Nicolas Roche: 'When I tried to accelerate at the end I really went into the hurt box'
My team-mate Sebastien Minard is very sick and has been vomiting since yesterday. He didn't come down for dinner last night and couldn't eat much at breakfast this morning.
In the first big test of this year's Tour, today we would tackle the first-category La Hourquette d'Ancizan, followed by the Hors Category Col du Tourmalet at 175km with another Hors Category, the tough finish to the ski station at Luz Ardiden, after 211km. If the rest of us had a test, then Seb had a nightmare ahead of him. He ended up over half and hour behind the stage winner.
On the Tourmalet, the Leopard-Trek team of the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, set a really fast pace the whole way up. Some of the guys ahead of me on the GC started to get dropped.
Peter Velits, who was seventh overall this morning, had two bike changes before the climb and didn't regain contact with the front of the peloton. Then Jacob Fuglsang (10th) was dropped while Tony Martin (sixth) also lost contact with my group near the top. Andreas Kloden was at the back of the group, suffering from a crash on the descent of the first climb.
I knew that if things stayed the way they were, I was on the way up the overall standings, but I also knew that the final climb to Luz Ardiden was sure to see the likes of Alberto Contador and some of those behind me on GC put in an attack and possibly overtake me.
Going over the top of the Tourmalet, I was handed a newspaper by one of our Ag2r La Mondiale soigneurs. We were now above the cloud line and I shoved the paper up my jersey to stop my chest getting cold on the 95kph descent, which was almost as hard as the climb itself.
Yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler led us down out of the clouds before my team-mate Christophe Riblon went clear on the twisting descent in a little group containing Sammy Sanchez and Philippe Gilbert. Christophe is a great descender and the idea was that if he could get a bit of a gap on the way down, he would be up the road on the last climb if I needed him.
The climb to the top of Luz Ardiden is 15km long, but there is a 2km drag before you even reach the official slopes. Again, the Leopard-Trek team set a fast tempo on the lower slopes and our group whittled down even more with 10km to go.
Sylvester Szmyd is one of those guys that can ride really hard and steady for a long time on a mountain and when he took over on the front of the group for his team leader Ivan Basso, the pace increased ever so slightly. The extra kilometre or two an hour was enough to see more guys exit the group through the back door.
With 8km to go, I was starting to suffer too and if I'd kept it up was in danger of blowing my lights before we got near the finish. I didn't want to put myself in the red too early on the first big day because there was a risk of losing five or six minutes, so I just let the wheel go, rode at my own pace and began to drift out the back.
My team-mate Hubert Dupont came back with me and then Christophe, who had been caught, saw me and rode with me too. The two guys did an amazing job for me, leading me through the hordes of Bastille Day fans to the finish. I tried to give Hubert a hand at one point but he told me to just stay on his wheel.
He set the perfect tempo and all I had to do was follow him, telling him to go slower or quicker according to how I felt. At one point I asked him to ride a bit quicker but when Hubert accelerated I realised I wasn't going as well as I thought and had to tell him to ease up again.
The last kilometre was really hard. We could see some of the guys -- Rein Taaramae and Kevin de Weert -- getting dropped from the front group and I kept telling Hubert to go for it and try to catch them while he kept telling me to hang in behind him.
We overtook them in the final kilometre but when I tried to accelerate I really went into the hurt box. In the final sprint to the line, Hubert dropped me in the last few hundred metres and I finished 17th on the stage. I'd lost two minutes and two seconds to stage winner Sanchez.
I'd hoped to take back a bit of time on Voeckler but he put in a great display to finish ninth and put another minute into me, leaving me four minutes and 57 seconds off the race lead. I don't know how long he can keep the yellow, but fair play to him for trying.
After the stage, I changed my vest and put on a thermal jacket for the 25km ride back down the mountain to the team bus. On the way up, I had heard a familiar roar. It was my uncle Peter cheering me on from behind the barriers. Although I didn't see him at the time, I knew he would be walking back down the climb and kept an eye out for him as we weaved our way down through the throng of spectators.
As the crowd were now using the full width of the road to walk on, it took ages to get down the climb. Near the bottom I spotted Peter and myself and Hubert stopped for a two-minute chat. I got back to the bus at 6.30 and after a bit of food and a shower we had another 100km drive to the hotel. No one was expecting to get dinner before 10!
With Hubert, myself and Jean-Christophe Peraud finishing in the top 26 today, our Ag2r La Mondiale squad were best team on the stage and moved up to third overall in the team classification. As we have a French sponsor, this classification is very important for the team and we have made good progress after a disastrous start saw the whole team crash in the first day.
I'm happy to be 10th overall after the first big day in the mountains but a bit disappointed to have only finished 17th on the stage.
I thought I would have been in the top 10 or 12, but I lost a bit of time to guys like Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer, who will be my direct rivals for a top-10 placing overall.
Realistically, though, with all the crashes and time off the bike I've had this year, today was my first big mountain stage since last year's Tour of Spain, almost a year ago, so I have to be pleased.
Tour de France,
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