Wednesday 13 December 2017

If Richie Porte had a basket on his bike, all of our eggs would be in it

Nicolas Roche shadows his team-leader Richie Porte in Dusseldorf yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Nicolas Roche shadows his team-leader Richie Porte in Dusseldorf yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Nicolas Roche

Having been really disappointed to miss out on selection for the Tour de France last year, I'm delighted to be in Dusseldorf for the start of this year's 'Grand Boucle'.

In terms of global sporting events, the Tour de France is up there with the Olympics, the World Cup finals and the Super Bowl. It's the one bike race everybody has heard of.

When I first turned professional, I was deemed too young by my Cofidis team to ride the Tour and I can still remember going to a dentist one summer and trying to explain that yes, I was a professional cyclist but no, I wast riding the Tour de France.

"You're not riding the Tour?" he exclaimed. "What do you do for the rest of the year?"

When you first start to race a bike, you dream of winning the Tour de France.

Like all of those other sporting events however, only the select few get to achieve those dreams.

How many kids have dreamt about winning the World Cup final, only to realise that no matter how good they are their country is never going to make it to the final let alone them?

Maybe then they lower their ambition, aim for the Champions League, the Premier League, the SSE Airtricity League or whatever league their ability takes them to.

Cycling is much the same, you just begin to dream of other races; races more suited to your ability.

In reality, I realised I was never going to win the Tour de France a good few years ago but, thankfully, I can still help somebody else try to win it.

In 2015 I was part of the Sky team that helped Chris Froome win and it gave me almost as much satisfaction as if I'd won it myself.

This time around I'm riding for the Swiss BMC team and will be trying to help my new team leader and friend Richie Porte achieve his dream of going home with the yellow jersey.

Richie has had a stellar season so far, winning the Tour Down Under, a stage at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Romandie before winning a stage and finishing second overall at our final tune-up, the Criterium du Dauphine, last month.

Richie can climb and he can time trial and if he had a basket on his bike all of our eggs would be in it. I think he is one of the few riders who can realistically dream of wearing that yellow jersey into Paris in three weeks time.

For most riders, when the dream of winning the Tour de France outright fades, there is the glory of a stage win at the world's biggest race to be chased. But, like any of the previous years where I've gone into a Tour on a team that has a rider capable of winning the race overall, for me, and the rest of my BMC team-mates, that dream will have to wait as we commit ourselves to supporting our little Tasmanian Devil for the next three weeks.

Sitting here the day before the start, our main rival remains Froomey - even if he's had a quieter year than normal.

He's won the race three times already and he's still the favourite.

The little Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar is also a danger and at the Dauphine we saw that the Astana pairing of winner Jakob Fuglsang and newly crowned Italian champion Fabio Aru are going to be a threat.

I wouldn't rule my cousin Dan Martin out of the top five either, even if there aren't as many mountain-top finishes as usual. Then there are Simon Yates and Esteban Chaves of Orica-Scott, Alberto Contador and Bauke Mollema of Trek, Ag2r's Romain Bardet and others to worry about.

While the Tour may not be won on any given day, the problem is that it can be lost every single day.

Sometimes it's a lot easier to control things on a hard mountain stage than it is on a short lumpy day and if it's anything like the recent Dauphine, then the shorter stages could see the whole race blown apart.

The worst thing about the Tour for me, and for every rider, is the fear of crashing. While it's never really spoken about, I think everybody has that fear niggling in the back of their mind.

The Tour is the race where the most spectacular, high speed crashes have happened over the years and everyone knows that after putting so much work into getting ready for these three weeks in July, it can all be over in a split second.

The fact that it's the world's biggest bike race means everything is just pushed to the limits and the first week is the worst for nervousness and incidents. Most riders start the Tour knowing they're never going to win it, but it doesn't stop them trying in the first week.

That's the week where the dream is still alive.

Everybody fights for the first week. Nobody wants to give an inch or drop a few seconds. Everyone wants to ride at the front. Everybody sprints at the end of every stage.

On a windy day most of the peloton are panicking about crosswinds. But are there ever crosswinds for 180km?

With team radios nowadays, we all have the boss in our ears telling us 'look out for the bad corner, the crosswind section'. 'You need to be at the front at kilometre 92'

Trouble is, the whole bunch gets the same message from their team car and everybody can't be at the front at kilometre 92. Maybe nothing will even happen there, but if everybody is trying to get to the front at the same time, then something is probably going to happen and more often than not it's a crash.

People say the radios cause crashes but you can find any excuse; carbon rims, wind, rain, a bad bend, speed bumps, cobbles, but the truth is, it's the riders who cause the crashes, diving into corners to move up a few places, tearing down descents and trying to fit through gaps in sprints that don't exist.

One of the good things that has been introduced on this Tour is that the rule governing time splits in the flat bunch sprint stages is changed.

Previously, a one second gap between wheels was enough to be deemed a split in a bunch sprint, which meant riders like me and my team-mates had to fight to stay near the front in the sprints so that our GC contender wouldn't lose time in a split.

On this Tour they've increased the gap to three seconds, which is around a 50 metre gap at 60kph, and should be enough to allow GC contenders get out of the sprinters way in the last kilometres without losing time in the race for overall glory.

The increased time gap is something I suggested in my diary a few years ago and I'm glad they're trying it this year. It's probably going to take a few days for everyone to adapt to that rule, see how it works out but I think it's a great rule and should make things that bit safer in the sprints.

If we can get through this first week unscathed then things should start to settle down.

The unlucky ones will have already crashed out. Some will have lost their GC hopes and others will be purposely trying to lose time so that they'll be allowed go in the breakaway one day.

Once the Tour starts, there's not much time to enjoy it. A bit like a roller-coaster, the best part of it is when you climb off, take a breath and realise you survived.

Tour de France, Live Eurosport, TG4 and ITV4, 2.0

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