Nicolas Roche: 'This Tour will be decided on Alpe d'Huez'
Tour de France Diary
Friday, July 24, Stage 19: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire Les Sybelles (138km)
Having stayed on top of today's first-category summit finish at La Toussuire last night, we had just an 18km drive to this morning's start in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.
Unfortunately, though, the race organiser found a much longer and harder way for us to get back this afternoon, taking in the first-category Col du Chaussy, the hors category Col de la Croix de Fer and the second-category Col du Mollard on the way.
With racing starting right at the foot of the 15km-long Chaussy, we were expecting plenty of attacks on Froomey's yellow jersey today, and they came within seconds of the flag dropping.
As guys jumped up the road at the bottom of the climb, Richie Porte got to the front to set a good tempo, with me on his wheel.
But the attacks still came thick and fast, with almost every rider in the top 20 having a go.
While we weren't unduly worried about the lower-placed guys, when third-placed Alejandro Valverde attacked with Alberto Contador (5th) and Vincenzo Nibali (7th) after about 10km we got a little overexcited and in hindsight, maybe chased them too hard.
As a rain shower lashed down on us as we climbed, I panicked a little bit and started chasing but pretty soon had put myself into the red and was struggling to hold the wheels, let alone close the gap.
By the time King of the Mountains Joaquin Rodriguez led the break over the top, there was mayhem in the peloton and although the attacks were nullified, the front portion was down to just ten men, with Wout Poels the only one from the team left with Froomey.
Leo Konig and fourth-placed Geraint Thomas were just metres off the back of the group as we descended and regained contact soon after, while I began the 14km drop 30 seconds later on my own.
Although I thought I was riding hard on the way down, Peter Sagan, a fantastic descender, came past me like a missile halfway down.
By the valley floor in Le Chambre after 30km, it looked like I was only about 20 seconds off the back of Froomey's group, which was still attacking each other, but we turned into a massive headwind and it felt like I was riding into a wall.
Thankfully, a group of about 15 caught me and we all took turns in the wind in an effort to regain contact.
Still, though, we weren't making much inroads until a huge group containing Richie, Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and most of the peloton caught us after about 40km.
Just after the intermediate sprint in Epierre,about 3km later, we finally made contact with Froomey and the rest of the guys so we grabbed a few bottles and gels on the way past the team car and brought them up to them.
As yesterday's stage winner Romain Bardet was up the road in the break again, the Lotto Jumbo team put two men on the front in an effort to stop Bardet overtaking their team leader Robert Gesink in the overall standings.
The Dutch squad's hot pursuit of Bardet wasn't the best for my recovery and I was hoping they might ease up as we approached the feed zone after 52km.
Instead, we flew through it so fast that I missed the feed bag being held by our team carer and had to get a bottle from Richie, who managed to grab his.
Lotto had increased their presence on the front to five riders by the time we hit the bottom of the 22km-long Col de la Croix de Fer and we were still flying along.
Having had no time to recover, I could only grimace and hang on as we rode towards the top of the biggest climb of the day.
I was okay for the first seven or eight kilometres of climbing but when Astana lit it up about 10km from the top it all went bananas and I had nothing left to follow them.
I think the accumulative fatigue of yesterday's hard ride up the Glandon and going too deep at the start today didn't allow me to recover enough to be able to hang on for any longer. I simply wasn't on a good day.
As everyone got shelled out the back of the peloton under the pressure there were soon only the top five contenders in this Tour - Froomey, Quintana, Contador, Nibali and Valverde - left in the group, although Wout and a few others managed to claw their way back before the top.
With my legs gone and no hope of making it back up to help Froomey, I was in a pretty grumpy mood as I climbed, although the Irish fans on the roadside gave me a bit of a lift .
I recognised a guy from the Spar shop in Dundrum and there were loads of familiar faces on the mountain - which was just as well, as today was one of those days where I needed as much support as I could get. The only good thing about it was that I was riding slow enough to be able to acknowledge them with a wave or a smile.
Having crested the Croix de Fer with about a dozen others, a bigger group caught us on the 15km descent that followed. With the 6km climb of the Col du Mollard followed by another 20km descent, the rest of the stage went by pretty quickly, apart from the 18km climb to the finish at La Toussuire, which felt like it took forever.
With the rest of us unfortunately missing in action, Wout did a superb job today and stayed with Froomey until the last 5km of the stage. A fantastic climber, Wout has this knack of being able to claw his way back after getting dropped and goes back to the front as if nothing has happened.
He rode down most of the attacks and even stopped at the side of the road and offered Froomey his bike when he got a stone stuck in his brakes near the top of the Mollard, where Nibali attacked.
Although Nibali eventually won the stage and a late attack by Quintana took 30 seconds off Froomey, he still leads the Colombian climber by 2'38" going into tomorrow's penultimate stage.
After 19 days of racing, it's getting harder to judge how well you have recovered. This morning I thought I was fine, but suddenly my legs were gone.
Although we have two days left, this Tour will be decided on the road to Alpe d'Huez tomorrow.
For me personally it will be all about forgetting today and trying to do my best for Froomey for as long as I can.