Saturday 21 October 2017

Nicolas Roche: 'We had to take race by scruff of the neck or it was all over'

Chris Froome greets Alberto Contador before the start of Stage 1 of the Volta a Catalunya
Chris Froome greets Alberto Contador before the start of Stage 1 of the Volta a Catalunya

Nicolas Roche

Volta a Catalunya Diary: Monday March 23, Stage 1: Callela to Callela (185.2km)

Having finished Paris-Nice just over a week ago, I met Paul Kimmage for an interview with the Sunday Independent last Monday.

Doing a feature interview is a bit like making a cake - you never know how it's going to turn out, so I was eager to read it yesterday.

Saturday's training spin however saw my mobile phone eventually die, the humidity of being in the back pocket of my jersey while training over the years finally getting the better of it.

Although Team Sky issued me with a new phone in January, I hadn't set it up by the time I flew to Spain for the Tour of Catalunya yesterday morning, so I had no idea of how the interview was received until later in the day.

Having updated my contacts on my new phone, I was able to text a few friends to find that the interview was well received, which is always nice to know.

With a really strong climbing team here, we probably would have liked a few more mountains during the seven stages but Ruta del Sol winner Chris Froome and Paris-Nice winner Richie Porte are our two main cards here with Wout Poels also earning a bit of leeway, having shown good form last week in Tirreno-Adriatico, where he won a stage and wore the leader's jersey.

I'm here as road captain, to make the decisions as to our strategy on the road but I feel I'm missing some power and need to get into better shape so I think a few periods of hard work at the front of the peloton will help me get stronger, and I've volunteered to do some early work on the stages here too.

A tailwind out of Callela this morning saw a constant 60kph maintained to the first intermediate sprint in Mataro after 18km. The plan was for me to lead Wout to the line so that he could take the three seconds time bonus on offer. We had two reasons to contest the sprint; firstly Wout is a third option for us for overall and, secondly, we knew that if we didn't go for them, somebody else would.

As we neared the 18km mark, I was badly positioned in the middle of the bunch but a gap opened up and I caught a wave of riders and moved to the front shouting at Wout to jump on my wheel as I rode past.

With about 500m to the sprint line, we rounded a corner and I sprinted out of it only to see a clear road ahead of me and no sign of the intermediate sprint banner. I grabbed the little microphone inside my jersey and got onto the guys in the team car.

"Where's the bonus?"

Apparently the race organisers had moved the sprint 3kms further up the road so I stayed on the front and tried to keep a fast tempo.

As the sprint banner came into sight, a dozen or so riders went for it but I managed to hold my position and lead Wout to the line, taking second place behind him.

It took me a long time to recover though and the next few kilometres saw me drifting down the peloton alongside my old Saxo-Tinkoff team-mate Sergio Paulinho, both of us coughing our lungs up having killed ourselves for a handful of seconds and laughing at how wrecked we were after just 21kms.

The tailwind meant it took around 60km for the break to go, with Maciej Paterski (CCC), Bart de Clercq of Lotto-Soudal and French climber Pierre Rolland of Europcar eventually jumping clear.

When they opened a gap of two and a half minutes, I went back to the team car to talk to our directeur sportif, Nicolas Portal, and we agreed not to let them get too big an gap before starting the chase.

"We're not going to play 'who's got the biggest balls?' with other teams. We've a strong team here if we need to take it on."

For some reason though, we didn't get another time gap for ages and when we did it wasn't good news.

"Fourteen minutes to the three leaders, 14 minutes!"

"Whoa. What happened there?"

Even with one rider from us, Movistar, Quickstep, Garmin and Orica-Greenedge pulling on the front, the trio still had 10 minutes when we got to the feed zone after 110km and I was worried.

After a quick chat with Richie and Chris, we realised we had nothing to lose by taking the race by the scruff of the neck. If we didn't, the whole race was over anyway.

On the first category Alt del Coll, after 129km, we ramped up the pace; taking it in turns over the climb, continuing the chase down the descent, where I went back to the front and rode for about 7km before our Belarusian strongman Vasil Kiryienka took over.

Usually a motorbike with a chalkboard stops at points along the way, taking the time gaps between break and bunch and relaying them to the team cars but the time gaps today were a mess.

I don't think it would have been possible to go any faster for the last 100km today but at one point they told us we were losing time, which was ridiculous.

Having finished fourth overall in the Giro last year, everyone knew Rolland would be very hard to beat over the next few days if he got three or four minutes so with about 20km to go other teams came up to help us cut the gap.

While Polish rider Maciej Paterski claimed the stage win, Chris, Richie and the rest of us all finished safely in the peloton, 2'40" down.

Not quite a disaster but not ideal.

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