It was an exciting honour to be selected for the Vuelta a Espana and my first season with two Grand Tours. I felt fully recovered physically and mentally from the Giro d’Italia and looked forward to the challenge. A rough version of our Vuelta squad was able to work together in a few “warm up” races which built cohesion, confidence, and a nice atmosphere. After the Vuelta a Burgos (my last race report) I had just enough time to recover and fit in a few quality training rides to keep sharp.
Before you dive in (because this is long and some may not reach the end!), I want to thank the army of Team Dimension Data staff. Not only did they always go the extra mile to enable us a singular focus on racing, their cheery attitude and optimism played a huge roll in creating a winning atmosphere. Also, please check out the team’s affiliated charity, Qhubeka, to see how empowering the underprivileged allows us to race with a higher purpose.
La Vuelta a Espana: 21 Stages
Stage 1: 8 km prologue time trial
The shortest stage of the Vuelta turned out to be one of the longest days. With my start time at 7:30 PM, I ended up dirtying three cycling kits and showering three times between warm up, course preview, race, and ride back to the hotel. My plan was to aim for a top ten pace. If I blew up and got 50th, then so be it. I started well and crested the only hill on pace, but on the high speed descent I braked too hard for two blind corners. That cost me seconds and I finished 24th. The day still felt like a victory, however, because my wife, Jenna, was there to catch me at the finish line.
Stage 2: 165 km
The southern Spain heat wrung the sweat out of us. After a couple hours I pointed to the salt crusted on a rider and asked my teammate, “do I look like that?” I did. In 2016 we raced the final 40 km and the main feature that stuck in my mind was the slippery road. To little surprise, in the first and second corner there were two separate crashes. I felt empty with 20 km to go. My guts ached. 6 km to go with Louis, our leader, in good position I slipped off the group to save energy and nurse myself to the finish. We weigh ourselves pre and post stage. I lost 5 kg, over 11 lb in 4 hours (Don’t worry, I gained it back overnight).
Stage 3: 180 km
Challenging hills late in the course provided a launch pad for some opportunists to attack attempting to disrupt the sprint teams. The peloton stretched into a long line and threatened to split when riders pulled out of line. With 10 km to go I found our sprinter, Ryan. At two km to go he was in good position so I hit the front to keep the pace high. Ryan sprinted to 9th on the stage.
Stage 4: 162 km
When the flag dropped at kilometre 0, I took off with the first attack. Nine of us rotated along the coast heading into the first of two long climbs. On the climb we kept the pace moderate and the peloton maintained a gap of around 6 minutes. The thermometer tickled 40 degrees celsius, over 100 Fahrenheit. On the plateau at the top I lifted the tempo. My legs responded obediently which both surprised me and emboldened me. Our gap stretched out to ten minutes. My heart skipped a beat when I realised that we would be fighting out the stage win. Not only that, but I had a chance to assume overall leadership of the Vuelta. I’d already felt that my legs were good, but with climbers like Luis Angel Mate, Pierre Rolland, and Nikita Stalnov in the group, I knew my tactics and reactions would also have to be impeccable.
As we approached summit finish up the steep 12 km Puerto de Alfacar, the breakaway alliance crumbled. The lack of cohesion slowed us. With 18 km to go the rider behind me refused to take his turn on the front. I made a small acceleration testing the water. Pierre Rolland followed. The group hesitated before chasing us down. With overall leadership as a secondary goal I wanted to pick up the time bonus sprint at 15 km to go. I thought I would go uncontested, but Jelle Wallays sprinted. I felt challenged and surged around him. The effort opened up a gap for us. “Let’s go!” I said and churned on the pedals. Jelle pulled through.
When I glanced over my shoulder I saw Stalnov halfway between us and the rest of the breakaway. He had been the most conservative throughout the day and I knew he would be tricky to beat. Once he caught us, he refused to pull as long or hard, but Jelle and I committed to the effort pulling out a 30 second advantage. When the climb really kicked up Jelle faded away behind us. After a long pull I flicked my elbow inviting Stalnov to take his turn. He shook his head. I pulled longer and flicked him through again. “No,” he said. “Are you crazy?” I asked. “Me for the stage. You for the general,” he bargained. “No way, man. We don’t have enough time for me to take the overall, and Rolland is going to catch us if you don’t work.” Prioritising the stage win meant I had to call his bluff and backed off. Pierre Rolland dragged us back to twenty seconds and the peloton closed in enough that I no longer had a chance for the overall. Then Stalnov began to take his turn.
