Saturday 16 December 2017

Nicolas Roche: All I can think of is 'I just missed a stage win at the Tour de France'

Nicolas Roche (centre) struggles up the final incline as the Sky riders, including yellow jersey Christopher Froome cross the line at the end of the 28km team time-trial yesterday GETTY
Nicolas Roche (centre) struggles up the final incline as the Sky riders, including yellow jersey Christopher Froome cross the line at the end of the 28km team time-trial yesterday GETTY

Nicolas Roche

Saturday July 11, Stage 8: Rennes to Mur de Bretagne (181.5km)

Although we began today's stage with Chris Froome in the yellow jersey of race leader, sprinter Peter Sagan was just 11 seconds back in second place so our Sky team would not have been unduly worried if a group of seven or eight lowly-placed riders got away this morning and stayed clear to contest the finish, taking the 10 seconds time bonus on offer for the stage win.

In an effort to control things this morning we began the stage towards the front of the peloton and tried to oversee which groups got clear, chasing anything that was deemed too big or too dangerous.

While we were happy with the composition of some groups, the Lotto-Soudal team had other ideas and chased all of the bigger moves down, before finally allowing a four man group - which they knew would have little chance of staying clear in the strong headwind - go clear after about 15km.

There was a brief respite while the escapees opened a gap but as soon as they got four minutes, the Belgian squads of Lotto-Soudal and Etixx-Quickstep merged at the front and slowly began to reel them in.

With the leaders still two minutes clear a few kilometres before the intermediate sprint though, I found myself needing a pee and planned on stopping for one after the sprint had been contested and the race settled back into its rhythm again.

Chris Froome of Britain and Team Sky celebrates after retaining the yellow jersey
Chris Froome of Britain and Team Sky celebrates after retaining the yellow jersey

With the sprint line in sight, the usual group of fast men took off for the points on offer towards the green jersey but instead of easing up and coming back to the bunch afterwards, like they had every other day, they continued to ride hard. Suddenly there was a group of 17 riders off the front and closing in on the original breakaways and all thoughts of stopping for a pee were forgotten.

With men from both Lotto and Etixx in the break, the impetus had gone out of the peloton so Luke Rowe and Pete Kennaugh began to ride on the front while I radioed back to the team car to see who was in the new escape group and figured out if we needed to close the gap or not.

Although Sagan was up there, the lead group mainly contained sprinters who we reckoned wouldn't want to spend 60km out front in a breakaway on a stage that finished on the steep little climb of the Mur de Bretagne - the Wall of Brittany.

While we eased up and drifted into the confines of the peloton, the Garmin-Cannondale squad took up the chase with thoughts of a stage victory for my cousin Dan Martin on their mind.

The men in green soon brought everyone back apart from Bartosz Huzarski of the original move, Michael Golas (Etixx Quickstep) and Lars Bak of Lotto-Soudal.

Despite a strong chase, this trio proved to be really strong and still had 30 seconds with 15km to go, as the GC contenders teams also hit the front.

As we rode alongside Cannondale, I found myself next to Dan and gave him a couple of words of encouragement as the pace ramped up.

The guys did a fantastic job to get Froomey and Geraint Thomas into the best position at the bottom of the final hill and he rounded the corner into the climb in third place behind our climbers Richie Porte and Leo Konig.

Chris put in a big effort with a kilometre to go, which surprisingly saw last year's winner Vincenzo Nibali get dropped before Alexis Vuillermoz of Ag2r attacked.

Dan chased the Frenchman but just failed in his bid to catch him and finished second on the stage.

Today worked out well for us, with Sagan getting fourth and no times bonuses and Chris keeping his 11 second advantage over the Slovakian with Tejay van Garderen of BMC 13 seconds back in third.

With my job done in the last 7km, I sat up to try and save some bit of energy for tomorrow's team time trial, which is going to be very important.

The top GC teams are all going to strong tomorrow, so we will need a big performance to make sure we keep Chris in contention.

Sunday July 12, Stage 9: Vannes to Plumelec (28km Team Time Trial)

A festival in the town we stayed in last night saw some of the revellers decided to continue the party outside our hotel rooms afterwards.

While I had my earplugs in and they didn't bother me, poor Luke forgot his and could be seen giving them a piece of his mind from his bedroom window at 4am this morning.

Some of the staff then went out to try and shift the party-goers but they were still there when we got up this morning and even had the neck to ask us for autographs when we went down for breakfast ahead of today's team time trial.

Although we weren't due off until later this afternoon, we left the hotel around 10 and got changed on the team bus before riding the course to get a feel of it.

Afterwards, we hopped into the team cars for the journey back to the start but as it's Black Sunday here in France ahead of Tuesday's Bastille Day celebrations, we were greeted by a huge tailback on the road back to Vannes.

Afraid we would be stuck for ages and possibly miss our start, our DS Nicolas Portal began to drive up the hard shoulder in an effort to get past the traffic.

Within seconds though we could hear a siren and Nicolas's heart sank as he looked in the mirror to see a police motorbike behind us.

Instead of a fine and a few points on his licence though, it turned out that the police had been sent to escort teams back to the start town and he led us back to Vannes in plenty of time to have lunch on the bus and watch a bit of Moto GP on TV before the first teams went off.

Although the time in a team time trial stops on the fifth rider across the line, there was no plan for us to finish with just five riders today.

That's the way it happened for us though, with yours truly finding himself the fifth man as we climbed to the finish.

Even though there were two hard hills on today's route, it was a really fast course and with Froomey and 'G' riding really strongly we were just three seconds behind world champions BMC after 10km.

At the second time check after 17km, we were level with them and I knew by the way we were riding that we wouldn't be far off the stage win by the time we got to the 2km climb at the finish.

Having lost Luke, Pete and Ian 'Yogi' Stannard by then, we began the climb with six riders but lost Wout Poels just in the last kilometre.

I was second in line, on G's wheel, but he put in a really big effort and I found myself fighting to hold onto him. The effort saw me go into the red before Froomey came around both of us in the last 500m.

I knew it was going to be really close for the stage win between us and BMC and gave it everything as we climbed to the line but I was really suffering and began to lose Leo's wheel in front of me.

Knowing that the clock stopped on me, I was screaming to the guys that I'd lost contact but they couldn't hear me with the noise of the crowd.

In the last few metres of the climb, I could hear the announcer, Daniel Mangeas, counting down the time we had left to get to the line if we were to win the stage.

"10, 9, 8 ..."

My legs were on fire and I was fighting with every sinew to hold on.


"7, 6, 5..." Leo was calling too.

The guys eased up.

"4, 3, 2..."

Just over half a second after Mangeas said 'one', we crossed the line. If you want to be exact it was 0.62 seconds later.

I was in a world of pain and didn't know if we'd made it, but G's reaction shortly after told me we hadn't.

After the line I was swamped by TV cameras but I couldn't even breathe, never mind answer questions.

G rode over and gave me a pat on the back and the lads rallied around me but I had no words to express my disappointment.

If you look at the big picture, we did a great ride today; we've got the yellow jersey, we gained time on most of our rivals and we finished second on the stage.

For me though, winning this team time trial would have been something special.

It's hugely disappointing to by beaten by less than a second and all I can think right now is that I just missed out on a stage win at the Tour de France.

Read more: Chris Froome stays in yellow at Tour de France after team time trial

Read more: Ireland's Dan Martin agonisingly close to stage win at the Tour de France

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