Cycling: 'I was so angry I had to ask the journalist not to air the interview'
Stage 13: Saturday, July 17 -- Rodez to Revel (196km)
I had an extremely difficult start to today's stage. Once again we had a really fast start to the stage and I was struggling. Despite having two or three team-mates around me, I almost got dropped two or three times and was hanging on in the last 10 riders in the peloton.
I wasn't feeling right at all. I was just in bits. Every time I got out of the saddle it felt like someone was pulling my brakes. I was having a really hard time mentally as I didn't know if there was something wrong with my legs or my bike. Either way, there was nothing I could do. The pace was too fast to stop and change bikes.
What if it wasn't my bike? If it was my legs, then the way I was feeling, I'd never get back on, new bike or not. I had to suffer across the first two mountains of the day and eventually, after the intermediate sprint after 50kms, I got a new bike off the team car. As soon as I changed bikes, however, I started feeling a lot better and rode straight back into the bunch -- indicating that it was just a problem with the bike and not me.
The plan for me today was to stay quiet and try and save energy for the next three stages, which are very tough. But the final climb, eight kilometres from the finish, was short and sharp -- the type of climb I like. With the sprinters' teams suffering on the climb, I thought I could have a go for the stage win there. I jumped clear on the way up the climb and Carlos Barredo of Quickstep came with me. But the Spaniard spent more time looking behind him than riding.
After a lot of messing around, another little group came across, including Alexandre Vinokourov of Astana, Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse Depargne) and Damiano Cunego of Lampre. When Vinokourov went to the front, Barredo let the wheel go and once 'Vino' saw that he had a couple of metres, he put the hammer down. I tried to chase him just as we crested the climb but Sanchez and Barredo chased me down and then sat up. Everybody, apart from 'Vino', was more interested in looking around than riding to the finish. We all ended up going back to the bunch while 'Vino' soloed away from us to take the stage victory.
After the stage, I was really pissed off. When I crossed the line, I was interviewed by French TV and was so angry that I had to ask the journalist a few minutes later, when I had calmed down a little, not to air it. I wouldn't have come across very well on TV. I was angry with myself and with the other guys in the break who seemed obsessed with what was happening behind them rather than trying to go clear.
To me, when you attack five kilometres away from the finish, you don't look back. You ride flat out to the finish. It didn't work out today, but if it did work out, it would have been a great move. Maybe I should have been more patient. I am now annoyed that perhaps the energy I used to attack today will have adverse consequences on the tough mountain stage tomorrow, where we have an Hors Category mountain followed straight away by a first category climb to the finish. I can't afford to lose any time and will have to be fully focused all day.
Stage 14: Sunday, July 18 -- Revel to Aix 3 Domaines (184.5km)
Yesterday, Christophe Riblon was depressed. He came to the Tour off the back of a good performance at the Dauphine Libere stage race in France, where he finished seventh overall. A good climber, Christophe had GC ambitions when the Tour started two weeks ago but began to suffer almost straight away, losing time every day.
I have known Christophe since we were amateurs and raced against him in the amateur classics. When I turned professional with Cofidis, Christophe signed for Ag2r and has been there ever since. We get on well together because we have similar views about how the job should be done.
Like me, he gives out a lot if he thinks things aren't right. He's a great motivator and does a lot of work for the team, without thinking of himself. The other day on the Col de la Madeleine, when he knew we had dropped Rogers and Sastre, Christophe just got to the front and didn't think about himself. He wanted to get me up the road as far as possible to gain time on them. I get on really well with him, although I can't share a room with him because he stays up too late and then gets up late in the morning.
The plan for the team today was to try and get either Christophe or our other climber, John Gadret, into the break. After a lot of hard riding, Christophe got clear in a move with eight others after 25km and they built up a maximum lead of over 10 minutes on the peloton. They knew they would need all the time they could get before they hit the last two mountains. This morning I solved the mystery of my terrible start to yesterday's stage. The mechanics told me the ball bearings were gone in my rear wheel axle, and had been grinding instead of spinning freely. Although they fixed my bike overnight, I reverted to my Irish champion's bike for today's stage and felt a lot better.
I was dying with thirst on the way up the first climb, the Hors Catgory Port de Pailheres, which was 15kms long with gradients of between six and 10.5pc. But unless you're Andy Schleck, you don't even contemplate dropping back to the team car to get a bottle and riding back up to the group on a mountain that tough. Luckily enough, Marc Madiot, the team manager of Francaise De Jeux, was on the side of the road as we passed one of his riders that had been dropped from Christophe's breakaway group. I asked him for a bottle and even though we are on different teams he gave me one and I gulped it down.
A few kilometres later on the climb, Martin Elmiger sprinted up alongside me, red-faced and gasping. He handed me a fresh bottle and, with his job done for the day, promptly blew his lights and almost came to a standstill on the side of the mountain. As it's so hard to get drinks on the climb, we had a team helper on the summit, also handing out bottles to our riders. But he had taped an energy gel to the lid of the bottle and when I went to grab the gel it just exploded all over my hands, face, shoes, bike, everywhere. Not a good idea.
Christophe had dropped the rest of the breakaway group and was on his own, two minutes and 52 seconds ahead of us as we got to the bottom of the final climb. The pace of 'Vino' as we hit the slopes split the peloton almost immediately, though, and there was a good chance Christophe would be caught by Contador, Schleck or one of the other favourites before the summit.
As the group split, I found myself with the usual suspects; Basso, Kloden, Horner and a few others. John was also there and knowing that we had already dropped Evans, Wiggins and Rogers -- three top time triallists that could overtake me in the final time trial -- he set a good tempo to put some time into them. I was pleased when we also dropped Basso near the top, but then disappointed to learn that he had closed the gap to three seconds on the line.
As we approached the finish, I didn't know how Christophe had gotten on up front, whether he had stayed away or if Contador and Schleck had caught him on the final metres. I had a different fight going on. A fight to stay in the top 15 overall. In an effort to concentrate on my own climbing, I had taken my earpiece out on the final mountain. Just before the line though, I could hear his name being called by the commentator and then I looked across at the big screen and saw a replay of Christophe crossing the line with his hands in the air. I threw my fist in the air and shouted with delight. He had achieved his dream of taking a stage win at the Tour and I was so happy for him.
Setting out on this Tour, my Ag2r La Mondiale team had two objectives. One was a stage win and the other was to get me into the top 15 overall in Paris. We have achieved our first objective, thanks to a great ride by Christophe today, but it doesn't take the pressure off me. I'm 14th overall at the moment, but there's still a week to go and a lot of mountains to be climbed yet.