Stage 11: 170 km
A course that suited a smooth restart after the rest day, evolved into a full throttle sufferfest. It took 50 km for the breakaway to escape. I jumped around like a maniac, covering tons of moves. Eventually it was Pierre who slipped into a 26 rider escape. When they gained 5 minutes, we expected Moviestar to allow the break to take the stage and let the GC contenders duke it out on the final climb. However, Contador wanted to try his chances and had his team pull the break back before the final climb. To close a five minute gap to 26 riders on twisty costal roads means everybody was on the limit. To make matters worse the TV motorcycles drove close to the head of the peloton offering Saxobank extra draft and lifting the pace another 2 kph. I delivered bottles and helped bring Talansky to the front at the base of the sharp final climb. With Formolo’s help he limited his losses to Quintana and Froome.
Stage 12: 195 km
After forty km of constant attacking we hit a category 1 climb. I was already in the red zone. For me attacking before a climb like that requires serious guts, because racing full gas up a climb after so many efforts creates the risk of getting dropped 150 km from the finish. The peloton split into pieces and a six man break of strong climbers slipped away. Once we regrouped, we headed into the Basque Country, where we made two trips up a steep climb before the finish in Bilbao. Fanatical cycling fans crowded the climbs. We huffed and puffed through a tunnel of them, through intermittent clouds of marijuana smoke, and through the pain.
Talansky dropped his chain six km before the corner into a crucial climb. I stopped with him and pulled him all the way back to the front. Forty riders made it over the climb and I cruised to the finish.
Currently Talansky is 11th and Formolo is 13th overall.
Stage 13: 215 km
Three of us had been charged with going in the breakaway. I tried for thirty minutes, covering moves, chasing them back, and going with the next one. I called for assistance on the radio but the others were having bad day. Finally, I missed a move of twelve riders and that was it. I spent a few minutes sulking and then got back to work delivering bottles and positioning our leaders. With the queen stage around the corner and unexpectedly brutal stages in our legs, nobody volunteered to chase the breakaway. Although we pushed an uncomfortable tempo, the GC contenders called a virtual truce and we carried a constant speed through the finish and to the busses. I lamented the missed breakaway opportunity.
Stage 14: 196 km
The team rallied for the queen stage. Three Category 1 climbs preceded the 17 km accent of the Col d’Aubisque. A huge breakaway of forty riders formed forcing Team Sky to chase. We had Moreno, Pierre, and Vilella there. We died slow and painful death in the heat over each climb. I delivered bottles and made sure Talansky and Formolo started the climbs up front. Before the third climb, Formolo stopped for a nature break. I saw Talansky already in good position so I waited for Formolo at the back. Riders were already sitting up and opening gaps ahead of us, but I brought him up beside Talansky and slipped back to the grupetto, job done.
A fraction of the breakaway survived to the finish but Talansky out climbed the GC favourites and moved up to 8th overall. Formolo also gained two placings to 11th. We won the best team prize.
Stage 15: 118 km
With three climbs and no flat roads, we knew the stage would be fast and furious, but we did not expect Alberto Contador and race leader Nairo Quintana to attack uphill within the first five km. I made the first attack and then all hell broke loose. Bodies were everywhere. After the first climb, I drifted back to locate Andrew. Gaps were forming ahead of us. Froome had one teammate bring him across.
On the radio I said, “Andrew! Where are you? We have to move now!’
“I’m here, Ben. Go!”
I drilled it across the gap and we were the last two to make the 45 rider selection. A breakaway of 15 including Cantador, Quintana, and our own Formolo and Moser was a few seconds up the road. One rider from Sky, Greenedge, and Astana chased in full stress mode. It was difficult to hold the wheel, but Pierre, Vilella and I stayed ahead of Talansky trying to give as much shelter as possible. We did massive numbers over the next two climbs and coming into the final climb, the breakaway held a two minute advantage. Moreno, having worked for Formolo, dropped. He handed us water bottles on his way backwards. Hoping to defend his position overall Froome himself began to chase. Every time he swung off looking for help, someone attacked. I asked Talansky if he wanted to try. We drifted back a few wheels, and the next time the pace lulled, I accelerated with Talansky on the wheel. We tried twice, and those threatened by Talansky had to sprint to close down our come-from-behind aggression. The gradient steepened with 4 km to go. There Talansky took off. I stayed with Froome until the last km. Formolo placed 5th on the stage.
At the end of the day, Talansky and Formolo had moved up to 7th and 8th overall respectively. The big controversy of the stage was that over 93 riders finished outside the time cut, 54 minutes behind us. However, the judges decided to allow them to continue. I agree that they should not eliminate so many riders from the race. However, the entire teams who missed the split should have at least attempted to make time cut. As it stands, those riders got a full recovery day while the rest of us were on the limit for over 3 hours.
Stage 16: 157 km
A gradual uphill and a long downhill. Vilella slipped in a six-man breakaway, but the sprint teams controlled. Wind created some stress and it was harder than the profile looked, but we stayed out of trouble before a sprint finish along the beach.
Rest day update: Tired. Motivated to finish strong. Remember what Formolo said on stage 3 about the third week?