Nicolas Roche: 'We moved back up to third team overall, so my move today wasn't totally futile'
Wednesday, July19 Stage 17: Gap to Pinerolo 179km
After the rain and bad weather of the second week, I now have a bout of sinusitis and a bit of a cold. My nose is blocked, my voice is going and I'm starting to cough.
The team doctor put me on a course of antibiotics yesterday. They usually tire you out a bit more than usual, but I'm that tired now, I don't think it will make any difference. I think it's better to take them than to get worse and be completely wrecked.
Today was another 'medium' mountain stage, as the experts like to say. We had five climbs on the road to Gap, including the first category ascent to the alpine village of Sestrieres after 115km, a venue for the 2006 Winter Olympics.
With the bigger, longer, steeper, 20-30km climbs of Serre Chevalier and Alpe d'huez to come on Thursday and Friday, today was another chance to get into the main break of the day.
After another very fast start and constant attempts to escape, a 10-man group went clear after just 10km. As they hovered 40 seconds up the road, I tried to get across twice and got to within 10 seconds of them with world champion Thor Hushovd at the second attempt but never made it.
We got stuck in the middle for a good while, and when the bunch caught us it took me ages to recover. I was last man in the peloton for a while as I fought to catch my breath and find my legs again.
Those 10 were caught after 40km, however, as the constant attacking saw us cover 51.3km in the first hour again today.
A kilometre later, Eddy Boasson Hagen attacked and dragged 13 others clear. Within 20km they had two minutes and that was it for the day. My Ag2r la Mondiale team had messed up again by not having anyone in the move.
I didn't feel right again until the feed zone at Briancon after 87km. As we hit the bottom of the 10km climb to Montgenevre a few kilometres later, I didn't think I'd be able to fight with the top guys on the last climb, the second category Cote de Pramartino, so I decided to attack in the hope that I would build up a bit of a cushion before we reached it with 10km to go.
Unsurprisingly, not many people flinched when I made my move. The leading 10 had seven minutes advantage by then so the peloton probably thought I was crazy. I was hoping a couple of guys would come with me and while I knew we'd never make it across to the leaders, I thought we could still take four or five minutes on the rest of the race if we rode hard enough.
After I'd opened a gap, I looked back to see Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland, still sporting the bandages from his earlier altercation with a barbed wire fence, coming across to me. When I looked back a second time, I saw that Belgian Kevin de Weert was on his wheel. I couldn't have had two worse guys with me.
Although they are both strong riders, De Weert begun today's stage in 11th place overall, just 40 seconds ahead of my team-mate Jean-Christophe Peraud, which meant that straight away my directeur sportif, Vincent Lavenu, was in my earpiece telling me not to cooperate with the move while Hoogerland had a team-mate in the break and wouldn't ride either.
After a couple of minutes of trying to persuade us to help him, De Weert settled into a good steady pace and, slowly but surely, began to close the gap to the leaders on his own. I just sat on the wheel waiting for things to happen and hoping my boss would tell me to give him a hand at some stage.
I thought about riding with the Belgian. Okay, Jean-Christophe would have lost a place overall, but I definitely think De Weert will pay for his efforts in the next two days.
Even if he doesn't, I think Jean-Christophe, a former French national time trial champion, will take five minutes out of him in the race against the clock on Saturday. But the team were not so convinced and wanted to play it safe, so I continued to ride shotgun.
The way things turned out, if I had helped him, we might have made contact with the lead group and been fighting for the stage win in Pinerolo.
I didn't want to be the bastard sitting on the wheel all day, but I didn't want to mess up Peraud's chances either.
As we opened five minutes on the peloton and got to within two minutes of the break, De Weert kept plugging away on the first category climb to Sestrierres.
I started riding with him a little about 10km into the descent, with about 40km to go.
When I did eventually give him a hand he wanted me to ride more because he could see we were closing the gap to the break. In the end, we got to within 40 seconds of the leaders, so if I'd even just ridden on the whole descent from Sestriéres we would probably have made contact.
In the last 20km both lead groups were losing time to the peloton. On the hard bits, even if we only rode 40kph, we knew the bunch would only be able to do maybe 43kph, but with the strong tailwind, we could only do 53 or 54kph on the flat, whereas the bunch could hit 60/70kph and were taking back time hand over fist.
I knew the last climb and the descent. I stayed with De Weert as long as I could, but when I heard the bunch were within a minute and a half of us, I attacked him about a kilometre and a half from the top.
I took about 15 seconds on him straight away, but as guys in the break and the bunch, including race leader Voeckler, were overshooting bends left, right and centre, I descended pretty carefully and De Weert and one of the crash victims caught me again with about 2km to go.
I took 14th on the stage and moved up a place to 21st overall but it doesn't make any difference. Thursday is going to be a killer and Friday is going to be savage, too. I'll probably pay for today then.
After the stage, myself and Peraud had a dope test and as the rest of the guys had gone to the hotel when we came back, we had to get changed in the boot of the car.
Jean-Christophe told me he was really worried about De Weert being up the road with me today, but I tried to put him at ease by telling him that the Belgian only gained 26 seconds today and will definitely lose time on the Col du Galibier tomorrow.
We moved back up to third team overall, so my move today wasn't totally futile.
At the team de-briefing after the stage team boss Lavenu said he was disappointed because we missed the last two big breakaways.
He wanted to know why we didn't get in the move today. We told him that it was because we are going for the team prize, which adds the times of the first three riders of each team every day.
Garmin, Leopard-Trek and Europcar try to neutralise our moves at the start of the stage because they don't want to get overtaken in the classification and vice versa.
That's the problem with chasing different competitions. It works both ways. If another team goes, we have to ride on the front after them and it's pretty tiring.
There were loads of Irish fans on the race again today. They are so easy to spot with their massive tricolours, shamrock hats and inflatable hammers.
I had a few texts from Irish Moto GP rider Eugene Laverty today. He's following the Tour in a camper van for a few days. He says he will be on the Galibier tomorrow with an Irish flag. Maybe we can switch bikes at the top!