Nicolas Roche: 'My heart couldn't beat harder on the climb'
Tour de France Diary
Wednesday, July 19 - Stage 17: La Mure to Serre-Chevaliere (183km)
Although today was a really tough day in the mountains - containing two of the biggest climbs of this Tour - a time trial on Saturday and two flat sprinters' stages on Friday and Sunday, meant for me and a lot of others it was the second last chance to do something on this Tour.
Today's goal was for Damiano (Caruso) to try and hang in with the GC contenders and hold onto his tenth place overall while the rest of us tried to get up the road this morning.
After a flurry of early attacks, I followed a move after about 12km and made it across to the break with Amael (Moinard), Danilo (Wyss) and about a dozen others.
As the peloton split behind us, more riders came across and we merged into a 30 strong front group heading towards the Col d'Ornon.
As sprinter Michael Matthews was in the move with three of his Sunweb team-mates, they drove us along knowing that they had distanced green jersey leader Marcel Kittel again and Matthews could get maximum points at the intermediate sprint after 47km. At the foot of the climb, after 20km we had three minutes on the peloton.
To protect his team-mate Warren Barguil's lead in the mountains competition, the Aussie even sprinted to take the climbers' points on offer at the top from Dutchman Thomas de Gendt who had begun the day second in that classification.
The duo continued riding away and by the time Matthews won the intermediate sprint to put himself within nine points of the green-jerseyed Kittel, they had two minutes on the rest of our group, with the Sky-led peloton a further three minutes back as we approached the 26km-long Col de la Croix de Fer after 50km of racing.
With their team-mates in the break having stopped riding though, the impetus went out of our group and as we climbed we heard that Alberto Contador had attacked the peloton behind and was closing in on us. I started panicking a little bit and, thinking we were going to be caught, I attacked once or twice halfway up but didn't achieve anything apart from shelling a few guys from the break.
When they heard Contador was coming across, his team-mates Michael Gogl and then Jarlinson Pantano eased up out of our breakaway group to help him and he made contact with us 7km from the summit, with 113km to go.
Pantano immediately went to the front and upped the pace for Contador, absolutely nailing it over the top and down the 30km descent. Although we were going downhill, it was so hard that there was no free-wheeling to recover and Pantano continued in the valley.
It was horrible: just a single line for 15km before he paid for his efforts and blew up at the foot of the 17km long Col de Telegraphe after 120km, where team-mate Bauke Mollema took over and really tore into the slope.
When Contador put his hand up, pulled to the side and stopped to change his bike on the climb, Mollema eased up and I got a breather for a few minutes but as soon as Contador regained contact a few minutes later the Dutchman took it up again and I went out the back door.
I can't really explain what happened. I just couldn't go any harder.
My heart rate wouldn't go higher and my legs couldn't hold the power. I didn't feel tired but my legs were so sore.
I held them at a few seconds for a while but that became 20 seconds, 30 seconds and eventually a minute.
I had Jesus Herrada from Movistar with me and we shared the work to the top where I grabbed an extra bottle for Damiano who was in the peloton, a minute and a half back, and shouted at our soigneur to give my Spanish friend one as well. Luckily, I was looking behind when the peloton caught us on the descent because they flew past just as we hit the Col du Galibier and I just about had time to hand Damiano his drink before I was dropped again.
Myself and Herrada found ourselves together again on the 22km ascent so we just rode at our own tempo, with his Movistar car repaying the favour and giving me a bottle on the way up.
Knowing we couldn't go much harder than we already were we didn't bat an eyelid when various little groups caught us and went past. I had amazing Irish support on the side of the road today and it kept me going to the top but I can't say I enjoyed the climb.
Having spent about two hours climbing on our own today, Herrada and I gave each other a pat on the back before parting ways at the finish, where we crossed the line 24 minutes behind our former breakaway colleague and stage winner Primoz Roglic of Lotto Jumbo.
After 17 stages, Chris Froome only leads this Tour by 27 seconds now from Uran and Bardet ahead of tomorrow's final mountain-top finish.
It's going to be hell.
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