'Contador's attack was easy to predict but hard to follow'
Saturday March 12, Stage 6:
Nice to La Madone d'Utelle (177km)
With seven mountains en route to a summit finish on Col de la Madone, today's penultimate stage was a huge opportunity for us to try and move sixth-placed Geraint Thomas into the race lead at this Paris-Nice.
'G' had started the stage 23 seconds behind Aussie race leader Michael Matthews but with strong climbers like Richie Porte of BMC and Alberto Contador of Tinkoff-Saxo all within striking distance, we knew we had our work cut out on the toughest stage of the race.
As we rolled out of Nice this morning, we weren't too concerned when eight riders went clear as there was nobody too close to the top of the overall classification in the move. After a brief lull, Contador's team went to the front and set a steady tempo over the next climbs.
Their relentless pressure began to whittle the peloton down a little, but with our whole team still up front by the time we approached the third last climb of Cote de Levens with 30km to go, everything was going to plan.
With one rider out front and an intermediate sprint straight after the top, I was supposed to give Ben Swift a hand to take the bonus seconds on offer but Contador caught us napping by jumping clear into a corner and snatched a two second time bonus for second place in the sprint.
Our aim this morning had been to take the race by the scruff of the neck from the descent of Levens and make it as hard as possible all the way from there to the summit finish.
Here, Ian Stannard got to the front and rode so hard downhill that he did almost as much damage to a fatigued peloton as the climb itself had.
The one and a half kilometre long penultimate climb of Cote de Duranus that followed was my chance to get rid of as many riders as possible before the summit finish, so I hit the front at the bottom and rode as hard as I could.
Within a few hundred metres second placed Alexey Lutsenko had gone out the back door and was soon followed by Matthews, meaning 'G' would jump up to fourth overall if they didn't get back on.
I continued riding hard down the descent and sprinted across the bridge leading onto the 16km climb to the finish. At the bottom, Ian Boswell came around me to take over but I told him to leave me on the front for as long as I could hold the pace and save himself for later.
I gritted my teeth and rode until I began to fade with 12km to go and Boz took over, with Sergio Henao and 'G' in his wheel.
The front group disappeared out of view as I climbed but I could hear our team directeur shouting encouragement at 'G' and Sergio for a long time so I knew they were still in contention. I got a bit worried when the radio went silent near the top but as soon as I crossed the line, I heard that 'G' had dropped everyone bar Ilnur Zakarin of Katusha to finish second on the stage.
We have accomplished part one of our mission by getting 'G' into the leader's yellow jersey, with a 15 seconds advantage over Contador. Part two will be trying to keep him in it on tomorrow's final stage.
Sunday March 13, Stage 7:
Nice to Nice (136km)
How to protect Geraint's yellow jersey on a final stage that included five more mountains was the main topic of conversation at the dinner table last night.
With just 15 seconds lead over Contador and 21 seconds over our former team-mate and last year's winner, Richie Porte of BMC, we knew we needed all hands on deck if we were to win this race outright.
With the summit of the final climb, the first category Col d'Eze, coming just 16km from the finish in Nice this afternoon, we all agreed that the best scenario for us would be to have as many of us as possible around 'G' at the bottom to help him follow moves or chase attacks.
With the first 15km of today's stage on a massive dual carriageway sparking lots of attacks, we knew we couldn't chase everything early on or we'd be dead before we even reached the first climb of the day, 33km in, so we let a big group go clear just after the start.
We kept them on a short leash until we got all of the numbers of those involved and found out that Belgian Tim Willems, who was three minutes down, was the best-placed rider overall. We knew we couldn't give them too much rope, so our overnight plan was called into action.
Our two strongmen, Ian 'Yogi' Stannard and Luke Rowe, were to try and ride on the front for the first 75km to the bottom of the penultimate climb of Cote de Peille, where Swifty, Boz and myself would then relieve them of their duties.
If all went well, 'G' would still have our two climbers Mikel Nieve and Sergio Henao around him for the Col d'Eze ascent.
Yogi and Luke did a great job to keep the break within reach as we approached the Peille, where we were expecting an attack from Contador.
With two team-mates in the break, ready to drop back and pull him clear on the climb, the Spaniard's next move was predictable.
But it's one thing predicting an attack by Alberto and another thing altogether to try to follow him.
We were expecting his move to come near the top, but were on the defensive much earlier when he jumped away just 500 metres into the slope and opened a 50 second lead. Boz took up the pursuit and set a good tempo before I came around him a few kilometres later.
Living in Monaco, I train in this area maybe four times a week so I know the Peille by heart and really put the pressure on in the last kilometre, giving it one last acceleration over the top before Swifty took up the reins and I drifted down through the remnants of the bunch.
I ended up swinging off the back, trying to catch my breath for the next five minutes, before making my way back up to start riding with Swifty again on the descent.
With 30km to go we could see Contador and his team-mates just 100m or so ahead but it took us another six kilometres of eyeballs-out chasing to catch them, just as we hit the bottom of the final climb.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to see what happened next as Swifty, Boz and I got dropped when Contador attacked again at the bottom.
It would take three more attempts from Contador to shake 'G' but when he finally did and went clear with Porte, he opened a 30 second gap and it looked like our race was lost.
Sergio nursed 'G' over the climb though and with a 54-tooth chainring on the front for exactly this type of scenario, 'G' set about salvaging his Paris-Nice on the descent to the finish. The last thing I heard was that he had closed the gap to 20 seconds with 10km to go, before my radio signal died.
When Swifty, Boz and I were caught by a big group of 25 riders containing a few of Tinkoff-Saxo guys, we kept an eye on them to see if they were celebrating on the run-in.
They didn't, but we weren't sure if 'G' had caught Contador or if their radio signal was gone too, until we we crossed the line to see huge grins on the faces of the team staff.
While Contador had taken second place behind Tim Wellens on the stage, 'G' had clawed his way back to within five seconds and even allowing for the six-second time bonus Contador got for second place, took overall victory by just four seconds.
After a real team effort this week it was great to be part of 'G's first World Tour stage race win.