Thursday 18 July 2019

Nicolas Roche: 'I slammed on and winced as the bike came flying towards me'

Team Jumbo-Visma blitzed the field in yesterday’s team time trial to keep stage one winner Mike Teunissen in yellow after stage two of the Tour de France. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Team Jumbo-Visma blitzed the field in yesterday’s team time trial to keep stage one winner Mike Teunissen in yellow after stage two of the Tour de France. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Nicolas Roche

Saturday July 4, Stage 1: Brussels to Brussels (194km)

I have been a professional cyclist for 14 years now and in that time I've ridden four Giros d'Italia, eight Vueltas a Espana and most races on the professional calendar from Ireland to the Ivory Coast, but nothing compares to the Tour de France.

The Tour just has that little bit more of everything; more fans at the roadside, more media attention, more cars, motorbikes, helicopters, more noise, more colour, more physicality, more pushing, more shoving, more crashes, more risk-taking, more speed, more stress, more pain, more suffering, more disappointment, or if things go well, more glory.

I was thinking about it on the bike today as we rolled out of Le Grand Place in Brussels for the official start of my ninth Tour.

'Le Tour' is amazing, but sometimes you're happy it's just once a year.

Unlike recent years, this year's Tour began with a 194km road stage instead of a prologue time trial.

Five-time winner and cycling legend Eddy Merckx waved us off this morning while the other king of Belgium, King Philippe, began the race officially a few kilometres further down the road.

Belgians are fanatics about their cycling and when four men attacked from the gun this morning it was no surprise to see two home riders in the break.

The fact that both of today's climbs came in the first 50km meant that if you could get up the road and get over the two opening hills first you'd have a jersey in this Tour de France. You could then sit up and go back to the peloton without having wasted too much energy.

That's exactly what my former teammate Greg Van Avermaet did, giving the home fans something to shout about when he took maximum points on the cobbled third category, Mur de Grammont, and second atop the fourth category, Bosberg, before easing up and drifting back into the shelter of the bunch, mission accomplished.

Having a team time trial tomorrow means that there will be a Belgian in the polka-dot jersey of mountains leader for the next two days.

With Van Avermaet back in the bunch, the other three kept going out front, but a 2km stretch of cobbles just before the intermediate sprint at 70km changed all that.

Bora-Hansgrohe were riding flat out to string things out, so that Peter Sagan could go for the sprint and they split the peloton into three or four groups, catching the break in the process.

I was in the second group, but experience told me that things usually come back together after the sprint and that's what happened.

With 18km to go, I saw a few of the Astana guys sit up and drift back through the bunch so I knew something must have happened to their team leader and overall favourite Jakob Fuglsang.

When he rode back through the peloton behind his team-mates 8km later, the blood trickling down his face told me he'd been involved in the first crash of this Tour.

For my Sunweb team, today was all about getting our Australian sprinter Michael Matthews to the front for the expected mass sprint finish.

My job was to keep him safe from 20km out into the final 10km, where the other guys would take over.

A bit of miscommunication with about 5km to go meant we had two guys pulling full gas on the left, thinking we were on their wheel, but the rest of us were all on the right with Michael.

I lost my position in a chicane shortly after and drifted back into about 30th position.

With about 2km left, up ahead I could see a few guys pushing and shoving a little bit and eventually two wheels touched and they hit the deck at over 50kph and brought down a good few others.

I slammed on the brakes and winced as the Bahrain rider's bike bounced off the tarmac and flew across the road towards me.

Thankfully, the bike made minimum contact with my back wheel and I was the last one to get through the crash, squeezing past on the right hand side of the bunch. I was really lucky to avoid it.

Last year's winner, Geraint Thomas, was just one place behind me and ended up ploughing into the barriers and flipping on to the road.

Up ahead there were only maybe 25 guys left standing heading into the final kilometre, but unfortunately we were lacking a bit of firepower in the end and Michael was left on the front a little bit too early. Having been forced to start the sprint, he did really well to not completely blow up and got sixth on the stage.

The stage win and first yellow jersey of this Tour went to Jumbo-Visma's Mike Teunissen. Normally a lead-out man for Dylan Groenewegen, he only sprinted because Groenewegen had come down in the crash.

Sunday July 5, Stage 2: (Brussels) Royal Palace to Atomium (27.6km)

With each team racing as a unit against the clock, I absolutely love the speed, stress and the pressure of team time trials.

A team time trial doesn't work if it's about individuals trying to show each other who's the strongest, or even forcing themselves to do a turn when they aren't able to. It's about finding the pace and riding steady.You need a united team to do it well.

Sometimes the best individual time triallists don't make good team time triallists because of the short sharp efforts involved, whereas someone like sprinter Michael Matthews is brilliant at it because he is used to hard repetitive efforts and is able to recover from them.

It doesn't matter whether you're in bad shape or good shape, though, you suffer like a dog anyway.

In the recon this morning, we rode in race rotation at about 80pc effort in order to get a feel for the corners and the course, which was very fast.

After a quick shower and briefing some riders wore a cool vest - a jersey with sealed ice pockets all over it - to keep cool in the warm-up, but I'm not a big fan of them.

We rolled off the start ramp at 3.35pm and things were going smoothly until I had a bit of a mishap when I was drifting back off the front of the line to recover from an effort with 10km to go.

I was moving my hands from the 'ski' position to the outside handlebars when my thumb slipped and accidentally touched the button on my left handlebar, which controls my gears, dropping from a 58 tooth front chainring to a 42 tooth.

With my legs spinning like a washing machine, I was jettisoned out the back immediately.

We were doing 60kph at the time and the second or two it took to get back on to the proper chainring saw the guys open a gap and I thought I was never going to get back on.

When I did get regain contact maybe 500 metres later I followed the team's protocol of waiting for my turn to come around again before slotting back into the line.

In the last 3km the two guys in front of me decided they were going to do one last suicide pull each, but Nikias Arndt's was a bit too hard and put me into the red and off the back again and I was so tired when I regained contact that I misjudged a corner slightly with 1.5km to go.

With the time stopping on the fourth rider across the line, I hung on in fifth wheel until 300m to go where I was sure the others were okay and then eased up.

After a 56.3kph average paced ride, we were pretty distraught to finish just six seconds behind leaders Team Ineos, but then Deceuninck-Quick-Step beat us by five seconds, Katusha beat us by milliseconds and we took fifth on the stage.

The Jumbo-Visma team of race leader Teunissen, however, crushed everyone to win by 20 seconds.

Until the mechanical issue I felt really good today, but it definitely took the wind out of my sails a bit.

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