Monday 21 August 2017

Nicolas Roche: 'No win, but now Damiano is back in the top 10'

Tour de France Diary: Team missed out on best shot at a stage victory on Tour, but on-song Caruso made progress

Quick-Step’s Daniel Martin, AG2R duo Romain Bardet and Alexis Vuillermoz, Astana’s Fabio Aru and Trek-Segafredo’s Alberto Contador set the pace in the yellow jersey group on Stage 15 of the Tour de France. Photo: Reuters
Quick-Step’s Daniel Martin, AG2R duo Romain Bardet and Alexis Vuillermoz, Astana’s Fabio Aru and Trek-Segafredo’s Alberto Contador set the pace in the yellow jersey group on Stage 15 of the Tour de France. Photo: Reuters

Nicolas Roche

Saturday July 15, Stage 14: Blagnac to Rodez (181km)

Two years ago when the Tour de France finished here in Rodez, my BMC team-mate Greg Van Avermaet took the stage victory.

It was the first big win of his career and set him on a path that would see him crowned Olympic road race champion in Rio a year later.

Ever since this year's Tour route came out, today's stage - which finished on the same ultra-steep 600m long hill as two years ago, has been earmarked for him and at dinner last night the discussion began about the best way to help him win today.

Would we send riders up the road and make other teams ride? Would we ride at the front and control the peloton and who did we think we had to watch out for?

Sprinter

It wasn't a proper team briefing, more a chat among ourselves, but Greg felt he could win and that the only one who might be able to beat him would be Aussie sprinter Michael Matthews of Sunweb.

Second overall in the points classification, Matthews has looked strong the past week and has even spent some time in the break on mountain stages in an effort to pick up extra points and close the gap to Marcel Kittel in the green jersey.

Of course, Sunweb also knew they had a chance of winning the stage, so it was no coincidence that both teams lined up near the front of the peloton at the start this morning.

After an 11km-long neutralised section to get out of town, myself and Stefan joined some of the Sunweb guys in trying to bring back any of the big moves that went clear, before allowing a quartet of Thomas Voeckler (Direct Energie), Maxime Bouet (Fortuneo-Oscaro), Timo Roosen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) open a gap after about 5km.

A strong headwind made it easier to control as nobody seemed willing to attack so, when they got a minute, some of the peloton, including the yellow jersey, stopped for a pee. As we were pulled in at the side of the road, a Katusha rider, Reto Hollenstein, attacked.

Usually when a second attack comes it means it's going to be non-stop for a long time, but luckily there was no big reaction and he was just allowed to ride away.

With some strong guys up front we knew we couldn't afford to let them open more than a few minutes, but we didn't want to sacrifice the whole team and arrive at the bottom of the last climb with nobody to help Greg, so we put Amael Moinard and Danilo Wyss up front with a couple of Sunweb guys for the first half of the stage.

With flatlanders Mickey Schar and Stefan Kung held back to get Greg into position for the final kilometres, myself and 'Demma' started to ride with Laurens ten Dam of Sunweb from 40km to go on the last categorised climb.

With the gap coming down all the time, we just rode as hard as we could, dropping some of the sprinters on the climb before Tony Martin of Katusha jumped clear with 15km to go and we went out the back door, eventually finishing in a little group six minutes down.

Up ahead, Mickey and Stefan got Greg to the front of the race in the final 5km and he held his position perfectly to come around former world champion Philippe Gilbert in the last 200m. Unfortuately, Matthews then came around Greg in the last 50m and snatched the victory from him.

I couldn't hear anything in my radio, but when I got to the bus I saw Greg on the rollers, so I knew we hadn't won.

Having looked at the video now, I think we did a good job. You can look at it any way you like, but sometimes you just have to be happy with second.

The team rode well, Greg rode well, but Matthews was just faster in the final hundred metres or so, which is a shame because I think today was the best chance we had of winning a stage on this Tour.

Sunday July 16, Stage 15: Laissac Severac L'Eglise to Le Puy En Valey (189km)

With two first category climbs at either end of today's stage and a rest day tomorrow, everyone expected a breakaway to stay away to the finish today. For my BMC team it was important to have riders in the move and today we had a couple of options.

Myself, 'Demma" and Amael were to follow big moves at the start and try and get up the road, while we also knew that if could get our best placed rider, Damiano Caruso, who began the day in 14th place overall, into the break it might take enough time out of the peloton to move him into the top 10.

As it happened, Damiano went clear after a couple of kilometres this morning with mountains leader Warren Barguil and eight others.

When Sky got to the front and began to set a steady tempo at the head of the peloton, I got the feeling they were happy to let them disappear up the road and was a bit disappointed at having missed the move again.

A minute or two later, though, one of the UAE riders dived into a junction and almost took the front half of the bunch out when he miscalculated the turn. That seemed to spark the race back into life again and by the time we hit a short descent leading into the first category Monte des Naves d'Aubrac after 19km, the field had split into three under the pressure.

As we started to climb the 10km long mountain, I was just rejoining the front portion when I saw a big chase group dangling a few seconds clear so I used my momentum to jump up the road after them.

Dutch rider Bauke Mollema was at the front of the group setting a hard pace and soon I was struggling to hang on to the wheels. I looked back over my shoulder about 2km from the summit to see Sky leading the peloton about half a minute back and wasn't convinced we would stay away.

Drags

Instead of a descent at the top, the road just turned into a French version of the Sally Gap with wide open drags and twists and turns, after about 10km of which we hit another 3km climb. Up ahead of me in the group, Amael and Demma had also made the move.

"How are you doing Nico?" asked Amael when he saw me.

"I could do with a bit of a descent!" I answered.

I didn't get my wish until 55km into the race, but even though we were a minute and a half ahead of the peloton by then, we were still a minute behind Damiano and his lead group, which had been reduced to just four riders.

Initially, myself, Amael and Demma were told not to contribute to the chase but after that it made more sense to ride together to get across and have four riders at the front of the race.

We took a few turns and after 63km we got across the gap, making it 28 riders out front, with the bunch around three minutes back.

With the gap then stretching to over eight minutes, our plan to get Damiano into the top 10 was working, but to keep the momentum up we would have to sacrifice somebody sooner or later.

The group fractured a bit when Tony Martin of Katusha was first to attack before the next big mountain around 148km into proceedings.

Martin put a minute into 25 of us, all swapping over on the front, before Demma and Amael set a hard tempo to see him eventually reeled in on the lower slopes of the first category Col de Peyra Taillade.

When Barguil and Belgian climber Serge Pauwels jumped away halfway up I went to the front and tried to keep the pace steady behind them, but an attack by FDJ's Thibaut Pinot saw me dropped and I didn't get back on until 22km to go. By that time Mollenma had attacked and was 45 seconds clear on his own and when Barguil, Roglic, Gallopin and Pauwels counter-attacked on the fourth category Cote de Saint Vidal with just 10km left, Damiano and I were left in no-man's land.

I took sixth on the stage, but like yesterday, there was no victory, no cigar. Having started the day 11:26 behind race leader Chris Froome though, Damiano had gained 5:21 by the time the overall contenders group crossed the line and made it back into the top 10.

Irish Independent

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