On the steepest sections I rode as hard as I could without showing weakness to discourage him from attacking me. The gap to Rolland yo-yoed between 15 and 30 seconds. I knew the climb levelled off 2 km from the finish. If I could make it that far with Stalnov and/or Pierre, I trusted my sprint to finish the job. Inside 1 km to go, I sat on Stalnov’s wheel and refused to pull through. We coasted playing the cat and mouse game. With 600 meters to go Rolland had closed in so close behind us that we could hear him. Stalnov got nervous and lifted the pace. My heart beat in my ears. Years of dreaming about this moment, training specifically for this situation squeezed every drop of adrenaline into my blood. 300 meters to go. My ankles trembled. Wait. Wait. 150 meters to go. Now. I unleashed my kick. Just before the finish time froze. I saw the white line. I haven’t crossed it yet, I thought, but I’m about to and nobody is in front of me. I raised one hand to salute Qhubeka, pointed to heaven then pounded my chest and yelled in victory.
The feeling was overwhelming. There was no cell service at the top of the mountain so I could not call my wife or family, but I knew they were watching. I knew they were sharing this with me. My team needed this and I knew what it meant to them.
Stage 5: 190 km
I got to wear the special white combination jersey for high overall standings in the GC, KOM, and sprints competition, but I did not feel special amidst all of the suffering when the race started. High on life, I followed a lot of attacks in the start, but the breakaway battle raged for 50 km. A group of 25 escaped on the first categorised climb which shredded the peloton. We had Merhawi there. All day the heat and pace ground us down. The breakaway splintered but stayed away and Merhawi placed 10th. My former teammate Simon Clarke won the stage, and the leader’s jersey changed hands from Sky to Mollard of FDJ. The rest of us finished with the peloton.
Stage 6: 160 km
We welcomed a mellow roll out but everyone knew it wouldn’t last. A right hand corner with 20 km to go meant crosswinds could obliterate the peloton. A stressful fight for position into that key point caused a rider to slam into a poorly marked pole that separated lanes of traffic in the road. Louis and I were stuck behind the crash. Inevitably wind split the peloton which forced us to do a team time trial for 20 km trying to limit Louis' time loss.
Stage 7: 185 km
On paper it looked like a day for the breakaway. I cued up at the front, but saw Team Bora clustered on the front line. It was a stage that suited their Peter Sagan well and they indicated their plan to control for him. The breakaway was strong which made the day harder but Bora did keep them close and I was glad not to be frying myself in a futile breakaway. With 25 km to go we careened down a six lane highway at 100 kph. Then the course jerked to the right into a steep climb up a one lane road. That pinch point caused a crash which blocked the road. I picked my way through fallen riders and went tunnel vision to catch back up to the lead group on the climb. On the downhill there were three or four more crashes from riders sliding out in the switchbacks. Those crashes split the lead group. Louis made the split and I finished in a group just behind.
Stage 8: 200 km
It could have been the easiest stage of the Vuelta when just three riders jumped away at the start. However, the steep final 800 meters meant it wasn’t really a sprinter day or a climber day, and no team volunteered to control for such an unpredictable finish. The breakaway stretched out to 12 minutes. Finally some teams with a chance agreed to contribute one rider a piece to chase. They had to work hard to bring back 12 minutes and the temperature reached higher than it had yet. We caught the breakaway inside the final 10 km. I helped position Ryan for the finish then hung on to the first group as gaps opened up. The finish was a bit too much for Ryan.
Stage 9: 205 km
The plan for the second mountain top finish was to get Igor or Merhawi in the breakaway. After an aggressive fight for position in the neutral zone, however, I found myself at the front and covered the first attack. Eleven of us ripped through the twisty opening kilometres and our gap stabilised at four minutes. On the first long Category 1 climb, we rode hard enough that I could size up the group including the guys I didn’t know. The break included Thomas De Gendt, Bauke Mollema, Reto Hollenstein, Luis Mas, Luis Angel Mate and Edward Teuns, some of the strongest breakaway specialists in cycling. They made valuable allies for the moment, but would be formidable rivals if the stage came down to a shootout between us.
