Tuesday 16 January 2018

Nicolas Roche: 'Suddenly left with another 3km to go, there was a bit of a lull and a lot of guys swarmed past me again'

Saturday, June 29 Stage 1: Porto-Vecchio – Bastia

Jan Bakelants celebrates as he crosses the finishing line to win stage two
Jan Bakelants celebrates as he crosses the finishing line to win stage two

As our hotel was only about 300 metres from the start of this morning's first stage, we had the luxury of hanging around our rooms for as long as possible before heading out to the start and signing on.

As the French air force flew overhead with patriotic red, white and blue plumes of smoke trailing behind them, I realised I wasn't nervous.

This is my 10th Grand Tour so I was more focused than anything and know by now that on the first day of the Tour it's very important to try to stay out of trouble and it wasn't a day for chatting to friends in the peloton.

Five guys went up the road pretty soon after the start and, although the sprinters' teams were happy to let them dangle out front and reel them in nearer the end, we almost caught them after 60km as we turned into a headwind.

Even though the roads weren't especially dangerous, it was pretty stressful in the peloton in the early kilometres when teams were trying to impose themselves on the front.

With around 35km to go, we turned into a crosswind and my Saxo-Tinkoff team hit the front to try to split the race a bit in the hope of catching some of the GC contenders out and putting them in trouble but the wind wasn't strong enough so we eased up after a few kilometres.

With the sprinters' teams on the front, we tore towards the final 10km of the stage, only to be told in our earpieces that one of the team buses had got stuck under the finish sign, blocked the road, and the stage would now be ending at the 3km to go banner.

As the various teams became aware that there were suddenly 3km less to race, the pace increased even more and there was a lot of pushing and jostling for places in the line.

On other races, most crashes happen near the back, where guys who are tired and maybe not concentrating enough tend to find themselves in trouble. But the Tour is a funny kind of race in that a lot of the crashes happen at the front and often take out the top guys.

About 2km from the new finish, I was moving up the bunch on the right-hand side of the road with my team-mate Roman Kreuziger when there was a massive crash directly across from us on the left-hand side.

I was in my top gear of 53x11 and spinning the pedals flat out at just under 60kph when it happened so it wasn't surprising to learn afterwards that most of the damage was caused by guys who simply couldn't stop and rammed into riders who were already on the deck.

As well as sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan, my team leader Alberto Contador fell and left a bit of skin on the road as well as part of his shoe plate. Luckily enough, he had Daniele Benatti and Matteo Tossatto in the pile-up with him to nurse him to the line.

When the crash happened, the official finish was still at 3km to go so we assumed that as they fell within 3km from the new line, they wouldn't lose any time.

A few hundred metres later, I had just moved into a decent position on the wheels of the Argos sprint train when a voice in my earpiece told me the bus had been cleared and the finish was changed back again.

Suddenly left with another 3km to go, there was a bit of a lull and a lot of guys swarmed past me again.

I was stuck in the middle where you can't move right, you can't move left and, unless you're willing to dive into the smallest of gaps, you're not going to move up. I wanted to go for it but wasn't as confident as a few years ago in my first Tour and finished 14th on the stage, which was won by Argos's German sprinter Marcel Kittel.

The race has been over for an hour now but all the teams are stuck in the car park as yet another bus got stuck under the finish on the way to the hotel. Where's Ty Pennington of 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' when you need him? "Bus driver, move that bus!"

Sunday, June 30

Stage 2: Bastia – Ajjacio 156km

With three third category climbs and the second category Col de Vizzavona on the way to Ajaccio today, the team plan, as usual, was to keep our leader Alberto out of trouble and in touch with his rivals by the end of the stage.

A four-man break containing David Veilleux (Europcar), Ruben Perez (Euskaltel), Lars Boom (Belkin) and my old Ag2r team-mate Blel Kadri went away pretty early and opened a gap of two minutes or so.

Just as it looked like they might open a bigger advantage, the Sojasun squad started to ride at the front, angry that their rider Jerome Simon had got to within 40 seconds of the break but they wouldn't wait for him to bridge across.

This, and the fact that the French FDJ squad set a strong pace on the second-category climb, dropping a lot of the sprinters and yellow jersey Kittel, meant the break didn't have much hope of staying away and most of the day's action occurred on the 1km-long final climb, the top of which came with just 12km to go.

I was riding in around 20th position with Alberto a couple of guys in front of me when Juan Antonio Fleche of Vaconsoleil attacked, followed by Europcar's Cyril Gautier.

I saw them jump but was sitting on world champion Philippe Gilbert's wheel, expecting him to follow them. His response never came so I moved up to the front.

My initial plan was that if I rode over the top with Alberto on my wheel it would keep him out of trouble just in case the descent was trickier than it looked on the map but, as I was went past, Alberto radioed me to stop, so I sat in between Chris Froome of Sky and BMC's Cadel Evans as we approached the summit.

Going over the top, Froome went. Initially, I let some of the other guys chase but Alberto wanted to close the gap so I overtook them on the descent and eventually reeled him in at the bottom, where Roman Kreuziger and myself followed a few moves off the front.

Unfortunately, we missed the right one and six riders went clear, one of whom, Belgian Jan Bakelants, stayed away to win the stage by a single second and – with Kittel over six minutes behind us – pull on his first Tour yellow jersey.

Staying out of trouble and keeping your team leader in contention for the first week of the Tour means we spend a lot of time out in the wind at the edge of the peloton so Alberto can get shelter.

This uses up a lot of energy but it's the only way to do it. The Tour is so intense that you have to throw away a bit of energy to ride safely. You can't ride in the middle of the bunch all week and hope to avoid crashes.

Having been 14th yesterday and with everyone on the same time overall, the plan today was for me to have a go in the sprint and maybe move up the overall a bit.

But, about 2km out, I felt I had gone deep enough for the day and put Benna in position before rolling across the line in 36th place to save the legs.

I'm 11th overall now but, more importantly, everyone is okay and Alberto hasn't lost any time.

Irish Independent

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