Given the current situation it is the right time to look back and continue writing down my memories of my first Grand Tour (Memories of my first Grand Tour: La Vuelta, 1st week »From hell to heaven«). After the victory at stage 9, the tenth day was actually the first day of rest. Of course, this doesn’t mean to stay in bed from morning to evening, but during this day I had a regeneration training on the bike together with Urška who came to visit, as she had a race nearby the next day. Some time was dedicated to media and press conferences. And some to rest, get a massage and eat. We took some time off with Urška and went for a short walk.
Stage 10: ITT time trial. As my start at the time trial was in the late afternoon, the first part of the day was calmer than usually. Breakfast around 9 am and then some leisure time and time for the team until the lunch at 12.30 pm, and then the action started. Departure to the start, preparation, warming up. Warming up following the pre-defined programme on the trainer and then full force for 36 km. I felt quite well. There is no specific tactic at time trials, actually this is just a battle with yourself and the clock. In one sentence – suffering from the first to the last second at the upper limit of your body’s physical ability. At the time trial I rode in a jersey in the colours of the Slovenian flag because I am the actual national time trial champion and I am very proud of it! I was happy with the show and the result. Among my competitors, only Primož managed to move away from me, and I left everybody else behind, and this strengthened my fifth place with an even smaller difference from the rest. The initial setback caused by a fall at the team time trial started to melt, and this gave me more energy and motivation.
Stage 11: Its profile was dynamic with two 3rd and one 2nd category climbs. The last climb was 30 km away from the finish so nothing decisive was expected here. As expected, the day passed quite serenely, except for the beginning of the race when everything was more intense, until a quite large group managed to break away. No dangerous riders for overall standings were among them, so there was no interest to catch them and stage continued in a calm manner. In the end, we were almost 20 minutes behind the fastest, yet this was not really important as these riders were much more behind in the overall standings.
Stage 12: The interesting part of this stage was its start at the Circuito de Navarra racetrack. The profile indicated a fairly easy stage with a dynamic profile and four 3rd category climbs; the last one was just before the finish in Bilbao. The stage was quite fast and nervous. The breakaway was quite late, only in the second half of the race, and this caused a stressed atmosphere in the group. Immediately after it, in the last part of the race with three short and steep climbs, the riders from Jumbo Visma took over the reins. I felt well and followed the peloton which was steadily getting smaller as the assistants did their job and then “turned away”. I crossed the finish line together with other favourites and without much problem, but my thoughts immediately turned to the next hard mountain stage.
Stage 13: A real mountain stage, 166 km long, with seven categorised climbs and the finish at the top of the last very steep climb called Los Machucos. The climb was said to go as high as 25% and as I never rode that slope before, I had no idea what to expect in the finish. At the start we rode through the stadium of the Atletico football club from Bilbao. The serious race started quickly and right after the official start. This went on for a whole hour until a large group managed to break away. Then it became a little calmer and the reins were taken over by the riders of Jumbo Visma, yet the advantage of the group that broke away was growing. As one of those who broke away was a rider who was a little lower in the overall standings, the pace of the peloton went up. I tried to ride as rationally as I could, to preserve my strength for the grand final on the last climb. Before the finish the breakaway group had some advantage, but it was melting quickly as the peloton started to attack, and each attack reduced the advantage. I tried to follow the attacks. First Quintana attacked, then Majka, and so on. After one of these attacks and the joining I continued with the same pace and realised after a few moments that I remained alone with Roglič while the others could not keep up. I think this was around 3 km from the finish. And from here – just put the head down and “full throttle” ahead as much as possible, until the finish. Fleetingly I noticed some Slovenian flags and cheering words, as the slope was killing in some places and I had the feeling that I am stuck. The climb was full of people left and right for the last 6 km and actually we rode through a corridor.
