Arroyomolinos-Madrid, 117.6 km
The roll into Madrid was strange. My body was so used to riding hard that it felt incapable of riding slowly. It felt uncomfortable, the legs protesting every half-assed pedal stroke. The crowds were huge as we dawdled our way into the city center.
I wasn’t feeling anything particularly special or monumental. I’d already spent some of the morning chatting to one of our directors about the upcoming race program and to the other about how to improve my preparation for the next season. I was really just looking forward to seeing Rachel and having a normal day. Just getting up drinking a coffee and then doing nothing in particular, as long as it didn’t involve maximum physical exertion.
As glad as I was to finish, deep down I wanted more than to just finish this race. I don’t think I’ve ever started a race just to finish it, otherwise I’d just go for a ride. There is always a part of me that wants to prove myself at this level. I’d have loved to have pulled out the miracle victory for the team in the last week, but the body just wasn’t capable of it. That had me thinking forward already, planning and plotting instead of relaxing and enjoying.
As the pace increased toward the circuits, Igor Anton appeared on my left and put it all in context. He just said, “Who else gets to live this moment?” I looked around, saw Froome in red, Contador in his last race, an endless sea of people lining the roads, the capital of Spain shut down just so we could race around it. He was right, this was an experience that very few people get to live. From there I enjoyed the experience for exactly what it was, an incredible celebration of cycling.
Crossing the line wasn’t the best moment. It was seeing Rachel and my mum and dad. I get so caught up in what I’m doing that it’s easy to forget they are all on this ride with me. They also live the highs and lows. Seeing your parents proud and understanding that maybe you have done something special is an incredible feeling.
It’s hard to summarize how it feels to finish a race like this. Even though the racing is over, the whole experience has become part of who you are. There is something in the massive physical and mental demand — it forces you to see that you’re capable of things unimaginable. It forces you to see that if you are put in an extreme situation, you have the ability to endure it.
Corvera – Angliru, 117.5 KM
Growing up riding in Port Macquarie, one of the guys I rode with had a Pinarello Angliru. I didn’t know what the Angliru was; it was just another exotic European name that represented everything we wanted out of cycling. Today I got to discover where that name came from.
Today was all mind over body.
Cram down some oats and rice one more time. Try and convince the body it’s got one more mountain stage in it. Maybe another few espressos will help. Nope. Just go with what you’ve got.
Torrential rain did nothing to slow down the start. Straight up a climb and it was full speed. I had the intention to go in the break but when 400 watts was needed to just hold position it was unfortunately an impossible mission for me. Igor Anton got into it. From there we continued full speed. Trek kept the breakaway at one minute. The whole peloton in one line. Every man on his limit, day 20 testing the reaches of human endurance. At this point my body was so far beyond what I thought it was capable of that the suffering didn’t involve any fear or desperation; I knew I could do it. There was an acceptance that this is what was required to finish the race.
No gruppetto. Every man for himself . Riders slid out the back and stayed at their limits, leaving the last drops of fuel from their tanks along the road in drops.
The Angliru lived up to its reputation. The last 6 km were horrible. Terribly steep, and the road carves its way straight up the side of the mountain in plain view. At the speed we were climbing, it wasn’t really riding anymore — just wrestling the cranks over one stroke at a time to keep forward momentum.
At the top of the climb I looked back down the road for a few seconds. There is nothing like this sport in the world. This is our stadium, these are our fans, this is our life. This small steep cattle road in northern Spain is transformed into a madhouse for the world’s best to do battle. Not a stage I’ll forget.
I got lost on the way to sign in. I was day dreaming, missed an obvious turn and continued out of the small town down the country road. About 2km later I looked around and realized I was in the middle of nowhere. I wasn’t rushed for time, it was a beautiful area, so I stopped and sat on the stone wall. For a minute, I forgot I was at a race and took a few deep breaths. It was the first moment I felt properly alone in a month. It felt great.
I didn’t try at all for the breakaway. The team wanted me to try and recover. Finishing was now the priority. My legs were protesting to the initial accelerations in the bunch. I was worried that if the break wasn’t off by km 22 there could be problems. That’s where the first category climb started. It felt like Christmas when the break rolled after 15km. The peloton rolled up the slopes at a gentlemanly pace.
I was still worried about when the race kicked off. I was sure that if my legs didn’t get better there was trouble in the horizon.
Somewhere in the 3km between the feed zone and the start of the next climb, there was a second Christmas miracle. My legs came back. Not just a slight improvement, it was like a switch, bang, legs feel great. I still don’t know why. From there I was fine. It felt like the first week again. In my head, I laughed at the me from yesterday.
Astana started ripping it and I was enjoying racing again. A big crash went down right in front of me, and I dodged it. My luck had turned. On the final climb, I settled into a group one or two back from the front. It was nice to be out of the gruppetto.
My parents came to the hotel after the stage. I think they have only seen me race in Europe once before. My mood switched in a big way today. I might even want to give one of these grand tours another crack.
Tomorrow is going to be epic. Contador’s final assault on the world of cycling. It’s forecast to rain. Part of me would love to sit on the couch, crack a beer and watch the fireworks on TV. But the bigger part of me is excited to pin on the number and line up against the world’s best in what is sure to be a race that will earn a place in history.
Suances - Santo Toribio de Liébana, 169 km
I wanted to get through this tour without being in the cars. I define being in the cars as when you can’t follow the group anymore and the race convoy swallows you up. In 2014, I spent a lot of time in the cars, and I grew to hate it. It’s humiliating. You try and slowly suffer your way back to the group while all the director sportifs, managers and mechanics watch on meters away. The only way to escape the collective gaze is to step off or make it back through the cars to the peloton.
