Nicolas Roche: Buried under a French rider in a ditch, my team-mate Wout couldn't get up
Wednesday, April 21: Fleche-Wallonne Classic (205.5km)
After two weeks of altitude training with Team Sky in Tenerife, I arrived in Belgium yesterday ahead of the last two Ardennes Classics.
The last time I spent training at altitude, with Tinkoff Saxo on Mount Etna before last year's Giro d'Italia, I did too much and was tired when I went straight into the Tour of Romandie afterwards.
This time around, training was much more calculated, with recovery days interspersed with hard training and instead of going straight into the Amstel Gold Race last Sunday, I spent the weekend at home in Monaco to try and recover. Chris Froome and I then flew to Belgium yesterday ahead of today's hilly Fleche-Wallonne classic.
Beginning on the outskirts of Brussels and finishing in the little town of Huy, Fleche-Wallonne is famed for its relatively short, but backbreaking ascents of the infamously steep Mur de Huy.
At 1.3km long the 'Wall of Huy' is aptly named, so our plan this morning was to get our climbers Lars Peter Nordhaug and Sergio Henao, who was second here in 2013, to the bottom of the Mur on the third and final ascent, as close to the front as possible.
After a very fast start, seven riders went clear about 20km into proceedings and built up an eight-minute lead before the Katusha and Movistar teams of former winners Joaquin Rodriguez, Daniel Moreno and Alejandro Valverde set the tempo on the front of the peloton. As we approached Huy for the first time, after 118km, there was a big crash in the middle of the road and as I skidded to avoid the guy in front of me, I saw my cousin Dan Martin on the ground. Chris also fell but landed cat-like on his hands and feet before scrambling back onto his bike.
Thankfully, the pace was pretty comfortable and we were able to regain contact on the hill, although crashes soon became the theme of the day. With 48km to go, and the break's lead down to a minute and a half, Lars hit the deck in a crash that forced Belgian favourite Philippe Gilbert to abandon the race.
Wout Poels went back for Lars to help him chase the peloton but just as they regained contact, with 40km to go, there was another crash and they both ended up in a ditch, with Wout unable to get out for a couple of minutes as he was buried under an injured French rider.
With 30km left there was another crash and, with the escapees about to be reeled in and just 12km to go, Chris hit the tarmac for a second time after somebody clipped a kerb coming out of a corner, brought down a dozen or so riders and thinned the bunch out a bit more.
The addition of a new climb, the Cote de Cherave, with 5km to go made the finale a lot tougher today and afterwards just myself and Sergio remained from the team in a group of about 50 riders.
In the frenzied surge towards the finish, Belgian Tim Wellens dangled 14 seconds clear with 2km to go as I moved Sergio into position near the front on the last section of flat, and then fought to hang on as the road went skywards.
As Valverde took his third victory at Fleche, Sergio managed seventh place at the summit - not bad for somebody who was told he'd never ride a bike again after shattering his knee in a collision with a car just 10 months ago.
Tomorrow, Sergio and I have a date with the cobbles from Paris-Roubaix that will feature on stage four of this year's Tour de France. We will spend tonight in a hotel with some of the staff, riding the cobbles tomorrow before returning to the rest of the team and taking on Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday.
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