and began my dreaded journey back up to the boys the pace slowed momentarily and the bunch grouped up! Now all of a sudden a 400m obstacle was no more than 50m and I made my way up to the boys so quickly they couldn’t even believe how fast I was! No sooner had I dispatched the bottles to the guys the pace wound up again.
Now don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the first time I have been in a peloton when the pace has been so hard and fast. What made this so hard was the way they were generating this pace. The Katusha boys would ride hard enough up the short climbs so that you were on your limit and as they crested over the top they would open the jets full-gas! The effect this has is that at the front they are now going downhill at 60+kmph and a few hundred meters behind people are still doing 30kmph up the climb. Therefore by the time you crest the climb the front is now travelling at 80kmph and you are doing an all out sprint just to stay in the bunch! Suffice to say the break never got more than 2 minutes and after 100km Katusha had caught half the escapees who surrendered. At this point the race was well and truly under control and the pace relented for the first time all day.
To put it into perspective, we had averaged almost 50kmph for the first 2hrs. To put it in more perspective, we had done 1500m of elevation gain as well. This amounts to an incredibly impressive performance of riding on the front of the peloton.
I was feeling good and was always near the front. Riders were not challenging for position and I figured so long as the pace stays on I will have a good day. But when Katusha layed off the the bunch swarmed and I was all of a sudden fighting for position and with 50km to go. It was best that I just float to back of the bunch and kept out of trouble. On the first climb I felt good and simply sat at the back maintaining contact with the main field. As I guys dropped out I just rode around them and continued on my merry way. I was such a great feeling to finally have that light snappy effortless feeling back on the climbs. On the decent the dropped riders would come tearing back to the group where I instantly dropped back again and stayed out of harms way. I stayed there until the next little climb with 30km to go where a big group formed to ride easy to the finish. We had plenty of time to arrive inside the time limit.
Katusha made it a really good race today. Often we become a little too precious in the bunch and get used to stages being so heavily controlled in the first parts of a race. Then when a team like Katusha decides to put the pedal to the metal so early on we often get upset. This is only a momentary annoyance though as we quickly remember it is a bike race after all and we are here to race. Between the start and the finish the peloton will only go as fast or slow as we dictate. When broken down like this, it’s a pretty simple sport really! Also today showed just what an exciting race this year’s Vuelta is. Every stage has shown some excitement and unpredictability about it. The organisers certainly have put together and absolute bonza of a course which I’m guessing has provided excellent viewing on TV.
With that said make sure you tune in for tomorrow’s stage – its going to be a doozy.
Time for a few more pages of Sean Kelly’s book to get some mountain stage inspiration and some rib-repairing sleep!