La Vuelta a Espana: 21 stages

I showed confidence in interviews, stating that my condition heading into the Vuelta was as good if not better than in 2018 when I won two stages. My power numbers and times on training routes backed up those claims. It took a couple of weeks, but I came out of the Tour de France firing. Team Dimension Data brought an interesting team to the Vuelta. Edvald, Jaco, Louis, and I had the most experience in contrast to our young talents Rasmus and Nic who would be starting their first Grand Tour. Then, Ben O’connor and Amanuel, who both raced the Giro in May have shown big talent in their second year as professionals.

Meanwhile, my wife, Jenna tackled a project we’d been dreaming of and made it a reality. On November 3rd in Richmond, VA we will host a charity ride and post ride party and auction to raise money for Qhubeka. 100% of what we raise will go directly to changing lives in Africa.

PC: Damian Murphy

PC: Damian Murphy

Stage 1: 13.4 km TTT

One thing you learn quickly about the Vuelta is that the profiles in the race book do not give an accurate impression of the steep hills and technical corners. These made the opening team effort even harder because after a maximum effort pulling on the front you might have to slot back in line as the team is sprinting out of a corner or accelerating up a steep climb. We hit the road in Torrevieja, where one quarter of all salt in Spain is produced, under white mountains of salt. Apart from one corner that we overcooked and scattered the team, we rode a smooth race and finished spent. Other teams crashed in slick corners.

PC: Photo Gomez Sports

PC: Photo Gomez Sports

Stage 2: 200 km

A climb before the finish obliterated any chance of the anticipated sprint finish. Despite controlling all day the sprinters along with most of the peloton including myself were dropped. A very hot stage sucked us dry and caked us in more salt than Torrevieja before that final effort. The roundabout infested run in to the climb felt dangerous and foiled every effort I did to move up. In the end, Nairo Quintana, one of the best pure climbers in the race won this "sprint stage.” I kept my head up, knowing that the twisted feeling I had was part of the “reset” process of riding into the Vuelta after a month training after the Tour.

Salty

Salty

Stage 3: 188 km

A very similar profile discouraged the sprinter’s teams from controlling again. Sure enough on the final climb, a number of sprinters dropped. I had better legs and the team sent me to the front to pull for Eddie insuring the sprinters didn’t make it back and he had less competition. After that effort I made it back to Eddie around 6 km to go. I locked handlebars with another rider once, but pushed back taking confidence from the lead outs I’d done in the Tour. With four km to go Rasmus brought us forward. My body was very tense amid the chaos, but my mind was cool. “Eddie, do you want to go now?” I asked. I surged to the front and broke the wind for Eddie to 1.5 km to go then got out of his way. He slotted in with the other sprinters but lost focus momentarily and finished 17th.

The clutch broke on our team bus so post race we wiped off with towels like the good ol’ days of junior and U23 racing.

PC: Getty Sport

PC: Getty Sport

Stage 4: 176 km

Another sprint stage with climbs, storms, wind, and what felt like 450 roundabouts ended in a 7th place for Edvald. At one point a soigneur handing out bottles stepped too far into the road, got stuck in the middle of the peloton and cause a pile up of about 15 riders. Then I saw Ben O run completely over a plastic traffic pole. I have no idea how he stayed up. I didn’t even know those poles would bend like that. A crosswind heading into the final chopped a few riders off the back. It was difficult to stay together, but I followed Eddie the best I could. Nic Dlamini did a great job guiding Eddie to the finish.

PC: Getty Sport

PC: Getty Sport

Stage 5: 171 km

“What ifs.” Who would control the breakaway heading into the first summit finish? My guts told me nobody, so I attacked and followed moves at the start. But, we didn’t want to be out there with only two or three riders to share the work with. So, after a brief scuffle, when three riders on ProConti teams rolled away, we let them go. In hind sight it was like trading an opportunity for an easier day, but the other teams who had shown interest in the break also relaxed and blocked the road. I fully expected some team to work because it’s not difficult to chase a small breakaway. We still climbed 3700 meters on some very narrow rough roads. A heavy crash on one of these roads brought down Uran, Hugh Carthy, and American Tejay van Garderen who were forced to abandon with serious injuries. The breakaway stayed away, despite a team car nearly crashing all three of them when it hit the back wheel of a rider trying to deliver a water bottle.

