Today was the Queen stage, or in other words the hardest. It was also the longest and had the most climbing with 2650m gained in the 87km. Most people were dreading today but not me, I was looking forward to it. After IronBike if the climbing figure doesn’t start with a 5 then it doesn’t phase me. Plus I know that I generally do better on longer stages, although the weather could be a major factor with another hot day forecast.
The stage start was the best yet, starting from the race hotel the roads were sensible, even the dirt roads were in good shape. No one seemed to panic too much and as per Milton’s request I made sure that I was much further forward and in among the top teams. When the flag went down and racing got underway there wasn’t the usual manic acceleration, instead all the teams seemed content to set a fast but not crazy pace, which suited me really well. When the route started climbing the pace was pushed up, but I managed to hang on until almost the 20km mark when I started drifting off. Through feed station 1 I was suffering like a dog, desperate to get back in touch. Milton had stayed close to me from the start and dropped back and we started working together. He was accelerating a little more than I was capable of but did stay with me.
A little after on a road section the front group slowed right up as several top teams took a comfort break, which allowed us to get back in the group, a great feeling. We stayed there until 30km when it turned off the road and started to climb steeply. The group of 30-35 riders split up completely with the top teams pushing the pace. I was towards the back of the split, struggling with the steeper terrain, but after a while I found a rhythm and as Milton was with me together we started to push on, passing a few teams and getting into another small group of 6-8 riders.
At 40km or so we hit feed zone 2 and I had a disaster, dropping a bottle so I had to slow up as Keith ran it back to me. It was a disaster as we went straight into a long descent and Milton was at the front screaming for me. I managed to get by most of the riders, but as we went into really tight singletrack I was stuck behind one of the Rotor team riders. To be fair he was OK downhill, but I knew I could go a little faster and as much as I screamed at him I wasn’t able to get by. The speed down was still enough to catch a few teams, although as it came out of singletrack it went straight back up a steep fire road and I lost touch. Milton was ahead and waited for me and we pushed on again together. After a another descent we passed through a small village and I knew there was a climb out, so we paced ourselves well knowing there was still a long way to go.
After a technical climb I could see Gareth and Dave from GT UK were starting to catch us up, but tried to stay relaxed and recover slightly. The next descent was another cracker, mostly loose stones with sections of double track through an olive planation and then some great rocky singletrack to finish with plenty of spectators to cheer us on. We didn’t know how we were doing at this point, only that it was better than previous days and we were mixing it up with teams higher up than us. Next came a real horrible long climb, mostly dirt track but completely in the open and it was super hot and I was having to ration my fluid to make it last to the top. I was feeling fairly good in myself and tried to push it on a little at times, but Milton was keen to conserve energy until the final stages and this was the right move.
The top couldn’t have come any sooner and I was out of fluids, so really glad of a new bottle. I took the chance to use my last gel, knowing there was a long descent and only 15km or so to the finish. I thought we might make up a place on the way down, as we could see a German team in the distance on the climb but we didn’t see them at all, so they must be improving! We weren’t quite as gung-ho either, as a mistake would have had big consequences. Reaching the road there was the 10km to go sign and 2km of that passed by really quickly on a road descent. The last 8km we could see the Cathedral where the stage finished, but before then we headed back out of town on some fast dirt roads which then slowly climbed and finally turned into some singletrack with a horrible push up a bank. From here it was road for the last 2km through the city, passing through a park and then towards the Cathedral to the finish line. Relief! We crossed the line after 4hrs 16min total time, or 4hrs of “racing” time, which was only 19 minutes off the stage winners, Hermida and Van Houts. We finished 10th on the stage and have now moved up to 13th overall, a pretty massive jump up!
Tomorrow is the final day, but it won’t be an easy one. 60km with 2150m climbing! The lesser distance might not suit me as well and the climbs look rather savage! Hopefully we can hold our position or maybe sneak another place. There are several teams very close behind us, so it will be a very tight finish.
View the route and details on Garmin Connect