Wednesday, September 16, Stage 17: Grenoble to Meribel (170km)
Climbs on the Tour de France were originally ranked in toughness according to what gear the race organiser had to use to get up them in his car.
If he could get up them in fourth gear, they were ranked fourth category. If it took first gear to get up them, they were ranked the hardest, or first category.
In 1979, a new category of Hors catégorie (out of category) was designated to those mountains that a car wasn’t expected to be able to get up.
Today, we were expected to get up two of those.
With both the Col de la Madeleine and the summit finish to Col de la Loze each taking around an hour to climb, the plan was just to stay safe and finish within the time limit, which proved hard enough.
When you’re flat-out doing 50kph at the start of a big mountain stage, you know it’s going to be a hard day.
When a big move containing 21 riders went clear after 24km, we had Soren (Kragh Andersen) and Nikias (Arndt) in it, but the group broke up on an uncategorised climb about 5km later and Julian Alaphilippe, Gorka Izagirre, Richard Carapaz, yesterday’s stage winner Lenny Kamna, and my cousin, Dan Martin, were the only ones left out front.
When I heard who was up ahead, I knew it was a good breakaway full of great climbers, but the peloton never really let them get enough time to stay clear to the finish and, ultimately, ruined their chances.
As we hit the 17km-long Madeleine after 88km, they had six minutes – but their advantage began to drop when the Bahrain McLaren team suddenly went to the front of the peloton and upped the tempo for their Spanish team leader Mikel Landa on the mountain.
As scores of riders got shelled out the back door, I found myself in a big group of about 50 going over the top.
For the first time on any Tour, I’ve being using a 36 chainring for the past few days and, boy, was I glad of it today.
The first 130km were identical to a stage of the recent Critérium du Dauphiné. As I climbed the Madeleine, I was wondering how the hell I had gotten over it on a 39 chainring a month ago.
On the descent, we caught another group and, after about 10km in the valley below, we started going uphill again as we headed towards the 20km grind to the summit finish.
In the middle portion of the fractured peloton, I had plenty of time to get to the finish, so I wasn’t too stressed and tried to take the last part a bit easier rather than pushing on like some of the other guys, but the last 10km were brutal.
As I tried to haul my tired carcass slowly towards the summit finish, my ego took a massive hit with about 4km to go when a spectator at the side of the road turned to his friend and said, “F***k! Look at this guy, he looks like he should be retired!” Thankfully, his friend replied, “What? Are you stupid? That’s Nico Roche!” which boosted my morale again.
I eventually crossed the line in a bedraggled group of six or eight riders, 28 minutes behind Colombian stage winner Miguel Ángel López.
Behind us, I knew that our sprinter Cees (Bol) and Casper (Pedersen) were in the grupetto, which also contained the green-jerseyed Sam Bennett.
As the clock ticked down, we were a bit worried about them making the time cut. In the end, they crossed the line a couple of minutes behind our group and lived to fight again tomorrow.
Fair play to Sam. For a non-climber, he had a tough battle, but he hung in there. Tomorrow, though, is likely to be the hardest stage of this Tour de France – and that’s saying something after this. If he can get through tomorrow’s stage, he has a great chance of wearing it in Paris.
After today’s stage, we had a 6km cycle down into the famous ski resort of Courcheval to the team bus.
Coming down the climb, the scenery was absolutely spectacular. It’s a place I wouldn’t mind visiting again, but maybe next time I’ll leave my bike at home.
Tour de France, Live Thursday, Eurosport/TG4, 10.55