The "queen" stage (#3) was the talk of town when we arrived in the City of David early Saturday morning. Team B-Loces had won both stages on Friday with Kervin Rooper and the squad was algo gunning for the "Metas Volantes" (Intermediate Sprints) competition, pretty big goals if you ask me, but the boys were ready and willing to inflict pain on the rest of the peloton.
The Vuelta has had very good organization and coverage (radio, newspaper and tv), and it feels like an event that will continue to grow. Signing your name every morning is pretty cool and you run into riders who are nice and stop you for a brief chat about the prior two stages and what is to come and if you are lucky, like me, a brief interview by one of the local radio stations covering the race.
Traffic however takes a little bit to get used to but the police keeps things in check. With a prompt start at 9AM we set off to cover the 98kms from David-Bagala-Caldera-Boquete. The organizers quickly got the action started by throwing the first intermediate sprint at kilometer 6, who needs a warmup.
The pack rolled together with B-Loces keeping a stronghold at the front of affairs and I was happy to once again tailgun it, chatting with riders and trying to spot my dad's car, which was #11 in the race caravan. Here's where riding as a "foreign" rider paid off and the organizers let my dad race to the front of the caravan as long as I was at the back to supply me with water and Gatorade. Everything remained status quo until we hit the small town of Gualaca and the start of the killer climb to Boquete. Since I was here back in December and did the route several times, I knew the last 36kms were uphill, gradually at first and the last 9kms were going to be difficult to say the least, but the stretch from Caldera (Oven) to the Boquete highway was my main concern since the road is bumpy and it's extremely hot, so I place myself behind the B-Loces team and waited for the fireworks to begin.
As the peloton approached one of the many feed zones (the heat is just out of this world), and everyone slowed down to take on fluids, a B-Loces rider went off the front and the rider in second place went with him. This cause a reaction from the leader's team and it wasn't a pleasant one, since their own rider set off the front with the rider that they had to keep an eye on. A furious chase took place and finally the renegade rider was caught and he got an earful from each member of the squad. The effort however zapped the energy of the team and left them pretty much outnumbered by the time we reach the Caldera Dam and at that point the attacks came, thick and fast.
Up and over the dam, the peloton was reduced to 15 riders, myself included, and the calls for "agua" were more frequent as the sun and the climb slowly kept eating at us. The Sansom team noticed that they had the numbers and up the pace a little more, finally dropping the last B-Loces domestiques and leaving their leader to fend for himself. On the approach to the Caldera Highway and the section I was fearing the most, the race leader attacked like a wounded lyon. I have witnessed attacks before but this was something else, and watching the race unfold infront of my own eyes was pretty exciting. 12 riders were able to go with the leader and I slowly crawled my way back to the front group, thanks to the encouragment of my daughters and parents who were in the "team car".
More and more "agua" calls from riders and the support cars were doing magic tricks to come up with full bottles of water as the riders struggled (counting included) up this tortous road. The leader sensing danger kicked again and I found myself off the back, but a steady tempo and some greeting of teeth got me back in the lead group a few meters later. As if it wasn't enough, the race leader kicked for a third time and this time I had to let the 10 or so group go up the road, but kept them at around 20 seconds for a few kilometers and then, we made the right turn onto Boquete's road and the last 9kms.
Death march is the best way to describe it as riders from the B and C Categories were littering the road, weaving and zig-zagging their way up. I was passed by a few A category riders, but kept a sustainable pace all the way to the top, and finished in 16th place, 6:33 behind the new leader, Alfredo Morales from team Sanson. That left me 16th overall at 7:11 behind going into the last stage on Sunday.