Excerpt from 27 Stages
Stage Five (230 km - Sagunto - Reus, Spain)
Rom was fighting to get me to the head of the pack, in the throes of the final kilometres on the broken-heart-shaped perimeter road around Reus. Attilio did the same for Brunn, growing more aggressive as the stretch of roadway straightened out in front of us and the peloton surged forward as a whole.
There was some confusion at the long oval roundabout, and a few riders in the back of the peloton went down. More footage for the fans of crashes, then. After some tight curves, the road rounded gently to the left and we continued jostling for position, trying to reassure ourselves of maintaining our standings. It was unlikely that Schlessinger would try anything today – strategically speaking, the climb into Andorra was his best bet for a Royal finish – so it was all a matter of maintaining the status quo.
Rom, doggedly forging ahead of me to open a slot in the pack so we could advance, threw me a look somewhere between amusement and agony. Tomorrow he'd be happy – the mountain stage would be brutal for some of us but he'd be on his preferred turf – though he was suffering now. He never coped well with the monotony of flat stages.
Brunn and I were riding at speed amongst the peloton, but the group containing the sprinters was well ahead of us, gunning for the finish at the end of this flat stage. From Valencia to Torreblanca, Alvaro had sparred with Teodoro, promising his own victory to even the score with his brother. Teodoro had instead assured us all of his own imminent victory, going so far as to predict a one-second gap at the finish.
Braggadocio, all of it – but the good-natured teasing between the brothers was enough to entertain the rest of us for the length of the stage.
A burst of shrieking and screaming across the team's radio frequency was difficult to comprehend. Either Jerzy had slipped over the edge into insanity, or somewhere closer to the line, one or more of my teammates had made a tactical mistake.
Brunn glanced at me, his expression inscrutable, save for a flicker of concern in his eyes before he turned back to the matter at hand.
Listening to the invective spewing over the airwaves, I had the feeling things weren't exactly going according to plan at the finish.
We pressed forward, the final roundabout looming ahead when Attilio gave a shout and bumped shoulders with another rider who was riding too close as the curve tightened.
Rom broke through the last few cyclists blocking us and I followed close on his wheel, the two of us making our way up to the head of the pack to lead the group through the roundabout and down the short final stretch.
We breezed our way down Avinguda de Sant Jordi, avoiding the concrete lip of the island separating the lanes of the road, but other riders weren't so lucky, judging from the shouts of the crowd and the skree of titanium on pavement which followed the final turn.
Rom fell back behind me in short order and Brunn was soon at my shoulder, a slight grin on his face the only indication that he was pleased with how things had gone. As far as I could tell, there wasn't even a hint of curiosity regarding Jerzy's previous rant, not one iota of concern for Alvaro or Teodoro or for how they'd fared.
We'd find out soon enough.
In the meantime, for the riders who'd remained upright, it was a brisk finish. A few of the other riders picked themselves up and finished the stage with no problem. Only a handful of riders were unable to ride across the line, mostly from mechanical difficulties.
As for me, a strong sense of relief took hold once I was solidly across the finish line. The Royal was still mine, and I'd wear it into Andorra, regardless of whether I'd keep it once we got there.
As I made my way back to the team area to get ready for the presentation ceremony, the source of Jerzy's dismay was made clear. Alvaro and Teodoro had gone very, very wrong and lost the sprint – which, by all estimations, had been theirs to take.
To my amazement, Jerzy hadn't quite exploded yet. We were, however, fifty miles outside Barcelona, and it looked like it was going to be a very, very long ride.