Nicolas Roche: 'I hit the front in the crosswinds and split the bunch in two'
Monday March 7, Stage 1: Condé-sur-Vesgre to Vendome (196km)
Nicknamed the Race to the Sun, Paris-Nice is often characterised by the bad weather during its early stages before the temperature gradually rises as the week progresses and the peloton nears the south of France and the Cote d'Azur. So it was no real surprise when we were greeted by snow as we boarded the team bus for the one-hour drive to the stage start this morning.
Thankfully, the snow had eased by the time we lined up but with the temperature at a frosty 2°C, some riders were almost unrecognisable as they covered their faces with scarves to stave off the cold air.
After four riders went clear just 2km into proceedings, my team-mates Ian Boswell and Mikel Nieve took the brunt of the wind for us as we got into position just off the wheels of the Orica GreenEdge team who were defending the yellow jersey of race leader Michael Matthews at the front of the peloton.
News that it was snowing up ahead saw most of the peloton drift back to their team cars for rain jackets after about 60km but it had begun to brighten up by the time we hit the feed zone an hour later, where I took the opportunity to grab a dry pair of gloves from the car before moving back to the front.
Knowing that the unsheltered roads of today's stage would give ample opportunity to split the peloton if the wind was strong, we planned this morning to take the race by the scruff of the neck after 150km if the opportunity arose.
As we neared that point in the race, 'Boz' was designated coat hanger as the rest of us sent him back to the car with any extra layers we deemed might hinder our progress when things began to heat up at the front.
With 46km to go, I was riding alongside our Welsh classics specialist Luke Rowe when he leaned over and told me to go. I looked at him for a second.
"Go as in Go! Go! Or just move up?"
I hit the front immediately and pulled the peloton over to the right hand side of the road so that only our team could get shelter from the strong crosswind and within a couple of kilometres the bunch had split in two, with about 45 riders left in the front group.
As well as our leader for this race, Geraint Thomas, Sky was well represented with myself, Luke, Ian Stannard, Ben Swift and Sergio Henao also up front.
When Etixx-Quickstep, Tinkoff-Saxo and GreenEdge joined us at the front, we soon opened up a gap of over a minute to the second part of the peloton and were in prime position as we hit the first of four dirt road sections in the last 24km.
I was in third wheel as the surface of the first 1.3km-long section went from smooth tarmac to a rutted, muddy, chalk-like sludge and the fight for position began. The more treacherous the surface though, the more Luke and Ian enjoy it and they drilled it at the front, lining the group out and making everyone suffer.
A couple of hundred metres later though I punctured my back wheel and was out of the action.
Guessing that the race would be split up by then, my Sky squad had mechanics standing at the side of the section with spare wheels in case this happened, so I rolled my flat tyre for a few hundred metres until I reached one of them and changed my wheel just before the second part of the peloton came storming through the mire in hot pursuit.
I latched onto the back of the chasers only to get held up by a big crash and found myself in the third group on the road until the finish.
Up ahead, Geraint snatched third place and a bonus second in the intermediate sprint with 12km to go, while Swifty almost managed to pull the stage victory out of the bag.
Finding himself in second wheel with 300m to go, Swifty knew he was a bit far from the line but with a couple of bike lengths gap to the wheel behind him took a chance and went for it, only to be cruelly denied by French sprinter Arnaud Demare of FDJ, centimetres of the line.
I was a bit disappointed not to get through the dirt road sections at the front of the race but our main objective was to keep 'G' in contention overall. He moved up to fifth overall and is still just eight seconds off the yellow jersey.
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