Sunday 22 October 2017

Nicolas Roche Tour de France diary - 'I had to stick an elbow in Bardet to get through the tight gap'

World champion Peter Sagan won Stage 3 of the Tour de France ahead of Australian Michael Matthews (out of picture) and Ireland’s Dan Martin. Photo: Getty Images
World champion Peter Sagan won Stage 3 of the Tour de France ahead of Australian Michael Matthews (out of picture) and Ireland’s Dan Martin. Photo: Getty Images

Nicolas Roche

Monday, July 3, Stage 4, Verviers to Longwy (212.5km)

As it's my birthday today, the commentator at the pre-stage sign-on this morning asked me to wait for a minute on the podium after signing on so he could announce it to the crowd.

But just as he was about to make his announcement, Quick-Step's Philippe Gilbert arrived to sign in for the day.

The former Belgian and world champion is from the area and is a superstar in these parts so with the crowd going wild and the commentator's voice getting higher with excitement, I quietly slipped back to the team bus.

Although today's stage was almost certain to end in a bunch sprint, everyone knew the short but steep 2km hill at the finish only suited a few riders, so our plan this morning was to let our Olympic champion and Classics specialist Greg Van Avermaet contest the uphill sprint.

Having ridden the Tour of Luxembourg earlier in the year, Greg checked out the finish of today's stage back then and we all watched a video of the last 10km or so on the team bus this morning to give us some idea of what lay ahead.

After a lot of attacking in the first 20km or so, a six-man break went clear and it looked as if things would settle down in the peloton.

Instead, there was a lot of stop-start chasing and having let the gap grow to around three minutes, the sprint teams brought it down to 45 seconds with 60km left, where three more riders jumped across and gave the leaders added impetus, making for a harder chase again.

With 40km to go, and the leaders around a minute and a half up, my team-mates and I began to move a little nearer to the front of the peloton.

With Trek-Segafredo doing most of the driving, the last of the escapees was caught just after the penultimate climb of the day, with 10km to go.

Here, we tried to carry out our plan, which was that the guys would lead us into the bottom of the climb where Damiano Caruso would stay with Richie Porte while I tried to lead out Greg for the finish.

Despite having spent most of the day riding out in the wind in an effort to shelter Richie, Alessandro De Marchi hit the front with 9km to go, with Richie on his wheel.

However, two kilometres later he got swamped by the Quick-Step and Lotto lead-out trains and with the rest of the lads on the left-hand side of the road, I got trapped on the inside of the Sky train on the right.

I needed to get out to ride around them so I asked Michal Kwiatkowski and Chris Froome to move over and they let me out. But just as I got around them and back to the front, with 5km to go, I got swamped again.

Mickey Schar managed to lead us down the twisting descent towards the finish with Greg on his wheel but a couple of Peter Sagan's Bora team-mates got past him a kilometre later.

Greg moved up to second behind Marcus Burghardt with 2km remaining but was left on the front way too early when the German champion swung off 400m later.

With Alberto Contador and Romain Bardet ready to pounce, Damiano managed to claw his way up the outside in the nick of time and with Richie on his wheel, he took over the pace-setting as we hit the bottom of the climb.

With the road narrowing as it rose, I was caught on the left-hand side, about 12 riders back, and was running out of time to get to the front to give the lads a hand. I dived in between an Astana guy and a Bora rider to move up a couple of places but found myself stuck behind Bardet of Ag2r with 1100m to go.

'MOVE! MOVE! I'M GOING UP TO PULL ON THE FRONT!"

But nobody was letting me out.

In the end I had to stick an elbow in Bardet, who I get on really well with, to give myself a bit of space to squeeze past him on the inside of a left-hand corner, and hit the front with 1.2km to go.

With Richie on my wheel, I rode hard up the steepest part of the climb, knowing that it would soon flatten out and I'd be able to get my breath back for a second dig.

But when I sat down to do that, Richie thought I was f****d so he put in a big dig of his own with 700m to go. It wasn't planned but he felt good and with Contador struggling to hold his wheel, Richie pulled clear as Greg hung firm in fifth.

Bora's former King of the Mountains Rafal Majka reeled Richie in with 350m to go though and his team-mate Peter Sagan managed to easily win the stage.

My cousin Dan Martin put in a great sprint to take third, while Greg was fourth across the line.

It didn't work for us today but at least we gave it a go.

Richie was 14th and is now up to 20th overall, still 47 seconds behind race leader Geraint Thomas.

Tour de France, Stage 4, Live Eurosport, TG4 and ITV4, from 11.0

Irish Independent

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