Tuesday 17 October 2017

'I don't know how I stayed up. I was skidding towards them thinking 'Please stop in time''

Thursday, July 5, Stage 5: Rouen -- Saint-Quentin 196.5km

Two days after celebrating my birthday, this morning I sent flowers to Italy for my girlfriend Chiara's 21st birthday. If we thought we were getting on a bit this week, my dad -- who is working for Skoda on the Tour -- allayed my fears when he introduced me to a guy called Robert Marchand in the Tour village.

Robert looked around 80 and was wearing a pair of cycling glasses and a pretty sharp suit. As we talked, he revealed that he is a few months away from his 101st birthday and, to mark his last birthday, he set a new world hour-record on the track for over-100-year-olds in February!

On an ordinary track bike, Robert did just over 24km, or 15 miles, despite saying that he had to get used to the track bike, because he hadn't been on a velodrome in over 80 years.

Although he was a little deaf and couldn't hear me too well, he said he doesn't cycle in the winter in case he gets flu and has cut his spins down to around 100km in summer, because "there is no point in going overboard".

Today was another day destined for the sprinters, although a four-man breakaway group got clear early on, nearly pulled the wool over our eyes and settled the stage between them.

People often wonder how the bunch times it just right to bring back a long breakaway group just before the finish and set up a bunch sprint. Generally, the rule of thumb is that a breakaway needs a minute for every 10km of racing left, to have a chance of surviving to the finish.

Usually when a break goes, the race leader's team controls the early part of the stage, keeping them within three or four minutes so that the sprinters' teams, who have been hiding in the peloton calculating the gaps, will be enticed to chase them down in the second half of the stage. With fresh legs, these teams work together at really high speed and usually succeed in clawing them back.

Today, however, the breakaways played the peloton. Once they got a gap of three minutes or so, they eased up a little and rode within themselves. Not wanting to bring them back too soon and risk more attacks, the peloton eased up slightly.

With the gap down to 45 seconds at 10km to go, the sprinters could smell another bunch gallop but, wisely, the escapees had left a bit in reserve and put the boot down. With 4km left, they still had 25 seconds and the sprint trains began to panic. The breakaways nearly made it today and were only caught with an agonising 150m left.

In the last three or four kilometres the Sky and BMC squads hit the front, trying to keep their leaders Wiggins and Evans out of trouble in case there was a crash like yesterday.

As it happened there was, and I only just missed it. I don't know how I managed to stay up. It happened so quickly. I was trying to stay in position because I knew the finish was an uphill drag and it might cause a few splits, which could mean losing a few seconds if I was caught out.

Handling

Just before 3km to go, Tom Veelers and Tyler Farrar leaned on each other, a few places ahead of me. Veelers moved out of the way and the American sprinter hit the deck in the middle of the peloton at about 55kph. German Andre Greipel was right behind Farrar and showed excellent bike handling ability when he skidded sideways, pulled both feet out of the pedals, pushed his left leg off the grounded Farrar, avoided his flying bike and kept riding -- all in the blink of an eye.

I was on the right-hand side of the bunch, three places behind Greipel with green jersey Peter Sagan and a Saxo Bank rider in between us. Suddenly, Farrar's stray bike flew across the road and hit Sagan, who was pushed towards the right-hand kerb, causing him to drift across the Saxo Bank guy and both riders were propelled onto the footpath.

As all this was unfolding, I had been skidding towards them thinking 'Please stop in time'. As I pulled my left foot out of the pedals, like a kid learning to skid on a BMX, I was praying that nobody would clatter me from behind, but the road suddenly cleared in front and I was able to get past, clip my foot back in, and get around them without having to stop.

Yesterday, a lot of the guys sat up in the sprint because they knew they would get the same time because the crash was inside the last 3km; today everybody rode flat out to the line because they didn't know what would happen. The judges deemed the front of the peloton to be inside the last 3km when the crash occurred so everybody got the same time.

My team-mate Seb Hinault was on the other side of the crash and was giving a blow-by-blow account of it to the lads when I entered the team bus. I was pretty impressed that Seb managed to get around it and finish ninth on the stage because, unfortunately, he's left to his own devices in the sprints.

Then I saw that Greipel went on to win the stage while Farrar had to be pulled off the Argos Shimano team bus, having gone in search of Veelers. Just one more of these crazy stages to survive before we hit the mountains.

I remain 21st overall; my cousin Dan (Martin) was 56th in today's stage and is 87th overall.

Tour de France

Live, Eurosport, 12.30, ITV4, 2.0

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