Nicolas Roche: It was incredible to cross the line arm-in-arm with the winner Chris Froome
Published 27/07/2015 | 02:30
Saturday, July 25, Stage 20: Modane Valfrejus to Alpe d'Huez (110.5km)
Although we only had 110km to cover today, 46 of those kilometres were uphill and after going a bit too deep at the start of yesterday's stage and paying for it afterwards, I was a bit worried about my form this morning.
Everyone knew that today was the last real chance for Nairo Quintana to overcome his 2' 38" deficit on Froomey (Chris Froome) and that he'd promised to do it in the Alps.
Knowing that Froomey's overall victory in this Tour depended on having the whole team to support him for as long as possible today, I was quite nervous as we rolled to the line.
Another headwind start saw four riders go clear almost immediately before a brief lull in the action after 12km saw a couple of the overall contenders agree to a quick pee stop, which I never imagined would happen on a stage like today.
Afterwards, Luke (Rowe) and Yogi (Ian Stannard) went to the front and set a tempo that saw the break hover about four minutes ahead.
There were a few more attacks from some of the guys lower down in the top 20 afterwards but a sign at the bottom of the Col de la Croix de Fer warned us that we still had 29km to go to the summit so we tried to keep the pace steady rather than reacting to everything that moved.
After about 10km of climbing, the Ag2r team of King of the Mountains Romain Bardet took up the chase.
Having begun the day with a three-point lead over Froomey in that classification, Bardet needed to take as many points at the top of Croix de Fer as he could if he wanted to bring the jersey home.
Ag2r rode really well to bring back the second wave of attacks before one of Quintana's Movistar men put the hammer down 7km from the top.
If Quintana had been on his wheel it would have been a different story but as he was on his own and setting way too fast a tempo, I told the guys to just let the wheel go and continue to ride at our own pace.
If he wanted to ride flat out, let him. It wasn't going to affect us once Quintana or third-placed Alejandro Valverde wasn't with him.
Realising his effort wasn't having the desired effect, he dropped back a few hundred metres later.
Richie (Porte) was at the front when an attack by Valverde 4km from the top reduced the peloton to about a dozen riders and knowing that Richie would be needed on Alpe d'Huez, I got to the front.
In my earpiece I heard that G (Geraint Thomas) and Wout (Poels) were five or 10 seconds off the back of our group, so I slowed down a little to let them back up and just set a decent tempo after that, with Valverde hovering ahead of us.
Quintana attacked about 2km later and knowing that I mightn't be around on Alpe d'Huez, I tried to close the gap as much as I could before Richie took over when I was dropped in the last kilometre or so.
With Quintana joining up with team-mate Valverde up front, only Vincenzo Nibali was left with Froomey at the top. Sensing the danger, Froomey closed the gap and when the top four in this year's Tour merged on the descent, they eased up. allowing myself, G and Wout to regain contact.
Wout and G went straight up to support Froomey while I went back to the car for bottles and gels for everyone before joining them.
On the climb, I thought G might be having a bad day but he was phenomenal and rode most of the descent and all of the 15km in the valley leading to Alpe d'Huez.
I still had a spare bottle at the bottom of the Alpe so I gave it to Froomey to save him having to try and grab one on the way up.
Jonathan Castroviejo of Movistar sprinted into the climb, with his team leader Quintana attacking again about 2km in as I blew up and began to drift back.
I found myself with two or three riders and tried to hold on for a couple of kilometres just in case there was a stall and I could get back up and ride for Froomey, even if it was only for a few hundred metres.
That stall never came and I was dropped on the legendary 21 hairpin ascent, but I still had to get up the bloody thing.
I rode at my own pace, counting down the hairpins until I got to number 10, Irish Corner, where the round of applause and cheers from the familiar faces saw me float past.
Going through Dutch Corner a couple of kilometres later, a group of spectators wearing yellow T-shirts with 'Wout Poels Fan Club' written on them gave me another big cheer and a mini can of Coke, which was much needed at the time.
Dan Martin's dad, my uncle Neil, was also on the side of the road and another big wave and a cheer took my mind off the climb again.
With the radio in my ear as I climbed I could hear that Froomey was losing time on Quintana up ahead but that Wout and Richie were doing a great job to pace him and he was holding the Colombian at a safe distance.
G caught me with 3km to go and when I saw him coming back fast I tried to give him a hand and upped the pace for a bit before he accelerated again and dropped me.
I finished as best I could and having crossed the line to find out that Froomey had only lost a minute and a half to Quintana and retained his overall lead, G and I gave each other a hug of celebration before donning our jackets and riding back down to the hotel a kilometre away where we were congratulated by the rest of the team staff.
Froomey now leads by a minute and 12 seconds and hopefully tomorrow's final stage will see him crowned winner of this year's Tour de France.
Sunday, July 26, Stage 21: Sèvres to Paris Champs-Élysées (109.5km)
After a pizza and tiramasu to celebrate last night, we were on a 9.0 flight to Paris this morning for the final stage.
On the bus before the start, we were delighted to be given a new team kit in honour of Froomey's impending victory.
With the usual blue stripe on our jerseys and shorts changed to yellow, we got helmets and glasses to match and although rain saw us we begin with our rain jackets on, we were so proud of the new kit that we all agreed to take the jackets off on the Champs-élysées, even if it was snowing.
Having watched the amount of crashes in the women's race on TV earlier we'd seen how dangerous the circuit was and were quite nervous coming into Paris but the race organisers' decision that the finishing time would be taken at the beginning of the first lap took the pressure off a bit.
I've said before that one of my ambitions was to ride down the Champs-élysées with the yellow jersey on my wheel and today that dream became a reality, with the whole team lined out in front of Chris as we rode onto the circuit.
An extremely slippery first few laps saw us set a steady pace before the wind dried the roads off and the racing really began.
A bag caught in his wheel with 10km to go saw Chris need a new bike so we all waited to pace him back up but we still had the luxury of easing up in the last kilometre and savouring the victory together.
Those last 500m, riding to the line with our arms around each other as a team, was a really incredible feeling.
The second we crossed the line though, everyone just jumped on Froomey so we didn't have much time to celebrate.
This Tour has probably been the toughest of the seven I've done so it's a great feeling to have secured our goal of overall victory.
Looking back, our strategy of making the most of the first week, where there were a lot of cobbles, crosswinds and dangerous classic style stages, was a good one.
In other years you could maybe try to sit in the wheels behind in an effort to arrive fresh into the mountains but this year we took no risks and stayed up front for the whole opening fortnight.
Even though it was very stressful and cost a lot of energy, it was the right thing to do and while Quintana was the fastest climber in this Tour, we'd already gained time on him in that opening week.
The words used most frequently in our pre-stage team meetings here have been 'sharing the workload' and that's what characterised this Tour for me.
Having our climbers, Richie and Leo (Konig), ride on the front for 180km before the cobbles might seem a funny tactic if you think about it, but it worked. We stuck together at all times, took care of each other, and I think that was one of the key elements of this Tour victory.
Chris hasn't arrived back at the bus yet so we're all waiting in our suits with a glass of champagne for him.
We will have a celebration dinner together tonight with our sponsors before flying to Sky headquarters in London tomorrow morning.
I then have a criterium in Belgium tomorrow evening and will finally get home for a few days before riding the San Sebastian classic on Sunday.
I hope to see some of you in Ireland after that, when I take part in the Meath Summer Classic in Dunshaughlin on August 8.