The Vuelta didn’t go as planned. I was still holding on to a top ten place as the race entered the final week, but it was clear that I wasn’t at my best. Because of what I’d done to prepare for the race, I kept pushing on and not throwing in the towel. It would have been unacceptable for me to have doped and failed. That wasn’t an option: mentally, I wouldn’t have been able to cope with the consequences of that.
It would mean I’d have to face the fact that it wasn’t just my prior refusal to dope that was stopping me from being the most successful rider I could be. I’d have to acknowledge that maybe there were other characteristics preventing me from achieving the success I craved. I didn’t want to know what they were.
I started the key stage, climbing the vicious Angliru, in this confused state of mind. The Angliru is in Asturias in north-west Spain and had only been raced once before. It was reputed to be perhaps the hardest climb any bike race have ever gone up, a road so steep that cars could barely make it up there. In just a few seasons, it had become the feared summit finish in the sport.
The forecast wasn’t good and before the start, ‘Chechu’ Rubiera, who was from Asturias, was telling all the teams that if it rained we should strike. The roads in the region were covered in coal dust from the local mines and could be treacherously slippery in the rain.
There were two approaches to the foot of the Angliru. One took the main valley road, which Chechu said would be quite safe; the other climbed over one mountain then dropped down the other side of the valley to the foot of the Angliru.
This was the route the Vuelta organisers had taken the previous time they had used the mountain. It had rained and there had been crashes everywhere, forcing some of the main contenders out of the race with broken bones. Instead of learning from this, the race organisation had decided, recklessly, to use the same approach. It was clear they wanted crashes and they wanted spectacle. We agreed we would call a truce to the racing if it rained. They were empty words. When it started to rain, we rode even faster.
The roads were like an ice rink. There was a series of crashes on the descent towards the Angliru and I was involved in the first of these. I got up without serious injury, although my left side had been ripped up, then on the false flat to the foot of the Angliru my wheels disappeared from under me and I went down again, this time on the right side. It was a farce. I was one of the best riders in the wet yet I had no control of what was going on. Remarkably my bike was still fine, so I straightened it up and set off again. Yet it was more dangerous than it had been all day, and we were going uphill.
Soon afterwards, I went down again, sliding along in the middle of the road on my left side. The car that was following me ran right over my bike – and I still had my feet in the pedals. Now I was furious. I dragged myself to the side of the road and just sat there with my wrecked bike, watching as bloodied riders came by. I love competition on an epic scale, but this had nothing to do with sport. We were being exploited. It was incredibly irresponsible of the organisation but they were getting what they wanted – headlines and TV ratings – at the risk of not only our health, but even our lives.
But the peloton had only itself to blame. We, the riders, let them do it to us. We were a bunch of lone-wolves, contracted mercenaries who stabbed each other in the back at every opportunity. We couldn’t even organise a piss-up in a brewery, I thought to myself as my peers struggled onwards. Then I corrected myself – actually that was probably the one thing we could do.
Eventually, my team car pulled up, with my spare bike on the roof. I got back on, but mentally I had quit the race. Bingen Fernandez, my loyal Basque teammate, finally caught up with me and tried pushing me, but I told him to forget it – we were so far behind that it was over.
It was so dark now that in the pouring rain it felt like dusk. I was covered in blood and had ripped skin off both sides of my body, coming down on my right side twice had worsened the road rash to deep cutting - somehow I'd lost a sock. I still wanted to finish the stage, even though, at the speed I was capable of, there still close to an hour of climbing ahead of me.
The last part of the Angliru is the hardest. Over the final 6km it averages 13% with some passages at 24%. Bingen didn’t leave my side and, as a Basque rider, he was massively supported. Basque fans are among the most devoted in cycling and they were desperate to help him, but every time they tried to push him he would wave them away and tell them to push me.
I was a mess: it was all I could do to keep momentum. With just a few kilometres to go, we had to weave through broken-down cars and the dark misty air stank of burned-out clutches. The fans that were up there had no doubt climbed the mountain on foot and waited all day, but were now trapped behind 2-metre-high riot barriers guarded at intervals by police.
I’d never seen this before at a bike race and I haven’t seen it since. Clearly, just to guarantee the spectacle, the organisation had wanted the bloody stragglers to suffer unaided, without any fans interfering in their bloody battle.
Not far from the finish, a fan managed to squeeze between the barriers and came running up to help me on what was one of the steepest parts. It was obvious I was in a lot of pain and although pushing me at this point in the made no difference to my race, or to the race overall, he wanted to help.
He’d barely started to push me, when a policeman came running over and slammed him against the fence crushing his neck with his forearm. I stopped – which wasn’t difficult as I was riding about 1 kilometre per hour – and went for the policeman. I couldn’t believe it was happening. It had nothing to do with cycling.
Somebody had to take a stand against the madness. I decided it had to be me. I hated everything about cycling at that moment. I blamed it for the mess I found myself in, the doping, the loneliness, the craziness, the exploitation.
So, just short of the finish line, I stopped. I leaned my bike up against the crowd barrier. Then I ripped off my race numbers off and threw them on the floor, leaving my bike where it was. It made perfect sense to me.
The irony was that everybody thought I was protesting because of the difficulty of the Angliru, when it was in fact directed at the race conditions and the irresponsibility of the race organisation. Afterwards, I needed to explain on several occasions why I had done it. My ‘strike’ started the discussion though, and proved that I had the balls to do it. Funnily, my name is always linked to the Angliru, even though I have posted possibly one of the slowest ever times for the climb.