Today I failed that mission. It was the hardest start yet. I could feel from the get go my legs were empty. Pushing over 400 watts with a heartrate of 140 is never a good sign. The legs were empty. I thought I’d come around and eventually I fought my way to the front and tried to wait to make the right move. Then around 50km in, I popped. Slid back through the group and finally into the cars.
I didn’t want to sit on the bumpers or take any sticky bottles because I was frustrated being there. I was trying to pretend I wasn’t. Eventually the break went I fought my way back, switched bikes and set about surviving this terrible day I was having.
These are the times you feel you are failing as an athlete. They are the worst times. As an athlete, you can write off your human flaws because you are succeeding as an athlete. Selfish? I need to be. Vain? I have to be confident. Forgot mum’s birthday? I was just focused. Friend’s wedding? Nah, I’ll be racing. It’s easy to write off your self-absorption as being professional. You convince yourself that’s necessary to succeed as a professional athlete.
When you fail as an athlete, all those things fall right on top of you, and in this case they fall right on you mid-race. You think of all the times you failed as a person just so you could now, fail as an athlete. Basically, you feel like a total failure, but in cycling you can’t go hide in the showers, you must get to the finish first.
I contemplated alternative careers and wondered what my old friends are up to. I thought of all the failed athletes who became successful people. I thought about how I can’t let down the team and how stepping off now would just be another selfish act. I wondered if my dog feels guilt and failure. And then I thought about how high the seat is on the spare bike and tried to ride the rest of the stage out of the saddle.
When I reached the finish all those feelings faded. I ate some rice, put off that e-mail I decided to send my sister during my midrace crisis and opened the race book. Slowly the athlete has taken back over, carbohydrates and protein take priority over all else. I stopped wondering about old friends and begin to wonder if the hotel had good wifi. Following the athlete’s instinct is an act of race survival now.
Cycling is brutal, it always wants a little more than you can give. The joy and fulfilment it gives are only on loan. It asks for them back when you need those things the most. But I know sometime next week I’ll be riding in the sun somewhere on a new road with nothing else I need to do. I’ll stop for a beer and I’ll borrow that joy and fulfilment back. Chasing dreams is an incredible way to live, but Christ it can be hard work.
Villadiego-Los Machucos, 180.5 km
The start of stage 17 was very low key. A small town dominated by the Vuelta circus. The general feeling was that you’re close to Madrid. In reality, we weren’t even close to the finish of stage 17.
I followed the first attack. My legs felt surprisingly good so I thought I’d gamble when the flag dropped. From there, I fired shot after shot determined to get some fresh air up the road. I managed to successfully follow the wrong moves and miss the right one. I’d be lying if I said it’s not frustrating. Once that move is gone, with the caliber of guys here and my current form, the most you can hope for is to make it through the stage to try again tomorrow.
Once the gap was at 10 minutes, Astana decided it was time to chase, and chase they did. They made life very uncomfortable on the first climb. The pace was too high to move up for the sketchy descent to come. The rain arrived perfectly in time for the long twisty dive off the climb. The fog left no visibility and the bumpy surface made controlling traction and braking difficult. The bunch split all over the place. In the dry everyone can generally descend at a similar level. In the wet there is a higher level of discrepancy. Some guys crawl and others fly.
Our group made it back just in time for the cat. 1 and then it was straight into the gruppetto. No point battling now. Try and save the energy for a worthwhile cause. The final climb was comically steep. Back wheels slipping, front wheel lifting, it was like something you’d do on the mountain bike. The whole thing felt like a circus. Your ego always tries to inflate the importance of a bike race into something greater than simple entertainment. That importance is only personal. Moments like that ridiculously steep climb, on which people come out to watch you suffer for entertainment, confront you with the true nature of our strange occupation.
The reality is that most of these people came to see the stars, to be blown away and inspired by the speed and athletic ability of the world’s greatest cyclists. It is incredible to ride through the walls of noise and feel appreciated for doing what you love. But when you are behind the pointy end, it’s hard not to feel like a sideshow. The 36×32 at least helped to not go full clown.
Tomorrow doesn’t look as hard on paper, but I’ll bet you now that there will be some fireworks. There’s still a bit of stem left to chew I’m sure.
(ITT) Circuito de Navarra-Longoño, 40.2km
Time trial day. Man and machine versus the clock. An individual test with nowhere to hide. A day that can make or break your race. You can almost hear Phil Liggett’s stage introduction, right? For maybe twenty or thirty guys, that’s true. The GC contenders and specialists can do that. For the rest, it’s just try and save a bit of energy whilst staying inside of the time cut.
All the fancy aero bikes, skin suits, shoe covers and the hours in the wind tunnel are there to help you shave seconds. They make up the free speed to be gained. Today, they served purely for efficiency. Less watts to be pushed for the same energy- saving speed.
It makes for a strange day. The stress of preparing for an all out effort of pain goes out the window. There is no serious recon and there are no caffeine gels. Just a bit of a spin and an espresso. You still warm up but more just out of habit. Roll up to start ramp with no hint of butterflies or anxiety. Roll off and settle into a 40km tempo session, dressed like a spaceman.
It was nice to ride by myself. It’s been a while. Closed roads, disk humming, fans cheering. My legs felt good and I hoped to keep them that way. I figured the Sky rider who was my minute man would have been told to keep a good tempo so I kept him at a minute and tried to stay aero to save watts. As climbing is watts and kg’s, time trials are watts and aero dynamics. It’s maintaining speed by pushing when it’s slow and recovering when it’s fast.
