On the rest day we rode for two hours and hit one twenty minute climb just under race pace to keep the engine hot. Apart from that we ate and slept and ate.
Stage 11: 138 km
Attack because everyone is afraid. Everyone. And they might let you go. Sometimes if you don’t kill your demons they’ll kill you first, so attack. Find your limit and stay there. Make sure you’re ahead of a grupetto because there’s safety in numbers when it comes to making the time cut. Some called the course the hardest Grand Tour stage ever. The first of six high altitude climbs scattered shattered bodies everywhere. I crested with twenty riders behind a break of sixteen. Our hopeful for the day, Dombrowski, crashed at km 0, and benefited from a brief regrouping of the peloton. The pace up each subsequent climb drained riders to varying degrees. Halfway up the fourth heavy rain mixed with hailstones fell and Astana made their move. Entire teams went backwards. Heroes of the sport imploded. I rode to my power meter. The rain stopped and I descended between the first and second groups on the road. In the valley I waited for the second group and stayed on the wheel as we closed in on the leaders until the final climb. I passed a former teammate, George Bennett, who’d been in the breakaway. I handed him an extra gel. His hollow lifeless eyes hardly registered, and he took it with great effort like a dying man. Having survived and content with the effort, I accompanied him at his pace to the top. Dombrowski placed 15th and Cardoso maintained 17th overall.
5000 meters vertical gain
5000 calories burned
320 normalized and 276 average watts
Stage 12: 180 km
My legs turned over well, but the cold I’ve been fighting and the residual pain from yesterday’s sinfully hard effort made the slightest accelerations feel like power lifting. The sprinter’s teams rallied for their final opportunity, and four hours later they duked it out. Remarkably, after twelve tries, we finally completed a stage without any crashes.
Stage 13: 180 km
The high probability for the breakaway to win the stage caused two hours of insanity. If we weren’t attacking down a wide road 90 kph, we were single file up a mountain. I followed the first attack. Then my rear wheel felt funny so I bounced on it. Two riders told me, “yeah, man, your rear’s flat.” I stopped to get a change from the car. It wasn’t flat. I chased through the cars, and sat at the back praying that the break would go and fighting to see through tunnel vision. A large break did survive, but that didn’t prevent the GC teams from opening the gas in crosswinds before the finish. The stage sent a few riders home. I couldn’t even force a smile on the bus. Even my soul ached.
Still I will remember the beauty of the fingers of sunlight beaming through massive coniferous trees onto ferns and mossy rocks in an open forest before we plunged to the finish.
Stage 14: 220 km
I woke up congested, coughing, and ill. GC teams did not want to control for such a long stage and the breakaway would survive again. Feeling so lame, I did not want to bake in the break for six hours, but I tried to pull back moves that we missed so that my teammates could jump. Everyone tried countless times, but after fifty km we eventually missed the break.
On a long climb before the final 18 km ascent, Astana, as race leaders, twisted the knife to wear their competition for the GC battle. Then I pulled for Andre until the road kicked up. He maintained his overall placing. The temperature has changed from 40 degrees celsius to 40 degrees fahrenheit.
Stage 15: 175 km
Still sick but feeling more lively, I decided to ditch caution and help cover breakaways. I attacked twice and both attempts sent me into coughing spasms. Finally the break went and I dropped back to the rolling race doc for some cough syrup. Later on Adam Hansen and I talked about archery and bowhunting. It was nice to converse with someone about something other than, “How hard is this freaking race?” I hit the final climb near the front with Andre and Joe, then rode to the top nice and easy. The reason we don’t race for 30th place on these stages is because the energy we save on these days, may be useful in a break going for the win. Plus, I gotta kick this awful cough!
Stage 16: 185 km
For the second time this week, the third time in my life, we accumulated over 5000 meters climbing. Frustrated with ourselves for missing the breakaways, we prepared for another epic battle to snap the elastic and get in a winning move. To everyone’s astonishment, five riders attacked and two teams blocked the entire road. Nobody else could squeeze through to attack. But we could not be satisfied with that nor was our director, who let us know on the radio. I bullied my way to the front and started pulling as hard and steady as I could to bring the break close enough for someone to jump across. Until they were out of breath, I was booed and called names in various languages. “Sorry, guys, sorry, really, I have too. I’m sorry.” Then Moreno Moser launched. Three guys followed and I helped block the road again. Moreno made it to the leaders.
For a while we rode slow enough for me to grab apples off trees we passed and have more meaningful conversations. On a fast descent I got something in my eye, one of those teary, blinding, cornea scratchers. I went to the race doc again. I held onto the car at 50 mph, while he covered one eye and sprayed water in the other. We hit a bump and my shoe touched the car tire. I said, “Pienso que seria major parrar!" (I think it would be better to stop!) He gave me some numbing drops and shoved me back to the bunch.
On the first of three massive climbs to the finish, a team whacked it and obliterated the peloton. The breakaway had 20 minutes, so everyone had to continue riding quite fast to make the time cut. Moreno saved the day and placed 3rd. Andre slotted up to 17th.
After seven hours in the saddle, we settled in for the four hour transfer to the next hotel and an 11:30PM dinner. Over the last six days I burned 26,600 calories on the bike alone. Thank God tomorrow is the second rest day!