Nicolas Roche: 'I've been waiting a long time for a result like this'
Saturday, June 16 -- Stage 8: Bischofszell -- Arosa (148.2km)
Having dropped from fifth to 15th after a mediocre time trial on Friday, I began today's stage 25 seconds outside my goal of a top 10 overall, and, with just two tough mountain stages left, knew I'd have to literally climb back up the standings.
Even though the break went away early and we never saw eventual stage winner Michael Albasini again, the pace was pretty relentless for the rest of the stage.
Laurens ten Dam of Rabobank led the peloton onto the final climb to the finish and, with 28km still to go, gradually increased the pace as we ascended in the hope that he could thin the group out for team-mates Robert Gesink and Steven Kruijswijk.
As the Dutchman powered away at the front, I was feeling good and sat fourth wheel knowing that the more guys that got dropped, the better chance I had of moving into the top 10.
As our group got smaller and smaller, we all knew the hardest part of the climb came in the final 5km and were expecting attacks.
Second overall Frank Schleck was the first one to move and attacked with 4km to go, dropping race leader Rui Costa in the process. While Mikel Nieve and Levi Leipheimer rode across the gap to Schleck, I knew I needed to take time out of the others, so I followed Gesink and Kruijswijk while the rest of the group went to bits on the slope.
Looking back now, by doing this I went into the red too soon and had a hard time staying with the Dutch duo, eventually dropping off their pace and not really recovering from the effort until inside the last kilometre and a half -- but I had to try.
As Gesink and Kruijswijk drifted away from me I found myself in a group with the guys I had been trying to get rid of: Thomas Lovkvist of Sky, Thibaut Pinot of FDJeux and Tom Danielson of Garmin Barracuda, while race leader Costa was being paced by his erstwhile team leader Alejandro Valverde a few metres behind us.
With 3km remaining Danielson blew our group apart with another attack. I went out the back door and was picked up by the yellow jersey group a kilometre later. I didn't come around until the final kilometre and upped the tempo in the last 500m or so to try and minimise my losses to finish 11th in the stage.
Although I moved up two places to 13th overall, I was hoping to be further ahead tonight. Instead, I'm an extra 14 seconds outside the top 10 and I think it's going to be mission impossible to break into it now.
Sunday, June 17 -- Stage 9: Näfels-Lintharena -- Sörenberg (215.8km)
Although we finished on the second-category climb of Sorenberg, it was the climb before it, the Hors Category Glaubenberg, which did most of the damage today.
Having seen race leader Costa struggle on the final climb yesterday, Schleck attacked the peloton halfway up the 20km mountain and immediately opened a gap with around 40km to go. As Danielson tried to chase, a small group containing Gesink (4th), Leipheimer (3rd), race leader Costa and his team-mate Valverde (ninth) dangled just ahead of me as I rode along in no man's land.
Although I was suffering, I kept my tempo and held them at around 10 or 15 seconds until it flattened out a bit. Then, I sprinted like it was a stage finish to latch onto the rear of the group. When just the five of us crested the climb together, 27 seconds behind Schleck, I was thinking, 'Yes this is looking really good now, I can move into sixth or seventh overall'.
I tried to ride with the group on the descent because I didn't want anyone else to regain contact, but I was cramping after that sprint and suffering like a dog.
Kruijswijk's arrival at the back of the group on the descent was a sign of things to come, however, and Schleck, around 50 seconds ahead of us at the bottom, sat up when he realised that some of the guys that had been dropped on the way up had merged with us again on the way down.
Once we hit the valley, I did a bit of acrobatic stretching on the bike before the final climb and gulped down over two litres of water in the last 25km. With 15km to go, Chris Sorensen from Saxo Bank attacked and was soon joined by three others. The Dane had started the day just one place behind me overall so I immediately panicked.
"Sh*t! Sorensen's gone. What do I do?," I radioed to the team car. "Nico. Take it easy," answered Stephane Goubert in my earpiece. "Valverde is going to have to ride. Just sit in there. Wait until two or 3km to go, then attack if you have the legs."
Sure enough, Valverde hit the front in defence of Costa's race lead and soon I was hoping he would ride himself into the ground so that I could leapfrog him in the GC when he blew up.
Valverde did a great job to keep Costa in contention and even though they had 35 seconds on us at one point, I put in a good attack with 2km to go and closed it down to just two seconds on the line for 14th place on the stage and took enough time back to end the race 10th overall.
Up ahead my Ag2r team-mate Matteo Montaguti had been in the day-long breakaway, finishing third on the stage and winning the King of the Mountains competition overall, so it's been a decent race for the team.
I'm happy enough with 10th overall. I've been waiting a long time to get a result like this in a good race and yesterday it didn't look possible.
With two weeks until the Tour de France I still need to improve my climbing but I'm heading in the right direction. Next up is the Irish national championships in Clonmel, where I'll ride the time trial on Thursday and the road race Sunday. Maybe I'll see you there.