Thursday 14 December 2017

Nicolas Roche: 'I don't know how they managed to stay up in sprint'

Australia's Michael Matthews, centre, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey rides in the pack during the second stage of the 74th Paris-Nice cycling race between Contres and Commentry yesterday (Getty Images)
Australia's Michael Matthews, centre, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey rides in the pack during the second stage of the 74th Paris-Nice cycling race between Contres and Commentry yesterday (Getty Images)

Nicolas Roche

Tuesday March 8, Stage 2: Contres to Commentry (213.5km)

While us riders had a pretty tough job in miserable conditions yesterday, at least our work was over when we crossed the finish line.

For the team's carers and mechanics, though, their toil continued late into the night.

As well as their usual duties of massaging tired legs, handing us or food at the feed zone and lugging our bags to the hotel, the carers also had enormous piles of sludge-soaked and grime-covered race clothing lying in the back of the team cars and on the team bus after yesterday's stage, with each item needing to be washed, dried and matched to their owner in time for this morning's stage.

Two washing machines on board the team bus meant the routine was underway as we left the stage finish but with muck and grit-covered helmets, shoes, legwarmers, gloves, jackets and other paraphernalia added to the usual list of jerseys, shorts and socks, they were kept busy for much longer than usual.

By the time I got up and went down to the hotel lobby for a coffee this morning, the mechanics were already hard at work again.

Outside, in zero degrees, one of them was wrestling with the hose that connected the water to the team's kitchen truck, where we eat all of our meals.

The line had frozen and he was busy trying to break the ice so that our team chef Henrik could get organised for breakfast.

After breakfast, I picked up a basket of racing kit with my name on it, which had all been magically returned to pristine condition overnight, and got ready for the stage.

As I returned from signing on for the stage, one of the riders' organisation representatives stopped me for my thoughts on whether yesterday's stage should have gone ahead in the snow.

Much has been made of a new 'extreme weather protocol' that came into effect at the start of this season.

It's supposed to protect the riders in cases of ice, snow or extreme temperatures but it's left up to the discretion of various race organisers and riders so it's still very vague.

Although it had snowed very hard for an hour or so yesterday, the snow didn't stick and as it was a flat stage, with no dangerous descents, I said I thought it had been okay to race; the problem is everybody has different opinions on what defines bad weather.

Five neutralised kilometres brought us out of town, where four riders went clear immediately. With another 214km ahead of us, there was little reaction from the peloton and they had 10 minutes after just 20km.

Plenty of thermal clothing kept us warm as we trundled through the first half of the race and, with very little wind today, we sat back a little as the sprinters teams mustered a chase at the front of the bunch.

I dropped back to the team car later on and grabbed a bottle of hot tea for myself and Luke Rowe.

A special thermal bottle keeps the tea warm for hours, but Luke still slagged me that his tea was cold because I took so long to get back.

With the only climb of the day approaching and the breakaway's advantage cut to around three minutes, all extra layers were discarded before I brought the guys towards the front with 50km to go.

When Orica-GreenEdge upped the pace for race leader Michael Matthews 20km later, I sat just to the left in an effort to keep our team leader Geraint Thomas out of trouble and close to the front.


The plan was to save Luke and Ian Stannard as much as possible so that they could position 'G' in the final kilometres and make sure he lost no time if the bunch split. With around 14km to go and my job done, I drifted back through the peloton, losing 41 seconds at the line.

I only saw the final sprint on the big screen on the bus afterwards and winced as French sprinter Nacer Bouhanni and Matthews almost hit the deck as they bounced off each other in the last metres.

Bouhanni won the sprint but lost the stage as the race commissaires relegated him to third for cutting Matthews off, forcing him towards the barriers until he had either braked or hit something.

In fairness to Matthews, he kept going even though the gap was closed and got his reward in the end. Even watching the slow motion replay later, I couldn't figure out how either of them stayed upright.

But that's the difference between the sprinters and the rest of us.

They have the speed, the nerve and the bike handling ability to nudge, elbow and even headbutt each other while travelling at 60kph.

I would have slammed on the brakes and settled for second at the sniff of crashing.

Paris-Nice, Live Eurosport 2, 3.30

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