'I finished 26 minutes behind Dan, but his win turned my grimace into a smile'
Saturday, July 6, Stage 8: Castres to Ax 3 Domaines – 195km
With two big mountains coming right at the end of the stage, we knew today would give the first real indication of who had good legs in this year's Tour de France and who had been bluffing for the first week.
On the penultimate climb of the Hors Category Col de Pailheres, the highest mountain on this year's Tour, Sky set a really fast tempo, and I could only hang on in the middle of the front group as my team-mates Mick Rogers, Roman Kreuziger and Jesus Hernandez protected our team leader Alberto Contador, who was tucked in just behind them.
About 4km from the top, there was a flatter section and, as I was gasping for a drink, I dropped back to see if the Mavic neutral service car had some water. That was my first mistake. All they had was a bottle of Vittel with a screw-on lid and a banana. We were riding so hard that I nearly choked myself on the first bite of the banana and threw the rest of it away, which was mistake number two, as I could have eaten it later.
As an attack by Nairo Quintana of Movistar forced Team Sky to up the pace at the front, I went out the back of the lead group 2km from the top. I rode the 20km descent flat out to try and get back on, which I managed to do just 3km from the bottom of the final climb.
Although I was hoping to be able to ride up to the front and help the guys, as soon as the road went skywards again my legs caved in and I was out the back door again, this time for good.
I crossed the line in 23rd place, four minutes after Chris Froome had repaid his Sky team by taking the stage win from his team-mate Richie Porte and donning the yellow jersey of race leader.
All of Froome's rivals lost time today, including Alberto, who was led to the line by Roman a minute and 45 seconds later.
Sky looked very strong today and with first and second in the overall classification now, the men in black will be hard to beat, but we've only lost a battle. There are two weeks left and the war is not yet over.
Sunday, July 9, Stage 10: St Gironnes to Bagneres de Bigorre – 168.5km
With a profile like an upside down saw, we expected a few fireworks on today's tough five-mountain stage and knew we had to be alert if we weren't to miss any of the important moves.
My cousin Dan Martin's Garmin Sharp team lit the touch paper right from the start and set off a stream of attacks on the first climb of the day, the Col de Porte d'Aspet, forcing race leader Chris Froome's Sky team to chase.
It soon became apparent that the men in black might not have recovered too well from yesterday's stage, however, and after just 40km, yellow jersey Froome was left on his own in a large front group, with the rest of his team having drifted out the back.
Although my Saxo-Tinkoff team had Michael Rogers and Roman Kreuziger up the road, we put Jesus Hernandez on the front on the second climb, to make it hard for the Sky boys to regain contact on the next mountain, the Cole de Mente.
With Froome isolated, Alejandro Valverde and his Movistar team-mate Rui Costa had the same idea and attacked in the valley afterwards but unfortunately for us, Froome was the only one to go with them, forcing us to chase. As we only had myself, Jesus and Alberto in the group, I went to the front and rode as hard as I could to bring them back, which wasn't made any easier by the headwind produced by the downdraft of the overhead helicopter filming the Froome group up ahead.
I rode as hard as I could until about 8km later Michael dropped back from the front group and helped the chase. Roman soon followed suit and we brought back Froome and Valverde just a few kilometres before the next first-category mountain.
My chase in the valley meant that I completely exploded on the Col du Peyresourde and with around 90k left, I found myself climbing on my own.
Various groups went by me on the climb but after the feed zone in the valley, a large group of mainly sprinters caught me about 3km into the penultimate climb, the Col du Va Louron Azet, and I stayed with them to the finish.
With any riders who don't finish within a certain time percentage of the stage winner eliminated every day, on the road we tried to calculate how much time we could afford to lose. We reckoned we would end the day between 25 and 28 minutes down but we flew down the descent and rode the last 30km flat out, with everyone rolling through on the front just in case.
Although I wasn't having a great day, Jerome Pinot of the Omega Pharma Quickstep team rode alongside me with about 15km to go and cheered me right up by telling me Dan had won the stage. Dan has had a fantastic season so far and we all knew he had a chance to win a stage this year. But doing just that, when everybody expects you to, makes it even better. It's fabulous for Dan and for Irish cycling.
I might have finished the stage 26 minutes behind him, but thanks to Dan, I swapped my earlier grimace for a smile.