'We were so confident in Alberto, we didn't have a Plan B. Then Plan A went out the window'
Published 15/07/2014 | 02:30
Monday, July 14 – Stage 10: Mulhouse to La Planche Belles Filles (161.5km)
With six tough climbs preceding a first-category mountain-top finish to La Planches des Belles Filles, today was to be the day my Tinkoff-Saxo team turned the Tour de France on its head.
On the team bus this morning, the stage plan was to let breaks go in the early part and then simply ride flat out over the last three climbs and break up the race.
We were all confident that our team leader Alberto Contador would be very close to taking the yellow jersey of race leader at the end of the stage. That was Plan A.
In fact, we were so confident in Alberto's chances of winning this Tour, we didn't have a Plan B. But on the descent of the second climb of the day, the first-category Petit Ballon, Plan A went out the window.
We were riding close to the front of the peloton, doing about 70kph in the wet, on a really long straight bit of road, when Alberto reached into the pocket in the back of his jersey for some food and hit a hole in the road.
Unable to control his bike with one hand, his front wheel went from under him and he went head first, bounced off the road and slid into the grass verge. Riding a few places behind him in the group, I locked up my wheels and threw myself to the side to try and stop. With the speed I was going though, I only came to a halt about 50 metres after him.
I jumped off my bike and ran back up to where he was lying in shock on the grass at the side of the road.
As I helped Alberto up, I noticed his bike was broken and there was a stream of blood coming from a gash just under his right knee. His wound looked pretty bad but as a rider, my natural instinct was to simply hand him my bike and encourage him to keep going.
"Take my bike Alberto! Go, go, go!"
"Nico, I don't know if I can," he said as he hobbled out onto the road.
"Go and see. Try it, just jump on the bike!"
As Alberto took off gingerly on my bike, I waited at the side of the road watching what seemed like everybody in the race pass me by. There were cars and groups of dropped riders everywhere, so I held Alberto's broken bike in one hand and waved the other one frantically in the air, afraid the team car would drive past in the chaos.
Soon, a surprised Bjarne Riis pulled up in the car and the mechanic handed me my spare bike. They hadn't heard me on the radio and didn't know anything about Alberto's crash.
As I chased back through the cars, I came across Alberto stopped again, this time with the medical car at the side of the road about 2km later. The car had blocked half the road, so with nowhere to stop safely, I rode a few hundred metres further before pulling in and waiting for my team leader to get patched up and rejoin the race.
With my team-mates Michael Morkov and Daniele Bennati stopped alongside me, at first I took advantage of the situation and went for a much-needed pee but as the minutes ticked past I began to get worried.
I knew that if Alberto wasn't badly hurt and just needed a bandage and a change onto his spare bike, there was a chance that his climbing ability could see him drop us in an effort to get back into the peloton.
On the other hand, if he had abandoned the race, there was a risk that with 100km and five climbs still to go, that if we didn't regain contact with the peloton, we could all finish outside the daily time limit and be eliminated from the Tour.
But Tinkoff-Saxo is a team. Alberto is our captain so we were always going to wait and give him as much support as we could. After almost four minutes at the side of the road, we were told on the radio that Alberto was continuing.
At that point we were the last riders in the race, nine minutes behind the leaders on the stage and four minutes behind the peloton. I brought Alberto up to Sergio Paulhino, who had also dropped back to help and the two of us rode with him. Although he was clearly in pain, Alberto wanted to see if he could regain contact with the peloton so we rode at a pretty good tempo, overtaking a large group containing our other two team-mates Michael Rogers and Rafal Majka on the climb.
With the pressure on, we soon dropped 'Benna' and Michael but our priority at the time was to get Alberto back into contention. Often, when you crash, you get a rush of adrenalin that kind of numbs the pain and you can ride pretty hard for a while after. But as that adrenalin rush subsides you get the hammer, and we knew there was something wrong when Alberto could not hold the wheels about 10km later.
We began to take it a bit easier in the hope that he would come around and at least be able to finish the stage but what we didn't know at the time was that he was riding those 15km or so with a broken tibia.
Eventually, the pain was too much and Alberto shook hands with Michael Rogers, threw an arm around him, pulled over to the side of the road and abandoned this Tour de France.
By then, we were already 14 minutes down and with about 80km to go, we knew it would be a bit of a challenge to finish before the time limit. Our best bet was to just stick together and keep a steady tempo. Riding in team time trial formation the five of us began to catch group after group and we eventually finished 28 minutes down on stage winner and race leader Vincenzo Nibali.
As soon as we passed the finish line the media jumped on us but I was in no mood for interviews today. Apart from the fact that we had just lost our team leader and a real hope of winning, it had been a really tough stage and I was absolutely wrecked.
We had ridden most of the stage with five riders, trying to beat the time cut. The team car guys calculated that the stage time limit would be roughly 35 minutes after the winner, so it was worse than being in a breakaway.
The time limit was 38 minutes and Benna and Michael, who were in the group behind, only made it by five minutes, while Tiago Machado of NetApp Endura, who had crashed earlier but bravely continued, was cruelly eliminated when he crossed the line on his own 43 minutes down.
After we got changed, we all cycled down to the bus to find Alberto sitting with his leg in a brace. He had been to the X-ray bus at the finish and had found out that he had broken his right tibia, just under his knee. He's already had stitches but will probably need surgery in a couple of days.
As you can imagine, team morale is pretty low at the moment. As a team, all our hopes and dreams have fallen apart today. Personally, one of my dreams was to ride into Paris with my team leader as winner and this year we all believed it could be Alberto.
It will take time to get over the disappointment, but the Tour goes on and we have a really strong group here. We will pull ourselves together on the rest day tomorrow.