PC: Getty Sport

PC: Getty Sport

Stage 6: 200 km

In stage 5 the breakaway was relatively free. In stage 6 an 8 km climb followed by a 6 km climb guaranteed that it was not. In what was my worst day of the Vuelta I was dropped on the first climb. My group of forty riders chased for 100 km before rejoining the peloton. 30 riders spent the entire stage off the back. Once back in the peloton, I helped position our climbers pulling until 5 km to go.

Stage 7: 183 km

I know from experience what awaited us on the slopes of the infamous Mas de la Costa climb, paved in concrete slabs because the pitches were too steep to lay asphalt. Wanting a head start, I went nuts for the breakaway but none of the promising moves stuck. Eventually I resigned to helping position our climbers for the penultimate ascent where I was dropped. The breakaway did not survive. After the stage we rode 20 km back to the buses (ours was fixed just in time) and jumped in cars to save time on the long hotel transfer.

PC: Getty Sport

PC: Getty Sport

Stage 8: 167 km

I downed an extra coffee before the start eager to make the breakaway. A massive battle played out in which Amanuel, Louis, Ben O, and I covered countless attacks. After close to an hour I made it into a group of 15. I have no idea how it didn’t stick as we were flying, but eventually we were caught and the next move took off with Nic Dlamini. During the rest of the stage I was disappointed, but did appreciate the views. Dark storm clouds silhouetted the stunning jagged rock formations of Mont Serrat outside of Barcelona. Rain soaked our descent to the finish. The cold rain did not feel very Spanish!

Stage 9: 95 km

Only in Andorra can you pack over 4000 meters of climbing into such a short stage. We warmed up outside our buses like we would before a time trial. I know just one way of conquering days like this and that is to attack it. I jumped at km 0. A breakaway of 30 riders escaped with Amanuel and Ben O, but the attacks continued all day. At one point on the first climb I nearly resigned to a gruppetto, then saw Louis working his way up to me. I pulled him back to the peloton which had fortunately mellowed out. Before the second climb the entire peloton came back. Astana blitzed the second climb reducing the peloton to less than 20 riders. Halfway up I slotted into a chase group.

Just before an aberrant gravel section on the final three step ascent, the sky unleashed marble sized hailstones. They ricocheted off my knuckles, collarbones, and spine. Many riders sought refuge under trees. I did not stop afraid to freeze if our team car was far behind. So much water rushed that it appeared the road was moving and I got dizzy. The hailstones turned the edge of the road white. I felt extreme and embraced it, splashing over the gravel section where even a race motorbike crashed. I finished 47th, content considering that 30 riders had been in the breakaway and excited by the rock and roll experience.

Then I boarded a gondola with a bag of haribo gummies and two friends from the peloton. Another storm blew through and our gondola stopped halfway down. Over an hour after the finish I showered on the team bus and fuelled for the 300 km drive to our rest day hotel. I was in bed after midnight.

PC: Iraia Calvo

PC: Iraia Calvo

Rest Day:

We enjoyed a short ride in Lourdes, France, and I spent some time by the river with my camera admiring a pair of kingfishers.

PC: Me!

PC: Me!

Stage 10: 36.2 km TT

Despite no pressure to perform the hilly technical course still ensured a solid effort of nearly an hour.

PC: Getty Sport

PC: Getty Sport

Stage 11: 180 km

We knew the break had a chance today having raced the same finish in 2016. I followed the first attack and was off the front with 5 others until the base of the first climb where I held on desperately as Amanuel and Ben O made it into the breakaway. Amanuel, one of the strongest in front, was disappointed with his 6th place, but it was a great effort.

Behind, it might have looked easy on TV but Jumbo-Visma controlled by smashing the technical and climbing portions of the course and riding easy in the places where we could take advantage of their work. It was intelligent and ensured that everybody had a draining day.

Stage 12: 172 km

I began to feel moderately frustrated with myself that I wasn’t making it into the breakaways, so I went all in on stage 12. I followed so many attacks that I started to feel like I was simply attacking myself like a masochist. Nothing stuck for over two hours. The breakaway finally did go on a wild downhill where our directors warned us of “oil on the road.” I didn’t have the guts to risk other rider’s safety by chopping them in corners attempting to follow the move. After the downhill I kept attacking but it was too late. I was demolished and dropped on the last climbs. The best part of the stage was seeing my ex teammate, Igor Anton, standing on a climb near his home offering water bottles to us.

