Saturday 25 March 2017

Nicolas Roche: ‘He went head first through the wind screen’

Paris - Nice Diary: Tuesday March 8. Stage 3: Cosnecours-sur-loire to Nuits-saint-Georges - 202 KM

Nicolas Roche

Looking at the map last night my Ag2r La Mondiale team decided that if a breakaway went early on today’s stage, they would have a good chance of staying away until the first real mountain of this race, the second-category climb of the Cote de Bécoup, the summit of which came just 22km from the finish.

With mountain classification points on offer at the top, whoever crossed the summit first would end the stage in the King of the Mountains jersey, so we aimed to have somebody in any early move.

My team-mate Blel Kadri is a 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent. Blel is a Muslim, so he can’t eat pork. Every single day, at every single hotel, we have ham in some shape or form, either for starters or for breakfast, and it has become a long-running joke on the team.

Most mornings, if Blel is not at the table in time, somebody will order a plain omelette and put it at his placing. Just as he is about to tuck in, we tell him it’s ham and egg. Blel is by now well accustomed to this juvenile behaviour. But the look on his face on the rare time somebody does catch him out means it will probably go on forever, although he knows we would never intentionally let him eat pork.

Blel is in his third year as a pro and has already proven himself to be a strong and loyal team-mate. At last year’s Vuelta, he rode really hard for me in his first three-week tour and he loves the role of riding for a leader.

He’s never afraid to go with an early break and is always willing to ride hard whenever the need arises. I get on really well with Blel. He calls me Capo, which means Boss.

Today the break went at kilometre zero and Blel was in the move along with four others. The Vaconsoleil team of race leader Thomas de Gendt gave them a lead of around three minutes and held them there until the climb. Blel was hoping to win the sprint to the summit, but as soon the lead group hit the bottom of the climb, they began to attack each other. Blel is a very honest rider and to maximise the group’s chances of staying away, he wanted to ride the climb steady and sprint at the top.

But the stop-start attacking stalled the group’s progress and the peloton almost caught them at the top. Blel panicked a bit and sprinted too early, only to see Jussi Veikkanen sprint past him to take the points.

But Blel was the only one of the break that managed to follow Thomas Voeckler when he counter-attacked out of the peloton after the climb. I had Hubert Dupont protecting me from the wind as I sat in the top 15 or 20 of the peloton on the hill. I was fairly comfortable, but felt I was missing a bit of power and was spinning the gears more than normal.

When I went to use a bigger gear, I didn’t have the force that I normally have, but that’s to be expected after missing most of January with injury. The final few kilometres were pretty hectic with lots of speed bumps, chicanes and traffic-calming bollards in the last two towns. You can’t see these bollards if you’re riding in the bunch as they are only about knee high, but if you hit one of them you’ll know all about it.

It also makes it harder to ride back up in the cavalcade behind after a puncture or a crash. At the finish, I noticed the Bretagne Schuller team car had a broken rear windscreen. I later learned that Mikel Buffaz went head first through it during the stage while trying to get back on.

In the final sprint, I came around the last corner to see Peter Sagan tumbling as his bike flew through the air and brought down three or four riders. Our sprinter Anthony Ravard was right behind Sagan, but miraculously weaved his way around him to finish seventh.

I crossed the line in 28th and moved up to 21st overall. The team have asked me to try to go with the breakaway on Wednesday, but with seven mountains to be tackled on the 200km trek to Belleville, I’m still undecided as to whether I agree with them or not.

They have been great. They understand that it takes a bit of time to get back to full fitness. I don’t really know whether I’m going good or bad yet.

I’m definitely not strong enough to go for the overall win, but I’m only 16 seconds down and I think I’m better off trying to push myself to stay with the top guys on the climbs rather than trying to go in an early break and maybe losing time at the end.

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