On paper today's stage shaped up to go of like an absolute fire cracker, and that's exactly what happened. Each day we have a neutralised section of between 2-20km where basically the peleton does a bit of a parade through the city that stages the start of the race. Once we are safely on open roads with less obstacles to negotiate they drop the flag and off we go. The initial km's of the race can be the most hectic of the days as riders scramble to get themselves in the days breakaway. For this reason its best the initial km's of the race are ridden as far away from extra hazards as possible.
So today the neutral zone was extended by 8km to supposedly avoid such problems in a city centre. Unfortunately the hazards that the organizers feared would reap havoc on the field ended up being perhaps more destructive than if we had of race throught the city full gas. The first problem's occurred when we hit a series of small speed humps and half the field lost there drink bottles. When they hit the ground that literally role around like hand grenades waiting for someone to ride over them and they explode. This explosion of liquid makes the road slippery so multiply that by 100 bottles and you can guess what happened. We were doing around 50kmph when this occurred so you had to be lucky to avoid the carnage. Unfortunately for us our Canadian Cannonball Bouvin went down hard and we suspect he has fractured his hip. I was unaware of his crash initially but it would not be long before I would become very well aware of his situation also for the wrong reason.
A little further down the road and still in the neutral everybody was getting twitchy for the start of the race. That's the other thing about the neutral zone, being in the right place when the flag drops can often make or break your day if you are looking to exploit an opportunistic breakaway. With that being said when often over half the field have this mindset its even more nervous than coming into a sprint finish as we are going so slow everyone can at least attempt to move to the front. The most annoying part about this nervousness is the fact the race has not even started!
So like I said before bouvin was in an absolute world of hurt at the back of the field. Little did I know that my turn was also just around the next roundabout!
My new buddy in the bunch Fabian Cancellara was the next to have a couple of bottles spring from his bottle cages. I swear 1 on them must of contained his hair grease and the other the olive oil for his pasta as these 2 bottles caused absolute Carnage as us unsuspecting soles enetered the roundabout. When I arrived there were bike going down everywhere infront of me and I felt I had time to stop when my bike also slipped right from under me. I went down really hard as a crash like than when the bike falls in a way you are not expecting really knocks the wind out of you. Also for the first time in my crashing career my sunglasses flew of my head so that meant I really took a nasty jolt and whip lash, am sure to have a sore neck in the morning! Like always when you go down I picked myself up as quickly as possible, found my bike and peddled of back to the group before assessing the damage. When I got back to the field which had now called a truce to wait for all the crash victims I realised firstly I could not take a deep breath and secondly the stand out of the seat was excruciating. The I hit another pot hole and winced in pain and with it the 3rd strike and most probably I have cracked a rib or 2. I got over that pretty quick as really its no big deal, you can't do anything about it and you just have to hope you can survive in the peleton without needing to dig too deep and have to breath in deeply. Also when you stand you need to hold yourself in a way that take the weight away from this area so all good. Luckily I had the whole tour down under in january to deal with this pain and learn how to survive in the race. On that occasion I woke up one morning a week later on to find my back was also black as I had bruised my kidney, so putting up with a little discomfort is nothing new to me. So with that problem ticked of I just had the usual lost skin and a bit of blood so all was tickedy boo to atleast survive to the finish. The only issue I had to be honest was I wanted some sunglasses and my handlebars were bent so I called the car up, stopped for a nature break, had no sooner pulled the old fella out to relieve myself and matteo had adjusted my handlebars, tightened everything up and hand the bike back to me as soon as I pulled up my strides. Talk about efficiency, matteo I swear has had some time working in formula 1! So with new shades on my face and straight handle bars a wandered back to bunch still at idle while crash victims all received medical attention. This is when I came across the canadian cannonball at the back of the field. The poor guy was crying with the pain in his hip and as he is probably one of the tuffest dudes I have ever met I knew instantly he was in strife. I urged him to see the doc but he simply said if its broken I am finished anyway so I may aswell try and get to the finish, talk about courage.