I used my heart rate as a guide to keep the effort in check. If you like numbers, I tried to keep it below 150bpm averaging 314 watts for the 40km. That made for 52min 40 sec at 45.2 km/h. I’m guessing five or more minutes down by the time the big guys finish. Yep, that’s how fast they go. Incredible really.
Now we are on the way to Burgos. I raced the Vuelta a Burgos before this Vuelta. From there I drove to Andorra for some training and then to the start in Nîmes. The whole time living out of the same suitcase. Eat, sleep and ride for over a month.
There are four very tough days coming up. The darkest before dawn. They’re climb-heavy stages that could throw the race on its head at any moment. I stayed in bed for almost the whole rest day. I normally struggle to do nothing but yesterday it was all I could do. I hope that the bit of energy I’ve regained can carry me into a breakaway for one shot at glory, or at least to my wife’s smiling face in Madrid.
Alcalá la Real - Sierra Nevada. Alto Hoya de la Mora. Monachil, 127km
The peloton is in the sky. We’re headed north, and the plane should touch down some time after 10:30pm. Dinner around an hour later, then finally some sleep. Looking around the plane, it seems everyone is excited for that moment; lying down and finally closing the eyes on a day that forced everyone in the peloton to dig into those reserves that can’t be quantified by a power meter or a TSS score.
How much can the body take? I’m learning that it’s a lot more than I previously believed and a Grand Tour is a fine test. The demands of a race first depletes the glycogen stores, then you eat into the muscle and then, occasionally, you have to dig into your soul. Unfortunately, no protein drink or plate of pasta can repair that. That takes an off season. It takes pushing as much life into a few months so that by the time the next season rolls around the soul is topped off and you can go about emptying it slowly, only in desperate moments.
Today the whole bunch seemed nervous. The GC guys had everything to gain, only the strongest workers had crucial roles to play and for the rest it was survival. On a short stage like this, the time limit is the enemy. Some 127km with 3,000m climbing in the final 70km. Just 3hrs 30mins for the winners. That’s fast – 25 minutes faster than expected. The first 50kms were done in about an hour. The peloton exploded in ones and twos on the first climb. Everyone was trying to cling to anything, a wheel in front, a bottle from a team car, a coke from a stranger. A private struggle playing out in front of thousands of fans. The pace was incredible, forcing everyone to ride at their limit just to stay in the race. You’d rather be anywhere else but you can’t bring yourself to ease up and go there, that’ll have to wait.
My plan was to ride the first two climbs as fast as possible so I could ride the last one ‘easier’. It worked out well. But still, reaching that finish at 2500m required a little dip into the soul reserves. There was no team bus today, just a communal shower that blasted boiling water and a wipe down on a basketball court.
The rest day couldn’t have come at a more crucial point.
Écija - La Pandera, 175km
Fatigue levels are high.
Things I wouldn’t normally notice are cause for annoyance. Why is our room on the top level? Why is this air conditioning so shit? Why is this ice sock so full?
Ridiculous things that are nothing but a creation in your head. Your brain works overtime trying to reveal the conspiracy to make your life at the race as difficult as possible.
Jacques Rensburg and I both had one bullet today. One shot at the breakaway. Jacques fired his into a seven-man group that looked to have the goods. Fifteen seconds up the road and no response. “Go go go” I yelled into the radio. UAE missed it and managed to get organised and chase it back.
I waited until a group of 10 was off, came from behind with some speed to make up for my lack of jump. Bang, shot fired. A big effort on tired legs. It didn’t feel good but if that was the one, it would have been be worth it. I was nearly there… and had the whole peloton in my wheel. By the time I recovered enough to get back to the front, the move had gone and the road was blocked.
My day was filled with moments when I felt great and moments when I felt terrible. It’s just a mental game. At this point these are uncharted waters. I’ve never raced this long. I’ve got no idea if my body will give up, but at the moment I’m convinced if I keep my head positive I’ll pass each day as it comes. It’s such a routine it doesn’t feel like I’ve been racing that long until I think back to the start. Or the last time I saw Rachel. Then it feels like the only thing I’ve ever done is the Vuelta.
I got to the finish. A 175km stage was 196km by the time I was back at the bus. Sunday will be fantastic to watch on TV. Just spare a thought for the guys doing a 120km time trial to make the time cut. It’s going to be a squeeze.
Coín – Tomares, 198.4km
Today was supposed to be a sleeper. The kind of stage you write off as an easy flat day, a day to recover and relax. 200km, yes, but a chance to switch off and go through the motions.
Then it bit me. I wasn’t ready for the suffering and from there the day became a struggle.
The break went easily, four guys, no stress. Should have been fine. Then Quick-Step started chasing, hard. The wind picked up, but not enough to cause panic. This can be worse. No one feels the need to move up, so the peloton stretches in one long line. Some 175 guys in a single line taking turns sprinting as the surge comes down the line. It’s hard on the head to see guys already accelerating two corners ahead. The peloton seems impossibly long, so you just accept your fate and take each painful acceleration as it comes.
The “rollers” felt a lot like climbs, and Quick-Step were setting a pace that no one was comfortable with. Our easy 200km was being taken away. No talking and a lot of looking down. On these days, I always feel better when I see others suffering. It’s a little sad, but sometimes seeing someone else suffer more than you makes you feel a lot better, at least until they drop the wheel. When they drop the wheel you know they couldn’t help it but you still blame them, as if they’ve been put in the race just to make your life harder.
