Friday, July 19, Stage 19: Bourg d'Oisans to Le Grande Bornand 204.5km
Featuring 4,300m of climbing, today's stage started at the bottom of the 33km long hors category climb of the Col du Glandon, the descent off which was followed by a 20km slog up the Col de la Madeleine, another hors category mountain.
If that wasn't enough, we had the third-category Col de Tamié and two first-category ascents of the Col de l'Epine and the Col de la Croix Fry before the end of the 205km stage.
The second last mountain stage of this Tour, we were expecting a lot of attacks from the gun this morning and had our home trainers set up beside the team bus for a pre-stage warm-up so that we wouldn't be caught cold on the first mountain. But we spent so much time mulling over tactics that we barely had time to sit on them before it was time to sign on.
For the past few stages, my Saxo-Tinkoff team have donned yellow race numbers and helmets as leaders of the team classification, and we began today's stage with a six-minute advantage over second-placed Ag2r, with Radioshack third overall, at 12 and a half minutes.
The team prize is taken by adding up the times of the first three riders of every team on every stage so, while those gaps seemed pretty big this morning, we knew that if a team got three riders into a move that gained four minutes, they would take those 12 minutes back pretty easily.
We agreed that while the team prize is not one we came here to win, now that we have it we don't want to give it up with three days of racing left. The plan was to have as many of our riders as possible in the early move today but I wasn't too sure of myself at the start.
Although I was near the front of the peloton as groups of riders fired up the road, I was hesitant to jump across to any of them, worried that I hadn't recovered properly from my hunger flat on Alpe d'Huez yesterday.
Streams of riders went clear on the early slopes of the Col du Glandon and soon we were told by race radio that there were over 40 in the group, including my team-mates Sergio Paulinho and Jesus Hernandez.
While there were no overall contenders in the move and nobody in the bunch seemed worried about contesting the stage win, we soon sussed that Radioshack had three riders up there, while Movistar and Ag2r had two each.
This wasn't a big deal at the time but when we got to the top of the Madeleine and the gap had grown to almost 12 minutes, we knew we had to do something. Knowing we had lost three of those minutes on the first descent and realising my legs were a lot better than yesterday on the climb, I went to the front going over the top.
I rode most of the descent on the front before Matteo Tosatto took over near the bottom. We had caught Sergio on the way down and with the three Radioshack riders now earning their team 36 minutes between them, Sergio joined us on the front in the valley.
We continued to share the work for the next 60km or so and, afraid of getting hungry again, I ate like an animal on the bike today. At the feed zone I took about five energy bars and extra gels and drank plenty.
I knew I had to last as long as possible on the front, that once we got onto the last climb it would be up to Alberto Contador, Roman Kreuziger and Michael Rogers, who began the day in second, fourth and eighth place respectively, to do what they had to do. But I had to really stay focused until then and not crack beforehand – that would have been a catastrophe.
Matteo pulled off the front, his legs gone, with about 40km to go and I took over. I pulled the peloton over the first-category Col de l'Epine, and brought back one of the Radioshack guys on the descent, which meant that with two riders left up front, whatever advantage they had on the line was now doubled rather than trebled and as we still had Jesus somewhere in the front group, really only one of them would gain time.
I continued on down the descent, and even managed to get a kilometre or two of the final climb in at the front before blowing up with around 20km to go. Michael took over at the front as I took an early shower from a sudden burst of torrential rain. Drifting backwards on the climb, I grabbed a rain jacket from the team car as it went past and finished the stage in a 10-man group, 25 minutes behind stage winner Rui Costa of Movistar.
In the end, my Saxo-Tinkoff team lost eight minutes and 50 seconds to the two Radioshack guys in the break but we still lead the team classification by three minutes and 39 seconds, with Ag2r now third at seven minutes and 37 seconds.
Tomorrow is the final mountain stage of this year's Tour and with six mountains coming before the hors category summit finish at Annecy-Semnoz, it's going to be a corker. When we checked it out in June, we had to drive over the final climbs as they were covered in snow.
Although we will decide our tactics in the pre-stage briefing tomorrow morning, there will probably be two different races going on within the race. While half the guys will be trying to help Alberto wrest the yellow jersey off Chris Froome, and get Roman back onto the podium, the other half of us will be trying to keep an eye on the breakaways, making sure we mark the teams involved in the team competition. It would be great to be on the podium in Paris as team winners after working so hard together and having the team spirit we've had for the past three weeks.
On the team bus to our next hotel, today's efforts are beginning to hit me, and as I listen to U2's 'How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb', I'm starting to doze off and dream of tomorrow. It's going to be a sh*t or bust day on this Tour for everyone.
Theoretically we could still win this Tour. We could have two guys on the podium. We could win the stage. We could win the team prize. To have all four, that would be the dream scenario. The nightmare? We could come away with nothing.