Stage 18, September 10
Fantastic racing terrain on Thursday through Castille and Leon country where narrow roads swoop down through forests and up among spectacular rock pillars.
The roads were bumpy and gravelly for the just about the first time in this Vuelta and you had to take extra care on the patched up descents.
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Villages were few and far between and I don’t think we saw a Repsol petrol station all day. This really is remote country and all the better for it.
Walking trails are clearly marked and the local stone is a thick cut slate of brown-grey which gives the buildings a hewn from the earth look.
With three seconds between race leader Dumoulin and second place Aru we were expecting a battle on the final climb but despite probing attacks form Aru the gradient was never steep enough to dislodge the impressive Dutchman.
The general view is that the new uphill finishes this year have not been as hard as some of the hilltop finales of recent Vueltas.
We just got past the breakaway at the top of the climb and our final photos from the bike were on a small rise a few kilometres from the finish, using flash to illuminate Nic Roche and Haimar Zubeldia as they relayed each other at high speed towards the line in Riaza.
A top win for Roche; he has been looking for a result in this race and his patience and race savvy paid off today.
Not a a lot has happened on the moto situation. Today we had an extra regulator on a moto from ASO but he largely let us work unhindered.
Stage 11, September 2
Loafing in the hotel room waiting for the start of one of the hardest ever climbing days in a stage race. Nearly 5000 metres of climbing in 138km, all of it crammed into the tiny province of Andorra.
Outside the sound of Euro disco at the start zone is thumping away, drowning out the telly in my room. Rain was forecast but the sun is poking through and the clouds are lifting. Around here the rain can fall at any time so we will have our waterproofs in the panniers just in case.
Andorra la Vella is a busy town full of bike shops – pedal and motorised – petrol stations, tyre fitters and outdoor clothing outlets. It’s just over the border from France and is popular with bargain hunters and adventure bikers.
Halfway through and the Vuelta has done the south and is now firmly in the north. The warm scent of pine has been replaced by fresher aromas, among them cattle dung, a reminder of home. The roads are grippier, which is a relief to everyone on two wheels squinting at shiny Tarmac roundabouts this past week.
Coming up to 2500 miles on the bike. That’s already 500 miles more than the total race distance of this Vuelta. It will be nearly double that by the time we get to Madrid.
This is a particularly leggy race in terms of transfers between stages and the riders will be feeling the effects of long hours in team buses too.
They were already looking tired on short climbs two days ago. Caleb Ewen was one of the first riders to lose contact and he packed in not long after during stage 10.
Today feels like the first really serious day for the GC riders and it be just as tough at the back of the field too.
Stage eight, August 29
Trek are testing a disc braked bike on stages six and eight of the Vuelta a España.
We saw one on the team car during yesterday’s seventh stage but they didn’t use it because it was a hilly one and the disc bike weighs 800 grams more than the standard race Emonda model.
We spoke to one of the sport directors at a cafe in the morning waiting for the race to come through. He said the general view was that discs worked better in all conditions. You don’t have to change the pads for carbon or alloy rims. They are more effective in the wet.
The look, he implied, was growing on the riders. A smaller front disc was also possible, but the UCI were specifying 16cm for now.
The only problem was changing wheels after a puncture. It’s too fiddly aligning the disc with the calliper. A bike change is the current solution.
Asked if discs would catch on he shrugged. If the bike manufacturers demand it then you will see the peloton on discs soon enough.
Stage four, August 25
Nicolas Roche came through the finishing line at Vejer de la Frontera, dropping his Pinarello to the ground with a clatter and slumping to the hot Tarmac in front of my front wheel.
We park up as soon after the finishing line as possible and yesterday I got a close up of what it takes to contest the win in one of the Vuelta’s typically crazy finales.
Roche, his gossamer thin jersey stuck to him like cling film, grabbed a bottle of water from a Sky team helper, took a swig and poured the rest over his head, rifling his hands through his hair to get the full cooling effect in plus 35 degree late afternoon heat.
A small look of satisfaction on his face, he did a small fist pump to celebrate fourth on the stage, after narrowly missing out to stage winner Valverde.
Fourth. Surely only winning counts? Not when you could see the final four kilometres of this stage which had a hill steep enough for a British Hill Climb, followed by a roller coaster run-in on shiny slippery roads, cobbles and tight turns.
Just to finish in the bunch was an achievement yesterday. To duke it out with the leaders showed that you are one of the strong men of this Vuelta and I’ve no doubt we will see a lot more from Roche in this race.
Stage one and two, August 22-23
It was fun to ride the motorbike along the boardwalk and sand covered team time trial course. Photographer Graham Watson and I were expecting sections on soft sand but it was actually ok, just dusty in places. The stretch of plastic ‘matting’ was perfectly solid and rideable.
Talking to a team directeur sportif the next day he said the problem was not the sand or the chicanes but the bumps and by that he was referring to the ramps which connected one stretch of path to another, ranging from the wooden boardwalk to the tiled finale.
On the bars of a carbon low profile time trial bike in a line of riders travelling at around 30mph, it’s hard to control the machine if it’s bucking up and down at the front.
Enjoyable as it was to sit above the beach and watch the teams go by, I had to remind myself I wasn’t on holiday. Stage two on Sunday, the first road stage with an uphill finish, was typically fast and nervous. The roads inland of the Costa del Sol can be very sketchy a this time of year.
There’s a build up of rubber and oily deposits from vehicles and from the olive trees which makes them shine like a pencil tip. Lean the bike just a bit too far and it starts to lose grip.
We had one slide, both wheels. The front pushes and the bike points towards the outside of the bend. If you are not going too fast you can lean and correct it.
A rider or two fell on shiny bends, but the major fall was on a wide piece of road and must have been a big bunch crash typical of the first few days of a stage race.
Luke Evans is photographer Graham Watson’s moto driver on the Vuelta