The exception was Omar Fraile. Seeing him suffering today was a major point of concern. Igor Antón and I tried encouraging and pushing him a little on the rollers. “Ok he’s on a bad day, if we can get him to the final section it’s all flat, he can make it. We really need him,” we told ourselves. When he started vomiting it was game over. Too dizzy to follow the wheel, he pulled the pin. Four of us became three.
It was a major blow. He was our best shot at a stage win and to lose him emptied my morale for the rest of the stage. I spent the majority of the day at the back after that; I just wanted to be done with the stage.
So now there are three. The bus is really big with three guys. The dinner table is huge. Every massage is the first and a personal chef for three feels a little strange, like you made a reservation for nine and only two of your friends showed up.
Now the only thing we can do is fight. Fight to get the most out of the situation. Elegant team strategies are out the window. It’s going to be a case of forcing the body to do things it doesn’t want to do. Three is still better than two, and two is better than one. We are still a team and we still have an entire continent behind us.
Motril - Antequera, 160 km
Two things blew my mind today. Omar Fraile and Alberto Contador.
Last night as Omar sipped the last of his beer he said today was his day. His legs had arrived and he wanted to put them to work immediately. He said it with the kind of confidence that comes only from fulfilling these types of prophecies.
Serge Pauwels was unable to start today. So then there were four.
I’d heard from various sources that when Omar is on he is incredible. Today I witnessed it. The vast majority of the bunch would agree that just surviving the first 50km today was hell, let alone trying for the break. I followed moves for 10km and was then totally on my limit. Omar was in everything for 50km. Sure enough when the move finally went he was there, because he’d been in all of them.
It was clear that after a start like that, with the highest on GC over 20 minutes back, we weren’t going to see the break again. Getting bidons was easier than ever. Just get your own and two more. It’s weird only having three in the bunch.
Skip forward to the final climb. We trailed the breakaway by over eight minutes. Sky were controlling and I was actually feeling comfortable and thinking I could pass the climb with this group. Think again. I looked up to see Contador sprinting off the front of the group, and I mean sprinting. It was incredible to see firsthand. Two thirds of what was left of the group let out a collective sigh and settled into their rhythm knowing there was absolutely no chance of passing with the front group now. I enjoyed the last climb. I can’t imagine how hard this tour is for the GC guys. Every day their limits are tested. Day in day out they fight it out and ask the maximum from their body.
At the finish, we found out Omar was second. Close, but an ill-timed cramp on the final climb cost him. My mind was still blown by the fact he had said he was going for win and had almost pulled it off. So many things must go right in order to win a Grand Tour stage, but he just proved to me that determination and physical ability trump all. One of my teammates likes to say, “If you have the legs, you have the legs.”
That rings very true now.
Lorca - Calar Alto, 187.5 km
I really wanted to get into the breakaway today. When I first saw the route I thought today would be a good opportunity with the long climbs at the end and a short climb to start the day. The torrential rain from yesterday followed us to the start today. Not ideal. The break always takes longer to go when it’s wet. I stuck with my plan to go all out over the top of the first climb and hope that was enough to make it into the move. Six or seven of us had a small gap over the top but it wasn’t big enough. 45km later I was still trying.
Igor Antón appeared at the front, followed one move and bang that was it. As much as I wanted to be in there this was better for us. The best climber on our team and a real chance to move up the GC for him. Behind, everyone took a minute to change jackets that were soaked and then the chase began. An uncomfortable pace all day with the heavy rain taking an even bigger toll.
The final 50km involved two 15km climbs separated by one descent. Orica ramped up the chase on the run into the first of the climbs and immediately I knew I was in trouble. My back seized, my legs wouldn’t turn in proper circles. The 400 watts required on the rollers felt like 1,000. I was empty, and for the first time in this tour it became all about survival.
Just make it to the base and you’ll make the gruppetto, I told myself. Ten more kilometers. Six more k. Four more. Three more … just stay on that wheel. As we hit the first slopes, the group exploded. Another group formed and we all settled in for a march to the finish. As a climber, you get funny looks being in this group, like, “what are you doing here?” Today I didn’t care. This was the ticket to the finish I needed and I wasn’t going to miss this train. During these slow slogs there is comfort in company. The cheers from the crowd are less excitement and more “don’t give up, you can make it.”
Then I spotted our second team car way back down the mountain. Serge Pauwels. I forgot he got popped 15 k before we even hit the climb. His stomach was making it impossible for him to eat. I thought he was done. But there he was, alone, pushing toward the finish. Suddenly it felt like this group was the best place in the world. Surely he’ll pull the pin soon. He’s as tough as they come but surely this is one bridge too far.
Back to my own slog, no cadence was comfortable. Not in the seat or out. I heard talk of the time limit but I left it to the experienced guys and followed. Too tired to eat or drink, the last climb was a blur of hunger flat. Crossing the line was a huge relief. The extra 2.5k uphill to the bus wasn’t. As I got in the bus it felt like a year since I climbed off it.
It’s just six hours, but that six hours has taken all of my physical and emotional energy. I was fried.
As I got out of the shower, Serge arrived. I couldn’t believe it. At this point it feels like he just wandered back into Everest base camp after being missing for days. What a hero.
Caravaca Año Jubilar 2017-ElPozo Alimentación, 164.8km
The rain was coming down on the start line and it signalled the end to the relaxation. The rest day was over it was time to race. And what a bike race we had.
The rain got more intense during the roll out as we headed for the darkest part of the sky. Flag drops. Riders on the storm, there’s 180 killers on the road.
