Nicolas Roche: 'It's not every day you get two Irish riders on a Grand Tour podium'
Monday, August 25 – Stage 3: Ciudad del Juguete to Alicante (188km)
After taking the overall lead on this Vuelta yesterday, there were so many protocols, ceremonies and interviews to be done afterwards that I didn’t get to our team hotel until around 9.15 last night and just about had enough time to have a shower before going down for dinner.
After dinner and a massage, I went back downstairs for our traditional glass of champagne celebration – which was held outside so that the mechanics, who were still busy working on our bikes, could join in.
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I got so many messages and calls of congratulations that my phone went dead so I didn’t talk to anyone before I went to bed where, I must admit, it took me a while to relax.
Winning a leader’s jersey on a Grand Tour doesn’t come along too often for a rider like me and last night I felt like a kid again, whose dream had just come true.
Even though the jersey was tucked away in my suitcase, so that I wouldn’t be looking at it all night, I didn’t have the best of sleep – but at least it was for a good reason.
At the team bus car park this morning we were greeted with the usual daily envelope containing the details for the stage ahead. Also inside was a new red race leader’s jersey for me and, as we are leading the team classification too, a set of new red numbers for the whole team to wear.
Stepping off the bus in the red jersey this morning I was swamped by a lot more fans and media than usual, and there were plenty of interviews to be done and photos to be posed for before I even got to sign in for the stage.
Usually, when a team has a race leader in a Grand Tour the mechanics change the handlebar tape or even the bike to match the colour of that jersey; yellow for the Tour, pink for the Giro – even polka-dots for the Tour’s mountains leader, but my Sunweb team’s colours are red anyway so I was already colour co-ordinated for the day.
The team plan today was to let a small breakaway up the road in the hope that some of the sprinters’ teams would come up and help us control things for a bunch sprint.
When three riders went clear from the gun, Michael Storer rode on the front for us for the first 80km or so, as I was patted on the back and congratulated by what seemed like most of the peloton.
The lads rode really well today.
Rob (Power) went back and forward for bottles all day while Casper (Pedersen) and Martijn (Tusveld) took turns looking after Wilco (Kelderman) and me as Nikias (Arndt) and Max (Walscheid) saved themselves for a go at the sprint.
I knew the finale today was going to be hectic with the sprint teams all jostling for position, but I didn’t expect another set of attacks to come on the last climb, still around 40km from the finish.
With the three-man breakaway dangling just ahead of us, Belgian Thomas de Gendt jumped away with three others.
Thankfully they were closed down within a kilometre or two, but the attacks sparked life back into the peloton and it was full-on racing from there on in.
With the break caught on the climb, the town of Bussot provided the only intermediate sprint of the day about 20km later.
Here, bonus seconds of three, two and one were on offer for the first three riders across the line.
Having started the day just two seconds ahead of Movistar’s Nairo Quintana this morning, I knew I could lose the race lead there if I wasn’t alert and ready to sprint.
Although Nairo told me earlier in the day that he wasn’t going to go for the time bonuses, it didn’t stop me welding myself to his wheel for 10km before that, just in case. In the end, neither of us contested the sprint, both focusing instead on maintaining a good position for the run to the finish. The last 10km flew by.
Even though I got safely through the 3km-to-go banner – after which my time would have stayed the same as the rest of the peloton if I’d crashed, I knew a split in the group could still lose me my jersey so I had one eye on Quintana and one eye on the line of riders in front of me to make sure no gaps appeared.
As I finished in the middle of the bunch to hold on to my jersey, Sam Bennett once again proved he is one of the fastest sprinters in the world by taking a great stage victory.
Although there were two Irishmen on the podium today, the protocols and ceremonies meant that we kept missing each other afterwards.
Sam came off the podium as I went on to it and we seemed to be playing musical chairs in the mixed zone for the international media and when I was at the press conference, he was in anti-doping and vice versa.
At one point though, I insisted we got somebody to take a photo to mark the day, so somewhere out there there’s a photo of two grinning Irishmen with their arms around each other giving the thumbs up.
It’s not every day you get two Irish riders on the podium of a Grand Tour! To be honest, I was probably a bit nervous to enjoy today’s stage – but the bits before and after it were great.