Friday 26 May 2017

Nicolas Roche: 'On a day like this there's no hiding. You are going to suffer'

Thursday, July 21 -- Stage 18: Pinerolo to Col du Galibier- Serre Chevalier, 200km

As today's stage start was in Italy, just over an hour and a half from my base in Varese, my girlfriend Chiara drove over after work last night and we had dinner together.

As our team hotel was fully booked and we are not allowed change hotels by the Tour organisation, she found a hotel 15km away and came to the start this morning, where we had a cup of coffee with my dad.

Also there, was one of the big bosses of my team sponsor Ag2r, Monsieur Breton, who is a big cycling fan and would be following the race in a guest car during the stage.

For the past couple of days there has been a knocking noise coming from my bike. Having searched everywhere for the root of the problem, last night the mechanics stripped it down and noticed a crack in the frame. They worked late into the night to transfer my whole groupset, saddle, bars and wheels onto a new frame for this morning's start.

With three Hors Categorie mountains en route to the highest ever Tour stage finish atop the 28km long Col du Galibier, today was always going to be the toughest day on this Tour.

Once again, my Ag2r team wanted to have a man in the break, so I tried a couple of times before finally riding across to a big move after 35km.

A few kilometres later, 20 of us began to ride away from the peloton. By the time we reached the bottom of the biggest climb of the Tour, the Col d'Agnel, we had a nine-minute lead on the peloton, but we all knew that it would be tough to survive to the finish. The fastest climbers were behind us and after sheltering in the bunch all day, they could take minutes out of us on the final mountain.

The Leopard-Trek team had two guys in the break; Maxime Monfort and Joost Posthuma. Both good climbers, they had been sent up the road so they could help their team leaders, Andy and Frank Schleck, if they needed them later in the stage. The BMC team of Cadel Evans also had the same idea, with Brent Bookwalter and Marcus Burghardt in the group, as did Sammy Sanchez' Euskaltel squad with Pablo Urtasun and Ruben Perez also there.

Although I was the highest-placed rider on GC in the move in 21st, I would need over 14 minutes at the finish to be any threat to the yellow jersey and was just hoping to get as much time as possible before the chase began.

As we climbed, we heard there were attacks coming from the bunch and by the time we got to the top of the first 20km long climb our advantage had been cut to five minutes.

Our numbers had been cut too. While the gradient and an acceleration by Posthuma in the final 3km of the Agnel accounted for five or six guys losing contact with my group, Mickael Delage was almost run over by the Katusha team car before he got dropped. I heard a bang, turned around and saw the Frenchman's back wheel under the front tyre of the car. They had tipped it with the bonnet moments earlier.

On the way up the second climb, the Col d'Izoard, a race vehicle drove by us with Monsieur Breton in it. He had his head stuck out the window. "Allez Nico! Allez!" No pressure then!

Posthuma set an incredible tempo on the climb. His steady pace saw more guys get dropped, leaving about eight of us together before Maxim Iglinsky of Astana messed it up by attacking near the top.

Having noticed that some of the guys that were now dropped had descended better than me off the Agnel, I accelerated near the top of the Izoard to have a bit of sliding room on the way down and crested the summit in second place with Monfort just behind me. I also knew that Andy Schleck had attacked the peloton at the bottom and was just two minutes behind us going over the top, with the peloton a further two minutes down.

I chased Iglinsky down the far side while Monfort sat up and waited for his team leader Andy Schleck. About halfway down, these two caught me and flew past with Belgian Dries Devenyns of Quickstep and Russian Egor Silin of Katusha in tow. Now riding for the yellow jersey, the onus was on the Leopard-Trek duo to do all the work, and apart from Devenyns, who gave them a hand now and then, the rest of us let them at it.

I was having a hard time just sitting in the wheels as Monfort drilled it in the valley and I knew the final climb would be savage. Silin and Devenyns were dropped on the early slopes. Shortly after, Monfort expended his last joules of energy for his leader and left Andy Schleck alone on the front as myself and Iglinsky hung on for dear life.

We had three minutes and 10 seconds with 25km to go as Andy Schleck drove on relentlessly ahead of me. It was really windy on the climb and I couldn't help but be impressed with the lanky Schleck as he made me grimace in his wake. I didn't care what was happening behind. I just wanted to hang on until as near the summit finish as possible. After 15km of slow, grinding torture, with 10km to go, I couldn't handle the burning pain in my legs any more and had to let go.

At that stage I was third rider on the road, but knew I couldn't hold off the chase group containing Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, Frank Schleck and yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler for much longer. When Evans led the yellow jersey group up to me with 3km to go, I tried to hold onto them, but could only last about 300m at their pace. Then another group led by American Christian Vande Velde caught me and I tried to stay with them, but couldn't manage more than 200m.

I couldn't do much more today. I completely cracked in the last 3km. When I crossed the line, I was in bits. I came to a complete standstill and prayed that someone would catch me before I fell off the bike. I spent just short of six hours and 13 minutes in the saddle, five minutes less than stage winner Andy Schleck. On a day like this, though, it doesn't matter if you are in the break or in the last group on the road, there is no hiding place. You are going to suffer.

Green jersey Mark Cavendish is not built for days like this and he finished in a large group of 85 riders over 35 minutes down. Outside the time limit set for the stage, the group should have been sent home, but because the stage was so hard, the guys all stuck together and the group was so big the organisers couldn't throw them out. If they did, half the peloton would be gone home. Cav was docked 20 points in the points competition, though, and will have to fight to keep his green jersey.

I'm trying not to think about Alpe d'Huez on Friday. I think my legs are going to burn in the morning.

Tour de France,

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