Monday 24 July 2017

Nicolas Roche: I was thinking 'what the hell are Astana at?'

Monday June 5, Stage 2: Saint Chamond to Arlanc (171km)

Kazakhstan's Alexey Lutsenko rides in a breakaway during the 171 km second stage of the 69th edition of the Criterium du Dauphine. Photo: Getty Images
Kazakhstan's Alexey Lutsenko rides in a breakaway during the 171 km second stage of the 69th edition of the Criterium du Dauphine. Photo: Getty Images

Nicolas Roche

When I first turned professional, you'd arrive into your hotel after a stage to find a team sheet stuck on the notice board in the lobby with your room number on it. Then you'd be handed a piece of paper with the times for dinner, breakfast, suitcase collection and departure for the stage start the next morning.

Nowadays we're a bit more eco-friendly and all of this is sent to your phone through a WhatsApp group.

Everyone on the team for the race is included in the group and as well as making sure you know what's going on, it makes it much easier for the mechanics to ask us about any changes in equipment or changes in the tyre pressure for the following day.

As this week's Dauphine clashes with the French Open in tennis, the stages here have been run off early to allow live coverage of both the race and Roland Garros in France, so this morning I rocked up to breakfast at 7.30am.

"Up early Nico?" asked one of the mechanics.

"Yeah, as usual."

"You going to have two breakfasts?"

"No. Just one"

As I get up at around 6.45am at home, I'm normally one of the first down to breakfast on every race day, but when I was still alone at the table at eight o'clock, I realised something was wrong.

Back in my room I found out that I'd read the wrong WhatsApp message and instead of having breakfast at 8am and leaving at 8.45am, we were having breakfast at 9am and leaving at 10am, which meant an extra hour or so of lying on my bed catching up on the news.

With a bunch sprint finish expected today, there was little reaction when a four-man group went clear on the 5km long hill that opened the stage. However, with a strong tailwind behind them, the Lotto Soudal team of race leader Thomas De Gendt were wary of giving the quartet too much leeway and didn't wait long before they took up the chase.

With around 65km gone and the second category climb of Col de Verrieres en Forez in the distance, Amael Moinard and I stopped with our team leader Richie Porte for a pee before things got too hot to stop. On the way back through the cars, Amael grabbed two feed bags before regaining contact.

Lotto Soudal were doing a good job, keeping the four leaders at around three minutes as we hit the 9km climb, which was followed by a two kilometre plateau and then the 6km Col de Baracuchet.

At the bottom, though, Astana suddenly lit it up at the front and the speed increased dramatically.

With no sprinters on their team and around 100km still left in the stage, I was wondering what the hell they were at, but when they brought the break back to within touching distance, their Kazakh rider Alexey Lutsenko jumped across the gap and they sat up and let the gap grow again.

In fairness, their plan nearly worked because Lutsenko was the last man to survive today, only getting caught as the sprinters' teams surged to the front with 3km to go.

The final 5km was on a big, straight main road which, ironically, made things a bit hectic as there was plenty of room for people to try and ride around each other and get to the front.

My BMC team-mates and I tried to stay in the top 30 or so to avoid the crashes - two of which happened at the back of the peloton in the last 20km - and also to avoid any time splits that might occur in the sprint finale.

It's so hard to gain 10 seconds on a mountain or in a time trial, but it's very easy to lose them in a bunch sprint if you're not near the front.

Because the margin in most races is so tight, the overall contenders have to be at the front on every stage nowadays and have to take the risks to be there on a sprint stage, which can lead to unnecessary crashes.

Thankfully, today we avoided both crashes and time splits.

Arnaud Demare of FDJ took the stage as De Gendt held on to his yellow jersey and Richie remained one spot ahead of me in 27th overall, just 1'09" off the lead.

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