Nicolas: Roche: 'If my ears could have helped me pedal I would have used them'
Nicolas Roche's Tour de France diary
Wednesday July 23, Stage 17: Saint Gaudens to Pal d'Adet (124km)
As my team aren't fans of chocolate, our calls for a chocolate brownie after dinner have fallen on deaf ears for the last two and a half weeks.
Last night, though, our team chef Hannah produced a little slice each for dessert as a celebration of my room-mate Michael Rogers' stage win.
It's crazy how happy something stupid like a chocolate brownie can make grown men feel at this point in the Tour de France.
My room-mate Michael was happy with himself going to bed last night but, as it turned out, neither of us got as much sleep as we would have liked.
As it was another balmy night, we left the window open and while Michael spent the early hours replaying his victory over in his head, we were both woken at 6.30 by a road sweeper. Despite trying to go back to sleep, we went down for an early breakfast.
With four huge mountains en route to another summit finish at Pla d'Adet today, my Polish team-mate and King of the Mountains Rafal Majka was once again top priority for my Tinkoff-Saxo squad.
Rafal began today's stage with just a single point advantage over Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez in the mountains competition and with a maximum of 80 points on offer today, it was important to try and build his lead.
Immediately after the start, Sergio Paulinho got himself into an eight-man move that gained a minute.
This suited us, as there were only points for the first six riders across the line on the first three climbs and none of the eight in the break were anywhere near Rafal in the classification.
But with Rodriguez wanting to get to the climbs first to try and take the polka-dot jersey back, his Katusha team soon set a blistering pace at the front of the peloton in an effort to reel them in.
It only took us an hour to hit the bottom of the 9km long first-category Col du Portillon, which came after 50km. Here, as expected, Rodriguez jumped away from the head of the peloton and tried to get across to the break, which was now dangling just 30 seconds ahead of us.
Myself and Rafal went after him and soon a huge group of us joined up with Sergio's original escape at the front, with the peloton about 35 seconds back as we climbed.
Rodriguez kept on attacking and jumped again 1km from the top. With Rafal caught behind, I followed him, this time with four others.
In my defence of Rafal's mountains jersey, I couldn't ride to help Rodriguez open a gap, but he asked me if I was going to sprint for the points at the top.
Although I knew I hadn't much hope of beating the little Spaniard to the top, I wanted him to make an effort and so I told him that yes, in fact, I was going to sprint.
Rodriguez's acceleration was way too fast for me and I ended up cresting the climb in second place, with Rafal not scoring any points.
On the descent, we recovered from our efforts as the rest of the group regained contact with us on the way down, where Sky's Vasil Kiryienka jumped away on his own and began to open a gap.
To be honest, I didn't see him go and only found out when we went through the feed zone at the bottom.
For the past few days on this Tour, team owner Oleg Tinkoff has been riding to the feed zone and then helping the soigneurs hand out the musettes, or feed bags, to the riders as we fly past.
On Saturday, Rafal grabbed a bag off him and went on to win the stage. Yesterday, Michael was in the break and grabbed his musette from Oleg.
He, too, went on to win the stage, so last night at dinner, when Oleg asked who wanted his musette today, I put up my hand laughing. As I missed the first attempted snatch at my meals on wheels from one of our soigneurs, I managed to grab the second one from Oleg a few metres further down the road and wondered if fate might have intervened and this was going to be my day.
But with 21 riders now up front there wasn't much cooperation in the group and as we hit the bottom of the Col du Peyre-sourde, Kiryienka had two minutes on us.
With the peloton just two minutes behind us, I knew if we didn't up the pace on the climb we wouldn't stand a chance of staying clear, but with such a long way to go team manager Bjarne Riis didn't want me to start pulling at the front.
He asked me to attack and make the others pull behind me. So I attacked 5km from the top.
Jesus Herrada of Movistar came with me and I paced myself on the climb, enough to make the others work behind, but not kill myself in the process.
I crossed the line 1 min 48 secs behind Kiryienka at the top, while Rodriguez took more points off Rafal behind us.
Myself and Herrada were caught on the descent with 30km to go and about 500m from the bottom of the penultimate climb to Val Louron, where I won a stage of the Route du Sud just before the Tour.
I took a breather as one the Europcar guys in the break rode at the front and Bjarne asked me to drop back to the car.
"How are you?" asked the Dane.
"Well... I need to hang on and recover a bit."
"Okay, well recover, but then we need to close the gap to Kiryienka."
The Belarusian was now just a minute up the road, but we had opened a four-minute advantage to the peloton.
With Rafal looking the strongest climber in the break, the goal now was to make the race hard for everyone so, about 3km from the top, I rode back up to the front and accelerated a little bit.
I managed to catch Kiryienka just before the top, only for Rodriguez to outsprint Rafal on the line and extend his lead in the mountains competition by another point.
All was not lost, however, as we knew the Hors category summit finish to Pla d'Adet carried double points, so if Rafal could win the stage he would also keep his polka-dot jersey.
I grabbed a bottle and some energy gels from one of our soigneurs at the top and tried to recover as much as possible again on the descent.
The group had trimmed down considerably, but there was a bit of messing around in the valley leading into the last climb. There were a couple of attacks in the town at the bottom and I followed one of them behind Giovanni Visconti of Movistar, and my good friend Amael Moinard of BMC with 10km to go.
Pierre Rolland of Europcar came across to us, but he wouldn't ride. Then he stuck it into the big chain ring, got out of the saddle and attacked us.
With 9km to go we rode up to him and, more to crack him than anything else, I kicked again and this time only Visconti followed me.
But the Spaniard was a lot fresher than me and with just 8km left and 27 seconds back to Rafal and the rest of the break, he began to solo away from me.
Behind us, I was told in my earpiece that Rafal was trying to shake off Rodriguez on the climb, so I took another breather and was caught by Moinard and Rolland again.
It took Rafal a couple of efforts to get rid of Rodriguez, but he burst across to us with 7km remaining. Although the tiredness was really setting in, I went to the front again to give Rafal a rest and try and close the gap to Visconti.
I rode until 6km to go where Rafal jumped away from us and began to close in on Visconti.
I went straight out the back door and was caught by Bauke Mollema and Frank Schleck on a flatter section with 3km to go. I hung onto them for about a kilometre before I got dropped again.
About 2km from the top, race leader Vincenzo Nibali flew past me with Ag2r's Jean Christophe Peraud in tow.
Although I was now wilting, psychologically, I wanted to at least finish in the top 10. If my ears could have helped me pedal I would have used them in that last kilometre and I crossed the line for ninth on the stage.
I punched the air upon hearing Rafal had soloed clear of Visconti for his second stage win, but the minute I crossed the line my soigneur had to stop me from falling off my bike.
My legs just stopped working and I ended up sitting on the road for what seemed like ages until a delighted Bjarne grabbed me by the shoulders and lifted me back to my feet.
To get three stage wins on this Tour was fantastic. I'm already dreaming of those chocolate brownies.
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