Stage 13: 167 km

We were very active at the start, but our priority for the mountainous stage was getting Louis in the breakaway. After an hour and two climbs he made it in a large group. Unfortunately that group split on a downhill with Louis in the back half. A soigneur from Moviestar handed out bottles to his team but when he tried to run backwards off the road his shoe fell off and he nearly tripped backwards as we rolled over it. Irrelevant but entertaining. The final climb, the Alto de los Machucos, made an impression. The concrete surface pitched to 28% in sections. Motorcycles stalled out. As much as I suffered, the fact that a road like that even exists impressed me, and the views in Asturias… Wow. Giant birds of prey drifted round green, rocky, mountains stretching tall and proud over the ocean far below.

PC: @cyclingimages

PC: @cyclingimages

Stage 14: 188 km

A steep final km was the closest the sprinters would get to a bunch gallop before Madrid. I’ve never done such an “anti-sprinter” grand tour. We helped control the start making sure Eddie would get another chance. Once six riders escaped I helped block the right side of the road to prevent further attacks, but one rider nearly crashed all of us by sprinting in the gutter and brushing my handlebars as he jumped back on the road to avoid a guardrail. He didn’t make it to the break and we settled in. Due to accumulating fatigue tempers flared and I heard some passionate arguments in multiple languages.

The final 50 km flew by. The break had toyed with us but we caught them. Jaco and Rasmus did a great job positioning Edvald, but a massive crash directly under the 1 km to go banner disrupted the sprint. None of us were involved.

PC: Getty Sport

PC: Getty Sport

Stage 15: 155 km

I think 50% of the peloton bested their 20 minute power records on the first climb. I was close and just managed to make the 30 rider “peloton” at the top. After a fast downhill I went straight from the back to the front to continue attacking. I made a couple big moves on the right then Ben O blasted up the left side and made it into a strong 17 rider breakaway. Jumbo-Visma, the leader’s team, slowed us down to allow their workers to rejoin. Ben attacked his companions early and gave himself a good chance at victory but Ineos had two riders there and sacrificed one to bring him back. American Sepp Kuss, riding in support of race leader, Roglic, won the stage. Ben, despite his all or nothing attack managed 6th. Our directors asked me to “go hard, not too hard, but hard” on the final climb because my overall place could score UCI points for the team. I finished 39th.

Stage 16: 145 km

I prayed the break would go in the 50 km before the first of three giant climbs and that I would be there. Our entire team contributed to covering moves. We all pretty much killed ourselves before the first climb, but just before the base Amanuel got away in a group of 20. Team EF wasn’t happy and attacked the first climb, but all their efforts achieved was to punish everyone for them missing the break. I just held on to the first group. Once again Jumbo-Visma slowed us down for their workers to rejoin. On the final 18 km climb I held on until the peloton was down to around 20 riders with 10 km to go. Amanuel placed 8th from the breakaway.

Rest day:

I barely slept overnight and for the first time in my career opted not to ride on the rest day. A cough threatened to grow roots in my lungs. Instead I enjoyed the views from our hotel and recovered as hard as I could.

PC: Me! A rainbow outside out hotel.

PC: Me! A rainbow outside out hotel.

Stage 17: 220 km

By accident our director, Bingen, sent out the day’s forecast before the rest day. “What! Full crosswind stress? Bingen, how can we relax on the rest day now?" I did not expect the winds to decimate the field as they did. At km 0 the peloton blew to pieces. Eddie, Rasmus, and I made the first group of 37. I wasn’t feeling well, and when wind split the first group again I was spit out the back. A very small peloton swept up my group. Nairo Quintana, a threat for the overall had made the first group, and the other GC teams chased in desperation. Moviestar attacked them when they were weakest to isolate race leader, Roglic. They succeeded, but Astana took over the chase. Quintana moved himself to 2nd overall.

It was the fastest stage or one day race of over 200 km in the history of cycling. When the fighting is over, days like this are bonding for anyone who shared the experience.

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Stage 18: 179 km

We raced a lollipop shaped course that took us over two high mountains in both directions. We raced for the breakaway. Amanuel made a powerful group but a rider in his breakaway chopped him in a roundabout hitting his front wheel and sent him straight into a sign post. Anyone who saw it feared for his life. He whacked his head, cut his elbow and was forced to abandon the Vuelta. He’d been a weapon, sitting in 20th overall and setting himself up for a shot at a stage victory. Losing him hurt the team, but we rallied. I followed attacks with Louis on the first climb, but paid for those efforts. Over the top Louis made the breakaway.

