By Michael Barry, U.S. Postal Service professional cycling team
Racing again after the rest day is always a bit of a shock to the system.
After a day without hard efforts in the legs, the body shuts down, therefore when the first attacks go the following day it feels quite painful. The other things that make these stages hard is that everybody is fresh, or fresher, and is eager to attack and race.
We were faced with a fairly flat stage towards Careres, yesterday, the day after our rest day. As Petacchi went home on the weekend, and Zabel lost most of his teammates early in the Vuelta, there were no teams willing to control the race for a field sprint and therefore the race was extremely fast from the start with incessant attacks.
After about an hour, the breakaway was finally established with non-threatening riders for the overall classification. In our team meeting, we had predicted this would happen and therefore were attentive to have someone represented in each breakaway. In the end, Antonio was in the group that gained minutes and made it to the line.
The course was in the wide-open outback of Spain with dry prairie and olive trees scattered over the countryside. The sun was beating down on us hard and within hours salt was covering everybody and riders were constantly going back to their team cars for bottles. Within about fifteen minutes the water was as warm as bath water and had a nice plastic taste to it. The thermometer in the car read 39 and 40 degrees Celsius throughout the day.
In the end the breakaway split in two and Antonio ended up in the front half and racing for the win. In a tactical race, he lost out, but still managed a nice placing in the first ten.
Today, we started on a climb, in the baking sun and immediately I could see a good percentage, more than half, of the peloton was uncomfortable, unmotivated and tired.
The race has been hard in the last ten days, many riders are sick, and many others are just sick and tired of racing uphill. Once we hit the second climb of the day and the pace increased, groupettos were quickly formed and the majority of the peloton left the climbers up ahead to battle for the victory and the race lead.
Antonio, Victor, Dave and I quickly found our spot in the groupetto and settled in for the ride. Nobody in the group of thirty riders spoke much as everybody was beat down and tired out.
As in general society, the Italians are by the far the most vocal of the group in the peloton and they let their displeasure show whenever the pace gets too high and uncomfortable on the climbs. The key to riding in the groupetto is to take it as easy as possible and still make it with in the time cut. But, at the same time the Italians also go like crazy on the descents and are constantly running up other riders’ backsides, as if they were stuck in Milan traffic on a Friday afternoon. At then end of a long day, with many climbs in the intense sunshine and heat, small things like that can become quite annoying.
We are now in the heart of Roberto Heras territory and his name was painted about a thousand times on the course today. Roberto was born in the town we are staying in tonight, Bejar, which shadowed by the mountain we finished up today.
Laudelino Cubino owns our hotel; a famous Spanish cyclist from the last decade and the lobby is covered in pictures from his days in the peloton.
Roberto put some time into his closest rival Valverde today, but also lost time today to a surging Santi’ Perez. It will be interesting to see how the race will play out in the hills in the coming days as Perez seems to be getting better by the climb. I think Roberto will most likely be in Gold in Madrid but he will be challenged all the way to the line.
Tomorrow is another day in the mountains and I can only imagine it will be a rough one for a good percentage of the peloton. Floyd and Victor are both sick now, so that makes four of us, and Dave suffered from heat stroke today and didn’t make it to the line as he had to stop get off and sit down until he found a ride in the team car.
It was not a great day for the team, but tomorrow is another day…