Sunday 22 October 2017

'Now we'll get a first glimpse of who is in shape and who's not'

Nicolas Roche

Friday, July 5, Stage 7: Montpellier to Albi (205.5km)

My dad has been on this Tour de France ever since it started in Corsica on Saturday. Working for one of the race sponsors, he has been at every stage start and every stage finish, but the race has been so hectic that I hadn't seen him once until he called to our team hotel for a quick chat last night.

He dropped by with a belated birthday present from my granny but because he had a long transfer to his hotel ahead of him and I was in the middle of a post-stage massage, we just had a 10-minute chat about the stage and how things were going before he had to head off again.

We were only a few kilometres into today's stage when I was involved in my first crash of the Tour, as the peloton turned from a decent-sized dual carriageway onto a very narrow bridge barely the width of a car. Inevitably, there was an accordion-like squeeze in the middle of the peloton and somebody touched a wheel and went down.

As we had been riding about 20 abreast and now tried to fit into a space made for four or five at most, it was no surprise that the road was quickly blocked with riders trying to untangle themselves from each other and their bikes.

It's easy enough to be caught up in a crash like that through no fault of your own. All it takes is for a shunt to happen the moment you are putting a bottle to your lips or reaching into your back pocket for some food. You have one hand off the handlebars and therefore take longer to react. You pull whatever brake you have the other hand on, but you're already off balance and know it's not going to end well.

Although this didn't happen to me and I managed to stop in time, a few guys from behind smacked into the back of my bike, busting up my rear wheel and breaking the adjustable screw that tightens and loosens my back brakes. I also got a nice bang in the knee and on the quad which was sore for a while but was forgotten about as the day went by.

The first thing every cyclist thinks about when they crash is getting back up and getting back into the bunch.

BROKEN

As everyone picked broken bits of bikes up off the road I radioed back to the team car to let the mechanic know I'd be needing a new back wheel. My Saxo-Tinkoff team-mate Jesus Hernandez was held up with me. He didn't fall either but was caught in the middle of the pile-up and couldn't move left or right.

As the mechanic clambered through the melee and replaced my wheel, I could see the peloton in the distance and took some comfort from the fact that some of the riders were drifting off the back for a pee. The early break had just formed and the peloton had not yet decided whether to set off in chase, so it didn't take us too long to get back to the front.

As soon as we hit the second category climb of the Col de la Croix de Mounis after about 90km, the Cannondale team of Peter Sagan went to the front and put the pressure on. Their aim was to rid the peloton of as many top-heavy sprinters as they possibly could on the climb, thereby leaving Sagan – who had finished second three times already – with a better chance of winning the stage and earning more points towards the green jersey classification.

They did an amazing job and once they had got rid of stage winners Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel and others, they continued to ride hard to make sure they wouldn't regain contact before the finish.

By the time we got to the intermediate sprint after 135km, Sagan had another 20 points in the bag towards his green jersey, while Cavendish and Co were almost three minutes down. Sagan's squad took a bit of a breather after the sprint but immediately three guys took advantage of this brief lull to attack.

The fact that one of them was a stage two winner and former yellow jersey – Jan Bakelants of RadioShack – meant that the lull didn't last too long.

Bakelants had started the day just 34 seconds down on race leader Daryl Impey, so the yellow jersey's Orica GreenEdge team soon joined the pace setting with Cannondale and the speed was straight back up again.

There were seven of my Saxo-Tinkoff team in the front group and in the final kilometres our Italian sprinter Daniele Bennati said he'd like to do the sprint. Although we couldn't really help him, in case we got caught up in a crash and couldn't help Alberto Contador later in the Tour, Benna got himself into a nice position on eventual winner Sagan's wheel with about 300m to go and ended the stage in third place, as I drifted home in 32nd.

Benna's result is good for the team morale as we head into the Pyrenees.

Tomorrow we have the first serious mountains and I think we will definitely have a new yellow jersey at the finish.

I remember the final climb from 2010 and it's very hard. I will be there to give my all to make sure Alberto is still in contention when we hit the last two climbs, although I don't expect to be up there at the finish tomorrow.

I think tomorrow we will have a first glimpse of who is in shape and who's not. Although we still have two weeks to go, I think the stage will tell us a lot more about who will be challenging for that final yellow jersey in Paris.

Tour de France, Live, TG4, 12.25/Eurosport, 12.45/ITV 4, 1.30

Irish Independent

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