Nicolas Roche's Giro D'Italia Diary: 'I've seen more tar in a packet of cigarettes'
Tuesday, May 8, Stage 4: Catania-Caltagirone (202km)
Being back in Italy had its benefits today as the morning buffet looked more like breakfast than it had in a few days and the coffee was that little bit better too.
With my room-mate Rohan Dennis leading this Giro by just a single second from last year's winner Tom Dumoulin, the pressure was always going to be on us to hold onto the pink jersey on today's very undulating stage.
To do that we had to try and control the race, not let an escape group get too big of an advantage and try to get Rohan to the foot of the uphill finish at the head of affairs.
Uphill finishes always cause chaos in the first week of a Grand Tour, with a mixture of overall contenders and fresh-legged stage hunters all chasing glory.
It only takes one rider to let the wheel go in front of them to create a time gap and as the time is always taken from the front of each group to the next, a few metres on a hill can translate into ten seconds or more on the clock so to give Rohan the best chance possible we had to do everything right today.
The race proper was delayed slightly by a puncture to one of the Lotto-Jumbo guys in the neutralised section and it turned out to be a sign of things to come for the opening half hour or so. The first 20km of today's stage were held on honestly the worst road surface I've ever ridden on in my life. And I train in Ireland!
Huge potholes, gravel, lumps of melted road and cobbles the size of batch loaves in some of the small towns, with no grout in between them, meant that I've seen more tar in a packet of cigarettes.
Within a couple of minutes of the first attacks flying off the front, my Spanish team-mate Fran Ventoso punctured, Dumoulin had to change bikes, one of his team-mate's tyres came off and I found myself caught out in the middle of the bunch surrounding by the pinging and clattering of broken wheels and frames and the hissing of flat tyres.
After 5km of racing, the peloton was split into five or six pieces and I was out the back and clawing my way back to the front with a host of victims of the local county council's road section. De Marchi went up to the race organiser to complain but soon we were back on decent roads again and all was forgotten.
When the break went after 25km the onus was on us, as the race leader's team, to set the tempo at the front. Jempy Drucker took up a lonely post at the head of the peloton and about 25km later Lotto Fix-All put one man up to help us.
With the gap down to a controllable two minutes as we approached the feed zone after 90km, for some reason the UAE team went full gas on a climb, causing pandemonium again.
Myself and Rohan, Dumoulin, Kreuziger, Pinot, Yates and others had all stopped for a pee when the bunch suddenly exploded in five or six groups so there was a lot of bitching about that.
Although there's no rule against riding hard whenever you want to, I don't really know why they did it and I suffered to regain contact just at the top of the climb where UAE stopped pulling and we took over again, calming it down to make sure some of our guys who were dropped got back to the front.
We went through some beautiful Sicilian countryside today but the stage was a lot harder than most of us expected. With 40km to go, other teams came up to ride and Kilian, Fran, and Loic kept Rohan near the front until about 10km to go as we approached the penultimate hill.
Sitting behind Rohan, I noticed he had two bottles on his bike so I radioed him to get rid of at least one.
Every bit of weight counts going uphill.
It was left to me and Demma to get him to the bottom of the final hill but to be honest there was so much chopping and changing at the front it was very hard to keep him on our wheels and in the last 3km he did his own thing and the fate of the pink jersey was down to him in the last metres.
The climb itself surprised almost everybody, apart from stage winner Tim Wellens, whose Lotto team had helped us earlier on, knowing he had a good chance at the finish. On the profile it looked like it flattened out in the last 300 metres but in fact it did the opposite and got steeper and there were some big time gaps.
Thankfully, Rohan allowed no daylight between himself and Dumoulin, finishing one place behind the Dutchman to stay in the pink for another day at least.
- Giro d'Italia, Live, Eurosport 1, 12.0