After the stage many people asked me did we make a deal on anything with Roglič – but once you are deep in the red and “your own” world, giving all you can, words are too much. No, we didn’t speak, but at that moment we knew inside that the others fell behind and that we have a chance to create some difference for our advantage. The last kilometres I didn’t even think about winning the stage. The only thought I had was: don’t let go, fight and ride up as fast as you can. And yes, really unexpectedly I managed to win another stage of this race. Only after regaining a bit of my strength in the finish I understood what I did. In addition to this victory the time difference from other competitors and the bonus seconds for the finish brought me to the third position in the overall standings and the white jersey as the best young rider. I think this victory was a breakthrough moment at my Vuelta because I saw that I could compete also for the podium in the overall standings. After the victory and the white jersey, the obligations increased, but I was happy to do them although, after a hard day like this, only one thing is important – how to get an appropriate meal, massage and rest as soon as possible.
Looking back now I can say that this was one of the greatest achievements of Slovenian cycling, as two duelling Slovenians rode into the finish at such an important race, before all competitors.
Stage 14: Rather flat and meant for sprinters. Calmer and much easier than the previous one. I wished to use the day for regeneration as the following days would be hard. My friend Luka Pibernik was one of those who broke away that day. Unfortunately, we caught up with him just before the finish as the last one of those who broke away – and then everything “flew”. It also flew through the air in the final where there was a large group fall. It could have been a lot worse for me. I couldn’t avoid the fall, but I was quite lucky. A few bumps and bruises and I hoped after the night with poor sleep no new unexpected pains would appear in the new morning. Sadly, this day did not end well for my Slovenian fellow Luka Mezgec who was injured badly during this fall; right now, I am happy for him as he recovered from his injury quickly and successfully and is back to normal training.
Stage 15: Another difficult mountain stage with four climbs including the final one. The day started with quite some optimism. I felt the consequences of the fall, but nothing serious apart from some scratches and bruises which is nothing new for cyclists. This time, it was serious right from the beginning. The Moviestar team started to dictate a sharp pace as they wanted to make a selection right away and help some of their riders to break away. And they managed to do this. Luckily the pace was a bit slower for the next two slopes, as everybody was a bit “baked”, and the Jumbo Visma riders dictated the pace of the peloton. The last climb was again at full speed. I had only one goal, to follow my main competitors, especially Lopez who was closest to me in the overall standings and also competed for the white jersey. I was successful and managed it, although Lopez tried a few jumps, so I came to the finish together with him and defended my overall third position and white jersey. This was a hard day and I was more than successful with my achievement, and one day closer to Madrid.
Stage 16: The second mountain stage in a row, again very demanding with three long climbs. The first two category one, and the last, hardest and longer, extra category with finish at the top. The day was hard and the pace did not ease off. A large group managed to break away, but none of the riders were dangerous in the overall standings. On the last slope Astana started to give a sharp pace and prepare the terrain so Lopez could attack. I knew this so I “stuck” to my competitor’s bike and followed him. He tried for the first time early, more than 4 km from the finish. I managed to follow and waited for the next jump. It happened around 2 km from the finish and I covered it, yet the others did not manage to follow us. Roglič moved over to us a bit later, and my colleague Valerio Conti waited for me in the final, so we raced to the finish with joined forces. I was very happy with my work as I finished together with the best again and even reduced the difference from Valverde who fell behind in the end. The week was over, and all were happy about the results and the fact that the next day was a day of “rest” before the last five stages.
So, the second week of racing was completed. Hard and strenuous, but I was very happy with the results, my feeling and the atmosphere in the team, and the fact that we managed to climb so high after the unfortunate beginning of the race. I surprised even myself with my results – because many people ask me did I expect all this? The answer is no, not at all. But in this week, I saw I could end up high in the overall standings, maybe even the podium.
Of course, I received many encouraging messages and positive feedback from all who follow me and cheer for me. I noticed quite some Slovenian flags during the race, thank you for the cheering and words of encouragement to all who wrote to me in Slovenian and English, although I could not answer all!
The text about the next week will follow soon.