Cycling: 'I'm proud to be Irish and proud of the support I've received. I hope I have been a good ambassador'
Stage 19: Saturday, July 24 -- Bordeaux to Pauillac (52km), Individual Time Trial
In a time trial there is no peloton to hide in, no team-mates to bring you bottles or shelter you from the wind. There is no drafting. Each rider starts a couple of minutes apart and their efforts are timed over a set distance.
It's just you against the stopwatch. Whoever covers the distance in the fastest time wins. It's that simple. It's why the French call the time trial 'the race of truth'.
Today, on the 52km ride from Bordeaux to Pauillac, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck would find out which one was telling the truth when they both said they could win this year's Tour. Me? I would find out if I could hold onto the 15th place overall that I targeted on the first day of this diary over three weeks ago.
This morning at 7.30, I was woken by a knock on the door by the UCI 'vampires', so called because they come in the dark and take your blood. The anti-doping officers selected myself and team-mate Christophe Riblon for our third random anti-doping test of this year's race.
Half awake, we were individually brought to a room where we had to give blood and urine samples. I have absolutely no qualms about the tests and believe they are a good thing.
I have lost count of the number of times I've been tested since taking up cycling as an amateur, but I'm still afraid of needles. Dope tests cost money and some anti-doping bodies buy cheaper needles to save money. With needles, seemingly the cheaper they are, the bigger they are.
Maybe the sight of a massive needle about to be stuck into your vein would be less horrific if it was a beautiful young girl in a nurse's uniform who carried out the tests, but no, it's usually some old guy who doesn't look like he knows what he's doing.
Mark Cavendish recently recalled a dope test where the independent dope test guy for the Columbia team stuck a massive needle in one side of a rider's arm and out the other.
I tried not to think about that though, as the guy flicked the rather large-looking syringe with his finger and aimed it in my direction. As usual, I just looked away and pretended nothing was happening.
In cycling there is an old wives' tale that you never shave the night before a time trial or a hard day. The logic used is that the energy used to grow back your stubble could be better used in the race. If I had gone unshaven before every hard day on this Tour, I'd look like Grizzly Adams now. But this morning I arrived down for my breakfast of pasta and an omelette with a bit of fluff on my chin. I was leaving nothing to chance.
After breakfast, I went for an hour's training with Christophe and John Gadret. We rode our time-trial bikes for an hour and a quarter just to get the feel of the new, more aerodynamic position and get used to the tri-bars and different set-up of the bikes.
After training, I had a coffee with my dad, who had taken a break from his commentary job in the Eurosport studio in London to see me ride the final time trial. We had a chat about the stage and he told me to stay focused, ignore all the media and cameras and that once I got on the bike for my warm-up to just concentrate on my job and try to ride the best time trial possible.
In the start area, I hopped on my time-trial bike again, which was set up on a home trainer beside the team bus. For 40 minutes I warmed up, ignoring everything around me and just staring at my handlebars as the house music pumped in my ears.
I progressively began to raise my heart rate to 130bpm for a few minutes, then 140bpm. I did about 15 minutes at that and then did one or two sprints to get the heart up again.
I slowly went up to 150bpm, then 160bpm for another while and did a few sprints to get up to 170bpm. Today was a really long time trial and it would be spent riding at threshold, just under the point where my body begins to produce lactic acid.
A couple of minutes before I was due to start, I took off my glasses, which were covered in sweat, and put on my spare ones. To eliminate the risk of a puncture on the gravel-strewn car park, I hopped on my road bike to ride across to the start house as my mechanic ran beside me, carrying my time-trial bike.
Today there was no time for nerves in the start house. I knew what I had to do. I could not lose any more than a minute and 56 seconds to Astana's Alexandre Vinokourov if I wanted to keep my 15th place overall. I took a few deep breaths and really concentrated hard as the timekeeper counted down. Cinq. Quatre. Trois. Deux. Un. Go.
In the first few kilometres, my dad and team manager Vincent Lavenu, in the team car behind, were a bit worried.
I had started off slower than usual but once I got out of the city, I picked up speed and put the hammer down. Vincent spoke to me through my earpiece and sometimes over the megaphone attached to the roof of the car.
My dad had told me they weren't going to lie to me during the stage. They would give me all of the time gaps of the guys near my position overall, especially Vinokourov's, and if I was doing bad it would be up to me to ride harder, if I could.
The wind had really picked up for the later riders and all of the GC contenders were at least four minutes slower than the earlier starters. At the first time-check, I had lost 38 seconds to Vino. I knew I was still on target but I couldn't afford to crack towards the end or I would lose my 15th place.
I never looked at my speedometer once. I picked a point, focused on it and then picked another one and focused on it, until I got to the finish. For some reason, Vino's second time-check never came over the radio.
My dad's nerves got the better of him and he actually rang the race director Jean Francois Pescheux and asked him for the time gap. With 20km to go, I had only lost 58 seconds, so I knew I was capable of holding on to the finish.
