Nicolas Roche Giro D'Italia diary: 'Rohan sprinting for the time bonuses was risky, but we had to try'
Saturday May 5, Stage 2: Haifa to Tel Aviv (167kms)
Having finished second on yesterday's opening time trial stage, my roommate Rohan Dennis began today's second stage just two seconds off the race lead of Dutchman Tom Dumoulin.
Wearing the race leader's jersey in any Grand Tour is a once in a lifetime experience for most riders so this morning we tried to come up with a plan to get Rohan into the pink jersey by the end of the stage.
A mainly flat day with one fourth category climb in the middle, today always looked destined to end in a bunch sprint, which meant Rohan wouldn't gain any time at the finish. But there was a chance to snatch the pink jersey if he took the three-second time bonus on offer for winning the intermediate sprint in Caesaria after 105km.
To do that, a lot of things had to work in our favour and we also had to watch out for third-placed Victor Campenaerts of Lotto who began the day on the same time as Rohan.
Campenaerts was active very early and got himself into a couple of breakaways in the opening kilometres before Demma closed him down.
With a three-man breakaway almost four minutes clear after 60km, I had a chat with Rohan and our directeur sportif Max Sciandri and we agreed to try to close the break down and give Rohan a lead-out to get the time bonuses.
Initially we just put Loic Vegren on the front to ride but when we realised the gap wasn't coming down we opted to put the whole team to work, ride full gas for 40km to the sprint and just get it done.
Closing down the break was always going to be a risk. If Dumoulin, Campenaerts and the sprinters all flew by us on the line, then our 40km chase would be for nought, but we felt we couldn't pass up the opportunity. We had to at least try. We got to the climb after 90km within touching distance of the three leaders.
Loic and Killian started to suffer a little bit so myself and Demma hit the front to keep the tempo going.
We caught the escapees just over the summit but to avoid other teams messing up our train, I wanted to keep the momentum going on the descent.
The lead motorbike, however, had other ideas and suddenly stalled going into a downhill corner and I nearly ran into the back of him.
"Get the motorbike out of the way! You're going to cause a crash!" I shouted.
"I have the red flag out" came the reply as he waved a flag in front of me.
"Yeah? Why do you have the red flag out?"
"Because it's dangerous!"
This guy isn't even a commissaire. He's only supposed to be regulating the traffic in the race.
"You don't have to neutralise the descent because you think it's dangerous!"
I've never seen this done in my life, apart from a snowed-in Stelvio stage a few years ago. Today was a 1.5km descent on a good wide road and it wasn't even raining.
"You can't do that!" I told him.
"It's for your own safety!"
"No! I'll decide how fast I go down the descent. I've been riding hard up the climb to keep the tempo high and now you're in my way, slowing me down."
Fed-up listening to me, he went back to Demma - expecting a friendlier response from an Italian rider perhaps, but he didn't get one and was soon sent up the road and out of the way. The descent bottomed out 8km from the sprint and after a bit of regrouping, we got going again and strung the peloton into one long line with Rohan tucked safely on the back of our train.
Demma did a great job to get us 2km from the line. I took over on a little crest and put the hammer down until about 700m out, before pulling over to leave Fran Ventoso, Jempy Drucker and Jurgen Roelandts in front of Rohan.
When I swung off, the bunch had split and I had to sprint the last few hundred metres to stay in contact as the guys led Rohan to the line, where he took the time bonus and put himself into the race lead by a single second.
Now all we had to do was make sure he got to the finish without losing any time.
Straight after the sprint, Campanaerts attacked again but thankfully nobody went with him. Facing 60km alone into a headwind he gave up the ghost soon after.
Avoiding a few tight squeezes in the last few kilometres, we managed to get Rohan safely across the line- and I'm happy to report that after his podium presentation, TV interviews and post-stage press conference, my Aussie roommate has just burst in the door of our hotel room looking prettier in pink than Molly Ringwald.
Sunday May 6, Stage 3: Be'er Sheva to Eilat (229kms)
Cycling has always been a spectator-friendly sport. Fans can get up close and personal with the riders at races, get autographs and photographs and have a quick chat.
The Giro start in Israel though has taken things to a new level.
Because of the logistics, we have no team buses here. Instead we are ferried to the stage starts in a mini-van and get changed before and after stages in open-aired car parks on plastic garden chairs.
There are no security or crowd-control barriers to keep the spectators away which means that for the past few days we've been getting dressed with the locals literally looking over our shoulders.
Thankfully this morning we were parked far enough away from the start area that people weren't able to find us until it was time to race.
Although we didn't have any big celebration in honour of Rohan's pink jersey last night, today he had his handlebars wrapped in pink tape and he rocked up to the start line wearing matching pink sunglasses, a pink helmet and a pink Tag Heur watch.
As soon as the flag dropped three riders jumped clear.
Although my BMC team didn't want them to ride off into the sunset with Rohan's race lead, with another intermediate sprint coming today after 71km, we didn't want Campenaerts Lotto team to do what we did yesterday and take the time bonuses, so we let them have six-minutes lead, ensured they'd take the bonuses, then we got to work.
Of today's 229km, 220km were spent riding through desert with mainly just a few camels watching on from the roadside. After the only climb of the day, with 100km to go, Quickstep put one man on the front to help us. Soon after, the other sprint teams joined in.
A tailwind saw us ride at 80kph for much of the last 30km, which was pretty nerve-wracking when we hit a load of speed bumps going through some sort of customs checkpoint with about 8km to go.
In the finale, I eased up and crossed the line safely in the middle of the bunch as Viviani took his second stage win and Sam Bennett took his second third place in a row.
I met Sam in the hotel lift afterwards and he told me that after going too late on stage two, he went too early today.
It's great to see Sam up there contesting these finishes and hopefully he will get a win here before we get to Rome.
Dunbar misses out
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) claimed overall victory at the Tour de Yorkshire yesterday after Stephane Rossetto (Cofidis) took the final stage win and Eddie Dunbar blew up on the final climb of the day.
The Aqua Blue Sport rider had been in contention before the climb 18km from the end ensured he finished fourth yesterday and eighth in general classification.
On a day which included over 3,300 metres of climbing on an imposing 189.5 kilometre route from Halifax to Leeds, Rossetto went clear alone with 110 punishing kilometres still to come and, at the age of 31, earned only the third professional victory of his career.
“It was only in the last five kilometres I knew,” Rossetto said. “I had the time gaps in my ears and I had confidence in my legs when the road flattened out.” But Rossetto faced a long wait for those flatter sections to come. He left behind 22-year-old Briton Max Stedman on the brutal climb up Park Rash barely a third of the way into the stage and crested two more categorised climbs alone to add the mountains jersey to his spoils.