Saturday 19 October 2019

Nicolas Roche: 'There was a chunk of flesh and a river of blood on the road as I went past'

Tour de France diary

Geraint Thomas finished fourth, leading the GC riders over the line. Photo: Getty
Geraint Thomas finished fourth, leading the GC riders over the line. Photo: Getty

Nicolas Roche

Thursday July 11, Stage 6: Mulhouse -La Planche des Belle Filles (160km)

with our team leader Tom Dumoulin forced out of this Tour de France just a week before it began, my Sunweb team have had to approach this race in a different way than planned. Having won the Giro d'Italia in 2017 and finished second in both the Giro and the Tour last year, Tom was one of the few riders on the planet with a real chance of winning this year's Tour and for the first part of the season everything was based around trying to help him do that.

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However, he injured his knee at the Giro d'Italia and everything changed.

Instead of sacrificing our whole team for Tom's push for the overall classification we are now focussed on winning stages and every day brings a new opportunity and a new set of tactics to try and do that.

The first mountain stage of the Tour de France usually comes down to a battle between the GC guys, so I expected the same to happen today and didn't think there was much point going in the break and spending most of the stage out front over seven mountains only to be caught in the end by the overall contenders, especially if the break went on the flat in the beginning of the stage.

If it went on the first mountain, after 25km, then there would be more climbers in the break and there'd would be a better chance of it staying away, so Wilco Kelderman said he was going to try and follow the moves, but only if they went on the climb.

As it happened, the break went in the first few kilometres and there were still a few good climbers in the 14-man move, including my old team-mate Dylan Teuns of Bahrain-Merida, Giulio Ciccone from Trek and Thomas de Gendt of Lotto Soudal.

We had Nikias Arndt in the break, so the plan for the rest of us was to get through the stage without wasting energy.

At the start of the Tour, the team were very clear that instead of trying to hang on with the top guys and maybe finish in the top 10 or 15 overall, we were to either get in the breakaways and go for a stage win or save energy for the next days where we could try again or help somebody else try, so today was the first time in a stage race that I was dropped for no particular reason. On a long descent with about 30km to go, the bunch split in three and because I was riding without any pressure and was already waiting for the grupetto to form, I found myself off the back in a group of about 50 or 60 riders.

On the third category climb that followed, a few GC riders in our group rode as hard as they could to regain contact and our group got reduced to about 15 riders.

Wilco was with me and we settled in as our group picked up more dropped riders on the climb, including green jersey Peter Sagan.

It was weird because neither of us had been in that position before and it was a strange feeling to not care about losing 10 or 15 minutes on the way to the finish.

When the groups merged into one big group, myself and Danish rider Michael Valgren from Dimension Data spent much of the time climbing together and chatting at the front.

I used a 39x30 gearing for the climb to the summit of Planche des Belles Filles, which was probably a bit too high for the 24 per cent gradient near the top but as I knew I wouldn't be going for GC, I didn't want to make the mechanics change my gears for just one day. They've enough work to do.

Usually at the top of such a hard final climb, I would be slumped over my bike trying to catch my breath or maybe even lying on the road exhausted.

Today though, I crossed the line, put on warm clothes and turned around for the 10km descent down to the team buses.

At the top, the UCI gave us an armband so the police would let us through and a whistle to negotiate the crowds on the way back down.

After a stage, everybody wants to get off the mountain as quickly as possible to beat the traffic, so there were people walking and running in between the riders, people carrying stuff, kids running out in the road, fans who thought they were racing us, it was chaotic.

On the way down I passed a group of people gathered on the road. There was a chunk of flesh and a river of blood on the road as I went past so I looked back to see what had happened but I shouldn't have.

It was pretty horrific. A fan had crashed and landed on his face.

At the bottom, a couple of English speakers were trying to explain to the police what had happened so I went over and translated for them and they sent an ambulance up to check it out. Hopefully the guy is all right.

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