Nicolas Roche: 'The middle of the climb was agony. It was a proper nightmare'
When I woke up this morning there was no inkling of the nightmare that lay ahead of me on today's stage. In fact I was feeling good and, having started the day in 11th place overall, I hoped to overtake at least one of my rivals and ride my way back into the top 10 on the way up the tough summit finish at Plateau de Beille.
Things were going to plan when both Christophe Riblon and my room-mate Maxime Bouet went clear in a 24-man group early on in the stage. They would be waiting to give me a hand when we caught them later on in the stage.
Although I didn't feel super, I got over the first three climbs of the day -- the second category Col de Portet d'Aspet, the first category Col de la Core and second category Col de Latrape -- reasonably well in the middle of the peloton. But the first signs of trouble were only a mountain away.
From the bottom of the first category Col d'Agnes, the Leopard-Trek team of the Schleck brothers hit the front of the peloton and set a blistering pace. At the bottom I was feeling okay but about halfway up the 10km ascent, I knew I was in trouble. I just wasn't feeling right at all. I had begun drifting towards the back of the group and was fighting to stay on the wheels. Having struggled for almost 9km, I finally went out the back door just over a kilometre from the top.
Just before I got dropped, Max had been reeled in by our group and he followed me out the back door and set about pacing me over the top. We rode hard together on the short descent but within minutes we hit the fifth climb of the day, the third category Port de Lers.
As the road went skywards again, Max was having a hard time staying with me after his efforts in the early break. I was desperate to regain contact with the favourites so I dropped him on the way up the 4km climb in the hope that I could catch the group, but I was nowhere near them at the top.
As world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara and Stuart O'Grady, two of the best descenders in the world, led the peloton down the 20km descent that followed, I knew I'd have to take a few risks if I was to get back on.
On the way down, I was going much quicker than the following cars. As I flew past each one at 90kph, they got out of my way, beeping their horns to warn the next one I was coming. I got a bit of a fright on one of the chicanes when I rounded a bend to see a bike lying in the middle of the road. With cars either side, there was nowhere for me to go but luckily its owner, one of the Sky riders, emerged from the ditch just in time to pull it out of the way at the last second. Just as I was about to make contact with the tail end of the group, about 2km from the valley floor, Max caught up with me. A good descender, Max must have dropped off the mountain like a stone.
The descent took a lot out of me and with just 20km to go until the final 16km climb to Plateau de Beille, I needed to recover. Max went back to the team car and brought me some food. I crammed in three or four energy gels and gulped down a full bottle in the hope that I could recuperate in time to stay with the group on the ascent to the summit finish.
Leopard-Trek continued driving at the front, leading us full pelt onto the bottom of the climb. I had Hubert Dupont and Max trying to keep me near the front, giving me a lot of moral support. Once we hit the right-hand bend at the bottom of the climb, I was determined to fight tooth and nail to hang in there but after 2km I was out the back. I had nothing.
My mountain minder Hubert dropped back with me. He kept upping the tempo slightly but I had nothing in my legs and he had to slow and wait for me each time. The middle of the climb was agony. I was in the saddle, out of the saddle, back in the saddle but it didn't matter. My legs were empty apart from the lactic acid that was steadily building up and burning with every pedal stroke. It was a proper nightmare. Team manager Julien Jourdie was in the car behind us and because of the noise of the crowd, he had to keep beeping the horn to tell Hubert he was going too fast.
I am always wary of taking bottles from spectators on the climbs as you never know what's in them but I grabbed three or four bottles of Vittel from fans on the mountain. Although I spilled most of them over myself to try and keep cool, I also took a few gulps of water. It was a life-saver.
Although still suffering, towards the top I felt a little better and we even passed a few riders. When I crossed the line, though, I saw we had lost almost seven minutes and was hugely disappointed. Without speaking to anyone, I rode through the finish area, back to the car and got changed for the ride back down to the bus and the two-and-a-half-hour drive to our next hotel. Hubert followed me and gave me a hug. On the bus I told the guys I was sorry but they said: "No worries, Nico. Just hang in there."
As I was going backwards on the climb, Jean-Christophe Peraud was yo-yoing on and off the front group all the way to the summit. He did a great ride to finish ninth on the stage and move up to 12th overall. He is our main man now and hopefully he can get into the top 10 over the next week.
If I had an explanation for today, it would be too easy. I wasn't feeling the best in Luz Ardiden on Thursday but I had a decent climb. Today I was just terrible. I don't seem to be recovering as well as I usually do, even though the only time I use my legs off the bike is going down for breakfast or dinner. I suppose it would be too easy if you could have a season like mine and then ride well in the biggest race in the world. Five weeks ago, I couldn't walk for five days after a crash. I was hoping the Tour would save my season, trying to convince myself this wouldn't happen and praying that if I did have a bad day that it might come on one of the flatter days.
I haven't had many bad days in the last few years and this has been probably the worst. I dropped to 18th overall, 11 minutes behind yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler. It's going to be impossible to get that back and unfortunately my original goal of a top-10 finish in Paris is gone now.
There were a lot of Irish fans on the climbs today and I feel sorry for them. I really wanted to achieve a good result and now I'm totally depressed. At the moment, I'm too p***ed off to think about my options for the rest of this Tour. I just want to get to the hotel and forget about today.
By now, the guys know to leave me alone after a bad day. I'm always grumpy. After a quieter than usual bus transfer to the hotel, they tried to cheer me up a bit in the hotel. "Don't worry", "Keep it going", "The Tour is not over, we have a nice week left in the Alps."
My dad was obviously disappointed but also reminded me there was a week of racing left. Having lost so much time yesterday, I have no choice now but to try and get into a breakaway that stays clear. Whether I want to try and win a stage or just move back up on the GC, I know I have to do that, but today it was not an option.
The last flat day of this year's Tour until we reach Paris, today was always going to be one for the sprinters, so I spent the stage recovering in the shelter of the bunch, which is a lot easier said than done. When the bunch is travelling at 50kph on the flat you don't exactly get much rest but I stayed near the front and tried to surf the peloton to stay sheltered each time the wind changed direction. Blel Kadri was down the back and he said he spent most of the day sprinting out of corners to hold the wheel in front of him.
As Cav took his fourth stage win, I rolled across the line in 20th place, knackered and looking forward to Monday's second rest day. I will take it very easy in the hope that I can recover and come back to some semblance of form. I don't want to go through this Tour unnoticed and will revert to my pre-GC-contender days of aggressive, attacking riding if I can. I have to try something. I know next week's stages by heart, having ridden all of them at training camp with the team. Some of them might suit me, but then I thought Plateau de Beille would suit me.
Chiara is coming to the race tonight and although there is no room in our hotel for any of the wives or girlfriends, I'm looking forward to having dinner with her and spending some time with her tomorrow. My mum is bringing my brothers Florian and Alexis to see me too, which will be great. I haven't seen them since I spent a few days with them after the last stage of Paris-Nice in March, so I'm looking forward to that.
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