Nicolas Roche: 'Michael's chain went into his gears and our Tour de France ended in frustration'
Tour de France Diary
Saturday, July 27 - Stage 20: Albertville to Val Thorens (60km)
Last night I had the worst night's sleep I've had in a very long time.
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After yesterday's stage, our team doctor decided to leave some of my crash wounds uncovered in the hope that they would dry out a bit in the air and heal a bit quicker.
Without any protection on my reddened skin though, the burning sensation was killing me all night and any time my legs touched off the bedsheets it felt like getting a dart of a hot poker.
Yesterday's stage and the drive back to the hotel in my cycling gear didn't do much for my cough either and even though I propped myself up a bit in bed to try and stop it, I woke up this morning with ribs that felt like they'd done a couple of rounds with Mike Tyson.
Awake at 6.0, I sat up and put the TV on in the hope that I'd doze off for an hour before going down for breakfast, which didn't happen. We weren't leaving for the start until 11.0 this morning, so I went to try and lie down for an hour afterwards but gave up and got ready for our transfer instead.
After yesterday's stage was stopped due to a storm and landslide on the course, last night we were given the good news that today's penultimate stage would be shortened from 130km to just 60km, as there had been an even bigger landslide on the first-category Cormet de Roseland, which saw it and the Cote du Longefoy cut from today's stage.
As I watched the rain hopping off the roads on the drive to the start, I wasn't looking forward to racing at all and my hopes were raised when yet another storm in the mountains saw rumours circulate that the stage could be shortened even more, or maybe even cancelled altogether.
By the time we got to the start town though, the clouds had gone and the roads were dry, although it was still lashing atop the summit finish at Val Thorens. Our new route began with 25km on a dual carriageway and ended with the brutal 35km climb to the ski resort on top of Val Thorens.
With our suitcases gone on the team bus to Paris and the rest of our bags packed into the soigneurs' car for the finish, we had no phones at the start today so my team-mates and I sat like nerdy teenagers waiting for the start and joking that it was the first morning we'd actually talked to each other all Tour.
Even though I wasn't feeling great this morning, I went into the stage with the view that - as I was going to suffer anyway, if a big group went clear I would try and follow it and after that, if I blew up, I blew up.
I knew the time limit to stay in the race was about 20 minutes after the stage winner today and figured that if I got a couple of minutes' lead going into the climb then I wasn't going to lose that much time even if I was on my hands and knees.
After about 7km, there was an escape group of five or six up the road and I followed a big move across to them. Within a few kilometres there were 29 of us up front and we had begun to open a gap on the peloton.
We were rolling through pretty smoothly, so I was surprised to see the first attacks for stage glory come as soon as we hit the bottom of the mountain, where we were two minutes clear.
When 2014 winner Vincenzo Nibali jumped up the road, then the war started behind him.
For a long time, I was in a chasing group with Rui Costa, Nelson Oliveira, Joey Rosskopff, Dylan Teuns and a couple of others a few seconds back but their pace was too much for me and I got dropped about 5km up the slope.
I knew the gradient eased out a bit up the road and planned to get to there to try and hang onto the peloton for a bit when they came up.
When they did catch me, the bunch was already well decimated but I hung on at the back for another few kilometres, until 17km to go, where I eased up and groups of two and three riders began to catch me.
I found myself with Amael Moinard of Arkea-Samsic 10km from the top.
Amael and I we were room-mates on our first foray into the pro peloton with Cofidis back in 2004.
He is one of my best friends in the peloton and I will miss him in the bunch when he retires at the end of the year.
As we climbed, both delighted that we had skipped the early mountains, we reminisced for a while.
It would have been cool if I had finished the stage alongside Amael, but he was going a little bit too fast for me today.
Sunday, July 28 - Stage 21: Rambouillet to Paris (127km)
With the team bus and some of the staff already gone on to Paris, last night was a bit quieter than usual and after a burger and a glass of wine, I was so tired that I slept like a baby for the first time in days.
This morning we had a two-hour bus transfer with the other teams to Chambery airport, where we were each handed a packed lunch (two ham and cheese rolls, an apple, a banana and a bottle of water) by the race organisation for the one-hour flight to Paris and the final stage.
The last day of the Tour usually starts with everyone going slow, the classification winners posing for photographs with glasses of champagne and then, on the Champs-Élysées, it ends with us all going flat out, as if we're trying to drain the last drops of energy out of ourselves before the finish line.
The expected bunch sprint finish today earned me a slagging from a few friends in the peloton as I lined out in full aero kit: from skin-suit to socks and helmet with the intent of helping our sprinter Michael Matthews in the finale.
Unfortunately for us, disaster struck with just under 10km to go when Michael's chain got caught in his gears and he was forced to stop and change onto a new bike.
With the peloton roaring towards the finish at over 60kph, I drifted back to try and help him regain contact, though the amount of energy expended in getting back on meant it would be highly unlikely Michael would make it all the way up to the front before the finish, let alone have the legs to sprint for victory if he did.
With Michael on my wheel and the low evening sun blinding us, I rode at 65kph, using the slipstream of the cars behind the race as smoothly as I could to save his legs a bit.
We got up to the last car just as we approached the Arc de Triomphe with 4.5km to go and as the peloton slowed a little to get around the U-turn, we made finally made contact. By then though, the lead-out trains of the other sprinters were in full flight and with only three other guys left on our team, it was impossible to get to the front.
As Celeb Ewan took his third stage win and Egan Bernal took his first Tour de France victory, our race ended in frustration. Without our team leader Tom Dumoulin, my Sunweb team came here with the new goal of winning a stage. Unfortunately, we fell short of that goal, with Michael's second place on stage three into Epernay as close as we got.
For me personally, sixth place on stage nine was my best result.
But if winning a stage of the Tour de France was easy, then everybody would have one. Having been in five big breakaways over the three weeks at least I can say I gave it a proper try.
I was happy with my condition until catching a cold in the Pyrenees and crashing in the Alps took a lot out of me in the last few days.
Hopefully a few days to recover will see me line up healthy again at the Classica San Sebastian in Spain next weekend and be ready for a full-on end of season that includes the Vuelta and all of the autumn classics.
Once again, the Irish support on the roads in the Alps and Pyrenees was amazing. It really gave me a boost to see so many familiar faces and Irish flags on the mountain sides.
My next trip home will be to Palmerstown on October 19 and 20 for a dinner and cycle around Blessington and Sally Gap with Paris-Roubaix winner Philippe Gilbert, so I hope to see some of you there. First, though, I'm going to take a couple of days in Paris to recover.