Once we crested the first climb, we increased the effort. Our gap stretched from 4 to 6 minutes. Then it ballooned to over 9 minutes making me the virtual race leader once again. It also meant that someone from the breakaway had a chance for victory. As the kilometres ticked by, I became increasingly alert. Thomas De Gendt had been frustrated by the lack of contribution from some of the breakaway riders, and I anticipated his early attack. In a breakaway this spring De Gendt had shredded me off his back wheel and I knew if he gained an inch he could take a mile. His attack came on a steep hill with 30 km to go. I responded first and attached myself to his draft. The enormous effort hurt but that I had it in me was encouraging. Our group trimmed to 7 riders. All of us showed the effects of 5 arduous hours in the heat. From then on the course dragged up offering less recovery on the wheel.
As the peloton powered up the road behind us eating into our advantage, we continued working together but the tone shifted to one of wary enmity. Hollenstein attacked. We followed. Mollema tested us a couple of times. I surged once and noticed Mollema’s immediate reaction. Then Mas attacked up the right side. I know Mas is a strong rider. A quick look at the other riders told me that none of them was about to go after him. They didn’t want to risk another high intensity effort before the final 10 km HC category climb of the Covatilla. Shifting up a gear I darted after him. We entered a steep and very rough cobbled street that kicked up through a small town. Rattling over the uncomfortable stones I mashed the pedals and dropped Mas. Using the time between the wild cheers of groups of fans I judged the distance to my pursuers. After an all out five minute effort up the cobbles I was alone and committed. To make it count, I would need to open a discouraging buffer to everyone else. Over the radio my director said, “save something for the climb.” But, I felt like I had nothing left to save. I was running on stubborn defiance scrapping for every second. One rider against six sharing the load. My lead stretched little by little to 1 minute 25 seconds.
I’d been alone riding over my limit for 10 km, and then hit the climb, the hardest section of the stage. On the steep gradient, I’d have to ride my own pace as hard as I could without panicking or surging. After the first kilometer, my engine spluttered like a lawn mower sucking up the last drops of gas in the tank. I looked towards the top of the mountain. The barren landscape exposed layers of switchbacks at dizzying heights. Don’t ever look up again. From then on I focused on the pavement ahead of me. Mollema attacked the breakaway and in no time brought back 30 seconds. I believed the pure climber, who placed 4th overall in the Tour de France, would catch me, but I'm stubborn and focused on my own effort. He closed to within 40 seconds on the steepest section. Then the gap stabilised somewhat. If he wasn’t also suffering I knew he would quickly overcome my languished effort. Like battered boxers in the twelfth round we wrestled ourselves through each agonising minute. My director told me, “Mollema is suffering. He’s rocking all over his bike.” Conscious that similar information could be relayed to him, I focused on my composure. On the inside I flailed.
With five km to go twenty seconds separated us. If I looked back I could see him mere meters behind me. If he catches me, just maybe, I can stay with him and beat him at the finish. But solo is cool… and safer. The climb pitched up at 3.5 km to go. I thought if I concede a few seconds now, recover any strength possible, and accelerate over the steep part it might break him mentally. Mollema closed to a tantalising 15 seconds while I tried to steady my breathing. Then I thrust into the climb. From then on I didn’t get any more time splits. The acceleration emptied me. Two km to go. “I can do this,” but my thoughts were distant and blurry. Devoid of the adrenaline and endorphins that accompanied stage four, my muscled threatened to buckle. Even my arms struggled to support my upper body. I had no “final kick.” I looked back for Mollema, but the TV motorbike obscured my line of sight. One km to go. On the radio my director, Alex, said, “Enjoy it.” Enjoy it? Am I going to win? How can he be sure? It’s too painful to enjoy. I’ll enjoy it later. It will be worth it. Just before the finish, I knew. I pointed to heaven, kissed my wedding ring, and raised my arms.
