Nicolas Roche: The sprinters dangled like a carrot ahead of us
Published 08/06/2015 | 02:30
Sunday, June 7, Stage 1: Ugine to Albertville (131.5km)
After a two-week altitude training camp with Team Sky in Tenerife, I managed to snatch three nights' sleep in my own bed before leaving for the south of France and today's opening stage of the Criterium du Dauphine, my final stage race before the Tour de France starts in just less than four weeks' time.
We got here a couple of days early so that my team-mates and I could recon Wednesday's team time trial route and do a little bit of last-minute tinkering with our bikes or position if necessary.
After the relative luxury of a hotel on top of Mount Teide in Tenerife, for the past three nights, we've been staying in a two-star motel on the side of a motorway in the Dauphine region of France.
I'm rooming with Letterkenny's Philip Deignan here, but the rooms are so small that we had to dump the chairs and any other superfluous furniture out into the corridor to be able to move around.
With no air conditioning in the rooms, everyone leaves their doors and windows open most of the time, but the noise of the traffic outside makes it feel as if you are sleeping in the overhead bunk of a truck headed down the M50.
It was so clammy last night that we all spent a couple of hours on the air-conditioned team bus watching TV before dinner in order to keep cool. Philip and I have been team-mates on various Irish teams over the years so we get along great but because he goes to bed a little bit later than I do and sleeps on a bit longer, every night I ready my clothes for the next morning so that I can sneak out for breakfast without having to rummage around in my case and wake him up.
Today's stage started at 11am so we had an 8am breakfast before driving to the start for our pre-race briefing. With 2013 winner Chris Froome as team leader here, the team talk has become pretty much standard by now. Keep Froomey safe and near the front until the team time trial stage on Wednesday and then we'll do our best to win the eight-day race in the high mountains, which begin on Thursday.
A strong headwind greeted us in the early kilometres this morning so there wasn't much interest in chasing four early escapees when they jumped clear around 14km into proceedings. They got seven minutes' advantage before some of the sprinter's teams - Cannondale-Garmin, Cofidis and Lampre in particular - began to take up the driving at the head of the peloton.
Today's opener was a bit like a world championship road race, with a tough little circuit including a short sharp third category climb to be covered six times in the last 80km. When we got onto the finishing circuit, just after the finish line each time, we went from a big wide road to a narrow cobbled pedestrian street before turning right onto the circuit's main climb, the 1.2km long Cote de Villard.
The early break was all but caught as we hit the climb for the seventh and last time, with just German Bjorn Thurau of the Bora-Argon 18 team dangling about half a minute clear with 13km to go.
A few groups began to splinter off the front of the peloton on the way up and my room-mate in Tenerife, Pete Kennaugh, got clear in a little move that included former world time trial champion Tony Martin of Etixx-Quickstep on the climb.
While we caught them again before the top, Pete was still feeling good and when another group of four riders edged away going over the brow of the hill, with 10km remaining, the British road race champion went with them too.
With the sprinters sniffing stage glory, though, we never slowed down behind them and they dangled like a carrot just ahead of us until the peloton finally snapped at their heels with 2km left. Pete, however, had sensed the danger and attacked the group seconds before the juncture was made and was now fighting to stay clear alone.
As I tried to keep Froomey near the front and out of trouble in the last kilometre and a half, we had our directeur sportif, Nicolas Portal, shouting in our earpieces as he watched the little screen in the team car that showed Pete hovering a few metres up the road.
Although the sprinters' teams tried their best to reel him in, Pete used the track speed that earned him an Olympic team pursuit gold in London to turn into the final straight alone. He managed to hang on and win the stage by just two seconds from Lampre's Italian sprinter Sacha Modolo and the rest of the peloton.
Having come into this race hoping to claim the overall victory with Froomey, Pete has given us a nice surprise by becoming the first race leader of this Dauphine and we all mobbed him after the line.
A 10-second time bonus for the stage win sees him lead the race now by six seconds with the rest of us 12 seconds back.
There is a really strong field at this Dauphine with defending Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali, Alejandro Valverde, Joaquin Rodriguez, Tejay Van Garderen and a host of top climbers here, so it's going to be a tough week but today has gotten it off to a pretty good start.