Nicolas Roche: 'It was my best day in the mountains for a long time'
Wednesday, July 18, Stage 16: Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon 197km
Before I even turned a pedal this morning, I had moved up one place on the general classification to 12th overall, with the news that Radioshack rider Franck Schleck had withdrawn from the Tour after it was announced that he had tested positive during one of the earlier stages.
With all the rules and regulations in the sport, the whereabouts forms we have to fill in every day, the blood passports and everything else, it's stupid to see riders still taking a chance.
Thankfully, cycling is still the most tested sport in the world and even if I didn't particularly like being woken up at 7.0 this morning for a blood test by the French anti-doping authority, at least the system seems to be working and the guys that are taking those chances seem to be getting caught, which is very important.
The second-last day in the mountains of this Tour, today we headed into the Pyrenees with four of the biggest climbs of the whole race looming ahead of us.
There were loads of attacks this morning and I actually followed one move, but was brought back before a massive 38-man group, which included my cousin Dan Martin, went clear. Sky gave them three minutes' lead before setting about controlling the tempo at the head of the peloton.
The opening ascent of the Hors Category Col d'Aubisque is 20km long and was ridden at a good tempo and Sky descended smoothly before upping the tempo on the next climb, the Hors Category Col du Tourmalet, another 20km ascent, until there were only about 30 or 40 of us left at the head of the peloton.
We caught my team-mate Maxime Bouet near the top and he went back and got me a couple of bottles before blowing up on the climb.
With the guys who had been dropped having regained contact on the descent, as Sky took no risks on the way down, we hit the penultimate climb, the Col d'Aspin with around 60km to go.
It soon became apparent that Sky were content to dictate the pace again, but the Liquigas team of third overall Vincenzo Nibali had other ideas and hit the front about 5km from the summit, with former Giro winner Ivan Basso driving us towards the top.
I was struggling to follow Basso's pace, but I could hear in my earpiece that lots of guys who were well up on the GC were in trouble. "Coppel is dropped... Kloden is dropped... now Evans is gone."
I was a bit surprised at Cadel Evans, last year's winner, being dropped, but it turned out afterwards that he had intestinal problems. In the valley before the final climb of the 18km-long first-category Col de Peyresourde, the Lotto rider Jelle Vanendert went to the front and upped the pace to make it hard for Evans to get back on to us. He knew that his team-mate Jurgen van den Broeck was one place behind Evans starting the day and would leapfrog the defending champion into fourth if they managed to put enough time into the Australian.
Evans, though, had three BMC team-mates with him and they rode flat-out to regain contact with us before the bottom of the final mountain. Unfortunately for me, they dragged Andreas Kloden, Jerome Coppel and a few of my nearest rivals up with them.
About 5km before the bottom of the Peyresourde, I heard Vincent Lavenu call me in my earpiece. "Nico, I am car number one behind the commissaire. Drop back for a bottle if you want one."
Today was a real scorcher, with temperatures in the 30s and even though I had already drunk about 15 bottles, I knew there was only about 25km to go and as it was my last chance of another one, I drifted back and grabbed a bottle and a mini can of Coke from Vincent.
Once again, Liquigas put the pressure on near the top and I could hear names getting dropped in my earpiece. With only about a dozen riders left, Nibali attacked us about 4km from the top but the only ones able to go with him were the yellow jersey Bradley Wiggins and second overall Chris Froome.
I went out the back of the group, but put in a full-on sprint to claw my way back up alongside fifth overall Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto, seventh placed Tejay van Garderen of BMC, Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Juan Jose Cobo of Movistar, and sixth placed Haimar Zubeldia and his Radioshack team-mate Chris Horner (15th) until a kilometre to go.
Knowing we were nearing the summit, I had been hanging on as long as I could but Van Garderen's pace was too much as he chased the Nibali. I blew my lights but kept riding as hard as I could to the top because I knew that if I didn't catch them, Horner would overtake me in the GC.
I crossed the summit about 10 seconds behind the group but I didn't want to panic, first catching Cobo, who had also been dropped, and then regaining contact with the other five.
I took a few deep breaths to recover and then started riding with them to the finish, as I wanted to put as much time as I could into eighth-placed Janez Brajkovic, ninth-placed Pierre Rolland, 10th-placed Thibaut Pinot and 11th-placed Andreas Kloden, all of whom had been dropped before me.
I crossed the line at the head of my group for 14th place on the stage, 58 seconds behind the yellow jersey trio, but more importantly had taken 40 seconds out of Brajkovic and Rolland, almost two minutes out of Pinot and over two and a half minutes out of Kloden, to move up to 11th overall.
Dan had finished two minutes ahead of my group for seventh on the stage. After the line, he rode over to me and we had a bit of a family moment, throwing an arm around each other in appreciation of each other's efforts. We had a bit of a chat and were amazed at the amount of Irish flags and the support for us on the Tourmalet today and are both looking forward to the last day in the mountains tomorrow.
While I didn't take back as much time as I lost on my bad day last week, I've moved up to within four seconds of Pinot's 10th place. Hopefully I'll have another day like today on tomorrow's summit finish at Peyregudes.
There is no descent to get back on, no valley to the finish, so it will be tough to gain more time on the guys ahead of me and give myself a buffer for the penultimate stage time trial on Saturday, which I probably need to do if I have any chance of finishing in the top 10. But I'm still on target and happy with today. I think it was one of my best days in the mountains in a long time.
Tour de France,
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