Cycling: 'Sheep ran across the road. For a minute I thought I was on the Sally Gap'
Thursday, July 22 -- Stage 17
Pau to Col Du Tourmalet (174km)
With three seriously tough climbs on today's stage and a mountain top finish on the highest peak of the Tour, the Col Du Tourmalet, this was D-Day for anybody who wanted to move up the general classification, me included.
It was going to be a long, hard day for everyone and the rain that greeted us at the start in Pau was just going to make it harder.
Going over the top of the first category Col Du Marie Blanc after 56km, I pulled my rain jacket out of my back pocket and with it the small race radio that connects to my earpiece for instructions from the team car. For some reason, the radio pocket in the inside of our shorts this year is in the middle rather than to one side. The few times I kept the radio in my shorts pocket, the constant rubbing and chafing of the plastic on my spine left me with a sore back, so lately I have been keeping it in my back pocket -- old school. Now though, it's lying in bits on the side of a mountain somewhere. I think they cost a grand each.
After I pulled on my rain cape to protect me from wind chill on the way down, I almost got dropped on the descent. I don't know if it was because I wasn't concentrating properly or if I was already thinking about the Tourmalet. Maybe it's because I was the only rider on my Ag2r La Mondiale team using tubular tyres today. All of the other guys went with clinchers as they have a lot more grip in the wet.
Me, I made my decision based on weight rather than safety. The wheels we use with the tubes are a lot lighter than the clincher wheels. I knew I had to get up the Tourmalet as well as possible if I wanted to move up the GC. So, I took the risk and chose the lighter wheels.
I started at the front of the peloton, but at the bottom of the meandering descent found myself among the last 15 riders. The bunch split shortly after that and I found myself at the wrong end of the split. Even though he was feeling terrible today, I had to ask Dmitri to help me get back on. I felt sorry for having to ask him, because he had been feeling bad all day and his legs were almost gone. He went to the front, though, and rode as hard as he could until we made contact. I apologised for making him suffer any more than he already had and Dmitri drifted to the back to suffer in silence.
The next climb, the 25km long first category Col Du Soulor, was ridden at a steady tempo and I was feeling good. As we began to rise above the cloud line and into the mist, a handful of sheep ran across the middle of the peloton. For a minute, I thought I was on the Sally Gap. Going across the top of the Soulor a team masseur handed me a musette with two bottles of warm tea and a plastic bag in it. I had handed my rain cape back to the team car on the way up, so I shoved the plastic bag up my jersey to ward off the cold and sipped the tea on the way down. With the mist, I couldn't see 10 yards in front of me on the way down and in a few kilometres I was freezing, but at least the climb had thinned out the bunch so the descent was safer.
Once you get rid of the kamikaze sprinters on the way up, the descents are usually safer. The sprinters are normally better bike handlers than the climbers and have no fear. They throw themselves up the inside and outside of the bunch going into corners and it's chaos. The climbers don't take risks. You just follow the guy in front of you so even though we were doing almost 100kph on the straights it was a lot safer.
In the valley after the Soulor, Martin Elmiger handed me a sleeveless jacket and I pulled it on as Saxo Bank began to string the bunch into one long line in an effort to shed as many riders as possible before the Tourmalet. Although the Tourmalet itself is only 18km long, the roads leading to it are all uphill, so we were climbing for over 30km.
Cancellara, Sorenson and Fuglsang all burned themselves out in the first few kilometres of the mountain, but had succeeded on their team leader Andy Schleck's quest to leave yellow jersey Alberto Contador with no team-mates. I was climbing well and as the group whittled down to around 15 riders, I was still hanging on. When Schleck attacked with 9.5km to go though, the increase in pace saw me drift off the back.
I kept focused, concentrated on my breathing and rode at my own pace. Ryder Hesjedal came by me, but he was going too fast. Then Roman Kreuziger of Liquigas came past and I hopped on his wheel. His tempo took me back to the group ahead and I stayed there with Menchov, Sanchez, Gesink, Hesjedal, Rodriguez, Van den Broeck and Horner until five kilometres to go.
This is when Gesink started to accelerate. He was going fast, slow, fast, slow and I began to crack. I prefer a steady rhythm on a climb and soon Gesink's slow was even too fast for me and I lost contact. I rode on my own for a kilometre and a half before Damiano Cunego of Lampre caught me. I stayed with him until he increased the pace again a kilometre from the summit. I fought my bike, pulling the bars in an effort to get to the top. I changed from a 39x23 gear ratio to my 'granny' gear of 39x26 to try and spin my legs, because I knew if I went for power I'd probably come to a standstill on the slopes. The last few corners were really steep and I was pulling faces when I crossed the line for 12th place on the stage, three minutes and 26 seconds behind stage winner Schleck.
I had taken time out of Vinokourov, Sastre and Lofkvist, though, and moved back up three places to 15th overall. For the first time in three weeks, today I'm happy. Happy to be back in the top 15, happy with my ride today and happy the mountains are over. After 50km today, I told Nocentini that I was feeling good and I was going to give it my best shot. I think it's only the second time in three weeks that I've said that. Since the Tour entered the mountains, I have been climbing in the top 20 riders. I knew that if I continued to do that, I would slowly slide down the general classification and didn't think I could get back into the top 15 again.
Friday's stage is flat and should end in a bunch sprint and although I said previously that I would try and do something in the sprints in the final week, I don't think it would be fair on Lloyd to take over his role as team sprinter. Lloyd took fourth on a stage the other day and has done fantastic work for me the past three weeks. I came here with my role and he came with his. If I get the chance to help him in the final kilometres on Friday I will do all I can, but other than that I will be saving myself for the time trial the next day.
I'm back in the top 15, but it's going to be very tough to stay there with the final time trial coming on Saturday. Vino and Lofkvist are time-trial specialists and I know two minutes on Vino and two and a half on Lofkvist in a 52km time trial is not a lot, but I will fight to hold my place.