Cycling: 'It's been three weeks of suffering and stress. Now, I've had enough'
Stage 16: Tuesday July 20 -- Bagneres de Luchon to Pau (199.5km)
I was really angry and very frustrated after Sunday's stage. I had been riding well, had good legs and, with some of my rivals getting dropped on the climb of the Port de Bales, looked to be heading closer to a top-10 finish overall in this year's Tour.
Having punctured on the climb, I had asked my team-mate John Gadret to give me his front wheel. He refused, kept riding and even went on the attack as I was trying to get back on. He defied team orders to wait and help me up to the group and, as a result, I spent the rest of the stage chasing on my own, losing almost eight minutes and dropping to 17th overall.
I was so angry I had to travel in the team car to the hotel, as Gadret was on the bus and I was afraid we would come to blows. Last night we had a team de-briefing after the stage and myself and John both had a chance to explain what happened on the road earlier. I gave my piece; that I was team leader, lying 14th on the stage, with a good chance to go into the top 10 and that (a) Gadret refused to give me his wheel when I punctured; (b) he attacked the front group while I was trying to get back on and (c) he had ignored team orders to wait and help me to the group in front.
Contrary to some reports, Gadret didn't say that he hadn't got his earpiece in or didn't hear instructions over the team radio. His explanation was that he was defending his position overall. At the start of the day he was 23rd, 13 minutes and 50 seconds behind then race leader Andy Schleck and was best French rider overall, ahead of Christophe LeMevel of Francaise De Jeux. He also said he was defending the team's overall position. We began the stage fourth overall in the team category, nearly 19 minutes behind leaders Caisse Depargne and it's highly unlikely we'd catch them.
After the stage, Gadret had moved up to 20th overall. Instead of jumping up a few places, I had dropped three places to 17th and the team had lost another three minutes to Caisse Depargne. It just didn't make sense. It didn't then and it doesn't now. Gadret wasn't budging, though, and team boss Vincent Lavenu wasn't happy with the bad publicity.
Speaking to friends and family for a while on the phone calmed me down a bit, but I had to turn my phone off afterwards because journalists kept ringing me. I didn't want to talk to any of them.
This morning everybody acted like nothing had happened. For me, I decided it would be better to turn the page and forget about it. I'm not going to be going for a beer on holidays with him, but I didn't want to undo all the good work the team, including John, have done for me since this Tour started. Besides, myself and Gadret have to ride on the same team for another year, so I have to be mature about the situation and move on. I have the support of the team, but John can do his own thing.
Today we spoke normally. John gave me bottles during the stage. We even stopped for a leak together as we went over the top of the last climb, although the question of who would lead who back to the peloton never came up as he took longer than me and we made our own way back.
Today was probably the hardest mountain stage of this year's Tour. As soon as we started we had the first category climb of the Col du Peyresourde, the top coming just 11km into the 200km stage. After that we went down the far side and straight up another first category climb, the Col d'Aspin, before tackling the monster that is the Col du Tourmalet and then another Hors Category mountain, the 25km long Col d'Aubisque.
Having lost so much time yesterday, I knew the only way I was going to get it back was to get into a long breakaway and hopefully stay away until the finish. When I saw Lance Armstrong attacking on the first climb just after the start, I knew it was time to go. Lance doesn't waste energy going eight or nine times. When Lance goes, he goes once and he doesn't come back.
A group of 12 went clear, including myself, Armstrong, Bradley Wiggins of Sky and Roman Kreuziger of Liquigas. Kreuziger's team-mate Sylvester Smyd, a really strong climber, was also there and knowing we could potentially claw back 10 minutes and Kreuziger would shoot up the GC (after the starting the day 11th overall), Smyd set a ferocious pace on the front as we climbed. Soon, I was in trouble, though. My legs were burning and I couldn't keep up. Near the top, the pace was way too fast for me and I could only watch in frustration as the 11 others rode away from me.
Behind us the Astana team of yellow jersey Alberto Contador were ripping the peloton to shreds in an effort to catch the break. They soon caught me and, still suffering with the pace, I drifted to the back of what was maybe a 25-man group. A kilometre from the summit, I was in real trouble and got dropped. I had covered 11km and had 188km to go.
Our stage winner from stage 15, Christophe Riblon and Swiss champion Martin Elmiger waited for me at the top and we chased back on the descent. With such a big group up front, the favourites were not too keen on letting them go and were riding full pelt to try and catch them, with us riding full pelt to catch them.
We went down the descent and began to climb the Col d'Aspin. Ahead of us, the race was in smithereens, the eyeballs-out start to the stage saw riders getting shelled out everywhere. Christophe set a steady tempo on the mountain and slowly but surely we caught and passed individual riders. By the top, we were in the third group on the road, behind the Armstrong break and the yellow jersey group. I knew if I didn't get across the gap to the second group, I could kiss any hope I had of a top-20 finish goodbye.
Thanks to Christophe and Martin, my group made contact with the back of the yellow jersey group at the bottom of the Tourmalet, but immediately we were faced with another 18km of climbing to the highest point in the race. One of my favourite memories from last year's Tour is of leading the peloton over the Tourmalet, a legendary Tour climb, with the yellow jersey of my team-mate Nocentini behind me, followed by Contador and Armstrong.
This time around, though, I was suffering, but Irish fans, who were on every climb today with their tricolours, made the pain bearable. Thankfully the favourites seemed to have worn themselves out and having caught dangerman Kreuziger, I took it a bit easier on this climb as the break gathered momentum and built up a huge lead.
As we hit the slopes of the final mountain, we had 30km to climb before a 20km long descent and another 40km to go to the finish. The break that I had been in, was now almost 10 minutes up the road and would finish with almost seven minutes advantage.
Enough to see me jump up to seventh overall, if I had been able to hang on to them. Instead, I crossed the line in 13th place on the stage after a failed attempt to lead out Martin in the sprint from the peloton. I also dropped a place to 18th overall as Chris Horner was in the break and the American leapt up to 14th.
I'm annoyed today because the group I had been in stayed away until the finish, taking almost seven minutes out of the peloton. I'm frustrated because after tomorrow's rest day there is only one real chance to take back any time and I know I will not take back seven or eight minutes. I came here wanting to finish in the top 15, if the truth be told probably nearer to the top 10. I know that with a little luck, I could have finished higher and to me, 18th place is not good enough.
It's been a very demanding Tour, and there are riders all over the place at this stage. Now, I've had enough. It's been three weeks of suffering, tiredness and stress. I just want to get to Paris and would prefer to race tomorrow and get there a day earlier.