'I always lose a few seconds in time trials to kamikazes'
Sunday, March 3 – Paris-Nice prologue time trial: Houilles (2.9km)
As most of you probably know, I've changed teams since the end of last season, moving from my French team of four years, Ag2r, to the Danish-registered Saxo-Tinkoff team.
Even though I know a lot of the guys at Saxo-Tinkoff from racing against them over the years, like any time you move jobs, meeting up with everybody for the first time still feels a bit like your first day at school.
The fact that the team signed a lot of new riders over the winter though, helped me settle in quickly, as did a week of team bonding in Gran Canaria before Christmas, some of the highlights of which were abseiling down the side of a cliff alongside my new team leader Alberto Contador and hanging around with my new Wicklow-born, half-Danish, half-Irish, team-mate Chris Juul Jensen.
Since then the 'newbies' on the team have visited our sponsors' headquarters, spent a couple of days doing time-trial testing on the track and completed two more training camps with the squad and I'm fitting in pretty well so far.
In my first race for Saxo-Tinkoff, the Tour of the Mediterranean, I finished fifth overall, but was a bit disappointed not to get my first podium place in a stage race after doing a good time trial, where I finished eighth. Unfortunately, I didn't have a great day on the crucial mountain stage to Mont Faron. I was a bit nervous, attacked early and finished ninth on the stage. I'm not going to say that was a crap result, but I needed a better one to get onto the podium.
At the two-day Tour du Haut Var we knew the overall result would be decided on stage placings, so it was important for me to do a good sprint on the first day, but I lost three places in the last 50m by coming out of the final corner over geared and had to settle for eighth.
The next day we opted to give the breakaways a leash of about two or three minutes until the final climb. But it snowed on the penultimate descent and as we focused on trying to stay upright, we arrived at the bottom to find the gap had gone up to four and a half minutes.
The whole team went to the front for me and as the front group came into sight, I tried to get across to the leaders in the last few kilometres, but didn't make it. Frustratingly, young French rider Arthur Vichot, who was on my wheel, made it across and won the race outright.
In the final sprint, there was a massive crash just behind me and somebody's front wheel caught on my derailleur and I was pretty lucky not to crash, so it could have been worse than getting 11th overall. Still, the legs were there and the team was very focused and really supported me, which was great.
This afternoon I started the week-long Paris-Nice with a 2.9km prologue time trial in the Parisian suburb of Houilles. This time around, the guys that I've raced with are all riding Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy or the Driedaagse Van Vlaanderen in Belgium instead, so I'm racing with new team-mates again.
Czech Roman Kreuziger should be here, but he got sick during the Tour of the Med and as 'Tirreno' doesn't start until Wednesday, it gives him a few extra days to get better, leaving me as lone leader, which brings a bit of pressure. But I always put pressure on myself anyway.
Paris-Nice has always been an important race for me. My dad won it as a first-year pro in 1981. I grew up near the end of the final two stages and I've trained on those roads hundreds of times. Every year, I try to be good in Paris-Nice. It hasn't always worked, but it's always a race that motivates me. Some years I've done well in one or two stages. Some years it doesn't work at all. This year I've put in a lot work over the winter and I'd be so frustrated if I got nothing out of the race for the team.
Today's narrow, flat, technical time trial wasn't really my cup of tea. Even though I've worked a lot on my position on my time trial bike recently, I'm not the bravest or craziest on the corners in those technical tests and always lose a few seconds to the kamikazes.
I rode today's course seven or eight times before my start and even followed my Danish team-mate Michael Morkov in the team car for his time trial to watch his line into the corners. As it happened, I finished on exactly the same time as Michael and 14 others, covering the 2.9km in 3 minutes and 49 seconds, losing 12 seconds to French track star Damien Gaudin of Europcar.
To lose four seconds per kilometre is huge, but it also equates to around half a second per corner. I knew the corners well, but just felt I didn't take them quick enough, although in the debrief, I was surprised to be told I lost a bit of time on a little drag in the middle of the course, where I actually thought I was going well.
Finishing 79th on the stage doesn't look too good on paper, but I'm really only four or five seconds off the favourites like Aussie Richie Porte and Dutchman Robert Gesink, so I don't feel too bad about it. Okay, I was hoping to be five or six seconds quicker, but you have to start somewhere and the last time I did a not-so-good prologue in Paris-Nice, in 2010, I lost 45 seconds, but still managed to finish 10th overall because I was climbing well.
The next three days are going to be important because we go through an area renowned for crazy crosswinds. If the peloton splits there you can easily lose 30 or 40 seconds and it's game over. That's what saved me in 2010. Even though I didn't do a great time trial, I gained a few seconds each day in the crosswinds and clawed my way back up the general classification.
The big mountains begin on Wednesday and we have a tough finish on the first category Montagne de Lure on Friday. I wasn't on a good day the last time we went up that, in 2009, and can still remember every pothole in the road.
With some of the Tour contenders like Cadel Evans, Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome all opting to skip Paris-Nice in favour of Tirreno-Adriatico this year and defending champion Bradley Wiggins staying at home to train for an assault on the Giro in May, the race looks wide open.
But there are plenty of others, like Sylvain Chavanel, Tejay Van Garderen, Ivan Basso, Gesink, Andrew Talansky and Porte ready and able to fill their shoes, so I'm sure I won't be the only one motivated to do well. I'll have to be strong on the climbs this year and stay near the top of the GC before the famous mountain time trial finale up Col d'Eze on Sunday.
Live, Eurosport, 1.45