Twelve stages of the Vuelta a España down now, nine to go. We've gone from the hot barren south of Spain to the fresher and overcast northwest. I've heard people say the mountains are yet to start but I hope that is exaggerated as honestly, I haven't seen much flat at all so far in this Vuelta.
This is the third grand tour of my career. I rode and finished the Giro d’Italia in 2006 and the Tour de France in 2009, so I'm looking to complete the Grand Slam of cycling here this year by finishing the Vuelta a España in 2011. My team, Skil-Shimano, came here with two specific objectives, each equally important – to take part in the bunch sprints with Marcel Kittel, and to get in breakaways to show ourselves and the sponsors and hopefully get a good result in a stage that way as well.
When you look at these objectives I think we can be pretty happy with our Vuelta so far. The 7th place in the team time trial was an unexpected bonus but showed how well we've learned to coach each other in the race and how well we work together, which are both key elements in a sprint lead-out train as well.
Unfortunately, we haven't really had many chances in bunch sprints and realistically we've only had one pure sprint stage so far in the 12 stages we've done. Stage 2 was a bunch sprint but there was a serious hill just before the finish and the same can be said about stage 12. In the first one, Marcel Kittel got really close and showed his real class by finishing 3rd there, but the real bunch sprint the whole team was waiting for what happened on stage 7.
From other races, we all know our strengths, which made the order of riders on the lead-out train quite obvious. I'll work my way up from the sprinter Marcel Kittel, winner of 4 stages in Tour of Poland and 8 other victories, and all that in his first year professional. In front of him, we've got Tom Veelers, a strong man and a strong sprinter himself with the experience of leading out in the past. This is crucial, because he knows what he is capable of and when to start his lead-out to put Marcel in the right position. I'm in front of Tom because I don't have the real punch of top-speed sprinting but I am strong enough to hold the pace up real high for a relatively long time (ideally from 800m to 400m to go). Before me, there’s Roy Curvers, who has basically the same characteristics, but he's good at coaching the other riders on the team to put us in the front of the bunch with 1200m to go.
During stage 7 everything seemed to fall into position, the lead-out went exactly as planned and it was a great relief to see Marcel win the stage, and take the first ever victory for Skil-Shimano in a grand tour. It felt like a team victory because we all did our job, not only the lead-out train but all of the other riders as well, we all had our share in the biggest success in the history of the team.
Unfortunately, we couldn't repeat the success of that day on stage 12 yesterday. The team really worked well together in waiting for Marcel when he got in trouble 10km before the finish, and we did well to bring him back to the front to head into the last kilometre in a good position. Unfortunately, the finale was really too hard for him and he had to give up on the hope of sprinting for the win. I'm still proud of the team for the teamwork and for managing to get him into position even after he went through some difficult moments late on in the finale.
Attacking and the Angliru
Now with Marcel Kittel leaving the race, we'll get back into attacking mode for the coming days. In the first part of the Vuelta, we also managed to get a rider in the break every time we wanted by sharing the work and the attacking between us. I'm quite sure that there will be several breakaways making it to the finish in the next hard stages. Although it has been a very hard race so far, I don't think it will be any slower or any easier to make it into the break for the remainder of the Vuelta, but we'll work hard to do it.
As for the front of the general classification here, it's still hard to say who is going to take the red jersey home and unfortunately I haven't been able to see much of the battle in the mountains, but it looks to me that there is still a lot of racing to be done. I have to admit that Sky and Wiggins have been very solid so far and it will take a big effort from one of the pure climbers to drop him from that first place on GC. Just for that I can't wait for the Angliru, it will be a spectacle on TV. Unfortunately I'm afraid I won't see much of it until later on in the hotel. Still, it's a climb I'm looking forward to: it will be another mythical climb that I can add to my list of mountains that I have conquered and who knows, I might be in the breakaway that starts the Angliru first, like I was at Sierra Nevada on stage 4.