Nicolas Roche: 'The plan went out the window when the gap grew to 10 minutes'
TOUR DE FRANCE DIARY
Wednesday July 22, Stage 17: Dignes les Bains to Pra Loup (161km)
As today's start was the closest to home since the Tour started, I saw quite a few friends that I hadn't seen in years this morning, including Fred Rostaing, the manager of my amateur club VC La Pomme and Serge Pascal from my junior team in Draguignan. I also saw some old school friends and lots of Irish fans, including the Howard family from Stamullen.
The first of four hard stages in the Alps, today's stage came on the back off a rest day which meant that we arrived quite early to give us a bit of time to jump on the rollers and warm up for 20 minutes beforehand.
Having ridden the exact same stage at the Criterium du Dauphine in June, I knew the start would be difficult so after my warm-up I went to the line early to get to the front of the bunch for the uphill start.
With small groups attempting to jump clear in an aggressive first hour of racing, Luke Rowe, Ian 'Yogi' Stannard and myself tried to keep Chris Froome at the front without having to chase everyone.
By the time we arrived at the bottom of the third category Col de Léques after 35km, there was a bit of a fight going on between some of the guys in the top 15 overall. Austrian Mathias Frank (13th) kept on attacking, while seventh-placed Robert Gesink also threw in a few digs.
Eventually, a group of 20 riders went clear with second-placed Nairo Quintana of Movistar in the wheels as myself and Leo Konig rode tempo at the front of the peloton. After a bit of a sprint to close the gap there were about 50 of us up front at the top, with six of us from Sky there.
On the radio we could hear that third-placed Tejay van Garderen of BMC was about a minute down, so Movistar took the race on, with the aim of leapfrogging fourth-placed Alejandro Valverde into that spot.
A very fast descent into Castellane after about 50km saw the attacks continue with Leo and I doing our best to shut them down until a move went on a flatter section with Richie Porte following the wheels.
By then Movistar had already sent three men up the road while Tinkoff-Saxo and Astana had also sent guys ahead and I was worried their leaders, Quintana, Valverde, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali, were planning to jump across to them so that they could get towed away from Froomey on the next climbs.
The way the race was going, if there were going to be more attacks on the second climb I couldn't guarantee I'd be with them so I suggested to Froomey that it would be easier for me to follow the next attack, get up the road and then drop back from the group later on if needed rather than to stay in the peloton and hope I hung on.
Froomey and our directeur sportif Nicolas Portal agreed so I managed to get into the next move which merged with Richie's group as we headed for the second climb, the third category Col du Toutes Aures.
My prediction almost came true when Contador attacked at the bottom of the climb but Leo and Wout Poels were quick to react to close the gap and he sat up within a few kilometres as Richie and I sat a couple of minutes up the road in a breakaway group of 28 riders.
With Yogi, Luke, Leo, Wout and Geraint Thomas back with Froomey, myself and Richie were following the wheels up front, waiting to be called back if the s**t hit the fan on the penultimate first category climb of the Col d'Allos and we started to lose men in the peloton, which was now eight minutes behind.
With Frank making a huge jump up the overall standings we thought some of the other teams would start riding and eventually Trek put the pressure on behind to try to stop the Austrian jumping over Bauke Mollema into ninth overall.
As Richie is a better climber than me, the idea was to get him to drop back earlier to help Froomey on the Allos and about 8km from the top he eased up to wait for the peloton.
The plan kind of went out the window when the gap grew to over 10 minutes on climb and I had to try and find a balance between staying in the front group and making sure that, if something happened and I had to drop back, I would be fresh enough to do a proper job for Froomey.
As Simon Geschke of Giant-Alpecin crested the summit two minutes up on the rest of us, I went over the top of the Allos on my own in eighth place, grabbing a bottle and a gel from a roadside carer before being caught by Serge Pauwels of MTN Qhubeka and Jonathan Castroviejo of Movistar.
We then caught British rider Adam Yates of Orica GreenEdge on the ride the summit finish in Pra Loup 6km later for seventh place on the stage.
Behind, Richie had fallen back just at the right time to give Froomey a hand as he was being attacked by Nibali and Quintana before losing contact with the group when Contador crashed in front of him on the descent.
Once again Froomey held onto his yellow jersey of race leader, finishing with Quintana for 20th on the stage and taking time out of everyone else.
Upon crossing the line, I donned a rain jacket for the ride back down to the team bus, 15km away. On the way down there was a huge thunderstorm. The rain drops were as big as your finger and the heaviness of the storm sent fans scurrying across the road in front of us for shelter which made the descent pretty dangerous.
After a shower on the bus and a bite to eat we now have a two-hour drive to our next hotel.
We now have three more days in the Alps to keep Froomey in yellow. They are all going to be about the start, where my job will be to try and control the attacks and save the better climbers for later in the day.
There's still a lot of work to be done.
Tour de France, Eurosport 1.0/TG4 12.35/ITV4 1.30