On the other side of the finish line I collapsed. I didn’t even notice Mollema roll through 45 second later. It was a more dramatic and beautiful victory than stage four. It both destroyed me and reinforced my potential. It’s still sinking in.
Good timing and much needed. My wife, Jenna, surprised me with a visit. Her friend, Brooke Dougall, planned everything for her to get there so we could celebrate and share the moment. Her presence filled me with joy and completed the victory, because she’s been a huge factor in my success, loving me win or lose.
Stage 10: 180 km
A welcome sprint stage transitioned us back to racing after our recovery day. Three riders escaped and the sprint teams controlled. I still felt depleted from my effort on stage nine. As we approached the single climb on course with 25 km to go the tension increased. In the jostling for position I watched Simone Petilli flip over the handlebars and land on his face rendering him unconscious. With that image in my mind any crazy I had switched off. I started the climb at the back and had to fight around dropping riders to remain in front. I linked up with Ryan trying to help position for the sprint. With 3 km to go the fight turned very physical and dangerous. Ryan placed 15th.
Stage 11: 210 km
We knew the technical final 45 km from the 2016 Vuelta, and threats of rain would make it even trickier. It appeared to be another breakaway stage, and everyone knew it. I followed a lot of moves until the first climb where the peloton split in half. The leader’s teammates actually told me that they didn’t want me in the breakaway but after a wild downhill, I continued attacking. After an hour some outside GC riders started to move. Before the second climb I blasted away with three others. On the climb, four danger men bridged across. The peloton pulled us back. We’d averaged 50 kph over the lumpy terrain for two hours and I needed water. I dropped back to the team car when a breakaway finally stuck. We had Ryan Gibbons there. Team Moviestar assumed the chase and whittled the peloton down as we closed in on the finish. The breakaway stayed away by two minutes but the GC battle erupted 4 km to go. Team EF ripped a wet twisty downhill stringing out the group and attacked into the next kicker. Louis made the selection and I placed just behind letting a group of desperate GC contenders do the work.
Stage 12: 185 km
A similar stage in Galicia could have developed the same way. Remembering that I was still too close on GC for teams to want me in the breakaway I took a more conservative approach. The breakaway escaped on the first climb with less fuss, everyone hoping to avoid chaos like the day before. Amanuel, our neopro made the breakaway, but suffered on the climbs late in the race. Although the second half of the race took us up many short climbs and narrow technical descents, a large group of us still finished together behind the breakaway. Jesus Herrada of Cofidis took over the leader’s jersey.
Stage 13: 175 km
The stage profile looked similar to stages 4 and 9. A lot of people asked me if I would go in the breakaway. The answer was “no, unless things get out of control, because Cofidis has the leader’s jersey, but they also have the KOM jersey and if they're going to control anyways I don't think they’ll want me in the break since I'm close in that competition.” But, the start did get out of control. Merhawi made the first move of ten riders, but riders kept jumping from the peloton and the breakaway swelled. I made a massive effort at the base of the first climb to join the action. 32 of us had a slight advantage, but one by one three different teams attempted to shut it down. Finally we cracked the chasers.
Cofidis held us at four minutes for a while, but strong riders stacked the breakaway and at the base of the first climb we had stretched the gap to over 9 minutes. I was seven minutes down on the overall and this time I truly believed I could take the overall lead. I committed to that goal. The final 3 km climb had ramps over 20% which suited Merhawi better than me for the stage. On the longest climb all of the GC teams contributed to the chase and our gap began to fall. I realised that while me might still have a shot at the stage, I wouldn’t take the jersey. When the final climb started our gap had fallen to under four minutes. I made an acceleration hoping to goad some of the dangerous men. If I could draw them out early it would set up Merhawi well. Rafael Majka countered my move and Merhawi launched after him with a vicious acceleration. I swung wide, weaved to catch my breath, then settled into a rhythm. Merhawi’s attack proved overambitious and all those who had made massive efforts early on the climb faded. Some of them came back into my view and I picked them off one by one climbing my way to 10th on the stage behind Merhawi who finished 6th. We also won the team classification for the day.
