Roche: 'Even though there were two of us chasing, Yates was flying'
Back when I was an U-23 riding for the amateur VC La Pomme team in Marseille, I shared an apartment in nearby Aubagne with the Irish brigade of Philip Deignan, Paidi O'Brien, Tim Cassidy and Denis Lynch, as well as Japanese rider Fumiyuki Beppu.
As today's stage began in Aubagne, a lot of the guys who helped us settle in with VC La Pomme that year came to the start this morning and it was nice to spend a few minutes chatting with them before I hopped up on the turbo trainer to warm up.
With a 13km first-category climb straight out of the blocks, we expected a hard start to proceedings so most riders were doing the same.
A puncture just before the end of the neutralised section meant racing was delayed until the victim rejoined us and we got another few minutes' respite before the flag was dropped.
As soon as it was, the fireworks began. With incessant attacks all the way to the summit, the peloton shrank to maybe 50 riders and I was really impressed to see sprinter Sam Bennett still in there.
With the bunch split in half, Sam took the first intermediate sprint after 24km and with the racing full on, it took another 30km for an eight-man breakaway to go clear.
My BMC team placed our bets each way, sending Alessandro di Marchi up the road in the break with the rest of us ready to get Richie Porte to the final climb in the best possible position if they came back later on.
With the break gone, things settled down but it still took a good few kilometres for the back of the peloton to regain contact.
In Draguinan after 105km, Sky and Trek Segafredo took over at the front from the Quickstep squad of race leader Julian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin, and the pace increased dramatically as Fran Ventoso and I stayed near Richie just behind them.
Alberto Contador attacked the first time up the Col du Bourigaille with 50km to go, but was quickly marked by Dan and third-placed Sergio Henao of Sky, while about a minute up the road my team-mate Alessandro was going clear of the break.
With numbers in our group, Sky took up the chase on the descent and some strong riding by Philip Deignan saw Alessandro and Eduardo Sepulveda with just 40 seconds' advantage approaching the first of two shorter ascents towards the finish in Fayence.
At the bottom, Sebastian Henao ramped up the pace for his cousin Sergio, ending Alessandro's day out front shortly after the top, while Mikel Nieve took over for Sky as we approached the 8km Bourigaille from the opposite side with 20km to go.
Nieve's pace meant I was on my limit, fighting to hang on for the last 800m of the climb, when Simon Yates attacked and blew me out the back door.
I knew I had to get back to try and help Richie into position for the finale so I buried myself on the descent and with 10km left regained contact with Bora's Patrick Konrad.
When I got my breath back I rode up to ask Richie if he wanted me to ride straight away but thankfully Nieve was doing a pretty good job so I got a couple more minutes to recover before joining him in the chase.
Even though there were two of us chasing, Yates was flying and had 45 seconds as we hit the final 1.3km climb to the finish.
At the bottom, my legs folded as Richie put in a dig to go clear. A few hundred metres later, though, Sergio Henao blew everyone off his wheel, opened an 11-second gap and took second on the stage, with Richie third.
Dan put in another good ride to help race leader Alaphilippe over the line and took fifth on the stage himself. Obviously in very good form, he could still take a podium place here, depending on his duties on tomorrow's queen stage.
With three more first-category climbs and finishing on the highest peak in the race's history, tomorrow's is a proper Tour de France mountain stage and is where this Paris-Nice will be decided.
The ascent to the summit finish is 16km long and coming at this time of year, when riders aren't fully fit, it won't be long showing who is in form.
With eight riders lying within 1 min 37 secs of Alaphilippe's yellow jersey, the question isn't if he'll be attacked but when.
If Contador, Henao and others go for a long one, maybe from the previous climb, with 50km to go, then it's going to be painful.
Paris-Nice, Live, Eurosport, 3.30pm
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