Unfortunately for bouvin he picked exactly the wrong day to be in this state as the first 70km was littered with those types of climbs would tour riders sprint up. Not long enough to encourage a steady tempo being set but not short enough to simply smash over and recover. No this was a good old fashioned smash fest of 500 watt for 5' effort after effort! The peleton was in pieces and poor old bouvin had to stop. Heart breaking for the kid who has looked absolutely floorless in his first 10days of his first ever grand tour. He will bounce back bigger and better that's for sure.
Back to the race and it was absolutely full blast. On a day like this you simply have to get yourself to the front and follow whatever wheel it is that's ahead of you. With that being said its important to follow a wheel that is not going to get dropped as there's only so many times you can close the gap. I of course chose basso's and when I lost him and my other team mates in the manoeuvring of the peleton I found myself on nibali's wheel a lot so always felt as comfortable as possible, specially considering the pain coming from my rib cage.
I usually love these types of starts as you know everybody is on the limit and burning matches, in turn if you have the legs it makes it easier to do somthing in the final stages of the race. Today I knew I would have to take it easy on the final climbs as I did not want to dig myself into a hole after the crash. In fact when basso saw the pain on my face he immediately said your riding in the gruppeto today and taking it as easy as possible. So with that decided I was able to relax a little and just focus on getting to the finish.
Again back to the race and it was in bits. After 65km a group finally broke away with our polish powerhouse paterski inside it. This group was 20 strong and katusha continued to push the pace to pull it back and finally after 72km a smaller group of 8 riders formed, again with paterski in it and off they went. We finally had a breather in the bunch but not for long, the days real test was to begin in only 60km so the pace didn't drop much. With adrenaline now wearing off I was really in strife, I was feeling very groggy and needed to slam down a couple of ice cold cokes to snap me back into action. All I could do now was ensure Ivan was in a good spot at the base of the 2nd last climb and the rest would be up to him, my assistance in the mountains would have to wait for another day.
On the run into the climb the ever reliable cannondale express train of longo, dalla, heado, and ratto kept ivan in a perfect position. I was a little out of sorts and in no mood to fight for position today so sat just behind Ivan and ensured I was as close as I could be for as long as possible should he have any dramas. One by one the train peeled off, first heado, longo, ratto, and then dalla calmly guided ivan to the first position at the base of the climb. All this all out effort work done with no regard to the fact they now had to summoned up the strength to get to finish over 2 8km climbs averaging over 10% each!! Absolute stars of team mates I say. I hung onto the front group for a couple more km's but my goose was cooked, the pain was taking the edge off and my body needed to idle to the finish so that's what I did.
Ivan was again showing all the class that has him firming as a favourite for this years final podium in madrid. Having crested the 1st climb with ease in a lead group of no more than 20 he then set about dismantling the rest of the field on the final 8km wall to the finish in the sierra mountains. Soon he was along with just 4 men and while he had valverde and rodrigues on the ropes with some fearsome accelerations, they were able to claw they way back to his wheel and then not assist when horner and nibali slipped away in the final km's, probably because they simply couldn't! Still the mind games between the big men on the GC in this years vuelta has now began and basso is certainly the won causing them the most concern. They would not have banked on him being there and he is and showing he is here to play for the full 3 weeks. They know the bast of basso will be seen as the race progresses.
So while he lacked our support in the final mountains today again he showed he did not need it. He is in that greater shape that so long as we put him in the right position at the base of the climb he will be just fine. Still we can't take this for granted so I need to recover quickly and get focused as he is going to need some help over the next 2 weeks.
Still the smile is wide on basso's face and morale in the team is sky high with his super positive attitude toward the race. When you see him put in a all out 100% display like today you simply relish the opportunity to assist him in anyway you can to help him make the next steps!
Ah rest day could not have come at a better time!
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