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By Michael Barry, U.S. Postal Service professional cycling team
The last couple of days have been for the climbers, the pure climbers, with one hard day in the mountains followed by a 29.6km uphill time trial. And on both days, Santi Perez of Phonak dominated the stages winning with ease and boosted himself into the first three overall
Two weeks into a three-week race and everyone on the team is getting a bit homesick. We have been together for nearly three weeks straight now, as we arrived at the start in Leon three days before the race began, and we are ready for a change of pace, a change in diet and a change in schedule. The morale is still good, and we’re looking toward the end, but the consensus is pretty much that three weeks of anything with all the same people, even sitting on the beach, might just be a bit too much.
Last night, after the time trial, the entire Vuelta – the peloton, directors, the commissaires, and the organizers – piled onto two airplanes for a flight from Grenada to Badajoz. Buses were lined up to take us to the airport from the top of Sierra Nevada, where the mountain time trial had just finished, and then to the hotels in Olivenza from the airport in Badajoz. It was a good thing the race was short, just over an hour, as the travel was quite extensive.
Saturday’s stage started furiously and the peloton was quickly lined out and then in pieces for most of the day. At one point I was in a small group that had splintered off the already-quartered peloton, sitting on Fabio Sacchi’s wheel as we chased back to the peloton. As we rounded a corner on a fast descent he hit a pothole in the road, blew out a tire and was on his backside before he could react. I slammed on my brakes, skidded and avoided the crash; Antonio Cruz, who was behind me, did the same. Minutes later an ambulance came screaming by the peloton, ferrying Sacchi to the hospital. It was shocking to see how fast he went down, how he had no time to respond, and how the crash was completely out of his control.
Yesterday in the uphill time trial most of the team took it easy and went hard enough just to ensure they would make the time cut. Triki and Floyd obviously had to give an all-out effort to hold on to their top-10 places overall, but the rest of us had nothing to gain and a lot of energy to lose by riding as hard as a possible. We all had 25 cogs fitted on our back wheels and Triki and Floyd both ran 50-tooth chainrings on the front so they had more gear options for the flatter bits of the climb.
The first section of the climb was a steep ascent out of Monachil, a small town on the outskirts of Grenada. The road twists up the mountainside for 5km, at very steep grades, before dropping down for a few kilometers and joining up with the shallower climb up to the Sierra Nevada ski station. The 30km of roadside was peppered with spectators. It was nice to have encouragement, and also a little distraction from the effort, as we were climbing the hill. There was a section of beer-fueled Spaniards that had formed two lines on either side of the road and yelled “Ole” while waving their hats like a toreadors as we raced by. I have also noticed penises painted on the climbs, similar to those that were painted on the Tour, so I wonder if the same crew has made its way from the Alps down to southern Spain to decorate the mountain roads. And why?
As we head into the last week of racing Roberto Heras is holding a slim lead over Alejandro Valverde. The race has left the southern coast, and after tomorrow’s flat stage to Caceres we will be heading into the region where Roberto lives and through the mountains he grew up climbing. He will be motivated to hold onto the lead but both Santiago Perez and Valverde will attack until the final time trial in Madrid. I imagine Roberto will have to add some time to his lead over his rivals, as he will likely lose a minute to them in the Madrid time trial.
Today we enjoyed a mellow rest day, with an easy ride through the countryside followed by a few kilometers of motorpacing behind the team car to open our legs up for the stages to come. The countryside around here is much like the terrain around Santa Barbara with cattle in the fields between hillsides covered in olive groves. The area is well known for the Spanish delicacy, Iberic ham, and while riding today we saw a few sties full of pata negra pigs – a race of pigs with black feet that are fed on acorns giving the cured ham a nutty flavor.
We’ll try and freshen up as much as possible today for the big stages ahead with a good sleep, a good nap and a few good meals.