When it rains in a race there are three factors that really matter: traction, braking and visibility. Generally, when you are racing in a place that doesn’t get much rain, and it rains, it’s slippery. Southern Spain is one of those places. Lines and speed must be adjusted to ensure you stay upright. Braking takes longer as water needs to clear from the braking surface. You need to avoid braking mid turn. For me, visibility is the biggest factor; when you’re mid-bunch in a full-gas rain storm, you can’t see shit. Spray from the wheels blasts directly in your face. Leave the sunglasses on and you must squint through the grime on your lenses, but take them off and all that spray goes directly into your eyes.
We raced the first 90km over 55kph with one of those hours at 57kph. In the pissing rain at that speed it’s a lot of blind faith in the other riders. Jacques Rensburg and Omar Fraile were trying for the move, to be honest I’m glad I wasn’t, as I was doing a lot of spinning the 53×11 and hanging on for dear life. The speed was surreal. After spending a rest day sleeping and in bed, it’s weird to jump on the bike and be ripping along at 70kph with no idea what’s happening more than two wheels ahead. After 93km, the break went, and somehow Jacques made it in there. The bunch finally slowed and I tried to make the most of the “easy” day I was supposed to be having.
Jacques did a great ride for fourth, Igor Antón made the GC group and Serge Pauwels survived his day of illness.
I always find it funny the contrast between a cyclist on the bike and off it. Off it, we make sure to stay covered, legs up, hands sanitized, legs massaged, food carefully picked… like newborns with hypochondriac parents. On the bike, that goes out the window and we risk serious injury daily on the road. If you want to keep up in these races, that just goes with the territory.
Orihuela - Cumbre del Sol, 174km
Before the stage:
We cyclists like routine. We want the day outside of the race to play out as planned. I think it’s because we don’t really have control over how the race itself will unfold. For those five hours, your reality is dictated to you. Whether you are prepared for this reality is irrelevant; keep up or go home.
It starts with sleep. Most riders like to go to sleep at the same time each night. For me, that’s about 23:30. I like no light in the room and the air-conditioning turned all the way down. If I can control these factors, I’ll sleep well. If you’re Spanish, you wait until well after midnight and leave that dreaded bronchitis machine off.
Then the morning routine; wake up, pee in a cup for the doc to check hydration, weigh-in in the docs room and then off to breakfast about three hours before the race starts. I like to make my own coffee. You can’t control the quality of hotel coffee so it’s better to eliminate that variable. The chef takes care of the food and for me it’s oatmeal and a smoothie. Then back to the room to pack the suitcase and roller bag and head to the bus. The drive to the start is the last chance to relax. I listen to music and look over the race book. This is my final attempt to control what lies ahead. I try to prepare myself mentally for the different possibilities that could unfold, and work out how best I fit into each scenario. Deep down, you know that your legs will largely decide your fate once the red flag drops.
After the stage:
The break went a little harder than expected. My legs were fine but I’m tired, a really normal tired. After their bad news overnight, Cannondale-Drapac were keen on controlling to go for the stage with Michael Woods. I can’t imagine getting that sort of news in the middle of a race like this.
Crosswinds are annoying. A guy two up from me in the peloton was trying to squeeze the final few cm out of the left shoulder, taking the sort of risk you take only if you really need to. Totally blind, he hits a big rock and flies left into the divider in the centre of the freeway. His body grinds along the cement wall before flying over and into the oncoming traffic. It shook me a bit, but a lot less than it would have a week ago. I guess he is headed to the hospital. I guessed I should move up a bit.
The first pass of the finish climb was fast, really fast. Starting towards the back, I followed Igor Antón and made one final effort to make sure he made contact with the front group over the top. He is suffering, but we rallied around him for one more effort before the rest day. Omar Fraile made that selection, which is a big relief for everyone. He’s back. I always get excited being involved in the final kilometres with the best riders in the world. That’s why I returned to this level. It’s motivating, challenging and humbling all in the same moment.
One push into the final climb, sit up and ride to the finish. It went like yesterday, or the stage before that, actually the one before that also. I saw Daniel, a friend from Manual for Speed, at the finish line taking photos and his unexpected, familiar face made my day. We rode from Sydney to Melbourne together a couple of years ago.
And then it was back to the routine. Shower, Fanta, weigh-in and the bus ride. My spot is in the back. I get it all to myself and a bit of alone time is much appreciated. It’s almost totally allusive during a stage race.
It’s always somewhere during massage that the post-race high starts to wear off. The mind processes the stage is done and contemplates the days ahead. Wonder what Rach is up to? I always call her after massage but there isn’t ever that much new to report. When you are this fatigued, and this focused on yourself, personality takes a back seat.
Dinner is always a highlight with Tom, our chef. We get spoilt and fuelling up isn’t hard. As a team, we always have a good laugh and trade stories from the race. It’s amazing how different each rider’s experiences can be. You follow the same route, race the same guys, but everyone has their own day.
Then back to the room to wind down . Tomorrow is a rest day, and then it all starts again. Looking through the race book, I’m still seeing opportunities rather than obstacles. I think that’s a good sign.
Helin - Xorret di Cati, 199.5km
It was the 11km back to the bus – after the stage had finished – that was the killer, retracing the final roads of the race and weaving through the sea of people who had lined the last climb. Their cheers and encouragement had been a source of motivation moments before, but now they were just in my way. If one more person asked me for my bottle, a drink I desperately needed, I’d have cracked.
The day started well. Getting out of bed, my legs felt fresh. I was up for the break and I told my director sportif as much. Jacques Rensberg, Serge Pauwels and I all felt motivated to turn our luck around and go for the stage win.
