Nicolas Roche: 'It was so steep, some guys came to a standstill'
Friday March 11, Stage 5 - Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Salon-de-Provence (198km)
Published 12/03/2016 | 02:30
When eight riders jumped up the road straight after the flag dropped this morning, there was little reaction from the rest of the peloton.
Even when their advantage had gone out to 11-and-a-half minutes 25km later there was no great urgency to organise a chase.
The main reason for this lack of urgency was the 15km first category ascent of Mont Ventoux, which loomed just 36km further down the road.
Although the sprinters' teams knew the flat 25km finale to today's stage was conducive to a mass bunch sprint finish, they also knew they had to nurse their non-climbing fast men over this beast and then three more mountains before any of them could even think about contesting the stage win.
With this in mind, we'd planned for Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard to ride on the front for the early part of the stage if necessary, but I had a bit of a chat with Luke as we rolled along and told him that I thought I'd be able to ride all the way to the Ventoux and still set a decent tempo on it, thereby saving the duo so that they could help team leader Geraint Thomas more on the fast run in to the finish.
After a lonely quarter of an hour or so on the front of the peloton, I was joined by Danish rider Michael Valgren of Tinkoff-Saxo and we shared the workload to the foot of the Ventoux after 56km.
Here, Valgren's job was taken over by his Polish team-mate Pawel Poljanski, who began to set a faster tempo until I went back to the front after a few kilometres.
Although I wanted to bring back the breakaways, who were now five minutes clear and heading into a tailwind on the descent, I was in a bit of a tricky situation on the climb.
With 127km left to race after the summit of Ventoux, I also had to find a balance and set a tempo on the climb that didn't kill my team-mates or drop too many of the sprinters in the process.
We knew that if some of the sprinters got over the climb with the peloton then, with the smell of whitewash and a stage win in their nostrils, their teams would be more likely to chase for them in the second half of the stage.
While my tempo might not have been blistering hot, it was warm enough to stave off the cold air coming from the snow banks at the side of the road until Tinkoff-Saxo accelerated near the summit and split the peloton, leaving maybe 40 of us in the front portion.
Luke was caught in the second group, about half a minute back, but surrounded by the Katusha team of Norwegian sprinter Alexander Kristoff, who led the chase, he regained contact coming into the feed zone after 100km.
Luke and Ian did a great job from there until Tinkoff-Saxo drove us up the penultimate climb, the final kilometre of which was 18pc gradient and mega hard.
It was so steep that a lot of guys at the back came to a complete standstill near the top, where only Antoine Duchesne of Direct-Energie survived out front.
The final climb was much faster but a really strong crosswind made it even difficult sitting in the wheels and a few attacks split the peloton again as Alexey Lutsenko of Astana jumped clear at the top and rode across to Duchesne on the descent.
With Kristoff dropped again and his Katusha team-mates chasing us half a minute back, we eased up, knowing that they would continue chasing to catch the break in the hope of competing for the sprint finish.
They regained contact with about 20km to go but by then Lutsenko was clear on his own with a minute lead so the pace ramped up significantly.
Having watched a video of the run-in on the team bus before the stage this morning, we knew there were two roundabouts coming up in the last few kilometres.
We'd been told the shortest route around the first one, with 3km to go, was on the right-hand side but because we were sitting on the left hand side of the Katusha train and they followed the lead motorbike, we went around it on the wrong side and lost our place at the head of the peloton as one of the Katusha guys overshot the roundabout and went straight into a hedge.
In an effort to get back to the front we came into the final roundabout a kilometre later a bit too fast and 'G' was lucky to narrowly miss making contact with a kerb.
In the end, Lutsenko was too strong for the sprinters and caught them napping to win the stage by 21 seconds from a fast finishing but frustrated Kristoff.
The stage winner also moved up to second overall, with 'G' dropping to sixth, 23 seconds behind race leader Michael Matthews.
Hopefully he can move back up on a massive day in the mountains, culminating at the top of Col de la Madone.
Paris-Nice, Eurosport 2, 3.30pm