In the end, I held onto my 15th overall by 47 seconds and I was actually coming close to 14th overall as I was riding faster than Radioshack's Andreas Kloden, just missing out by 23 seconds. It was probably the best time trial I have done in my career thus far.
Stage 20: Sunday July 25 -- Longjumeau to Paris (102.5km)
I was up at 7.30 this morning for the drive to Bordeaux train station. Here the whole of the Tour boarded the high-speed TGV train for the three-hour transfer to this morning's start in Longjumeau.
Today's stage was relatively straightforward. The fight for overall positions was over and all that was left was a stage victory for one of the sprinters and the battle for the green jersey.
It's amazing how everybody gets a buzz from the moment we arrive onto the Champs Elysees, though, and the pace increases rapidly until the end. The spectator-lined streets of Paris and the knowledge that it's the last day of racing after three hard weeks encourages everyone to squeeze the last drop of energy out of themselves and you have to stay really focused and concentrated for the whole stage.
After a couple of breakaway attempts were reeled in, Mark Cavendish once again showed he is the fastest sprinter in the world and took his fifth stage win of this year's Tour as Alberto Contador crossed the line with his hands in the air to take his third Tour de France win. I crossed the line tired but happy in 28th place to retain my 15th place overall.
My team had two targets coming into this Tour. One was winning a stage; the other was for me to finish in the top 15. We achieved both, but financially we will not be much better off than we were three weeks ago.
As usual with every race, our prize money from the Tour will be divided among all of the riders on the Ag2r La Mondiale squad. It will be split in 28 parts. Our biggest payday on this Tour was when Christophe Riblon took €8,000 for his mountain stage win, so we didn't exactly go home with a wad of cash in each of our pockets.
I earned €2,000 for 15th place, divide that by 28 and you'll see why professional cyclists don't exactly make Premier League footballers envious.
To mark my first Tour as a team leader and to thank all of the riders on the team -- Maxime, Christophe, Rinaldo, John, David, Martin, Lloyd and my new room-mate Dmitri for their help over the past three weeks -- I decided to buy them a gift.
As a souvenir of this year's Tour, I bought the riders and my manager Vincent a Festina Tour edition watch and when we had a quiet minute on the bus after the stage, I gave them one each.
I realise that all of the guys put their personal goals to one side for three weeks to try and help me do the best I can and it was just a small gesture to show that I really appreciate all they did for me.
Riding the Tour can sometimes feel like you're living in the Big Brother house for three weeks. Everybody has their arguments, but nobody ever wins anything in cycling on their own and each of those guys really helped me during the Tour. They were very happy with the gesture and I was equally happy to do it.
My girlfriend Chiara flew over from Italy today. My mother and my two biggest fans, my younger brothers Florian and Alexi, also came from Nice to see me finish in Paris today. Florian is still recovering from a battle with leukaemia that saw him having to stay in his room for months on end afterwards, so it was great to see him out on his first big trip away from home since his recovery.
They both know I love cooking so they bought me a present of a cookery book and we had a laugh at the start and finish today. It was really great to see them. My sister Christel also flew over from Dublin and although she had to catch another flight back pretty soon after the stage, I really appreciated her being there.
After the final stage, it's mental. On the bus, some of the French guys were grabbing suits as they had to go and meet President Sarkozy. The rest of us were trying to get ready for the big team dinner we will have later on tonight. All of the team sponsors and bosses come to visit us and tonight it will be non-stop until 3.0am.
I will probably have a beer or two tonight, but that will be it. The season doesn't end today though, and I will be riding the San Sebastian Classic in Spain on Sunday, so I'll celebrate with a pizza with Chiara tomorrow instead.
For now, I am happy with my 15th place overall but, like I said before, I am the kind of guy who always wants to do better. I would have liked to be closer to the top 10, so there is also a bit of disappointment. I think that's what makes me progress every year though. Nobody ever moves forward by being happy where they are.
When I got second or third on stages last year, they were good moments but only one moment can make you forget about all the sacrifices you have made in the months or years before.
In cycling, that moment is the one when you cross the line with your hands in the air and a smile on your face. The thing about cycling is, only one guy can win from a bunch of 200 riders and there are periods of days, weeks or months in between those victories.
Even if it's only a couple of days since my last victory, those couple of days will not be totally happy ones. If I was satisfied with what I did every day, then eventually I'd just stay in bed and not bother. I am a competitor. I am passionate about what I do. Every day I give 100pc, but afterwards I always wish I could have done better.
When I race, I try to be an ambassador for Ireland. I take every opportunity to promote not only the sport of cycling, but the country, to fans, riders and journalists alike. I tell people to come on holidays, go to a GAA match, ride the Ring of Kerry, have a pint of stout. I'm proud to be Irish and proud of the support I've received this past three weeks.
Thanks again to everybody, and there were hundreds of you, who made the trip over to stand at the side of the road and wave a tricolour or cheer me on.
I've had fantastic responses to this diary every day from countless people from all over Europe, Australia, America, and even Asia, who have read it online. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope I have been a good ambassador.