Nicolas Roche: 'Sooner or later the hard work I've put in has to pay off'
With the final stage to Paris seen as nothing more than a chance for the sprinters to earn another stage win, today's penultimate stage of the Tour de France was the last day where anyone could shake up the overall classification.
Saturday, July 20, Stage 20:
Annecy- Semnoz, 125km
While Chris Froome's yellow jersey looked pretty safe this morning, the British rider holding a five minutes and 11 seconds lead over my Spanish team leader Alberto Contador, there was only 21 seconds from Alberto to third-placed Nairo Quintana and 46 seconds back to fifth-placed Joaquim Rodriguez.
Another of my team-mates, Roman Kreuziger, began the day in fourth, 33 seconds behind Alberto.
While it was going to be very difficult to take five minutes out of Froome and win the Tour today, we were going to have a go, and also thought we might sneak Roman onto the podium with a bit of luck.
Leading the team classification by three minutes and 39 seconds this morning, my Saxo-Tinkoff team-mates knew we couldn't afford to let riders from nearest rivals Radioshack or Ag2r up the road in any early moves.
When the oldest man in the race, Jens Voigt of Radioshack, infiltrated the first move of the day there was some cause for concern until, moments later, the Spanish Movistar team of Quintana led the chase, dragging us over the first five mountains just a minute or so behind the escapee.
With around 40km to go, Roman suffered his second puncture of the day on the descent of the penultimate climb, the first-category Mont Revard. Daniele Bennati stopped with him straight away, as did Matteo Tosatto, while I freewheeled in the cavalcade behind the peloton aiming to bring him back up through the final cars to regain contact.
Roman panicked a little bit on the descent, took a few risks and was absolutely flying when he got to the car behind me. I didn't see him coming and he went by me like a rocket, so I ended up chasing him rather than helping him.
'Benna' then made a huge effort to get us to the front with about 25km to go and just 3km before the final mountain of this year's Tour.
Sky absolutely nailed it into the climb, and it soon became clear that Mick Rogers hadn't recovered from yesterday's efforts and was having an extremely hard day, which meant that either myself or Jesus Hernandez would be the third man counting towards the daily team classification at the summit.
Sky's pace soon whittled the group down and the first time I looked back, there were only two riders behind me. Jesus was nowhere to be seen and, not feeling too hot myself, I was a bit worried about cracking on the mountain.
I breathed a sigh of relief minutes later as the little climber emerged from the wheel of the last rider and rode up to mine. By now there were only about 14 of us left at the front. When double stage winner Rui Costa attacked for Movistar with 9km to go, I couldn't hold the pace and drifted back to a group with American Andrew Talansky and Dane Jakob Fuglsang.
But they were going way too quick for me and I went backwards again, riding alongside Basque climbers Mikel Nieve and Igor Anton for a bit before being overtaken by a group containing Radioshack duo Andy Schleck and Maxime Monfort. I ended up 25th, to sit 41st overall.
At the top, I was happy to learn that Alberto, Jesus and Roman had all finished in the top 10, meaning we'd won the team classification outright, but then found out that Alberto had lost his podium place to both Quintana and Rodriguez, who had crossed the line first and second respectively.
Every morning on this Tour, my Saxo-Tinkoff team woke up thinking we could win the Tour with Alberto, thinking of a plan to do just that. Every morning we were optimistic. This morning was no different.
We started the stage hoping Alberto would hold onto second and Roman was going to move into third, but instead they dropped to fourth and fifth respectively. We gave as much as we could and can't be looking for excuses. Quintana and Rodriguez made the most out of their climbing ability today and were simply stronger.
Sunday, July 20, Stage 21:
As we were flying to the later-than-usual stage start this morning, we had to send our bikes and suitcases with the team truck last night.
While I agree with the idea of holding the stage in the evening to be able to show off the lights of Paris and have a few fireworks to celebrate the hundredth edition of the Tour, I think today's final stage was too long, with 14km of neutralised section before the 133.5km stage.
With all the posing with champagne glasses in the early kilometres, nobody really races until we get to the Champs Elysees anyway, so why not cut the stage to 100km?
I was 122nd in today's stage to finish 40th overall. A few minutes before Froome went home with the final yellow jersey of this Tour and 26 years after my dad stood on the top step, I finally stood on the Tour de France podium today.
While my Saxo-Tinkoff team came into this Tour with the aim of winning the race overall, we ended up winning the team classification instead. It was an amazing experience to be up there with all my team-mates and a nice reward for all of our hard work.
I realise now how important a strong team is if you want to break into the top five in the Tour. You also need them to believe in their leader. That was our strength.
After dinner every night we hung around, drank tea and chatted in a great atmosphere. There were never any thoughts of giving up the hunt for yellow until the very death.
While I haven't been racing to win the Tour this year, I've had a lot of responsibility within the team and a lot of work to do since we left Corsica three weeks ago. I've enjoyed this Tour and think I did my bit for the team.
I helped close a gap for Alberto on stage 10, and helped open a one-minute split for him in the crosswinds of stage 13. I got in a breakaway on stage 16, although I didn't have the legs to make the most of it and then rode hard to keep us in front in the team classification on Friday's 19th stage to Le Grand Bornand.
I learned a lot from riding alongside guys like Matteo Tosatto, who has ridden 27 Grand Tours and still has so much enthusiasm for the bike.
I've also learned a lot from riding for Alberto. He is meticulous about his bike and equipment, even down to the air pressure in his tyres.
Alberto wakes up in the morning and, for him, it's all about winning. He's not satisfied with second place. Second, third or 20th is all the same to Alberto. Every day, he wakes up and says 'today were going to try this,' or 'we're going to try that'. If it works great; if not, it doesn't matter. He tweeted yesterday that the 2013 Tour is almost finished and he's already excited about 2014. That's how he is. He's got incredible mental strength.
After today's final stage, we barely had time to shower on the team bus and don our suits before heading to a post-Tour dinner with the sponsors.
This year the organisers have invited every rider that ever finished the Tour to a special centennial celebration party. While Ireland will be missing our first ever stage winner and yellow jersey, the late Shay Elliot, we will be represented by my dad Stephen, my uncle Lawrence, Sean Kelly, Martin Earley and Paul Kimmage.
I'd like to thank the Irish fans for all of their support over the past three weeks, whether on the roadside or at home. I've been cheered on and supported as if I've been riding for yellow here and I really appreciate every shout, every message and every tweet of encouragement.
Sooner or later, the hard work I've put in over the past three weeks has to pay off and I'll be back in action on Saturday at the San Sebastian Classic, before tackling the Vuelta Espana.
But first, having been up since 7.30 this morning, and knowing that I won't get to bed until around four in the morning, I reckon I'm going to sleep most of tomorrow.