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It’s often said that cycling is a sport about suffering. Which is why I saved my entry on the topic until after stage 11. But what I (as well as many others in the peloton) realized is that suffering is relative. The amount of suffering one goes through is relative to our perceptions and expectations, and let me tell you, for our Andorran death march, those expectations were high.
When I showed up to the start line for the stage, I was nearly shaking. No, it wasn’t from one too many coffees — although we sure had a few extra each to start that day — but from the nerves I had built up in anticipation for the stage. It was a feeling that brought me back to my days as a junior racer, when I would be nervous every time I set foot on the start. As pros, we often lose that feeling, our nerves muted after hundreds and hundreds of times toeing the line. But a stage like the one in Andorra was about as foreign to me as those races I went to as a junior … I had no clue what was lying in front of me that day.
I initially tried for the breakaway, but went a little too hard into the bottom of the first climb, going backwards quickly once we hit the foot of the mountain, my legs burning from my brief effort. One thing I did have a front row seat for was the motorbike collision with Sergio Paulinho as I was chasing him down. He was off the front, I was bridging the gap, and for some reason, when I looked up after a brief moment with my head down, BOOM — the moto clipped his leg. I didn’t have much time to think or even notice what was going on, as he shouted expletives at the driver, because we were merely minutes into a stage that was about to go wild … I just rode past in disbelief!
I have to say most of the stage after that was relatively uneventful, a normal pace for the second and third climbs, and then Astana smashed it on the fourth one. I saw Chris Froome going backwards, assuming he was doing the thing he always does — pacing himself via his power-meter — and not following the initial acceleration, only to blow by everyone once they completely blow themselves. Only this time, I didn’t see him again. Odd I thought, until we later found out he was racing with a broken foot!
I was in a group with a few riders a bit behind the Astana-led group (I would say peloton, but it was only about 15 riders by that point), when we were caught by another group of around 15 riders at the bottom of the descent. The group was led by Vasil Kiryienka from Sky, pacing back a dropped Nicolas Roche and Sergio Henao. Now, I’m not sure if many of you have heard, but “Kiri” as they call him, is a bit of a legend. He’s Belarusian, he’s known as a strongman, and to anyone who doesn’t know him, he’s scary as sh—t. I’ve seen some races on TV where he rides the front alone for 150km, or wins mountain stages or time trials. But until stage 11, I never experienced his strength first hand. All I can say is that the “tempo” he was riding was mind boggling. I’m pretty sure we were going 50kph up the valley, every single rider in the group hanging on to his wheel for dear life. If there ever was a time that I believed for a brief moment that the rumors of motorized bikes in the peloton were true, this was it. I was clutching my bars, head tilted far to the side, sitting on the absolute edge of my saddle, just to hold the wheel in front of me! I did not expect the hardest part of stage 11 to come on the flat.
When we hit the second-to-last climb, he continued to ride, only this time, he rode the two climbers he was helping right off of his wheel. Then he did it again. And again. He would take 10 pedal strokes, open up a gap, his teammates would shout, and Kiriyenka would look back with an expression as if to say “seriously?” and then sit up and wait. If I wasn’t on my own limit, it would have been quite comical.
The rest of stage 11 was just suffering and getting to the finish line. A very hard day, but the thing is, we all built it up so much, that it wasn’t as scary in the end as we had thought. And that fact is what made stage 12 so much harder!
Everyone had it in their minds that at least after our sufferfest in Andorra, we got a relatively easy stage. On paper it was mostly downhill, starting in Andorra, and finishing near sea level in Lleida. The difficulty of stage 11 did not end at the finish line in Cortal D’Encamp, but continued to plague us even more the next day. Each roller we hit on stage 12 elicited a deep burn in the legs, and each hill hurt that much more. What hurt even more than the big mountains of Andorra were the sprints out of every corner. You see, what I believe is the most difficult part of professional road racing, and I think many riders agree with me here, is not the mountains, nor the descents. It is the max sprint we have to do, time and time again, when you come off of a descent, from a small technical road, to a big open boulevard.
It goes a bit like this: the peloton gets strung out on the descent with its twists and turns, every rider single file. When you have 200 riders single file, that makes for a VERY long group. The longer the group, the bigger the elastic effect of the peloton is, meaning any surge made at the front is magnified times 10 at the back. So the people in front come off of the small road with speed and often times, knowing what they are doing, sprint out of the corner onto the big road. Thirty riders behind, the surge starts to hurt. Eighty riders back, your legs are on fire, and 150 riders back, well, you might as well not even try to hold the wheel in front of you. In stage 12, this happened quite a few times, and I can tell you, even with decent positioning, I was sprinting as hard as I possibly could just to stay in touch with the wheel in front of me. I gritted my teeth, clenched my jaw, and held my breath as I prepared for each launch out of the corner. After the efforts of the previous day, these max sprints were as cruel as could be. My legs hurt, my head hurt, and all I really wanted was to go back to sleep!
I was happy to reach the finish line on stage 12, knowing I had another chance to recover before stage 13. The only problem is, I have flipped through the next few stages in the road book, and we don’t have more recovery any time soon. On to more high mountains — the meat and potatoes of this year’s Vuelta is here. Wish us strong hearts, strong legs, and most importantly, strong minds to make it through!