Nicolas Roche: 'Hautacam is tough but Irish fans gave me great support'
Thursday, July 24, Stage 18: Pau to Hautacam (145.5km)
With a two-and-a-half-hour transfer after yesterday's stage it was pretty late by the time we got to our hotel last night and we didn't have dinner until 10.30.
With the team having won three stages now and my Polish team-mate Rafal Majka managing to hold onto his polka-dot jersey of mountains leader for another day at least, there was a bit of a celebration at the dinner table.
One of the things I love about somebody winning on this team is that we get dessert. While we didn't get a chocolate brownie last night we got an equally good slice of home-made cheesecake instead.
Team manager Bjarne Riis, owner Oleg Tinkoff and double stage winner Rafal Majka all gave speeches about how proud they were of our efforts.
I don't know whether the glass of champagne – and a beer – with dinner had anything to do with it, but it was a bit emotional at the table.
It was nice though, because that's what we all do this sport for, those emotions. We've ridden together for three weeks and when one of us wins, we all win.
While most riders go straight to bed after dinner, we've a bit of a tradition going at Tinkoff-Saxo where us riders go outside to the kitchen truck for a decaf and a bit of chat on our own.
It's nice to have that extra 15 minutes together and have a chat and I think it's one of the little things that bonds us together as a team.
As we were parked beside the NetApp Endura truck last night, their cook came over and, thinking that we were staff, asked us if we were full-time or just working on the Tour. We strung her along for a while before telling her we were actually riding the race.
This morning saw all three teams at our hotel undergo some more anti- doping controls at around 8.30.
With three riders chosen from each team, usually the GC guys and climbers at this point in the race, myself, Rafal and Michael were called in between the Lampre and Movistar riders.
It's good to see, because we've been winning stages and have been very aggressive the last few days and I like the idea of us being tested now, because it means that when the others are winning stages and riding well they also get tested.
After breakfast, we drove to the start in Pau and had our usual pre-stage meeting before the Tour's last day in the big mountains. We had two plans for today. One was to try and get somebody in the breakaway, which didn't happen, and the other one was to put all our eggs in Rafal's basket for the polka-dot jersey.
Rafal had begun the day with a 31-point advantage over race leader Vincenzo Nibali in the 'King of the Mountains' competition, but there were 75 points on offer during today's stage. We started off on a little 2km hill this morning and I could feel yesterday's efforts in my legs and the first 35 minutes or so were horrible.
Once a non-threatening 20-man breakaway group went clear in the opening kilometres, the Astana team of race leader Vincenzo Nibali took control at the front of the peloton.
With those 20 riders mopping up the points on the first three climbs, we knew everything would come down to the Hors categorie summit finish at Hautacam, where there were 50 points on offer for the winner of the stage.
As soon as Astana began to set a quicker tempo, we knew Nibali was going for the stage win.
We also knew that if the Italian did manage to win the stage, Rafal would have to finish in the top five on the stage to keep the polka-dot jersey.
Our job was to get him to the bottom of Hautacam as fresh as possible, in the hope that he could take enough points at the summit finish to win the mountains classification outright.
Today was warm again. Even though the sun wasn't out, it was 25 degrees and humid, so there was plenty of going back to the team car for bottles.
With Astana setting a quick pace on the 20km ascent of the Hors categorie Col du Tourmalet, midway through the stage, I really suffered to get over the top in the thinned out peloton.
I got it hard, but there were only about 30 riders left in the peloton after the descent. With myself, Michael and Rafal still there and the breakaway group beginning to fall apart and come back to us, I went back to the team car and got some bottles before bringing Rafal nearer the front as we approached Hautacam.
Astana did everything right today. They let the break dangle out front until the last climb where Nibali followed a move by Chris Horner of Lampre before attacking him and winning the stage solo.
Rafal managed to attack the group too and despite being caught by a three-man group near the top, finished third on the stage. With just one fourth category climb left in the Tour tomorrow, he has now wrapped up the 'King of the Mountains' competition and will keep his jersey to Paris.
I held on in the group until Horner attacked with around 10km to go. After that I rode at a steady pace and climbed to the top on my own.
Hautacam is a really tough climb but, once again, the Irish fans on the mountains gave me tremendous support today. There was a large contingent of Irish on the Tourmalet, but there was a mini Irish Corner on Hautacam about 7km from the finish with tricolours, leprechaun hats, inflatable shamrocks and green jerseys lining the road.
When I got to the top, I simply got changed into warm dry clothing and rolled back down the mountain to the team bus.
There were loads of fans walking and cycling back down and today one of them rode up alongside me.
"Nicolas! Is it harder to do a 250km stage or a 150km stage with four or five mountains?"
I replied that while they were both hard for different reasons, I thought the shorter climbing stages were a lot more exciting for the fans.
"Thanks," he said as he eased up. "I'll leave you alone now."
"Don't worry about that," I laughed. "I was alone for the last 10km on the way up!"
After a shower on the bus, we have another longish transfer to our next hotel ahead of the last few days of this Tour. We have just three stages left now; a sprinters' finale on the Champs- Elysees on Sunday, Saturday's time trial and tomorrow's mainly flat 208km stage to Bergerac.
Although it looks like being a day for the sprinters, I'm not quite sure. It could be a last opportunity for a breakaway to stay clear.
Nibali now has a seven-minute cushion to second-placed Frenchman Thibot Pinot of Francaise de Jeux and the GC contenders may be happy enough to save their legs for the time trial the following day.
Whether the stage comes down to a bunch sprint or a breakaway, all depends on how well the sprinters have come out of the mountains, and whether or not their teams are prepared to chase all day to get them to the line. I guess we'll soon find out.
TOUR DE FRANCE, LIVE, TG4,/EUROSPORT/ITV4, 1.10