Stage 14: 171 km
Enjoying these breakaways, I tried again on the first climb, but Valverde pulled up beside me, “today no breakaway for you.” I guess because I’ve been picking up sprint points and he lead that competition. Six very strong breakaway riders pulled away, but the peloton kept them close. We knew that the technical descents late in the race could do as much damage as the climbs. Sure enough, Bahrain blasted over a climb forty km from the finish and ripped the downhill. The peloton split in front of us. Louis, our GC man, was behind the split so I moved to help close the gap. On the next climb he took off in pursuit.
With 20 km to go Amanuel came over the radio, “Louis crash!” In a tight corner Louis slid off the road into the trees. Our team car hadn’t even seen him. A moment later I came around the same corner and saw Louis climbing into the road with his bike. His jersey hung in tatters off his boney frame. Thick blood dripped down his arm. I stopped to make sure he was ok to continue then stayed with him to help him make it to the finish atop the 20+% final climb. I’d been 15th overall, but Louis was our leader. Not only was his health and safety a concern, but since he’d come into this race with such immense pressure riding alone after a crash like that would be psychological torture. After the finish he got stitches in his elbow, but otherwise checked out ok to continue.
Stage 15: 180 km
After our difficult previous day, we wanted to come out fighting on the queen stage up Lagos de Covadonga. With a lot of mountain points up for grabs, I planned to be in the breakaway. It proved one of the most difficult stages to make the break. Powerful groups reshuffled off the front for an hour. I infiltrated as many as I could as gaps opened and closed in the peloton. On a plateau the GC teams congregated near the front looking ragged. It’s going to go soon, I thought and used momentum to attack. The move came back. I tried again and the 12 man break stuck. We never gained more than a 5.5 minute advantage because Astana began shredding the peloton on the mid race climbs.
Before the top of the first cat 1 climb Mollema jumped surprising me to win the first climb. I hadn’t seen the 1 km to the top sign which frustrated me. I congratulated him but bottled up my frustration for the second time up the same climb, where I claimed maximum points. Our gap came down to three minutes and we knew we’d be caught. Heading into the final epic climb our breakaway began infighting. On the early slopes of the Covadonga the thirty or so remnants of the peloton hissed by and I rode easier to the finish.
We arrived at our next hotel after 9 PM. These late nights, long drives, different beds, sometimes smelly hotels, and faulty or absence of air conditioning add to the challenges of a grand tour. When fatigue runs deep, irritability prowls on us. We learn to roll with the punches and can laugh off just about anything. Attitude is everything.
We only left bed to ride one hour, shower, shave, massage, and eat.
Stage 16: 32 km
For me the time trial offered a chance to further recover. The smooth course flowed by and I used to climbs to do “opener” type efforts for the final week. My former roommate and USA TT champion, Joey Rosskopf, placed 2nd on the stage.
Stage 17: 160 km
The Basque Country offered mountain points if nothing else so I needed to make the break. My nerves tingled in the neutral zone. I tried to gauge the tone of the peloton and forecasted a chance that the break could stick in the 10 km before the first climb. Over enthusiasm got the better of me and I jumped way to much so that when the breakaway did go on the first climb I was incapable of making the effort. De Gendt all but sealed up the mountain competition. We did have Merhawi and Amanuel (AKA: Merhanuel), our Eritrean duo, up there. Climbs in the second half of the course whittled down the peloton, but the breakaway survived the gruelling final. As we plummeted towards the final incline I saw Aru and another rider crash at 70 kph. He was ok. The crash split the peloton and I rode my own pace to the finish. Fanatic Basque fans crowding the concrete ascent assuaged the dull pain. Jumping and whooping in our faces they opened a cyclist sized path to the top. Amanuel stuck with the first group until the final kilometer, and nabbed 7th on the stage.
Stage 18: 188 km
A day for the sprinters, if the tailwind didn’t turn to cross, would provide an easier day for the rest of us. Three riders escaped and we settled in for the chase. With the wind in our favour, we spun our biggest gears for most of the race. The breakaway had two minutes with thirty km to go, and I told a friend, “They’re going to have a hard time catching this break.”
“Nah, Mate, they’ve got it easy.”
“I think they’ve got it, but it won’t be easy.”
