Cycling: 'We chatted about cars, women, houses and Italian culture. Like two auld ones in Moore Street'
Stage 18: Friday, 23 July -- Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux 198km
With the mountains behind us, today's flat stage was always going to be a day for the sprinters.
The battle for the green jersey is far from over and with two intermediate sprints offering points along the way and with another 35 points on offer for the stage win in Bordeaux, Norwegian champion Thor Hushovd would have his work cut out to defend a slim four-point lead in the points competition
As usual, the start of the stage was really fast, with riders attacking left, right and centre in an attempt to get into an early breakaway and, hopefully, build up enough time to stay away and win the stage.
Today the break went very early, just 12km into the 198km stage. Despite a bit of last-minute chasing, the four breakaways had two minutes and 20 seconds advantage on the peloton eight kilometres later. They were gone for the day, or at least until the sprinters wanted them back.
People often wonder how the peloton can seemingly chase a breakaway group all day and then suddenly reel them in with just a few kilometres left to end the stage with a bunch sprint. The truth is, those four guys probably knew they hadn't a chance today and all they could hope for was some publicity for their sponsors.
Although they were absolutely no threat to the overall contenders, the quartet of Matti Breschel, Daniel Oss, Jerome Pineau and Benoit Vaugrenard worried the sprinters and so never gained more than three minutes and 25 seconds as the Columbia HTC team of Mark Cavendish and the Lampre team of Alessandro Petaachi rode a steady tempo at the front of the bunch, keeping them on an invisible leash.
While the four guys up front were riding flat out to maintain their advantage, they knew they had at least three full teams, including Hushovd's Cervelo squad, chomping at the bit to reel them in.
The rule of thumb in cycling is that a breakaway needs a minute for every 10 kilometres left in the stage if they want to stay away, even more on a mountain stage. The more riders there are in the breakaway group the better; the more work they can share at the front and the harder it will be to bring them back.
The trick is, though, to leave them dangling. If you bring a group back with say, 25km to go, then you will have to chase again as others see their opportunity to counter-attack. If you leave it until the last few kilometres, however, and really turn the speed up so nobody can attack, then most guys resign themselves to a bunch sprint finish.
Today, as the four leaders soldiered on into the wind, I sat in the bunch protected by my Ag2r team. Today wasn't a day for heroics. With a 52km time trial looming on Saturday, I had to save as much energy as possible to try and hold my top 15 place overall. The rest of the GC contenders were in exactly the same position, each one hoping they could leapfrog the guy in front of them in the penultimate stage's 'race against the clock' and praying that the guy behind wouldn't overtake them in the leaderboard.
It was a pretty calm day for me. In fact it was a bit boring. As we rolled along waiting for the inevitable increase in pace towards the end of the stage, I passed the day chatting to team-mates and friends and made sure I ate and drank enough during the stage. I spoke with Christophe Le Mevel of Francaise De Jeux for a while. He lives in Italy now, like me, and we laughed and chatted about cars, women, houses and Italian culture. Like two auld ones in Moore Street.
Towards the end of the stage, it got a bit rough with a few narrow roads and roundabouts to be negotiated. As the break was inevitably caught with around four kilometres to go, I just tried to stay up front and gave Lloyd, our sprinter, a bit of a hand to move up in the last few kilometres. When the sprint started, I just watched it and crossed the line in 18th place on the stage.
Tonight, Dmitri, my roommate is a bit down. He's had problems with a bursitis on his foot since the start of the Tour and each stage has made it worse. The heat and the tightness of his racing shoes has left him in agony over the past few days and he will have an operation on it the week after the Tour. It's been a hard Tour for Dmitri, but he's been a great team-mate and we've gotten along well in our three-week stint as 'roomies'.
He will hang on now, knowing we only have two more nights to go.
On Saturday, I will be happy if I can finish in the top 30 or 40 on the stage. But I want to fight really hard for my 15th place overall. With time trial specialists Alexandre Vinokourov and Thomas Lofkvist less than two minutes behind me on the GC, I need to do a really good ride to keep my place.
My dad phoned me to ask if he could come over for the time trial. Aware that a former Tour winner's presence will draw attention to both of us, he didn't want to be putting extra pressure on me. I told him I wanted him to be there. So, on Saturday he will be following me in the Ag2r team car for the full 52km.
My dad was a great time triallist and won a very long 87km time trial from Samur to Futuroscope in 1987 on his way to winning the Tour overall. While I don't seem to have inherited that gene, I am not bad against the clock. I won the Irish national time trial championships a few years ago. But I am not up there with the top guys and need to improve.
My dad loves time trials. By coming in the team car, and following behind me, he will be able to keep a good eye on me, see where I need to improve. I hope I can hold on tomorrow. I know it will be a big challenge, but I am going into it with the attitude that I can hold on. I realise I can lose my 15th place, but like on the climb of the Tourmalet the other day, I can't be worrying about other people and I will just concentrate on myself.