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By Michael Barry, U.S. Postal Service professional cycling team
The Vuelta, unlike any other three-week race, started with a tough day in the mountains. Climbing the second day of the race is dangerous for the GC riders, especially after a tough TTT the night before.
In our team meeting before the race we talked about the climbs and how the Vuelta could be lost on stage 2, but not won. At the end of the day, this was the case with several team leaders minutes off of the overall lead.
The last few days we have woken up to gray skies and threatening rain. On Sunday, rain began to fall down half way through the stage, just prior to the second climb. ONCE had been riding a solid tempo on the front, controlling the race as we crested the climb. The descent was sketchy with many corners and high-speed straights.
With over two hundred riders in single file we cover what seems to be a kilometer. It is a long line. So, when 200 riders are strung out going downhill at 70kph there are bound to be riders who don’t hold the wheel in front of them and let gaps open. This was the case.
As we descended Johan warned us over the radios to stay near the front, telling us the speed was going to go up progressively as we went down the wet mountain. When teams on the front find out there are gaps at the back they increase the speed to increase the damage.
By the time we reached the bottom of the last climb the gap from the front group of a hundred to the eighty or so behind was too large for them to close. We lost Chechu to the split and he is now four minutes down. He rode incredibly well to make up the time he did, given many of the guys he was with when the split formed lost 15 minutes and he only lost four.
The climb was 7km long and became progressively steeper as it went up. At the top Aitor Gonzales and Casero had lost a good chunk of time to Roberto and Triki. The race for the overall was playing out in our favor. On the radio, Johan belted encouragement to them while the rest of us rode up at a steady speed to save our gas for the days to come.
Despite Chechu losing time, it has been a good start to a long race.
Wet, warm, nervous and dangerous
The stages start late here in Spain, so we have a lot of time to kill in the morning. Today – Monday morning – we woke up to rain and hoped it would stop by our start time at 1:30. But no, we rolled off towards Santander in the pouring rain. Thankfully it was warm.
Each morning, a few of us meet up in the team bus, with tired eyes and empty bellies, for a coffee from the espresso machine. Sometimes, the music is spinning and other times it is quiet and we chat.
The coffee is good and gets us rolling for the day’s events. I think we all go to bed dreaming of coffee the next morning.
The race today started out fast and we were quickly shedding our fogged up plastic rain jackets. After a small group established a gap the race settled into a rhythm and ONCE took to the front to keeps things under control. Our job was pretty simple: keep the climbers on our team out of trouble and near the front.
The rain eased with an hour or so to go and the sprinters’ teams took over at the front of the peloton and increased the tempo to bring back the breakaway. Fassa had great incentive to make sure it was a field sprint, as it would put Petacchi, their sprinter, into the record books if he won the stage, giving him stage wins in each of the grand tours this season. That’s the first time that’s happened in 45 years.
With 10km to go buckets of rain poured onto the peloton and chaos ensued. For a few minutes it was nearly impossible to see the rider in front let alone the road, the roundabouts and everything else. Luckily the rain eased again into a steady pour. We took to the front to keep out of trouble, as there were sure to be splits in the peloton. It was essential Roberto, Triki and Floyd not lose any time in the final and stay upright.
To add to the sketchiness of the final over the radios we were warned of diesel fuel on the road. And there sure was, about a kilometer of it everywhere on the roadway. After stripping down after the stage my clothes reeked like fuel and even after a good scrub and a shower I still smell the odd whiff of the stuff. Nice. I wonder how much we ingested.
Tomorrow, we have another challenging day with one big climb a third of the way through the stage. The coast of Spain is much lower than the center that is on a massive plateau. To leave the coast you need to climb the plateau. But, generally, when you climb to the top the sun shines and the countryside is arid and the vegetation sparse.