Nicolas Roche: 'It's strange for me to be riding the Giro into towns where I have raced as a schoolboy'
Although everyone agreed that my Tinkoff-Saxo team had made a pretty good start to the Giro, with fourth place in the opening team-time trial yesterday, at the pre-stage meeting this morning we were reminded of our main objectives here.
Like the other two Grand Tours of France and Spain, the Giro is three weeks long and with some very hard mountain stages coming in the final week, everything is about staying in it through really difficult days.
As we don't have a top sprinter with us here and today was always likely to end in a bunch sprint, there was only one aim – get myself and our other team leader, Rafal Majka, to the finish safely and without losing any time.
Like us, a lot of teams seemed to expect a bunch sprint into Belfast today and riders weren't prepared to lose energy by going clear in a fruitless escape group.
But there are always other teams with different goals, whether that is to win the intermediate sprints, the King of the Mountains competition or simply gain some valuable airtime for their team sponsors, so there was still a bit of jumping around in the opening kilometres. After about 5km of attacking, four riders went clear and Canadian race leader Svein Tuft's Orica GreenEDGE team set themselves up at the front of the peloton.
As we headed out along the coast, the quartet gained a maximum of six and a half minutes, but we knew that other teams would join in the chase later on and they would probably come back before the finish.
I'd been looking forward to seeing the Giant's Causeway today as we were due to pass it just as we came into the feed zone in Bushmills. From listening to all the old Irish fairy tales about Finn McCool and the Giant's Causeway in school, it's something that's been on my bucket list for a while now, but I've never been as close to it as today.
So, while everyone else was looking out for their team soigneurs to grab their musette of food as we flew past, I was looking to the coastline on my left in the hope of catching a glimpse of the famous rocks.
Unfortunately, I didn't realise that you can't see the Giant's Causeway from the road. You have to park and walk down to it, so I'm going to have to come back here to get a look.
Even though I started this morning with a rain jacket over a waterproof neoprene jacket, I went back to the team car mid-stage to change into a dry one.
Our clothing nowadays is very high tech and we are a lot warmer and dryer than we used to be when I first turned pro in 2006, but even the best materials sometimes give in when faced with the Irish weather.
Today wasn't as nervous as most other Grand Tour opening stages, although the cat's eyes in the middle of the road still meant that you needed your wits about you at all times.
When you're racing in Ireland as an amateur or junior rider, the bunch stays mainly on the left-hand side of the road, so the cat's eyes are not a problem, but with 200 riders, the Giro peloton is spread all over the road.
When you go to Belgium, you have traffic islands, roundabouts, bollards and speed ramps everywhere, but you can usually see them as you approach, whereas the cat's eyes here are so small you tend to forget about them.
As the breakaways contested the second of two fourth-category climbs at Cushendall, their advantage was starting to crumble and my Tinkoff-Saxo team began to move towards the front to keep out of trouble.
Although he had crashed earlier on and his shorts were covered in blood and his handlebar tape was hanging off, I had Chris Juul Jensen sitting in front of me, keeping me out of the wind as more and more sprint trains emerged from the shadows and began to ramp up the pace.
It got a bit tense with about 15km to go as the leaders still had almost a minute and a half and the pace increased again in the final 10km.
We flew past the final escapee, Dutchman Maarten Tjallingii of Belkin with 4km to go, with German fast man Marcel Kittel of Argos-Shimano sprinting to the stage victory in Belfast.
Once again, there was a huge turnout all along the stage route today. This is my 12th Grand Tour now and, of all of them, I think the crowd on today's stage was the best.
It was amazing to see how any people dressed in pink along the route. And they weren't just wearing the official race clothing, people were wearing pink t-shirts, pink jackets, ties, skirts, it was great. Even though the weather was dreadful, I think a lot of the riders will remember Ireland as much for the crowds as for the rain. The two stages in Northern Ireland have been very successful.
Sunday May 11, Stage 3: Armagh to Dublin (187km)
WE started off in dry conditions in Armagh this morning, but this was one of those days when it continually stopped and started raining.
The weather was so changeable that some of the guys must have broken the world record for the amount of times you can put on and take off a rain jacket while riding a bike.
It was a bit strange for me today to be riding the Giro d'Italia into towns where I have raced as a schoolboy or junior rider. I took my first ever win in Dundalk and riding though the town today brought back that memory.
After a pretty strong rain shower shortly after, I decided to change out of some of my soaking wet gear as we headed into Drogheda.
I drifted down through the peloton and went back to my team car, where I took off my rain jacket and arm warmers and swapped them for dry ones.
I spent a few minutes riding through Drogheda at the back of the race. My Aussie team-mate Jay McCarthy rode alongside me to help pace me back to the front when I finished my mobile wardrobe change.
A couple of kilometres later, Jay was bringing me back up when we came across a pile of about 20 riders picking themselves up off the ground after a big crash.
The crash looked like it happened at the very front of the bunch and the pink jersey of race leader Michael Matthews was one of those who hit the deck.
With the sprinters' teams keen to get everything in order before the finish in Merrion Square, we could see the breakaways dangling in front of us as we rode along the coastline in Baldoyle.
With things really started to hot up, I suffered my first puncture of this Giro 6km from the finish. I had no choice but to change my rear wheel.
As we got closer, Jay and Chris Anker Sorenson were waiting to bring me to the front of the race again.
We gave it everything to get near the front of the peloton, but ran out of road before the finish and I crossed the line in 85th place.
Unfortunately the narrow Dublin streets and twisting corners in the last few kilometres saw a few gaps appear in between the wheels and a time split of 11 seconds was given between the first 32 riders and the rest of us.
At this stage, 11 seconds is a lot of time lost and I'm disappointed with that, but most of the other GC riders also got caught out, so it could have been much worse.
Once again, the weather didn't stop the people coming out to cheer us on today. The whole peloton is really amazed at the numbers of fans on the road here and every town we went into today had a really festive atmosphere.
When you're based abroad all of the time, it's hard to judge the interest in cycling in Ireland or know what kind of support you will have when you come back home
This weekend was way beyond what I expected. So I must say a huge thanks to everyone who came out to watch us.
What I have experienced over the last three days racing in Ireland was unbelievable. I know I'll never experience that again. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Saturday May 10, Stage 2: Belfast to Belfast (219km)
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