Cycling: 'If travelling to the Tour, come and say hello -- I'll be in green, white and orange shoes'
In the days leading up to a Tour de France it's easy to envy swimmers. A pair of togs and a towel and they're ready for action. You wouldn't believe the amount of stuff I need to bring with me for a three-week bike race. It took me two hours to pack on Tuesday for my trip to Holland the following morning.
After a belated spring-clean of my apartment in Varese (the last thing you want to see after three weeks of slogging your guts out around France is a sink full of dirty dishes or a pile of laundry!) I filled my team-issue suitcase full of cycling gear for all kinds of weather.
Long and short-sleeve jerseys with short zips and full-length zips, leg and arm warmers, jackets, gloves, mitts, overshoes, rain capes and anything else you can think of were folded neatly and crammed inside. I also stuffed all of my Ag2r T-shirts, shorts, tracksuits and other casual clothing -- the stuff we wear at meals and all other times during the Tour, into another big bag that I would have to bring to the Grand Depart in Rotterdam. That's not counting another bag of spare items and my 'rain bag' that I already had waiting in Holland with my bikes.
Unfortunately for me, one thing I had to leave at home this year was the white and green shamrock jersey of Irish national champion. I lost the title to Matt Brammeier of the An Post/ M Donnelly team in Sligo last Sunday and I'm really disappointed that I won't be able to wear it at the Tour again. Although Matt beat me fair and square, and I'm not going to whinge about it, I think everybody saw I was a bit grumpy after the finish last Sunday.
A few years ago, a silver medal at the nationals would have been something great. But after having the national champion's jersey last year, it will be a comedown to have to revert to the usual team kit for the Tour -- especially those ugly brown Ag2r shorts.
Last year, it was so easy to pick me out in the bunch, for commentators and for fans. So many people recognised me and came up to me and told me I was doing a good job. It wasn't just that I was wearing the jersey of Irish champion. I felt that I was an ambassador for Irish cycling, flying the flag in the top races. I'm going to miss it.
As a small compensation, shoe manufacturer Specialized gave me a new set of shoes for the Tour when I arrived in Rotterdam. Mainly white, they have my name and a big Irish tricolour along the side and should be easy to spot in the peloton. Years ago, you wouldn't change your shoes a few days before a major race like the Tour for fear of injury, but nowadays it's a lot easier. I change mine about five or six times a season and the ones I have at the moment are almost worn out anyway.
While it's always a worry changing shoes, I have my own way of getting the cleats perfectly aligned. I try to make sure they are in exactly the same spot as the old ones, to the millimetre. Then I ride the home trainer and see how it goes. I slowly play around with them, adjusting them millimetre by millimetre, and then I go out on the road for an hour and bring an Allen key with me. It takes me about two hours to get them the way I like.
The day after, I do a few sprints on them to make sure everything is okay and then, the third day, I'm all set. I also use Time cleats, which give me a bit of movement in the pedals if they're not exactly bang on.
I'm more confident going into this Tour than I was last year, although the nerves are increasing day by day. It might be only my second Tour, but a lot is expected of me this time around. In fact, I feel like I can only disappoint people from here on. This year, I have more responsibility within the team and more pressure to get results, which I like. All of the team leaders' race numbers on the Tour end in the number one. I am No 81. I have more expectations from the team, from my family, my friends and from Irish fans. But I also put a lot of pressure on myself to progress and be able to ride with the top guys now.
I think my second Tour will be very different to my first. Last year, I got into a lot of trouble with the team because I was sprinting faster than the actual team sprinter in the first week. This year, I have a different role to play. We have two good sprinters in newly-crowned Swiss champion Martin Elmiger and Frenchman Lloyd Mondory, and I will let them at it.
The first week, I will try to ride conservatively. The plan is to save as much energy as I can until we get to the high mountains where I will try to follow the top guys when the big battle begins. The Belgian cobbles and climbs on the first two road stages combined with the nervous nature of the first week of the Tour means I will have to try to stay around the front of the peloton just to keep out of danger, but don't expect to see me contesting bunch gallops at the finish of these stages.
This year, Ag2r La Mondiale have a very different team than usual. It's a lot younger and not so top heavy with climbers. Only myself, Christophe Riblon, Mondory and Rinaldo Nocentini survive from last year's Tour team. This year we only really have Riblon and John Gadret for the mountains.
David LeLay, Maxime Bouet and Dmitri Champion can aim for breakaways and stage wins -- which is also what Ag2r are looking for.
For the first time in a major Tour, the team is relying on me to challenge for the overall classification, with Nocentini -- who wore yellow for a week last year -- to back me up. Both of us are coming back from injury.
For me, the hamstring tear I suffered at the Tour of Romandie is gone, completely healed. But it doesn't stop me worrying about it. I'm always thinking 'will it be okay today? Will it hold up?'. But it's not actually bothering me, on the bike or off it. But in the back of my head, it's still niggling.
Nocentini had a great start to the 2010 season but a crash in February saw him break his leg in two places and some bones in his foot. He has bounced back and is in good form.
If I finish around 15th place overall in Paris, I will be happy. Hopefully, I will be as close as possible to 10th. I'm conscious that's going to be a very hard task, but I always like to give myself a hard target.
If I won a stage and was nowhere near that placing overall, I would probably be even happier. The complexity of the situation is that if I do manage to remain close to the overall contenders, nobody will be willing to let me slip into a breakaway group, so taking a stage win will be very difficult this year.
I know I could take it easy for a few days, lose a lot of time and be given a bit of freedom to chase stage wins, but I'm at the stage in my career where I need to know how far I can go in the challenge for the overall race.
I love the thrill and excitement of riding for general classification. People say I could be a green jersey contender if I concentrated on that but it would mean having to go for every sprint, every day and forgetting about the overall. It could be something I'd like to do in a few years, if I see that I'm not going to be a realistic overall contender. Also, I think I could challenge for the Mountains jersey in the future, if one day I decided to go for it. I may not be a super climber but I am capable of being in four or five breakaways in a week if necessary and taking points on the major climbs.
Contador, Armstrong and the Schleck brothers are the usual suspects for overall victory again this year. Outside of these, Janez Braijkovic had a fantastic Dauphine but I think he will be giving his all to Armstrong for the next three weeks. Robert Gesink had a great Tour de Suisse, and I think Tony Martin could be a surprise this year.
I rode the prologue course yesterday morning and although I'm not a specialist and won't be a major threat to the favourites, I enjoy prologues and want to finish in the top 20 in this afternoon's 8.9kms race against the clock. After that it's a matter of keeping safe and not losing too much time in the first week before the real racing begins.
If you're travelling to the Tour, come and say hello -- I'll be the one with the green, white and orange shoes!