With just 20 or so guys left in the fight for general classification, the rest of us must fight to get in the break to have a shot. The battle for position in the pack before the start was like we were coming into the final kilometre. With just three of us to share the work, we took turns jumping in big moves. You need good legs, timing and a bit of luck to make the break. Tensions ran high. There was a mix of pressure, stress and desperation. No time to make friends; there is a stage up for grabs. Sky was continuously trying to block the road and more than once I shamelessly fought past it. A big group got some daylight around 40km into the stage. Serge was in there for his first shot at a win.
The first hour was really hard. Being a climber, jumping on wheel after wheel at 60kph takes a toll. I regathered and we focused on staying around Igor Antón. Omar Fraile was looking more like himself, although 4kgs lighter, and it seemed like he was on the way back up.
There were a lot of tired legs out there today. It feels like the time between stages is getting shorter, and each stage is starting to run straight into the next. People are a little quicker to snap at a missed feed or someone dropping a wheel.
I sat up on the run into the final climb, hoping that the energy saved could be used more wisely down the road. I could hear on the radio that Serge was fighting it out for the stage win up the road. With the crowd getting louder and louder, I pulled out my ear piece, crossed my fingers and made my way up those insanely steep and hot slopes.
My 32 felt like a 23 and nobody was making it look pretty. Serge fought hard to a solid fourth place; a nice boost for the team and a testament to how professional he is. Serge always gets it done.
Then came the last obstacle; getting back to the bus and fighting through people asking for photos, bottles, sunglasses and anything else. I love the fact that that all these people spend half their day baking in the sun on the side of mountain just to watch us pass, but in that moment I couldn’t make time for anyone. I dislike myself a little for that. But a smile is only a shower and a Fanta away.
Lliria - Cuenca, 207km
Sometime last night in an endorphin-induced lapse of judgement, I agreed to put a GoPro on my bike. If I’m honest, I love the insight they give into pro racing, but today it was annoying me. As I headed to sign in this morning, I could feel a bit of a headache coming on. Normally, I wouldn’t think too much about it but given the run our team has had the last few days with sickness, I was worried. I sought out a quiet corner in the village to try and gather my thoughts.
“Okay, if this gets worse, what’s my survival strategy? If this virus comes on full gas, how do I get to the finish? Where is it safe to get dropped?”
I was somehow thinking I’d make it, no matter what, on this 207km stage.
During the roll out I tried to deny the sensitive skin and nausea; trying to hold some conversation to take my mind off it. A couple of crashes later and finally we were under way with 20 guys gone in the break. Thank god. I felt terrible; a bit dizzy.
And then the day played out:
Shit, this is going to be a long day. I look down and see the GoPro looking ahead, oblivious to my internal battle. It’s a sleek bracket that attaches the camera to my bars, but at this moment it might as well be a full bag and some panniers. It’s cracking me. Why did I agree to put this thing on my bike? Wasn’t it all hard enough? Did I want some more challenge? Idiot.
42km done. Wait, is that it? I’m struggling here. I’m one fifth of the way and I can’t eat or drink. If things don’t turn around, this is going to be very bad very soon. I’m moving up when it’s easy, so I can slide back in the group when it’s hard.
80km in. The headache breaks. I can eat some food and force down a few bidons. Thank god. I’m back in the game. I leave first-80km-me in the past. Like embracing a drunk, there’s no point holding onto it. Move forward; back to the task at hand and everything is under control. Suddenly, I’m glad I have this Go Pro on – people can see all the cool shit I get up to. I’m back in a big way.
The pack is strung out big time, racing in the left gutter and coming off a small descent. It’s a full sprint and boom, three guys down at high speed. My colleague Merhawi Kudus is out of the race. Just like that. He was second two days ago, in the form to win stages, and now he is on his way to get stitches. That’s my second roommate to head home. Now we are five. It’s a big blow and none of us can believe it. With Omar Fraile still suffering, with sickness on the back, things could be better.
10km. From now it opens up and there is a strong cross-tail wind. Alright, just have to focus on the task at hand. I proceed to try my hand at guiding Igor Antón through the cross winds. It’s not pretty, but we get it done. It’s actually kind of fun. At this point, I’m a lot more desensitised to the danger and shuffling in the bunch. It has a flow and today we are managing to ride that flow pretty well.
The last push is to get Igor in a good position for the final 2km cobbled climb before the finish. We push hard through town, take a couple of risks and, with one final Hail Mary up the right of the road, Igor is in the first thirty wheels. Sweet, at least that went right. I follow him though the next kilometre and he jumps on the back of the final selection. My job is done.
Omar made it to the finish not far behind. I’ve got no idea how he made it through two days sick. 80km and I thought I was a hero. With just five guys now, we are going to have to pick our days. Save bullets and be like the sniper. I’ll probably take the GoPro off. I might need those two watts.
Vila-real - Sagunt, 204.4km
The general consensus at the start was that the breakaway would go to the line. We wanted Omar Fraile in that move. When everyone in the peloton knows there is a good chance the break away will win, everybody wants to be in it, and they better be ready for a fast start.
Rolling out of town the legs didn’t want to wake up. The first 20km the peloton was in a line – there was no chance to ease into it. On days like that, you have to force it. And it seemed the break was going to take even longer than expected to form. With only Omar and Jacques Rensburg covering moves, I figured I better tag in and cover some myself.
Big efforts were needed to get to the front and when you’re small these efforts hurt the most. But there was a town coming up. It’s easy to block the road in the towns and there’s always a good chance a break will go there. I followed all the moves. My legs were finally awake, but they didn’t like the day greeting them out the curtains.
