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'Having one bad day is one thing. But my Giro has been a nigthmare'

Saturday May 19, Stage 15: San Vito al Tagliamento to Monte Zoncolan (186km)

The peloton rolls past a field of rapeseed near Trim, Co Meath, during stage one of the Rás Tailteann. Photo: Bryan Keane/INPHO
The peloton rolls past a field of rapeseed near Trim, Co Meath, during stage one of the Rás Tailteann. Photo: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Nicolas ROCHE

This morning my BMC team were one of the squads woken up a bit earlier than usual for a random anti-doping test.

Having a blood sample taken at 7.30am is one way of making sure you're awake and ready for one of the hardest stages of the race, finishing on the ultra-tough ascent of Monte Zoncolan.

At the start we were greeted by Alessandro Di Marchi's fan club, who were there to celebrate his birthday, and as I was fourth on the climb back in 2014, when my team-mate Michael Rogers won, I was invited on to Eurosport before the stage to talk about the climb itself.

I was pretty active in trying to get into the breakaway today and got into a good few moves, but they were either too big to work together or were chased down before they made any headway on the peloton.

As we approached the first climb of the day, after about 40km, I was a bit worried that maybe I'd gone too deep into my reserves while trying to get away.

Although only a third category ascent, the Monte di Ragogna was pretty brutal so I was lucky that five or six riders eventually went clear before the bottom and the peloton rode steadily to the top.

After that, I just tried to look after Rohan Dennis for the day.

We just wanted to keep him safe near the front so I rode directly into the wind in front of him to keep him sheltered so that he could save his legs for the summit finish and also went back to the car a couple of times for bottles.

Attacks

By the time we'd descended off the next third category climb and headed into the feed zone after 116km, the attacks had split the bunch in four and there were only about 50 guys in the front portion of the peloton.

Luckily there was a 15km valley ahead and no team had the will to push on, so things settled down again.

The second category Passo Duron with 45 km to go saw Sunweb take up the pace, followed by Astana, and I was forced to drift back through the bunch.

I was in a big group with Fran Ventosa and we rolled through until we were caught by another grupetto from behind.

A lot of the time guys in the grupetto have no team car near them so they share drinks and food to get to the finish, but today most of us had soigneurs on the next two climbs so we were all looked after.

This has been a very tough Giro for me and I've made more friends in the grupetto this week than I've done in my whole career.

Although I think L'Angliru is harder, the Zoncolan is one of the toughest in cycling, so once we got there everybody just did their own thing to get to the top and the word 'spingi', the Italian for push, was used quite a lot in the group.

It started raining at the bottom so I put my rain jacket on, but within a kilometre I was overheating and took it off again.

The crowds were pretty enthusiastic, which was just as well as most of us were on our last legs.

I was with Fran for a long time, but near the top - even though I was in a granny gear of 36x30 - I was really struggling and ended up finishing with Jurgen Roelandts, who came up with another group behind us before the top.

I really struggled today, crossing the line half an hour after Chris Froome won the stage, but at least today I felt I was useful for the first 140km, riding for Rohan, rather than the two previous days where I was just hanging on at the back of the bunch.

Tomorrow, though, is going be tough if things don't improve.

Hopefully tonight there's a bit of birthday cake to ease the pain.

Sunday May 20, Stage 15: Tolmezzo to Sappada (176kms)

Last night was quite a late night in the hotel, but at least we had a slice of birthday cake for Demma's birthday. It was actually a pretty cool cake, they had mountains and his face on it.

Demma had his whole fan club waiting for him at the start again this morning as we left the bus and he was very keen to get up the road this morning.

Beginning with a 40km drag and followed by three more big mountains, originally the plan was for me to try and get into the breakaway on both today and yesterday's stages, but I've been feeling so bad here that 'Plan A' was scrapped after a talk with my directeur sportif last night.

When Irish team manager Kurt Bogaerts texted me this morning to see if I was going to go up the road, I replied that we had reverted to 'Plan B', which was simply get to the finish, recover on tomorrow's rest day, use Tuesday's time trial as another rest day and start again Wednesday.

Unfortunately, today Plan B was also scrapped.

About 3km from the summit of the first climb, after 36km, I couldn't hold the pace.

I was dropped but kept riding, hoping the breakaway would go clear before the top, and the peloton would ease up for a lot of the stage.

But that didn't happen.

Having descended alone, I got caught by a grupetto of about 20 riders after 65km, but soon I was struggling to stay with them.

With the time cut in mind, the group were riding hard on every drag and I was having a nightmare, bouncing in and out of the saddle, trying to push a big gear to hang on, but nothing was working.

Just before the feed zone, after 75km our second directeur sportif Valerio Pivo came up and asked how I was doing.

"I'm really suffering..."

"Hang in there Nico. Tomorrow is a rest day."

"I can't go any more."

I couldn't. I was just empty.

A few kilometres later we arrived at the feed zone where I pulled in and climbed off my bike beside our Soigneur Ton.

I was quite emotional so Ton simply gave me a big hug before I clambered into the team car, my Giro over.

Arriving at the finish in the car before the race, I just slumped into my seat on the bus and sat there for a while, numb.

My phone was going off the chart with worried messages from friends and family who had heard I was out so I just told them I hadn't crashed, I was okay, but I wasn't in the mood to talk just yet.

Having ridden 18 other Grand Tours, I was very proud of never having abandoned one of them and always wanted to finish my career without having ever abandoned one.

Even when I had a hard crash in the 2015 Vuelta, I kept going.

I struggled through the middle week, but came back and even won a stage near the end.

This Giro has been very different, though.

Having one bad day is one thing, but every day lately has been a bad day and the last few have been a nightmare.

I'm in the bus now and it's not that I'm feeling tired or sleepy.

It's just that I'm empty.

I've no energy and I just can't go any more.

Our bus had been stuck in traffic for 45 minutes now, sat opposite a roadside truck stop. The owner must have taken pity on us, as he's just come over to the bus with a bottle of beer for each of us.

I'll take a few days off and hopefully I'll bounce back in a few weeks' time, but tomorrow I'll fly to France to visit my brother Florian in hospital.

Irish Independent

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