Nicolas Roche: 'The screech of metal scraping off tarmac told me it was a big one'
TOUR DE FRANCE DIARY
Monday, July 6, Stage 3: Anvers to Huy (159.5km)
Today's stage began in a pretty similar fashion to yesterday's, with four riders jumping clear just after the start and the peloton happy to let them open a couple of minutes' advantage before the chase began as we approached the day's hills.
The final 50km or so was where most of the action was expected to happen today, as the battle for positioning would begin on the first of the day's four short, sharp climbs.
The narrow roads that followed would lead us to the very steep finish atop the Mur de Huy - the climb made famous by the Fleche-Wallone classic - so I expected a full-on battle by the time we reached the fourth-category Cote de Bohissau after 109km.
Instead, I found myself standing in the middle of the peloton at the foot of the climb wondering what the hell was going on. Our team tactics for these opening few days have been to treat each stage as a one-day classic and to try and keep Froomey (Chris Froome) near the front and out of danger, although being at the front is no guarantee of safety.
Sometimes in the Tour, your safety comes down to pure luck.
Today, with 60km to go, we were on the left-hand side of the road when suddenly there was a huge crash on the right.
At the time, Movistar had upped the pace at the front to get themselves a good position approaching the climbs and while I only saw the front of the crash, the prolonged screech of metal scraping off tarmac behind us told me it was a big one.
The ensuing carnage took four riders out of this Tour including Swiss race leader Fabian Cancellara who was dazed and injured at the side of the road. He finished - as it later turned out with two broken vertebrae - but it ended his Tour.
As usual after a crash involving loads of different teams, you have various riders in the peloton looking behind them, talking into the little microphone inside their jersey and asking each other if their team leader has crashed.
Eight or nine of these guys were so busy looking behind them that they completely missed the next right-hand turn about a kilometre up the road and took each other out on the left-hand side just in front of me.
In an effort to stay upright, I found myself in a similar position to yesterday, ending up on the grass again, this time losing both of my bottles in the process.
Just as I regained contact with the back of the now trimmed-down peloton, I was told in my earpiece that the race was to be neutralised for a few kilometres.
Seconds later, however, I found myself sprinting out of corners to stay in contact as arguments went on at the front about whether the race should be stopped or not.
Suddenly, we came into the little village at the bottom of the first climb and the race director's car and lead cars stopped in front of us.
That's when the chaos started.
Although we now knew we were definitely being stopped, some guys rode around the cars, while others walked their bikes past to get a head start for the hill. Even though we were stopped a good 10 minutes, we were never given a reason why. If somebody had told us that the stoppage was because the medical teams were taken up with the two crashes and there was no cover for anyone else, I don't think anyone would have argued but we were all left asking the guy next to us if they had any more info than we had.
"Why are we stopped?"
"Are we going to start again?"
"Are we going to be racing on the climb or will it be neutralised?"
Still without a reason for the stoppage and knowing that we've all crashed numerous times over the years and nobody ever stopped the race for us, there was a lot of argument going on. What was the difference with this crash. Okay, a lot of guys fell at speed but it's not the first time. The yellow jersey crashed? Again it's not the first time. Sometimes in a case like that the riders and teams come to a gentleman's agreement to slow down and allow him back up but even it doesn't happen all the time.
A lot of guys were still ahead of the lead cars, which meant they now had to barge through the bunch, with guys stuck to their bumper and happily skipping the whole way to the front for the restart.
Eventually, they neutralised the first climb and when we got to the top, the riders agreed not to race again until the road widened afterwards.
Luckily, we were in a decent position and able to close the gap when a sharp left turn saw Astana and Tinkoff Saxo suddenly cause a split near the front.
I stayed on the front until the next climb, with 15km to go, where Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas took charge as I drifted back through the bunch to save my legs for tomorrow.
Although I wanted to take it easy in order to be fresh for tomorrow's cobbled stage, I didn't want to ride the last 15km on my own so I waited for a little group to drift out the back and rode to the finish with them.
As I approached the bottom of the Mur de Huy, a big screen on the corner showed Joaquin Rodriguez crossing the line with his hands in the air and a couple of seconds later I heard my directeur sportif Nicolas Portal congratulating Froomey on his second place on the stage.
The guys got Chris into a great position on the Mur and he even managed to take enough time out of his rivals in the last few hundred metres to give him the yellow jersey by a single second from German rider Tony Martin of Ettix Quickstep.
Having the race lead so soon won't really change much for us tomorrow. We've been riding on the front all day anyway and it's better to have yellow than to be trying to chase it.
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