Stage 20 of the vuelta, considered the final real stage before tomorrows semi parade into madrid. Arrive at the finish today and barring a big misshap tomorrow you should be able to finish this years Vuelta Espana. They certainly designed a hum dinga of a stage as well and everyone in the bunch for a range of different reasons knew there would be no free km's pedalled today. The GC battle was separated by seconds so that battle was always going to come down to the final climb and for the rest simply making it to the top of the feared angilru was the final major obstacle of this years race. True to its billing of a deciding stage on the penultimate day the stage delivered it all.
After yesterdays 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 length climbs that peleton can scale at warp speed inside the first 20km so the breakaway was bound to big and full of some of the strongest riders in the bunch. As per our instructions all the boys were in all the moves straight out of the gun. As expected when the group finally formed and the peleton behind was scattered all over the place after 20km, our breakaway king Paterski was inside the days escape that would go onto contest the finish. He truly is a class act at inflicting pain on himself to ensure he represents his team in such breakaways, certainly takes the pressure of his team mates as you know if one of these brutal starts occurs, paterski is always there! So with our strongman up tearing the legs of his breakaway companions us remaining 6 cannondale boys settled into another day in the peleton.
As expected radioshack immediately swarmed onto the front and drummed out an uncomfortable tempo for all. Be it in the valleys, on the decents, or on the initial climbs. Your did not feel like you were going to dropped but you certainly never felt like you could comfortably take a drink or somthing to eat either! It was not as infernal pace that we endured yesterday but it certainly was not off for the first 120km. For probably 1/3 of the peleton, including me, this point marked the surrender zone where the final 2 climbs would decide the outcome of the race and the rest of us would simply do what's required to get to the finish inside the time limit.
I was happily feeling better again today. Taking it easy has been great for my body to heal up and while I am still having some difficulties when I have to take a deep breath, when the pace is constant everythings returning to normal. In the bunch we were rolling along at a nice place and it wasn't until the 2 climb of the day that the first fireworks went off. Radioshack were swamped by moviestar who decided to shatter the peleton in final steep 1.5km of the climb. They certainly made there presence felt and riders were dropping left right an centre. Infact there workers rode that strongly that at the top of the climb they had dropped there team leader Valverde. Of course horner and the rest of the big guns were in the front so was a bit of a plan that backfired. Still hats off to them for not sitting idle in the bunch and reminding us all that it is a bike race afterall! So with valverde dropped a stale mate occurred once down the other side and we rode as peleton to the base of the first major climb and final 25km. By now the gloves were off and the bright orange basque jerseys and 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 surviving moviestars acceleration and the body was again asking me for mercy. As always longo and dalla had set up camp for us up the front and I could enjoy this 30km stretched without having to fight for the wheel. Sure enough as we got close to climb the argy bargy began and my self preservation mechanism kicked in and I was quickly in the only position you don't need to fight for, last wheel in the bunch!
Sure enough as soon as we turned right and hit the climb 1/3 of the bunch put up the parachute and the gruppeto instantly formed! From here the race would always be about the strongest riders in the bike race, a few survivers from the break, and GC kings from within the peleton. I can only go on what I have heard about the race but the star of the show was Nibali. Like the true champion he is he did all he could to try and win the race and in the end horner had too much left in the tank to be shaken off. Still like I said the other day its so great to see the GC being fought for by 2 riders of complete class. 2 from very different generations but champions that we can really celebrate and salute. Along with froomie all the GT's have really been won by very classy individuals and all very nice guys. Great ambassadors for our magical sport.
Back in the gruppeto we were having a little party of our own knowing that the suffering almost over. We finally started to believe we could survive what's been a brutal 3 weeks. 3 weeks that I am certain every rider in that group had a moment somwhere along the way that would not even make it to madrid. The best comment of the entire tour however came from Micheal Bling Mathews today.
The abgilru is made up of 2 parts. An initial 5km normal climb of 6-8%, 1km of so of flat, then boof! 6.5km at 11% up into the clouds to the finish. I was chatting with bling and saying how happy I was he had survived these past days as he has had a few tricky moments. Not that I would have ever doubted he would survive, he is a class act and was always going to make it to madrid and with it be be a favourite for tomorrows sprint stage. Anyways we were chatting on this plateau saying now we just have to survive the last bit when whammo, there was the road all of a sudden ahead of us going up into the sky. What micheal said next I will never forget.
I said "gee that does look nasty" and blings response was " yeah its 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 infront of you" "there's nothing you can do but suck it up and deal with it". What a great explanation of what we were about to face and one 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. Be forced to drink and un specified amount of see water and just hope that at some point you re surface and and everything ok! Often at this point you go though it all again for a few more waves in the set!! Its a feeling oh too familiar!
Well bling summed up the last 3 weeks of bike racing pretty dahn accurately with this terminology. There have been countless times in this race when I have had to simply grit my teeth and suffer like I did not know I could for an unspecified length of time. Not only that but once I have survived one hit I have often been belted again! In the first week with Ivan we even did a little nasty work on the front ourselves and it is a good feeling. Unfortunately I have certainly found out more times than I would have like in the last 2 weeks what its like to have the shoe on the other foot and have to brace myself for a beating that I have no idea how many time or how many times I will have to endure it for. Still that's the beauty of this sport, expect the unexpected. Its pretty incredible the turns and changes in fortune that can occur in the course of a bike race! Its this unknown that makes me so excited to be on the startline every day. Battling through those difficult days makes the good ones all the more special!!
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