Wow! The stage to Alpe d'Huez did not disappoint! From the gun, the race seemed like it had been transformed from the Dauphine into the Tour de France. The speeds were incredible, as every rider was dreaming of winning on Alpe d'Huez.
We had one category 3 climb six miles into the race that blew the field apart, and before you knew it, a large group had escaped. Team Footon had missed the break and was driving the pace so hard to bring it back that the field was stretched to the limit for the next 10 miles.
When we hit the cat 2 climb that was almost 12 miles long and only 20 miles into the race, riders were everywhere. Some tried attacking, coming right back one after another to the field as teams that missed the break each time chased hard, only to reshuffle the deck time and time again. Finally no one had any energy left to chase, and three groups escaped on the climb. They were chasing each other until they finally became one large breakaway of around 20 or so riders.
Right away, Astana and RadioShack got together and started driving the pace, since there was no time for chess games if we were to have any chance of keeping the break close. On the twisty descent, the pace was incredible, and when we hit the flat section before the HC (hors categorie – or top category) climb of the Glandon, the field was still single file.
The pace eased for only a bit at the start of the Glandon, as the guys driving the pace on the front needed a little time to recover. But, at 12 miles and 7.2% grade, they weren't going to get much of a rest. With 5 or 6 miles to go to the top, Alberto put his climbers to work. I was doing almost 400 watts and at my limit, while trying to give Jani any extra draft I could by riding just a little to the side of Alberto. With the wind changing direction with each switch back, I had to change my position behind Alberto with each turn to give Jani the best draft possible.
Over the top of the climb, Astana continued setting a crazy pace on the descent. As we flew into one corner at 50 mph that was followed directly by a left hairpin turn, I hit the brakes hard. The wheels locked up on me as I hit a bunch of bumps on the road. Meanwhile, Jani was right in front me and slowing down three times faster. I went flying past him, yelling something to the effect that this might be it for me! But, somehow, I got the bike under control just in time to not go flying off the edge – not to mention saving the race organizers some money on a memorial plaque in my honor, with something like “Kids, Daddy loves you” on it!
At the bottom of the climb, Paulino returned to the front, and was once again riding all out with the Astana boys. We had only 12 miles of flat roads before we hit the legendary Alpe d'Huez. In that time, I went to the car twice for drinks, gels, snickers, and of course Cokes for Jani, Paulino, and myself. As we neared Alpe d'Huez, there was a little fighting in the bunch for positioning before we hit climb, but in all honesty, the Glandon had destroyed most of the legs so the fighting was pretty half-hearted. I did one big jump on the left side of the field, and was back on Jani's wheel for the start of the climb.
Alpe d'Huez hits hard right from the bottom and gets steeper in every turn. The heat at the bottom from the sun wasn't doing anything to make me feel any better as Astana was driving on the front with every rider they had left, trying to destroy the field and set Alberto up for the win. With only a few riders left in the group I was just about to blow up and drop off the pace. I went up to Jani and gave him my last water bottle and told him to keep it - it would be last thing I could for him until tomorrow.
After leaving the front group in the wrong direction, I latched onto AG2R's rider, Christophe Riblon, with a QuickStep rider who didn't stick around too long. I was on the limit to stay with Christophe, when the wind finally started blowing a little harder, allowing me to recover in his draft. Sanchez and few others caught us from behind, and the pace went up again.
Somewhere on the climb, in one of the switchbacks, I could see Jani up the road in front of us, holding onto Contador’s wheel as he was attacking him to try to gain some time and the win, but Jani was hanging tough. Meanwhile, Sanchez was riding on the front of our group, as close to the side of the road as possible. We were passing within inches of every RV and spectator that was on the road – his tactic for trying to drop us all. At times I had spectators jumping off the road as we came straight at them.
With just about 2 miles to go, we caught up to the young American, Tejay van Garderen, who is having an incredible Dauphine. Keep your eye on this kid for future! He had been in Contador’s group for most the climb and was just now coming off the back. He is fighting for a podium place in the Dauphine, so I opened up a space in line for him to get out of wind. From there to the finish, the road stair-stepped up to the summit. Personally, I was happy to see the last corner arrive - with Jani at the finish, and yes, still in yellow!