The queen stage of any tour is always meant to present the greatest challenge to the peleton, and for me atleast that was certainly the case today! From the 1st km I was suffering and with the 224km stage culminating atop the col d pyresorde 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 and won but in honesty I did not see the front of the peleton past the first 10km of the race. From then on I was merely a sheep in the race today, simply following whatever it was perched in front of me!
Todays start was one everyone feared, a 25km climb commencing after 5km. In an dream world the break would go at km 0 and a peaceful couple of hrs would follow! Yeah right, this was going to one way, full gas!! Everyone wanted to be in the break and as per usual someone was always missing out and chasing it down! I was instantly in huge bother from the start gun. It was quite chilly this morning, 10-15 degees I guess and as a result my rib was aching and with it my lungs did not want expand my rib cage, no matter how hard I tried to convince them to. I knew if it would full gas I would struggle to stay in the group without being able to breathe properly so I started the climb right at the front and greatfully took around 5km before I was quite 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 oppose to trying to follow others and getting myself in real difficulty. I calculated 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 re enter the group once the break went and things calmed down a bit. Well it was a great plan however as I found out today sometimes even the best laid plans can go a little wrong!
I am back in the cars and settling into my rhythm. Those same horrible sensations from yesterday are returning, cold, extra pain, lungs closing up, can't feel my legs ect ect. I have to actually look down every now and then to check to make sure they are still spinning! Fortunately or unfortunately all the pain is trapped in my chest and below that has not even felt like its apart of my body these past couple of days. So I finally found a few guys in a similar situation to me and we stayed calm together. We were not to far back and as long as we kept up our momentum and stayed in the line of cars we would be just fine. Also in a moment like this you know you are on the edge of leaving the race. If you switch of and give up that's it. You drop further behind, often on your own, and being only 30km into a 224km stage you will have no chance of finishing the days race. The most important things above all is to stay calm and remain focused. Sadly this happened to around 5 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 we were still intouch 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 peleton. After a pretty hair raising 30km decent I was finally tacked back onto the back of the main field. I took a few risks going down the hill and at one stage hit 102kmph. I had dario with me telling me to keep the legs spinning as with it being so cold he knew the importance of keeping the blood circulating and keep them warm, he truly is a gem to have in all situations during the race. So back in the bunch and danger zone number 1 was negotiated! Onto number 2!
Number 2 problem for the day was the 2nd climb. Around 25km in length I had calculated as long as I got over this monster in the main field I should be able to comfortably make it to the finish line inside the time limit and live to fight another day. The day 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 feel and the temperature dropped and like a switch my body went back into survival mode. I learnt an important lesson on the first climb and used these skills to survive the 2nd. I stayed calm and remaind in the front group until 5km to go. At this point I decided to drop out the back of the peleton and try and sit no more than 50-100m behind the main field but most importantly be able to ride my own consistent tempo. Also here you can sit comfortably among the first cars in the convoy and have a little rest and get some shelter when the opportunity presents itself. Word has certainly spread in the bunch regarding my rib fracture so it was really nice to get so much support from the team directors from other team following 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 you can stay calm knowing that more just your own team are looking out for you. I big thanks to those who made the few km's much less painless than it could have been. My plan worked out to perfection and over the top I was not more than 50m of the back of the bunch and could enjoy a relaxing decent amongst the cars for a nice recovery.
Once down the other side I had a huge sense of relief. I had survived the first 2 climbs and now knew I only had to stay safely covered in the peleton and I would live to fight another day. I found my team mates and we had a bit of a laugh at my expense about the fact they had barely seen me all day!! I said I had been busy back in the convoy of cars 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 commencement of the 2nd 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. Today making this group was my final objective. All was going according to plan and again in the valley before the climb the sun started shining. Instantly I felt spritely again and was looking forward to a nice relaxing final 50km of racing to the finish. 5km from the base of the climb my back tyre went flat!! Bugger, I had not planned for this. Had this of occurred before the first 2 climbs I am certain that my day may have been finished. Now however with the sun shining I felt so relaxed that I simply called up mario on the radio, pulled over to the side of the rd, leant my bike up against the fense, and had a nature break while I waited for mario and moreno to arrive and change my wheel. I then took my bike and calmly made my way back through the cars. The difference was now that spark had returned to my pedals. The sun was out, I was no longer in excess pain, and I was able to concentrate putter power through my legs and onto the pedals. It was an incredible feeling. I regained contact with the field just as the climb started and to the script the gruppetto formed and I was safely inside it. From this point on the smile remained on my face all the way to the finish line. Deep down I knew I had really dodged a bullet today!
So 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 mans breakaway. This morning in the team meeting our sole objective was to ensure Ratto got to the finish. He used a lot of energy yesterday and was not leading the king of the mountains competition. It was important, in much the same way we looked after Ivan in the first 15 stages that he use as little energy as possible to arrive at the finish. With that being said 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 2 climbs to assist where possible. In the end we all got to the finish safe and sound and will reload ahead of tomorrows final day in the pyranees!
Tonight I really need to good sleep!
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