Wednesday 23 October 2019

Nicolas Roche: 'I knew by how quickly he opened the gap that Alaphilippe was gone'

Tour de France Diary: Monday, July 8, Stage 3. Binche to Epernay (215km).

Sock height has become a focus for officials, even on the Tour
Sock height has become a focus for officials, even on the Tour

Nicolas Roche

One of the things that seems to have gone viral after Sunday's team time trial was a photo of a UCI commissaire going around measuring the length of the socks us riders were wearing as we waited to go on to the start ramp. These checks have been going on all year, but because it's the Tour de France I think it's the first time the general public have noticed it.

There is actually a rule about sock length in the UCI handbook that basically says they can't go higher than halfway between your ankle and your knee.

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The rule has been there a while, but this is the first year they've actually enforced it and, in their wisdom, the UCI have even come up with an expandable plastic sock measuring contraption to keep us all in check.

In the event that somebody might get past the rule by pulling their socks down a little bit before they're measured, they even have random checks at the finish. It's ridiculous.

Our sport definitely has more important issues than sock height.

After almost a week in Belgium, last night I packed my suitcase for our first venture into France.

Today's stage was held in the Ardennes region and had the feel of a one-day classic, with narrow roads and plenty of punchy little hills, six of which came in the last 50km.

A five-man breakaway went clear after 10km, with Jumbo-Visma's former world time trial champion and An Post Rás winner Tony Martin setting the pace behind for his race leader Mike Teunissen.

It probably didn't look too exciting on television, but if you had a unit that could measure stress within the peloton it would have been off the scale.

The goal for our Sunweb team was to get our sprinter Michael Matthews over the last five climbs in the front group in the hope that some of the other sprinters would be dropped by then and he could unleash his sprint on the uphill finish.

With about 60km to go, Michael said he was bursting for a pee.

It wasn't exactly the best moment to stop as we were getting closer to the finale of the stage and the start of the climbs, but when you gotta go you gotta go, so I stopped with him to help him regain contact with the race afterwards.

Getting back up to the peloton was a bit like riding on the end of a yo-yo as the team cars slowed down into the corners and then roared out of them with us trying to skip from one to the other in search of any tiny bit of shelter from the wind.

We regained contact about 15km from the bottom of the first hill, just as the pace really increased.

The high speed actually made things a bit safer as we were well lined out going on to the rugged, narrow roads.

As the Quickstep team of punchy French rider Julian Alaphilippe set a fast tempo in the front, I was talking to Michael on the radio to see how he was doing. On the first hill he drifted to the back, but he had Lenny Kamna with him just in case.

On the second hill he got dropped but with Lenny's help he was back pretty quickly, unlike some of the other sprinters who went out the back door with Teunissen.

Although Alaphilippe attacked and went clear with 16km to go, we had to judge our reaction by how Michael was feeling.

On the radio, our directeur sportif was saying: "Nico, maybe we should have you and Wilco (Kelderman) just go all-in to bring Alaphilippe back and let Michael do the sprint on his own."

On a perfect day, Wilco Kelderman and I would have chased flat out to bring Alaphilippe back, but the speed was already very high and in between the climbs our sprinter needed a breather. He was on the limit already and there was no point in making the race even harder for him.

"It's fast enough already Nico," he said. "Just keep yourself in position and I'll see how I am at the end."

I knew by how quickly Alaphilippe opened the gap it was going to be tough to bring him back. He had 50 seconds in no time on the downhill.

He only lost 10 seconds in 10km to the Ineos-led chase and the Frenchman won the stage by 26 seconds to become the new race leader.

Michael never gave up and got over the last hills to pull out an amazing sprint on the final ramp up to the finish and take second on the stage.

We're staying in champagne region tonight, but I suppose we'll have to pull our socks up a bit if we want to earn a bottle.

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