When the sprint teams stepped on it, the three out front, who’d been toying with us, stepped on it. They played us so well. We barrelled toward the finish. As the chase became desperate, I moved into position with Ryan. The peloton began to fracture. Ryan and I made the first group of 40 riders. Two riders from the break had crossed the line first with the sprinters on their back wheel. If the course was twenty meters longer they’d have been passed. Well played. Ryan grabbed 10th for us.
Stage 19: 155 km
The Col de la Rabassa awaited us after a long uphill drag into Andorra. Moviestar made it clear that they wanted a small breakaway, but it seemed that every other team wanted a large breakaway. After forty km of attacking, three riders including Amanuel escaped. But, Moviestar kept the gap close. The breakaway didn’t want to fry themselves for nothing so they slowed down. We slowed down until the three out front literally stopped. Then the attacking resumed until another three riders went clear. I surfed my way into position for the final climb and held on to the lead group of about 20 up the steepest part. Then halfway up the climb the GC contenders began to attack and dropped me with a small group. We rode a steady tempo to the finish.
Stage 20: 98 km
Stages like this are a novelty, borderline experimental in their extremity. Six climbs totalling 3500 meters of climbing packed into a short distance meant flat out racing from start to finish. It would be all or nothing for those on the fringes of a top result. I wanted to make the breakaway for a last shot at the KOM jersey. I played it smarter this time and followed De Gendt on the first climb. His teammate went full gas up the first pitch. I saw Mollema move into position and followed him off the front. We formed a group with the peloton close behind. But when I stood to squeeze more power out of my legs my brake rubbed aggressively. One km from the top of the climb, I imploded and lost contact. Amanuel made the move.
On the next climb I called the car forward to fix my brakes, but riders spread over the road behind blocked them from reaching me. I drifted to the back of the group with my hand in the air trying to get to the neutral service car, but then the peloton split again and the neutral car whizzed past me. I tried to maintain my temper and clawed my way back through dropping riders with my brake growling every time the wheel flexed. Our car reached me on the next climb, and resolved the situation. Then Astana opened the gas and I dropped again. My group stayed close to the lead group but backed off on the forth climb.
At the back of my group on the final downhill, I slipped in a high speed corner and kissed the asphalt. I was angry, a good sign. If an injury is serious then you feel pain and dismay instead of anger. A spectator send me a video of the crash and I’m not sure why I fell. The only thing I remember between my subconscious and conscious thought was a cliff off outside of the turn. Maybe when I lost traction I chose not to fight it and risk flying over the edge. Regardless, I bounced up with the help of the spectator, Marcus, and carried on. Grinding up the final and steepest mountain of the day I realised that the crash had damaged my front derailleur forcing me to big ring the entire climb.
Igor placed 14th on the stage, and Simon Yates sealed the deal on his first grand tour victory.
Stage 21: 110 km
We fought to Madrid. After a month away from family, the entire peloton welcomed the final stage. The traditional parade into Madrid offered us a chance to relive memories of the race, take photos on the bike with our teammates and friends, and talk about our post race plans. More than anything I looked forward to seeing Jenna at the finish.
The parade brought us to the centre of Madrid where the real racing would begin on a high speed lap. On the first lap, however, everybody in the race agreed to honour my teammate, Igor Anton, who announced his retirement the previous evening. Igor's legacy in cycling will be remembered as much for phenomenal results over the course of his 14 year career as for his unbreakable spirit and incorruptible positivity. Igor rode the first lap through Madrid ahead of the peloton waving farewell to the fans.
Then the racing heated up. We focused on Ryan who placed 10th in the wild sprint.
If you made it this far, then thank you! Thank you for the messages of support on social media. Two stage wins, 24th overall and a realising that a top 20 was possible feels like a personal breakthrough. More than that, I take confidence from the feelings I had throughout and the great working environment on the team. Everybody from riders to staff stepped up in a big way. The stage win qualified me for the World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria on September 30th. At this point in the season only 11 cyclists in the world have raced more kilometres than me, 12,964 km, and they’ve been some of the most intense and gruelling kilometres on the calendar. So, now I’m recovering in Lucca with Jenna and looking forward to representing the USA as my final race of the season!