Nicolas Roche: 'I ran out of space and got nudged off the cobbles'
Tuesday, July 7, Stage 4: Seraing to Cambrai (225km)
Even though I wasn't with Team Sky this time last year, I was acutely aware that today's stage - which featured some of the notorious cobbled roads of the Paris-Roubaix classic - was the one that Chris Froome had crashed out of the Tour on in 2014, even if he hadn't actually made it to the cobbles when he fell.
Today Froomey began as race leader and it was now my job to keep him safe and still in contention on those same cobbles.
Although we only had 13km of cobbles today, broken into seven sectors - as opposed to the 58km and 25 sectors in Paris-Roubaix, I have to admit I was a bit nervous at the start in Seraing.
To help us on days like this, two of our team sponsors, Jaguar and Pinarello, came together earlier in the year to design a new Pinarello Dogma K8-S bike, incorporating a new suspension system where the rear stays join the seat tube.
With 10mm of travel in the shock, it's designed to dampen the vibration of the cobbles and give you more grip, with each suspension system set to each rider's weight by twisting a dial.
While I had yet to ride one in anger, the classics squad used them with great success earlier in the year and my Welsh team-mate Geraint Thomas was relishing the prospect of using them again today.
In a repeat of the last two days, four riders went clear early this morning but their maximum lead of seven and a half minutes was cut to a minute as the battle for position ahead of the first sector of cobbles, at 105km, ate into that advantage.
Our tactic today was to sacrifice our climbers - Richie Porte, Leo Konig and Wout Poels - in the first 150km, so that we would have myself and the classics guys - Luke Rowe, Ian Stannard and 'G' - to help Chris on the last six cobbled sectors.
After charging into the first cobbles, which weren't too bad, we had a full 80km before then, and the smooth tarmac surface that followed saw a brief respite in hostilities.
As the pace eased in the peloton, other teams took the opportunity to change onto special bikes while a few of us stopped for a pee, before the sprinters' teams upped the pace again leading into the intermediate sprint in Havey after 137km.
With the sprint contested, Leo and Richie simply went back to the front as we crossed the invisible border into France. Leading into the second section of cobbles, with 46km to go, I made my way to the front on the tail-end of the guys.
As we bounced across the concrete batch loafs that passed for a roadway, Tony Martin of Etixx Quick Step squeezed over in front of me and I ran out of space, got nudged off the pavé and ended up puncturing my front wheel.
Although Tony didn't meant anything malicious by it, I think Luke had a few words with him afterwards. If I'd hit a rut or a spectator and bounced back into the middle of the bunch I would have taken the whole peloton down.
One of the good things about having the yellow jersey in your team is that the order of the cavalcade goes by your best rider's overall position, so we were first car, meaning it was only a few seconds before our mechanic slotted in a new front wheel.
On exiting the sector, I grabbed a few bottles from the team car to bring up to the guys but this proved a bit optimistic on my part.
With 6km before the next section, I thought I had plenty of time to make my way back to the front but the narrow roads and mayhem caused by the cobbles made it really difficult.
Usually when guys see you coming with a jersey stuffed with bottles or hear a rider shouting 'Service' behind them they let you past, knowing that their turn will come to do the same job for their team. Today though, nobody was giving an inch.
With the extra weight of the bottles stuffed down my jersey not helping my situation and the next sector of cobbles drawing ever closer, I ended up ditching the bottles and just about made it back up to the guys a kilometre before the juddering began again.
With 'G' and Froomey right behind me, I sprinted as hard as I could onto the cobbles but my stint on the front was short-lived as about 200m later, two Astana riders rattled past me with last year's winner Vincenzo Nibali in tow.
Nibali suddenly put the hammer down leaving Chris and 'G' to reel him in as I drifted back to the middle again. Once we got out of the sector, I used the 4km of smooth tarmac afterwards to try and move back up - again getting to 'G' and Chris just in time for the next sector, where Astana and BMC came past us on the cobbles again.
I tried to use the next 10km of tarmac to recover so that I could give 'G' and 'Yogi' Stannard who had also made his way to the front, some bit of respite in the finale and winced as Froomey had a near-miss when one of the Katusha guys nudged him into a gulley a few bike-lengths ahead of me.
I couldn't do much on the next two cobbled sectors as I was stuck in the middle of the group on the narrow roads but managed to get back up to give 'G' a bit of shelter from the wind on the 6km leading to the final sector.
Here, another attack by Nibali split the group and about 400m from the end, I found myself in the wrong end of the split in the last 10km.
Up front, 'G' did a fantastic job, keeping Chris to the front and when Martin attacked with 3.5km to go, he knew he didn't have to react.
Although Martin had begun the day just a single second off Froomey's race lead and was going to take his yellow jersey, we know that he will drift out of contention in the mountains and it was more important to keep the real GC contenders close by.
On the bus afterwards, I took my mitts off and the skin on both of my index fingers peeled off with them, although I didn't get much sympathy from 'G' when I asked the team doctor for a couple of plasters.
"For f*** sake Nico, you need a plaster after 13km of cobbles?" smiled the Welshman. "I wouldn't like to see you after Paris-Roubaix!"
Tour de France,
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