With more and more guys jumping up the road and the need to get across, there was a massive 5km chase with two Katusha dudes. Full, full effort and you know in the back of your head that it’s a 200km stage with five climbs ahead. But you also know, if you don’t get across before the climb, it’s game over. We made contact a little way up the road and 10 more came from behind. The break was 30 guys and a lot of big engines, but my legs felt fried.
Sky were chasing full gas. I thought for a second about Nic Dougall, my teammate who came down with the same sickness that has already claimed two from our team. This was the opposite of what he needed.
We dangled 1m 30s ahead of the bunch. All that suffering to get in the move and it’s going nowhere. My legs were not getting any better and as we hit the second-to-last climb they emptied. About 10 guys continued on, trying to hold off the robots in black leading the bunch. Good luck, heroes.
My day turned from race to survival. The bunch picked me up with George Bennett about a kilometre from the top of the penultimate climb. I was immediately put at ease when I saw the degree of suffering in the group. Everyone bar the GC guys were swinging.
I found a good group on the last climb; some 15 guys all with the same goal to get to the finish. As we swapped silent turns for the last flat 30km we were no longer in a race. We were just getting to the finish, where there is a cold Fanta and the end of the suffering. We just have to use our bikes to get there.
At the finish I found out that we lost Nic on the road and Omar suffered a bad day with similar symptoms to the others. It’s salt in the wound when I hear that three of those heroes managed to stay away and contest the win. I know I didn’t have the legs, but it still hurts. It’s hot, I’m tired and tomorrow we all start from zero again. Onwards.
Benicàssim - Alcossebre, 175.7km
I got a haircut before today’s stage. There is a barber in the start village that offers his services for free. My wife Rachel has cut my hair for the last three or four years and before that I did it myself for a good while. When I stepped out of the air conditioning on the bus and into the inferno outside, I knew that run had come to an end. Sorry Rach, but I need this old mate in the village to give me a once over, in the name of performance. Just like post-race beers, and my stance against skin suits in road races, a lot of beliefs and habits give way to performance at this level.
The stage consisted of five categorised climbs. Some 2,700m of climbing over 175km in very hot conditions. My job was simple; stay with Igor Antón as long as possible. Normally on a tough day like this, the minutes leading up to the start are a bit hectic; sunscreen, meeting, race food, numbers, coffee, Garmin, adjust cleat, sign on, forgot my radio, back to the bus, etc, etc. I think a lot of it is just trying to suppress the nervous energy by being active.
Not today. Around 20 minutes before the start I was sat in the barber’s chair, kitted up and ready to go, staring in the mirror. It was weird, being forced to just sit there and accept what lies ahead before you return to the comfort of the bus.
The break went about 15km into the stage. It was big, 15 guys or more, and Merhawi Kudus made it. Perfect. Sky began chasing hard immediately. The next hours were a blur of climbing, sweating and descending. No talking today. This pace requires all your attention. You’ll chop the guy you were chatting to yesterday if it’ll save you a bit of energy.
Sky finally gave up on the chase. Merhawi was racing for the win and the run into the climb was a fight. A high-speed fight and whoever had the skill, balls and timing was going to win that fight. I tried to follow Igor as best as possible but it was a mess. We hit the final climb and, as I watched Igor take off up the hill with 3km to go, my day was done. Meanwhile, Merhawi, fighting hard for the win, finished a close second. I’m really happy for him. He works hard and always fights to the death. It’s an inspiring result. Maybe this isn’t all just survival and conservation.
Escaldes - Tarragona, 198.2km
Today was always going to be a long one. Two days of full gas racing followed by a flat 200km stage into a headwind. There were five guys brave enough to take it on and the peloton was more than happy to let them go.
As nice as it is to have an easy start like that, you also know that the stage is going to take a while. You need to keep your mind stimulated to tick off some free kilometres. It always starts for me with conversation, seeking out a familiar face and having a chat. Today started with Jack Haig and a bit of a chat about skiing in Andorra, before planning a potential trip to Thailand. Then Rohan Dennis. We generally keep it to pure shit talking. Then George Bennett. We spoke about adjusting to not riding for overall victory, and when salads become frowned upon by your team (yes, apparently that’s a thing). Then Pete Stetina from BMC and bam, 70 free kilometres done.
Then the rest plays out:
Better eat something – Speculoos rice cake – and grab some bottles as something to do. Shit it’s lining out! Is it splitting? Okay, false alarm, back into the headwind to grab a feed bag and a Coke. Sweet, 75km to go and I thought there were 100. What a bonus.
Categorized climb starting and I’ve got to convince these legs to get moving. Nope, not liking this. Ah, there they are – the legs are back. Climb done.
Stress is building. No one’s talking now.
50km to go, which means just one hour at this speed and that’s manageable. Off to get the guys one last round of bidons. The speed is really high now, with a full sprint out of every roundabout. It feels like there’s one every kilometre. Now I need to balance staying safe and saving the legs. If I move up a bit I can save my energy but when I do, the risk of falling is higher. I’ll stay here.
10km to go. One line and full concentration. Just need to get close enough to the finish and find a group to sit up with. Crash. Looks bad. And there it is, the split. Okay, roll in, save the legs.
These days may be boring on TV, but they are also part of the challenge of a Grand Tour; part of the wearing down process. It was still 200km at over 40km/h.
The stage was followed by a quick shower, something to eat and two and a half hours on the bus. We should be at the hotel around nine. As the endorphins wear off, and I begin to remember that when I wake up I’ll have to do this all again, I think that maybe the transfer is also part of the wearing down process.
