Bienvenidos a La Vuelta a Espana.
Nuestro Equipo: Andrew Talansky, Davide Formolo, Simon Clarke, Davide Vilella, Moreno Moser, Joe Dombrowski, Patrick Bevin, Pierre Rolland, and me.
Stage 1: 28 km TTT
A lot of thinking and preparation go into Team Time Trials. They require total focus, intelligence, and cohesion during an effort of vision blurring intensity to maximise each rider’s potential and strengths. It is beautiful and painful. In an individual time trial, riders pace themselves and blow up once just before the finish. In a TTT, riders blow up fifteen times and swing back in line to recover at 90% effort before the next 120% pull. According to our strategy, Bevin and I took longer, harder pulls to motor the downhill and flatter portions of the course to our early finish line at 22 km. Bevin drained himself and peeled off. I watched the numbers on my power meter, holding 550 watts until it felt like sparks were flying out my ears. After my final pull at 24 minutes I had averaged 406 watts with a 432 normalised power. The GC riders and climbers took the final uphill portion and twisty downhill to the finish. We finished 7th out of 22 teams, but felt satisfied with our performance.
Stage 2: 162 km
Three riders slipped into the breakaway. We cruised along behind, catching up with friends, drinking, and genuinely enjoying ourselves. There are a lot of english speakers and cool riders to chat with in the race. The time passed fast. Things heated up with 30 km to go. We charged for position spreading across three lanes, pinched by parked cars and ducking shoulders under spectators stepped a few inches into the road. In a dark tunnel- I have tunnel phobia in races- we hit a greasy wet patch. Two riders ahead of me locked wheels. I tapped my brakes and my back wheel slipped two feet to the right. I hit dry asphalt and jolted straight with my heart in my throat. There were two crashes in the run in to the bunch sprint, but in general it was an easy, low stress day.
Stage 3: 180 km
Beautiful, enticing beaches bordered the first 50 km of the course. Formolo said, “Hey, this looks nice, eh?”
“Yea, man. It’s hard to suffer in such a nice place! I mean racing is nice, but.”
“But the beach is better. Anyways, two more weeks.”
“Well, three weeks.”
“No, only two. After the second week you are too $%&*ed. You feel nothing anymore!”
The first climb hurt some guys. The second dropped around 130 guys. I hung on to the first group and helped position Talansky for the final 2 km climb, one of the steepest in the Vuelta with pitches of 23%. He limited his losses. After dinner I stripped on an empty beach and walked into the dark ocean. The cold salty water soothed my legs, as I stared at the horizon and thought, “what a strange life.”
Stage 4: 170 km
“We have to be in the breakaway today. You saw yesterday it arrived and today is a similar finish.”
Bingen (director) pulled me aside and told me it was a good opportunity for me. With that in mind, I jumped after everything and attacked myself. I spent a lot of bullets, but nothing stuck until the first climb. We raced full gas up the climb. I held on. On the plateau, I started tagging moves again until a group of 21 riders built a small gap. Pierre Rolland was there so we put our heads down to establish the gap. Gradually we built an advantage of 4:45.
I felt pretty good but didn’t know how good. The breakaway was stacked with hitters including two other Americans, Warbasse and Haga. 30 km from the finish Juanma (director) told me to try to escape before the climb. A few guys had the same idea and we took shots at each other on each roller. I buried myself to get away, but as we approached 10 km to go where the road kicked up, I was still with 20 riders chasing one Frenchman. We saved Pierre for the climb. After so many intense surges, I wanted to take the climb fast and steady. I treated it like an interval and pulled. I reeled in the lone escapee and kept going for Pierre. The other riders knew Pierre was the man to watch. They followed his every move. He feigned weakness, yelling at me, “Ben, if you keep this tempo, I will drop!” They let him slip to the back. When everyone was good and battered. I eased off. One French rider launched. Five seconds later Pierre took off in pursuit. I maintained second wheel, frustrating the chase as much as possible. If more than two riders attacked our chase group, I followed. Pierre never closed the gap to the leader. We overcame Pierre on the steepest section with 3 km to go. I surged, splitting the group. Darwin Atapuma, the clear favourite, counter attacked. Two riders followed but blew up. Ziets, from Astana, and I worked together to drag Atapuma back by the final kilometre. Our trio closed in on the leader, but it wasn’t enough. I opened my sprint 150 meters from the line, but Atapuma just edged me out of 2nd.
I’m satisfied with 3rd place, but in hindsight, who knows what could have been possible with a more conservative strategy.
Stage 5: 165 km
Rain defied the clear forecast. Cold, soggy, and with muscles that wouldn’t let me forget yesterday’s effort, I counted down the kilometres. Slippery surfaces magnified the elastic snap at the back of the bunch and made the twisty costal roads a real chore. With 7 km to go, we turned off a wide highway onto a narrow lane that wound up into an old castle town. I did my best to position Talansky and Clarke for that corner, then backed off. Our gruppetto passed carnage. One rider holding his collarbones on the sidewalk, another with his jersey torn. Mechanics and doctors running around. Clarke launched a massive attack with 3 km to go. The sprint trains just overcame him inside the final km. We all finished safely.
