When a rider forms an opinion about something, it’s often hard to change his mind. Maybe that stubbornness is why many of us got here in the first place — we were too stubborn to give up.
So we were quite happy once the stage 1 TTT a the Vuelta a Espana was neutralized, as the general consensus was that racing on a dirt footpath was too dangerous … Yet racers being racers, most of the teams still gave it quite a bit of stick. My IAM team decided it would be best to go as fast as we could in the straights (although only allowing the guy in front to ride in the aero bars), and take the technical sections with caution. We also decided it would be best to rotate with only five riders instead of the full nine.
At the finish, our time was fine enough, but to be among the best, you would have had to throw all caution to the wind… So we had 20 more stages to do that.
Oddly enough, that night at dinner when we were discussing how the course actually wasn’t as dangerous as we thought at race speed, our sprinter Matteo Pelucchi brought up an interesting point. A fully closed course like the one we were on, with barriers lining the entire route, was actually much safer than what we do in the bunch every day. Sure, the path was a mix of different surfaces, from dirt, to rubber, to marble stones, but there were only nine of us, it was flat, and it was entirely closed.
In the bunch every day, we fly down mountains at speeds too fast to think about, with 199 other guys, and while the road is closed, you never know when there could be a dog running out around the corner, some chickens flapping into the road, a rogue soccer ball rolling in your direction, or even a crazy person trying to join the peloton on foot (I have experienced all of the above).
Unfortunately during stage 2, we experienced a bit of the more precarious side of cycling. What should have been a normal, tough road stage, was made exponentially harder by some unexpected carnage. The first half of the stage was normal: hard start, breakaway gone, some easy riding, until Movistar picked up the pace again. Andrew Talansky came up for a chat and was saying how much he enjoys that the Vuelta actually has some calm parts to it, while the Tour is crazy all day. He may have spoken too soon…
The problem in Andalusia is that it hardly ever rains. While one would think that actually makes for quite nice bike racing (it does), it also means the roads are extremely slick. Oil from trucks and debris accumulates over time and never washes off. That made the second half of the stage look like one of those RedBull races where they ice skate down technical courses with jumps and turns. We came into a corner — boom, one guy down. Next corner, boom boom boom, six guys go down (including Andrew, unfortunately).
Chase back. Suffer. Up to the front. Climb. Finally, we started a big descent after the first KOM, where we were able to go a bit easier. And then, BOOM, you could hear someone’s tire blow out as if a gunshot went off in the peloton. I looked around to see who it was… Then looked down and saw it was me!
As the expletives ran through my head, I stayed calm, coming from 70 kph to zero as quickly and safely as possible, got a wheel change, and started my chase back. By the time I got going again, I was 40 cars back in the caravan, which made for a long chase. After making my way through nearly every car, I was three cars from the group when I looked up and saw what looked like an explosion of riders. Nearly half of the peloton was scattered across the road.
I weaved my way through the bikes and riders and found my way into a chase group. Chasing again. Numerous GC riders were there, so I knew it was not a bad one to be a part of. Just difficult.
After a few minutes of nearly eating my stem to hold the wheel in front of me, I looked up to see a rider of our group overlap wheels, and boom — another man down. Five minutes later and no more at ease, we entered the two corners where Andrew and the others crashed before. Only this time, we were going even faster. Surprise! Another guy down. By this point, the road could have caved in and swallowed our entire group, and I would not have been all that shocked.
Matteo was right — stage 1 couldn’t compare to stage 2 when it came to the dangers we experienced, it is just that we compare each course to our prior knowledge and experience so when you put together time trial bikes and dirt, we go on high alert.
In what became a wild stage 2, I was much luckier than two of my teammates. Matteo crashed while in the caravan, injuring his hand so badly that he could not continue. David Tanner crashed twice. He also had to stop the race.
We were not the only team to lose riders in stage 2, however, as some others crashed, and there was the high-profile exit of Vincenzo Nibali … We’ll save that story for next time!