Nicolas Roche: 'The overall feeling of happiness around the dinner table last night is what sport is really all about'
Nicolas Roche's Giro d'Italia diary
Saturday, May 31: Stage 20 - Maniago to Monte Zoncolan (167km)
After three weeks of racing, today's penultimate stage was the last real sting in the tail of what has been a very hard Giro d'Italia for everyone.
The last 70km today included three big mountains, the last of which was the legendary 10km ascent to the summit of Monte Zoncolan, a climb so steep that no cars were allowed up today in case they burned their clutches out.
Riders were serviced instead by motorbikes while our Tikoff-Saxo team soigneurs had to take the ski lift to the top.
Although we had Rafal Majka in sixth place overall going into today's stage, having team-mates around you is not much benefit once you hit the slope and we knew it would be every man for himself to the top.
Because of this, it was decided at the team meeting this morning that we would risk everything for a stage win today.
The plan was to try and get myself or Michael Rogers into an early breakaway in the hope we could survive to the finish, while the rest of the guys would support Rafal to the bottom of Zoncolan.
As luck would have it, Michael and I both infiltrated a 19-man move after 15km and went clear.
Most of the time when you get in the break, everyone is looking backwards to see what the bunch is doing.
But today was one of those breaks you really want to be in, with good strong riders in it who didn't care what was going on behind.
There was no talking, no skipping turns, no bulls******g. Everyone just rode flat out to try and open a gap.
When we got around three minutes clear we were told that Cannondale were chasing at the head of the peloton and the gap went down to two minutes and 10 seconds on the first climb so we really pushed it going down the descent, which was wet in patches from melting snow banks and poorly surfaced.
Michael's chain came off and wrapped around his cranks when he tried to bunny hop a pothole on the way down but, luckily, his back wheel kept freewheeling and he was able to pull over and get a bike change.
I stopped riding at the front of the group to make it a bit easier for Michael to regain contact but at that stage we had no idea what was happening behind us.
When Michael came back onto us we were told that Cannondale had stopped chasing and we had four-and-a-half minutes.
Going over the top of the second climb, Brent Bookwalter of BMC and Jonathon Monsalve of Nerri Sottoli attacked with 30km to go and four of us rode across to them.
I knew Michael was in top form so I drove down the descent in the hope that we would open a little gap but the break came back together in the valley before the final climb.
At the bottom of Zoncolan, Simon Geshcke of Giant Shimano took over, with team-mate Georg Priedler on his wheel and his tempo left just seven of us at the front.
When Franco Pelizotti of Androni accelerated 6km from the summit, Michael followed him with Francesco Bongiorno of Bardiani, but I was dropped. Preidler and Geschke hung a few metres up the road in front of me while Dario Cataldo of Sky overtook me soon after.
When Cataldo overtook me, I could see he was riding a smaller gear but I'm not one of those guys who can just sit down on a climb like Monte Zoncolan. I spent the next 5km getting in and out of the saddle, stretching the legs and then sitting down again until, slowly but surely, I'd passed them all again, leaving just three riders ahead of me.
On every mountain top finish you get lunatics on the roadside. Today people were drinking and shouting, running beside you with their ass out. But I don't see them anymore. I just try to watch the road.
Pelizotti had been dropped by the other two and I could see him up ahead and dug deep to try and catch him. With 3km to go though, I realised I'd pushed it too much and had used up so much energy on the steep section that he rode away again when the gradient levelled out slightly in the last 2km.
In the last kilometre, Bookwalter was really fighting to come back on to me. Both of us were absolutely on the limit and I knew defending my fourth place on the road was going to be a mental battle so I took a breather and let the American up to me with about 400m to go.
He immediately tried to drop me but I took a few deep breaths and 200 metres from the finish I attacked again and gave it everything I had.
When I crossed the line for fourth place on the stage I was completely wrecked. One of the race staff had to hold me up and roll me down the road a bit to catch my breath.
When I recovered, somebody told me Michael had just won his second stage of this Giro.
Sunday, June 1: Stage 21 - Gemona to Trieste (169km)
Last night we celebrated our Giro coming to a close with a bottle of champagne at dinner and the overall happiness of the team at the table yesterday was what sport is all about.
As usual, today's final stage to Trieste got off to a pretty pedestrian start with all of the classification leaders posing for photos and everyone chatting and enjoying the early kilometres.
The pace wound up though as we hit the finishing circuit for seven laps of 7km and we were really flying by the time we hit the last lap.
As we had a one-kilometre drag on each lap, I moved towards the front in the last kilometres on the off chance that a little group might slip clear but in the end the sprinters held on and Luka Mezgec took the stage for Giant Shimano.
Having started this Giro in the rain of Belfast three weeks ago and ridden through hail and snow since then, it was almost fitting when a few seconds later everything went dark and we had a torrential downpour for the jersey presentations.
After the line my team rode into a VIP tent for a glass of champagne with some guests from Tinkoff Bank before cycling back to the bus, getting showered and changed and saying our goodbyes over a slice of pizza.
It's been a great Giro for the team, with two stage wins and sixth overall, but for me personally, I'm a bit disappointed not to be going home with a stage win.
The low point of my three weeks was my crash in Montecassino on stage six, where I slid along the ground at 75kph and bounced over the kerb of a roundabout. While I was super lucky not to break anything, I actually scared myself there.
I knew my GC hopes were gone after that and I think mentally that day I was a bit disillusioned, but I fought hard to get into three big breakaways later on, of which two stayed away to the finish.
While I finished fourth and fifth on those two stages, my team-mate won on both days so you have to be satisfied with that.
The three days in Ireland at the start of this Giro were an unbelievable high point though and it's an experience I will never live through again, so thanks again to everyone who came out in the rain, cheered us on and welcomed the race to our shores.
Tonight, I fly home but tomorrow I'm off to Madrid for three days to unwind and relax. After that, I'll be back home and back training for the Tour de France in July.
I think having ridden this Giro will really bring me on for the Tour and I'm really looking forward to it now.