The first mountain stage of any big tour is always anxiously anticipated by both the riders and those watching the race. Its the first chance to see who is in good shape and sort out a bit of a pecking order for days ahead. Some riders will fall of the GC radar while some others will appear up the front, there's always plenty of exciting performances and an equal number of what could have been stories following the first mountain stage. It can really set you up for a great tour and equally crush you seemingly before its all began.
With that all being said today for use cannondale boys was all about Ivan. Following a finish like yesterdays we knew it would be a tired peleton so there would certainly be the opportunity to strike a blow on the final climb of the day if you had the legs. A lot of people assumed the same unfortunately which made the 1st hour of racing absolutely full gas!! 3/4 of the field wanted to get up the road in search of a stage victory and in the end a large group of 13 skipped clear. They were never given much rope and once a Netap rider dropped backed who was highest placed on GC his team set about chasing it down. For Bartos to sit up was quite a gentlemanly gesture as he knew his presence would mean the group would not get a lot of freedom. Often riders will just stay put and hope to still pull somthing off but it often does not win you any friends. So the top bloke award for the day has to go to bartos for coming back into the bunch. From there netapp took control and by days end would have the stage victory. It was a very impressive performance by there team today and they certainly deserved it more than any other team and duly earnt a massive victory in the process. Hats of to them.
We took up our usual spot at the front of the field immediately and basically that's where we stayed all day. I was feeling very good after yesterday and knew my team mates were feeling a little fatigue so I sat out in the wind all day to ensure they all had some protection, not just Ivan. Its important on days like today specially early in a big tour to sense the feeling of your team mates and subtly do whatever you can to help them out. Immediately they realise what your doing and therefore ensure they do all the other jobs to ensure I don't have to do to much. That to me is the sign of a great team thinking together. It was a light crosswind all day so just riding the extra m or so out into the road means 2-3 of your team mates can be doing as much as 40% less effort than you. Therefore if you feel good and you know they would really benefit from doing this for them its a very worth while exercise.
At 50km from the finish the race sprang to life as we hit the coastline. We now had a 35km drag race to the bottom of the climb and with it being the climb to the finish everybody wanted to be up front. From here we kicked into basso's body guard system, longo and dall antonia to guide Ivan and me safely now tucked onto his wheel. While I had been able to give my team mates a comfortable ride in the first 100km they were now repaying the favour, team work!! This fight for the front is never easy but we are certainly improving with staying together day by day. Should I lose Ivan's wheel which can easily happen I simply get myself to front knowing longo will see me there and find his way to me with Ivan right behind, the system then resumes! 25km or so we jostled and jived for position until Ivan decided it was time to strike!
The run into the base of the climb was pretty simple, 6km drag along the waterfront, a U turn around a roundabout, and a 4km drag back to the base of the climb. This 10km was littered with roundabouts so the field was always going to be in one line and would be almost impossible to move up if out of position. The climb was not super difficult, around 14km at 6% gradient so Ivan knew it was perfect for him to just stay in the wheels and at the front. He said to me this morning that todays climb is climb where its easy to stay at the front if you have good condition!! He knew he had good condition so all that was important was he hit the base of the climb in the first 5 positions and the rest would seemingly be easy for him!!
So 10km before the base of the climb the cannondale train hit the front. Ratto let rip first and showed his versatility as a rider by sacrificing himself on days we are not helping him in the sprint. Its efforts like this that make you team mates more than happy to commit to you when its a sprint stage. Behind him Heado was again showing his class with positioning and with his sprinting legs let out some fierce acceleration to keep the field in such a long line that those at the back would of had to wait until they saw us do the U Turn and come down the other side of the road to have any idea where the front of the race race was. Next to pull was Paterski who seemingly has a 50% power boost when he is lining the field out for his captain. He has a very classical position on the bike, its a very unique style in todays peleton and he is easy to pick out. He is simply all horse power and grit and determination and want stop pedalling on the front until every last drop of energy has been expelled from his huge motor. Safely tucked in behind these three hero's of the day was Ivan driving his train and encouraging his men. As I have said before he is a captain that his team mates regard with the utmost respect and would happily ride through a brick wall for him if required. And right behind Ivan was his body guard and bouncer, yep me. Tucked safely on his wheel and scaring of anyone who dared go near him. Even Valverde learnt that my word is stern today and after attempting to knock me off his wheel quickly apologised and gave me ample space when he heard my voice and took a look at my face. I have never been a bully but when I want to be a little forceful in a bike race I happy to serve back whatever comes my way.
These 3 set a searing tempo and behind was absolute chaos. First Ratto, then Heado dropped of leaving paterski 5km to keep this under control. Sure enough 3km from the base of the climb Ivan had to call on me to do the final lead out. We had hoped I could be saved for the climb but we had committed to this task and to ensure Ivan hit the base of the climb as peacefully as possible we had to finish the job. So through I came and gave it all I had in my tank for a few minutes. First I kept the pace at around 60kmph then I felt the adrenaline pumping and found another 10kmph from somwhere and we were doing 70kmph on a flat road. That was a pretty cool feeling, a few minutes later however with the adrenaline worn off my legs certainly felt the full effect of this effort! I knew after this pull I would be spent so there was no point leaving anything in the tank and sure enough when we hit the base of the climb that was it. Cancellara quickly rolled past me to continue the pace making and Ivan was 3 wheels back and in the exact position he asked to be in. The field was still a long line of no more than 50 riders which meant on a flat section of road we had managed to whittle it down nicely so all good. We had done our job to perfection for the day. I drifted back through the field to recover a little and found the strength to stay in the group for a few more km's until I saw sammy safely in the first group and knew if Ivan needed something Sammy could be there for him. By this stage there was no more than 30 up front and it would be up to Ivan to simply follow the right wheels to the finish. He has a degree in this skill on long climbs! So then I put up the white flag and listened to the radio for what Ivan served up them.
In the end Ivan would show why he was so confident this morning with a fine 5th place on the stage and climbed from 28th to 12th on GC. Also In the process, he took precious seconds out of all his major rivals for the GC so was a fantastic ride by our Cannondale Team Captain. When your captain asks for your support and delivers you simply are champing at the bit everyday to lay it on the line for him which is exactly the feeling on the team bus as we head to tonight's hotel.
Now we just need to keep the ball rolling!
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