Stage 6: 165 km
Our bus broke down one km from the start, close enough to do the race meeting and get to work. After racing an 80 km loop the entire peloton passed by it, still parked in the middle of the road. Team Greenedge caught a lot of riders off guard by blasting into a long sinuous downhill. They took the switchbacks so fast that the long line of riders stretched as far as the eye could see. When we turned right into a mountain they were sprinting. I was sprinting. Riders were going backwards and forward until it was down to fifty in front. More dropped on the next narrow downhill. We caught the breakaway and headed into the final kicker with five km to go. I brought Talansky, Formolo, and Simon into good position with 4 km to go. Simon fought like a beast to survive the final punch and sprinted to a top ten.
P.S. The bus is out of commission.
Stage 7: 160 km
What should have been an easier day, erupted 70 km from the finish. Astana blasted the short climbs and 100 riders dropped. Their tempo set up an attack on the final climb 20 km before the finish. Simon followed. He and Luis Leon Sanchez tore into a headwind against two chasing teams. I helped keep Talansky ahead of the washing machine of riders swirling around, and marvelled at how the two riders maintained their 20 second lead. They were still in front when the peloton turned left over a bridge with one km to go. I took the inside with Talansky safely but heard carbon cracking on asphalt and riders shouting in pain and anger when a crash blocked the road just behind us. We passed Simon 150 meters from the finish.
Stage 8: 175 km
The flattest stage of the Vuelta happened to finish up an 8 km wall. I slipped into a breakaway. It looked good so I committed, but riders jumped from the peloton and pulled us back. The next move stuck and went to the finish. I enjoyed the next three hours chatting with friends in the peloton, then switched to business mode. We rode as a team all day, and I buried myself in the wind with Talansky on the wheel inside 5 km to go. The climb was painfully steep, but fans created a fun atmosphere. I had fun with it and even snagged a beer from a fan. Talansky finished in a group of GC contenders. He climbed to 12th overall, but time gaps between the favourites are close.
Stage 9: 165 km
Four climbs in rapid succession guaranteed a nasty finish. Also, an uphill start guaranteed a nasty beginning. Our plan was to put a rider in the breakaway. I didn’t leave the top ten for the first 6 km of the uphill, covering every attack. When I blew up, Moreno and Simon jumped. They escaped with 12 strong men. Some teams weren’t happy to miss the break and chased desperately. They blew up and the break went out to five minutes. The worst part of the day for me was a long high speed downhill in fog so thick I couldn’t see the next corner ahead. When we hit the punchy climbs toward the finish, I protected Talansky. Simon attacked early in the breakaway but was caught and dropped. Two riders countered and Moreno was left to chase. Once again I rode at the front with Talansky on my wheel until the final 4 km. Moreno placed 3rd.
Stage 10: 190 km
Make the break. After ten km, BOOM! I slid to a stop in the middle of a massive pile up. I got a foot down without crashing as riders slammed and crashed into the back of me. It took a while to untangle my wheels from handlebars. A few riders abandoned with bad injuries. They neutralised the race for a minute until everyone was together again. I had to stop to fix my wheel when the race restarted. I was in the caravan of cars for ten km on up-down-left-right kind of roads, and began to get nervous when I saw riders dropping. I thought if I get barraged my Vuelta could be over! Finally I tagged the back of the peloton. It took thirty km to get to the front, and then out of a mixture of adrenaline and anger I began attacking. Finally a break escaped with 16 riders. We had Pierre, Moreno, and Dombrowski in the move.
The rest of the day was fast and nervous. A category 1 climb preluded the iconic summit of Los Lagos de Covadongo. The group thinned on the cat 1. Someone forced Simon off the road on the fast descent off the backside. I saw him climbing out of the ditch clutching his shoulder, but he remounted and continued. I helped Talansky position for the climb then took in the views. He managed a solid top 15 with Formolo beside him. Pierre was the final survivor of the breakaway but was caught before the finish. Simon rode the climb with one hand, the injured arm tucked into his jersey.
Rest day summary:
Simon went in for an MRI and has an extensive list of injuries to his shoulder including two fractures. He’s a beast. Nuff said.
Still no bus. We changed in the parking lot just like the good ol’ days, but with hundreds of fans asking for water bottles and watching us prep for the race. The team rented a bus for two days.
The leader’s jersey is firmly on the shoulders of Nairo Quintana. Talansky is positive and looks hungry for the hardest mountain stages to come. A lot of riders look ragged. I feel more fresh than I have in the past by the rest day in a grand tour. I went for a short ride, got a haircut, ate a lot, and spent 50% of the rest day in bed.