One of my Vuelta’s most amusing interactions came in a crosswind section when I tried to slot in line in front of a Spanish team. I pointed to the space and drifted gradually to the right. In that moment fatigue overruled all of the unwritten rules of right of way and cycling ethics. He used his elbow to push me back into the wind. I thought, “this is ridiculous, what right do you have to prevent me from taking that wheel, and if you resist in this situation it’s you who crashes."

“Eres tonto,” I heard. (You’re stupid.)

“No soy tonto. Tu eres tonto. Déjame la rueda.” (I’m not stupid. You’re stupid. Give me the wheel.)

He yielded, probably surprised that I understood his Spanish, and I laughed at how stupid and immature we both sounded in that moment.

Soon after we began the third climb. As punishment for missing the breakaway Trek had been forced to ride. When they all blew up Astana lifted the pace. There were quickly less than twenty riders in the peloton. Ben O and I finished in the next group. Meanwhile Louis took a flyer away from the rest of the breakaway. He was absorbed by the race leader’s group and finished 7th on the stage.

Stage 19: 165 km

Once again, crosswinds and rain destroyed what should have been an easier sprint stage. Ben O made the breakaway. The rest of us worked together to be in good position for km 92 where everyone expected the most problematic crosswinds. A slippery downhill at km 91 caused a bloody pile up. Bikes and riders were hurled over the stone guardrail. Others were strewn across the road. None of us crashed. Seeing a crash like that turned my stomach. Edvald, Jaco, and I were soon with the front group, but why were we sprinting? Surely nobody would attack with the red jersey and many overall favourites peeling themselves off the pavement for no fault of their own. But, that is what Moviestar did. The attacked in the crosswinds so hard that even the front group of thirty riders split. Confusion reigned. The commissaries allowed team cars to pace Roglic’s group back and I think that’s the only reason Moviestar called off their attack. It was the biggest controversy of the Vuelta.

We encountered more crosswinds later and groups continued to split off the back. Jaco did a superb job to position Edvald for the steep sprint finish in Avila, a Game of Thrones looking castle, but the finish was too hard for him.

Stage 20: 190 km

After 20 days of racing only stage fourteen offered any opportunity to recover during the race. Every stage felt harder than the last and stage 20, climbing 4500 meters at altitude in the race, continued that trend. I attacked a lot in the first ten km before the course kicked up. We climbed for an hour. There were 80 riders left in the front group and Ben O, Louis, and I flogged ourselves for one more chance in the breakaway, but it took two hours before just five riders were given a short leash. After a few km of tempo, Astana attacked. Ben O and I made it over the climb, but someone dropped the wheel on the downhill before the next climbs. We were with some GC riders who kept the pace high to the finish. With two km to go, I felt like I’d stepped over a line into a new realm of fatigue. In close to the best shape of my life I was physically capable of pushing my body harder than ever. It was my 84th race day of the season and the Tour was still in me. I finished with just 27 riders ahead of our group and 38th overall, but struggled on the 8 km ride back to the team bus. I felt shattered. The rider I rode back with said, “I should be happy, but I’m too tired to feel anything. I just smile and pretend. I’m empty.”

PC: Getty Sport

PC: Getty Sport

Stage 21: 107 km

I cheered when the rain stopped, and chatted with other riders during the traditional parade into Madrid. I got really excited when a Spanish rider proposed to his girlfriend who was in their team car. After we’d enjoyed the photos and conversations the racing kicked off. The circuit in Madrid included three U-turns. Sprinting out of each felt like being jerked by a choke collar. I wanted to help Edvald in the sprint but it was difficult to stay together and I still felt completely demolished. He sprinted to 5th place on the stage.

PC: A race commissaire who took this photo of the Americans in the Vuelta with a cell phone I borrowed from our team car!

PC: A race commissaire who took this photo of the Americans in the Vuelta with a cell phone I borrowed from our team car!

PC: Damian Murphy

PC: Damian Murphy

We quickly cleaned up on the bus eating pizza and beer, before heading to a nice restaurant where we relived the best and worst moments of the month together.

I’m finally back with Jenna in Lucca. It feels great. When I got home I tried to ride once and got a bad cold. My body just said, “Nossir! We’re done and you are not leaving the couch.” My racing season is over. The Vuelta is not what I had hoped for after last year’s success. Those were high expectations to live up to, but this edition was different for many reasons and I have silver linings to take away. We are really looking forward to Home Roads RVA on November 3rd and hope you’ll join us.

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