Nicolas Roche: I drank 15 bottles and poured water on my legs to stay cool
Friday July 17, Stage 13: Muret to Rodez (199km)
Today's undulating route saw us leave the Pyrenees and head towards the Alps, taking in three smaller climbs on the way. Billed as an easier 'transitional' stage, for me, today was the hardest day of the Tour by far.
Our team plan today was to try and control things without worrying too much if a small breakaway group got clear. Our main goal was to get race leader Froomey to the line safely and without losing time to his rivals in the overall classification.
While the stage itself was 199km long, we also had a 12km neutral section before racing began and as we rolled along I talked to other riders to see what they had in mind for the day and to have an idea of what to expect when the flag dropped.
The Lotto-Soudal team told me they weren't going to ride on the front, as the short uphill finish was too hard their big German sprinter, Andre Greipel, while a few others were still considering their options.
Out of the neutral zone, the attacks started straight away and the rolling roads made for a pretty hard opening with FDJ rider Alexandre Geniez, who grew up just 10km from the finish, keen to get away and the first one to open a gap.
Within a few minutes, the Frenchman was joined by five others and they disappeared.
The Giant-Alpecin squad then hit the front of the peloton and began the chase for their sprinter John Degenkolb, who is pretty strong in an uphill sprint.
Two more riders, Andre Grivko of Astana and Perrig Quemeneur of Europcar, attacked in an effort to get across to the six leaders but Giant-Alpecin reeled them in after a few kilometres of hard chasing and shut up shop at the front of the peloton.
The German squad's presence at the front saved us from having to do the work but while we didn't care whether the break came back or not and might have set an easier tempo, they wanted a bunch sprint finish and set a hard pace all day.
I'm usually really comfortable in the heat and even enjoy riding in temperatures of around 30 degrees but today we raced in 38 degrees, making it the hottest day of this Tour.
Richie Porte, Leo Konig, 'Yogi' Stannard and Luke Rowe all went back to the car for bottles at some point, but the pace was so fast that we also had team carers dotted along the course with drinks and it was much easier to grab a feed bag or musette from one of them than to drop back to the car and then chase a speeding peloton while carrying half a dozen extra bottles.
Because the stage was so fast there was no cooling down and I drank more than 15 bottles today and ate a lot as well, stuffing rice cakes and energy gels down me like they were going out of fashion. I even squirted a bottle onto my legs near the end to try and get my temperature down.
The lead sextet had a lot of horsepower today so despite the chase it took a long time for their four-minute lead to come down.
As we approached the third-category Cote de Saint-Cirque after 131km, we were still three minutes down on them so Tinkoff-Saxo also put men on the front and upped the pace.
With Peter Sagan leading the green jersey competition they knew that the uphill sprint was a prefect chance to gain more points on his non-climbing rivals in that classification.
After the top, we turned into a crosswind and the faster tempo split the peloton in half, with last year's winner Vincenzo Nibali finding himself in the second group due to an inopportune puncture. His team-mates dropped back for him though and he regained contact shortly after.
As I was near the front of the peloton at the top of the third and final climb, the fourth-category Cote de Selve with 30km to go, I grabbed a musette from a team carer and swung it over my shoulder before reaching in and distributing the ice cold bottles and energy gels between myself, Froomey and Leo, while Luke did the same with his bag alongside me.
As well as the three categorised climbs today, there were a lot of hard hills and drags that really hurt your legs on the way to the finish.
My role today was to stay towards the front near the finish to make sure Froomey got to the line safely so when somebody let a gap open on one of those hills, I had to do a long sprint to close it before slotting in behind the three guys who were pulling, with Froomey and Geraint Thomas on my wheel.
With 13km to go, one of the Yates twins from Orica-GreenEdge set a really difficult pace up a long drag with Wout Poels, myself, G and Froomey behind him.
We went into a right hander shortly after though and I lost the guys, finding myself second in line and hanging onto a scorching Steve Cummings from MTN Qhubeka as we closed in on the last three of the six breakaways.
I looked around for the lads but there wasn't much I could do as Cummings was absolutely flying and I had to sprint out of each corner just to stay with him.
With G and Froomey well placed in the last kilometre, and the three leaders dangled just metres ahead of us, we turned right onto the finishing hill where, with about 600m to go, my legs went bang.
As Greg van Avermaet of BMC caught the escapees and upset the sprinters to win the stage ahead of Sagan, I felt like I hit a wall and dropped it into the lowest gear, a 39x28, to haul myself to the top.
With Froomey leading home all of the GC contenders for sixth it showed just how hard the finish was.
The minute I got to the bus afterwards I grabbed something to eat and drink and hopped on the home trainer to wind down for a quarter of an hour before finally cooling down with a cold shower.
Tour de France,
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