Stage 17: 180 km
A hard climb to start the day tortured bodies teased by a day of rest. I knew it would be hard, but didn’t expect to crash in the neutral section. The rider ahead of me braked, swerved, and took out my front wheel. Nothing was broken or bleeding much and I was too tired to react. I just looked over at the old woman sitting in the street two feet away and thought, “you’re lucky nobody hit you." Bright make-up surrounded her wide eyes and she gasped for air, too startled to move. Her husband pulled her up and I switched to my spare bike for the first half of the race while the mechanics fixed my race bike. We missed a huge breakaway, which didn’t lighten the mood.
After that rude start, we rallied, surrounded Talansky, delivered fresh bottles, and jockeyed for position on the roller coaster road to the final climb. Fights erupted between riders over little things. Fatigue weakened everyone’s temper. I pulled Andrew and Formolo into the last climb, and slogged up to the finish behind them. Andrew improved to 6th overall.
Stage 18: 201 km
Pierre Rolland slipped into a five-man breakaway, but the sprinter teams kept them under control. There were difficult moments on narrow roads and other easier moments to chat with friends. Heat played a major factor on perceived effort. The water in our bottles warmed up within minutes, so we kept fresh ones coming. Once we caught Pierre’s breakaway, we did a big effort to position Talansky and Formolo for the finish. When gaps opened up at the back, it wasn’t an issue.
Stage 19: 37 km TT
I saved my bullets for the final queen stage, treating the time trial as an extra rest day. I may or may not have ridden with music instead of a race radio. Talansky placed 7th in the TT and moved up to 5th overall. Formolo slipped to 10th.
Stage 20: 195 km
One final GC showdown posed a daunting challenge to those hoping to simply finish after three weeks of suffering. The outsiders, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, ensured a battle on every mountain between us and the 22 km final climb.
With “no tomorrow” I tagged the early attacks. At one point I was solo for 5 km thinking, “What am I doing"? I prayed a group would come across, but instead the peloton sucked me up. Big groups split off the front, but didn't gain more than 20 seconds for the next 80 km. After an epic slug fest, 15 of us broke the elastic and gained 9 minutes. I felt good going into the final climb and followed every attack. Then with 10 km to go, the monkey jumped on my back, the wheels fell off, and the hammer came down. I hit a wall and fell behind the leaders. My legs cramped and I was dry heaving. Forcing the pedals down required all of my willpower. Each second in agony felt like an eternity, but I pressed on up the mountain. With 3 km to go I decided to recover a bit, wait for Talansky, and help him in the final stretch. First, Chavez churned past me. I brought my heart rate down and recovered somewhat as I looked behind for Talansky. Then, an attacking Froome surged by with Quintana on his wheel. In pursuit I saw Talansky grinding up the mountain with Contador in his slipstream. I rose to the occasion. I shut out the pain and pulled Talansky into the final kilometer.
The weight of a month's worth of performance anxiety lifted. After the finish I had a beer and a can of Pringles. Andrew secured his 5th overall position and Formolo moved up to 9th.
Stage 21: 110 km
The celebratory procession into Madrid preceded 60 km of full gas circuit racing for the sprinters. With smiling faces and tired legs we recalled the highs and lows of the Vuelta, gushed about off-season plans, girls and family at home, and patted each other on the back. After 21 days in team gear we changed into street clothes and celebrated. Individually and as a team we were stronger, more weathered, and accomplished.
Readers, thank you all for the encouraging comments, prayers, and good vibes throughout the last month of racing. It wouldn’t be the same without your support.