Nicolas Roche: 'When you're in the red, two kilometres is a lot of climbing'
Tour de France Diary
Thursday July 23, Stage 18: Gap to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne (187km)
With the 6km long second category Col de Bayard coming just a few hundred metres into today's proceedings, my Sky team-mates and I were expecting to be put under pressure to defend Chris Froome's yellow jersey very early this morning.
With six more mountains en route to the finish, we knew there was ample opportunity for our rivals to attack and gain time so, after signing on for the stage, we joined the hordes of riders warming up on their home trainers in anticipation of another hard start.
In most races, if the first attack goes clear without much fuss, the peloton settles into a steady tempo until the action begins again towards the end of the stage.
If a second attack follows straight away, however, it sets the tone for the day and ignites full-on racing for the rest of the stage.
As expected, the attacks came straight away today, with King of the Mountains Joaquim Rodriguez dancing up the road on the first incline, followed by Frenchman Pierre Rolland of Europcar and Colombian climber Julian Arredondo of Trek.
With a huge headwind on the climb, everybody seemed quite happy to let the trio go.
I couldn't believe it.
I was thinking 'this is great' and went to the front with team-mate Leo Konig to keep things steady and try to save the other guys' legs to help Chris Froome later in the stage. But then the attacks started again.
A spate of riders jumping up the road saw lots of little groups merge into a 29-man front group.
Cresting the summit, I was on the front and radioed back to the team car for info on who was in the break and if I was to close the gap. With no threat to Froomey's lead up the road, I eased up on the plateau that followed and Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard took over and set the pace.
With the gap at four minutes by the time we reached the Rampe du Motty after 35km, the Trek team of ninth-placed Bauke Mollema and the Giant-Alpecin squad of 10th placed Warren Barguil took up the chase as they knew French escapee Romain Bardet would leapfrog both of them if he got another minute.
After 85km we approached the fifth climb of the day, the second category Col de Morte, 3' 47" behind the break.
A lot of teams began to move up as we neared the summit, so I brought Froomey closer to the front for the 15km descent that followed.
With the Giant guys drilling it, the descent was the quickest I've done on this Tour and the added impetus of the LottoNL team - who were worried about Robert Gesink's sixth place - saw the peloton split into three groups in the valley below.
With around 80km still to go, there were only about 40 riders in the front of the peloton.
We hit the feed zone so fast that Ian grabbed two mussettes, handing one to Froomey to cut out the chance of the race leader falling while trying to grab his lunch at speed.
Around 15km later we were at the bottom of the dam that led us onto the biggest mountain of the day, the Hors Category Col du Glandon.
With the Giant and Lotto guys drained off the front inside the first 3km, it was up to me to set the pace for the rest of the climb.
At 22km long, the Glandon takes nearly an hour to climb, so I wanted to get into a good rhythm and set a pace that was steady enough but was still under my own limit.
The goal was to try and stay at the front as long as possible until the expected attacks from the big guns came. Trying to keep the pace as steady as possible, I kept an eye on my heart rate as I climbed and slowly but surely began to reel in some of the large breakaway group who had begun the ascent two and a half minutes earlier.
After about 10km on the front, Barguil attacked, followed by Gesink and 8th-placed Mathias Frank.
Knowing Gesink had begun the day seven minutes down on Froomey, I ignored the attacks, as directeur sportif Nicolas Portal advised me in my earpiece.
"Ok Nico. No need to chase."
When Alberto Contador, who began the day over six minutes back, jumped after the trio a kilometre later, I remained calm.
Having ridden on the front for most of the Glandon, I accelerated a little about 5km from the summit as I knew my job was nearly done.
Three 3kms later though Michele Scarponi came up the outside with Vincenzo Nibali on his wheel, put the hammer down and overtook me.
Although Leo, Geraint Thomas and Wout Poels were still with Froomey, I tried to hang on so that I could help them on the 7km of valley road before the final climb.
I drifted to the back of the little group and told myself it was only 2km to the top, but when you're in the red, 2km is a lot of climbing. Still, I thought I might be able to limit my losses and get back on on the descent but it didn't happen. I went over the top about 50 seconds back knowing I wasn't going to regain contact.
Romain Kreuziger of Tinkoff-Saxo caught me on the way down and we found ourselves in a little quintet as we approached the second category Lacets de Montvernier.
A spectacular climb, with 17 hairpin bends in 3.4km, the ascent was a bit strange because the narrow road saw no spectators allowed on the climb itself.
While the other three kept the pressure on as we climbed, Wout and I let go and rode to the finish at our own pace. Up ahead, Romain Bardet took the stage honours, while Leo and G hung hung onto the front group with Froomey and he kept his 3'10" lead over Nairo Quintana.
Although we have the finish on Alpe d'Huez on Saturday, I think tomorrow's stage will be harder. It's a long stage with four very big climbs on it and I expect the attacks to come very early again.
Tour de France
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