Sunday 25 June 2017

'Hopefully today was the storm before the calm'

Richie Porte rides in a breakaway during the 148.5km first stage of the Paris-Nice race Photo: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Richie Porte rides in a breakaway during the 148.5km first stage of the Paris-Nice race Photo: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Nicolas Roche

Sunday, March 26, Stage 1: Bois d'Arcy to Bois d'Arcy 148.5km.

The weather has been miserable since we arrived at our team hotel for the start of this Paris-Nice and when last night's weather forecast gave an orange alert for storms in the Paris region, we knew today's opening stage was going to be hard.

I was woken a bit earlier than usual this morning by a knock on the door from the anti-doping testers. Our whole team was tested around 7.30 so rather than try to go back to sleep for an hour, I went down and had an early breakfast.

It was lashing down outside but the arrival of some spanking new Irish champion's kit, complete with a new tricolour helmet and Oakley glasses, saw me go to the start well covered up and in better humour than I should have been.

On the line, I found myself alongside Philip Deignan and we chatted for a few minutes as we rolled out of town on the 8km neutralised section. My cousin Dan Martin and Sam Bennett took the tally of Irish riders to four in today's peloton but it's amazing how hard it is to get time to talk to any of them during the race.

Talk

Dan and I rode the Tour of Valencia earlier this year and never got to talk for more than a few seconds, even though we stayed in the same hotel at one point.

A rainstorm within minutes of the off saw most of the peloton drop back to the cars for waterproof gear as four riders slipped up the road and the racing began. I was surprised when they had six minutes after 40km as Sylvain Chavanel and Gatis Smukulis were part of the lead quartet and they're not the kind of guys you can give too much leeway to.

With the sprinters' teams leading the chase, the gusting wind grew stronger as the peloton approached a section that we had been warned about the night before.

A 70kph descent led us onto a section of polished cobbles that snaked through the twisting streets of a small town before spewing us out onto a wide open unsheltered section.

I took the cobbles quite gingerly as rather than the chunky stones found in the classics they felt like riding on a sheet of wet glass and I feared a big pile-up at any second.

The guys at the front evidently had no such fears as, in the minute or two it took us to get out of town, 30 guys had ridden off the front, the peloton had splintered into three and things had gone from relative calm to total pandemonium.

I panicked a bit but managed to jump across to the second group where my BMC team leader Richie Porte was trying to claw his way back to the front with team-mates Michael Schar, Danilo Wyss and Alessandro de Marchi. We began to ride flat out and started to pass some riders dropped from the front group but couldn't close the 30-second gap on our own.

Up ahead, Dan had five Quickstep team-mates alongside him - most of them burly Belgian Classics specialists used to riding in crosswinds and bad weather - driving his group along. With Andre Greipel's Lotto teammates and Arnaud De Mare's FDJ squad also keen to open a gap on any of the sprinters that had missed the move, they soon began to pull away.

Eventually, other teams came up to help us in our chase but the constant jostling for shelter from the gusting side-winds meant that Richie was being pushed all over the road behind us so I went back and sat outside him in the wind.

The gap opened to almost a minute and a half with 30km to go and both groups began to lose riders in the battle.

Here, Michael almost came a cropper when he overshot a corner but managed to jump up on the footpath and hold himself up in time to hop back down into the line again. But 10km later, his luck ran out when he tangled with Romain Bardet on an unsheltered section and hit the deck, breaking his collarbone.

Tony Martin had lit it up at the front of our group, forcing everyone to ride in the gutter behind them and there was simply nowhere to go for those behind. My legs were burning.

After the crash there were maybe 15 of us left, with the gap down to inside a minute with 13km to go. The last 10km were really undulating and when Martin accelerated again with 5km left, I was last wheel in the chase group and already grovelling in the gutter.

With nothing left in the tank, I was literally blown out the back door by the crosswinds, but Richie managed to hang in and led the group home for 16th on the stage, 57 seconds behind stage winner Arnaud De Mare.

Dan put in a great ride to finish seventh on a stage that didn't really suit him and we were lucky to limit Richie's losses to him to 39 seconds.

I don't think anybody expected today to be as hard as it was but while it wasn't the perfect scenario for us, I think Richie is still in the game.

Hopefully today was the storm before the calm.

Irish Independent

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