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Never say never in the third week of a grand tour, because the craziest things can happen. I dug really deep in the time trial and put myself in a hole, having to suffer through the next stage to get to the rest day. I recovered well and felt good on Tuesday’s queen stage, but it was so tough that I was again in the hole, feeling terrible on Wednesday and performing just as well.
I went to bed straight after dinner last night, as I’ve been sleeping poorly lately (I never believed it was possible to be too tired to sleep well until now), and got a solid 9.5 hours of deep sleep. It’s amazing what such sleep will do for one’s state of mind, even despite being three weeks without a piano (I was upset to learn before the stage that Cannondale-Garmin’s last hotel had two pianos. … The Giro can be cruel in more ways than one).
Even though I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the stairs still hurt on the way to breakfast, and I knew that today I would not be in the breakaway. With such hard stages still to come, I needed to stay as quiet as possible and just survive. I even said as much to VeloNews’ Caley Fretz just minutes before Thursday’s stage 18 started in Melide. It was a perfect stage for a breakaway, but the legs just weren’t there.
Then the flag dropped and attacks started, and I discovered that my legs felt … terrible. No surprise there. The attacks continued, I drifted farther back in the field, and nothing changed. Until things changed. After half an hour, we hit a small hill, and we had to sprint up it as the back as the field stretched out. Suddenly, my legs were awake, and I found myself open to the possibility of trying for the break.
The keys to making the break on stages with a big fight — I’ve found — are cleverness and ambivalence. A day in the break? Okay, but only if I don’t have to work for it. Our directors told us two points in the first 50km where the race goes up a short climb on narrow roads through towns, and I decided that I would only follow moves that went just before those points. The first one almost worked, so I drifted back a bit to bide my time. Then, just as the road turned upward at the second point, 40km into the stage, I went again. And just like that, my day in the grupetto turned into a day in the breakaway. I was smiling to myself at the irony of my conversation with Caley just an hour earlier.
As the gap continued to grow, Roberto Ferrari from Lampre-Merida was sitting on, for no reason I could understand. Then the typical Italian road grew a pothole that took down a Damiano Cunego at the back, also taking down the tagalong. Unfortunate, but you can never let your guard down on some of these roads.
As the time gap ballooned to 13 minutes with the Monte Ologno climb only minutes away, the breakaway continued to rotate smoothly. The odds were very good that the stage winner was among us, but we knew that the climb would settle things. No need to disrupt it until then.
Even though I was feeling good again, I knew that I was still tired from the first 17 stages, and my only shot at a stage result was to climb at my pace from the bottom to the top, descend as well as I could, and then see where things stood.
I started the climb at the front but immediately let go of the group when the attacks started. It was a long, steep climb, so drafting was nonexistent, and the penalty for going into the red early was steep. I turned it into a climb trial (punny, right?) and managed to pick off a few guys before the top. With the legs I had today, this tactic was perfect as I still cracked in the final 2km of the climb.
From that point, I pushed it on the descent to grab my best-ever result in the WorldTour. Descending fast is always risky, but I never really felt in danger. I had a police moto up ahead to cue off, I knew that any really dangerous corner would have an official to wave me down, and I had my director in my ear, narrating the descent turn-by-turn. I didn’t lose any time to the leaders on the descent; I only needed to do the climb two minutes faster. Someday I’ll have the legs to do so, but until then I’m happy with a top-10 in a stage at the Giro.
The good news is that tomorrow’s stage is nice and flat, so I’ll get a chance to recover. And the weather will be nice. (Stage 19 features three category 1 climbs in the second half of the 236km route -Ed.)
Please don’t burst my bubble, just let me be happy (Sorry, Chad -Ed.). To that end, the beautiful baby grand in the hotel lobby has turned today into the best of the Giro so far.
There is no chance that I will be in the breakaway tomorrow, though. At all.