Prades Conflent Canigó - Andorra la Vella, 158.5km
Ben King and I were first roommates at the Tour of the Basque Country in the spring. Then in the Tour of Switzerland. And for the last month, we have been together on the roads of Burgos, at an altitude camp in Andorra and finally on a trip to the start of the Vuelta in Nîmes. I think that’s more time than I’ve spent with my wife in the last five months. We’ve built a special friendship.
I haven’t had many truly selfless teammates. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a lot of amazing teammates; talented guys who are incredible at what they do. But I’m talking about truly selfless. In a world where individual contracts often come to an end quicker than the results come in, most riders wisely keep a little up the sleeve for themselves, for self-preservation or to participate in the glorified work, the kind that’ll get noticed. Ben is a truly selfless teammate. Giving everything he has for his teammates every time he pins on his number. Suffering in the service of others because he values his team – and teammates – far beyond his own personal ambition.
Until today we’d had seasons of comparable fortunes. A few decent highlights, but both chasing that form that we both know we are capable of. We had worked hard to prepare for this race together and it seemed like we had the momentum to get in front of that form. Reach closer to our potential.
Today, we had contrasting fortunes. While I was enjoying the breakfast our chef had prepared, I could see that after a rough first stage followed by a night of sickness, Ben was empty. I sat and enjoyed my coffee while Ben was having to force in fuel. I know now he must have been beyond empty because his race is done. I know too that if there is anyone who can push beyond pain and adversity, it’s him.
While I was finding good legs on the climbs and pushing my way into the front group. Ben was on his way to the hotel. While I started to realise a dream, descending behind Contador deep in the final kilometres with a smile on my face, Ben’s Vuelta dream was over.
Cycling is a brutal and heartbreaking sport. The highs and lows erode your soul and take you out of reality. I know Ben will be back, pulling himself out of a low onto all new heights.
The first day in the mountains is done and I’m trying to be present in the good moments because I know there are a lot of hard moments ahead.
Nîmes-Gruissan, 203.4 km
Normally, when there is a 10km neutral on top of a 203km stage, I feel some degree of annoyance. Not today. The atmosphere at the sign-in and during the neutral roll-out was something special. Grand Tours are cycling’s big stage and I could feel it.
Three kilometres in, when the peloton was already strung out in one line in the gutter, I could also feel it. Specifically, I could feel it in my legs. As my team mate Igor Antón would say, in a thick Basque accent: “What a level.” The race was already chaotic due to the wind that was ripping across the field. I’ve been focused on racing in the moment lately, trying to react and not overthink. With well over 3,000km left to race, whilst chewing my stem in the gutter, that was more important than ever.
No breakaway went and there was constant stress all day. With no GC aspirations here I tried to help the guys as much as possible with fresh bidons and by staying out of trouble. The noise in the peloton on days like Sunday is something you can’t see on TV; the constant yelling of fans, wind noise, other riders shouting, moto horns and of course the directors on the radio giving you the blow-by-blow of the course and race situation. All of that noise sits just below the narration from your inner dialogue; “Stay calm”, “move up”, “shiiiiiiiiiit”, “I’m feeling good”, “it’s hot”, “should have moved up”, etc, etc, on and on.
TTT, Nîmes-Nîmes, 13.7 km
I’ve learnt that when you race the WorldTour there is a lot of assumed knowledge. Like how to get bottles, how to pack a rain bag, how to ride in the convoy. Stuff that’s important but no one ever really sits you down and explains. For me, team time trials fall into this category. You just show up and you’re expected to be comfortable riding a time-trial bike in the aero bars, with a helmet full of wind noise, 5cm from the wheel in front of you at 60kph, around blind corners, while you’re totally on your limit.
For me, the team time trial is the most technically and physically challenging discipline in cycling. Saturday was my third ever. Any moments of trying to enjoy my first Grand Tour depart were under a cloud of fear for the effort that was ahead. On such a technical course, there is little room for error. So while we all try to act like everything is calm and under control, every team is on the edge the entire way.
Our race went well and we executed our plan. I’m really happy with my ride and how I felt. Once we rolled down the start ramp, the fear went and it was all about the moment. It’s rare you are so involved in something that life outside thinks is cool. Now I’ve got to fill my stomach with rice and get some sleep before 200km tomorrow.
The eve of the race
I’m totally comfortable working, I hate waiting. My first introduction to grand tour cycling was on the side of the Col de Pailhères during a family holiday in July 2003. Carlos Sastre won the stage, Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France and I decided what I wanted to do with my life. That was the beginning of the work.
The work was easy, full of purpose and direction. It’s pretty simple; ride and race as much as you can until you find yourself on the start line of a grand tour. Fourteen years later, that moment is about to arrive. It’s been a weird journey. It took me straight from high school to the USA when I was 18, to a lonely apartment in Europe when I was 20, into the depths of the Australian outback in 2013, pushed me back to my family in 2015 and has finally lured me back for one last shot this year.
And so that’s it. I’m here. I’m waiting to start my first Grand Tour. Like I said, I hate waiting and that’s essentially all I’ve been able to do this last week. I began by wondering what lay ahead; ‘Am I ready? ‘, ‘Have I done enough?’, ‘Is my body even capable of such a ridiculous test?’
But now, as I lie in bed on the eve of the start in Nîmes, I’m just grateful for the journey that brought me here. I know the next weeks are going to test me in ways I can’t imagine, and somehow that is the appeal. The wait is over, time to start working on a new journey.