Tuesday 24 October 2017

'I missed the carnage by inches and slipped past'

Nicolas Roche

At this morning's team briefing, my team-mates were told not to go with any small moves in the early kilometres. As today was a flatter day and one of the rare chances for the sprinters' teams to keep things together and take a stage win at the end -- unless the breakaway consisted of a dozen or more riders -- we knew they wouldn't survive to the finish and they'd be wasting energy.

Nonetheless, as soon as the flag dropped at the end of the neutralised section, Steve Houanard went up the road with three other guys; Antonio Cabello of the second division Andalucia team and Cofidis duo Julien Fouchard and Luis Angel Mate.

It's the second time on this Vuelta Houanard ignored team instructions and gone up the road in fruitless attacks. As soon as he got clear, our team directeur sportif Julien Jourdie came over the team radio. In our earpieces we could all hear him tell Houanard: "I told you not to go in the move. I'm not going to tell you sit up now, so you'd better stay there all day."

The four leaders built up a maximum lead of eight minutes as we took it a bit easier in the bunch after a couple of hard days in the mountains. Today I had time to have a bit of a chat with a few friends in the peloton. I spoke to Maxime Monfort of Leopard Trek and also had a few minutes with my cousin Daniel Martin of Garmin Cervelo.

Dan had been 18th overall a few days back but the commissaires penalised him 40 seconds for pacing behind his team car on the way back to the peloton and now he's just three seconds ahead of me in 24th. He was p****d off the commissaires wouldn't listen to an appeal from the team and insisted on the time penalty. I don't know what happened because I didn't see it but Dan said he sheltered in behind the car for a minute on the way up the cavalcade.

This happens every day after crashes or when riders go back to the team cars for bottles or stop for a wee. Sheltering behind team cars on the way back up the bunch is one of those rules that is usually turned a blind eye to and nothing ever happens unless you've been taking a tow by holding onto the car or have done something else illegal. Then, they just throw you out of the race.

At the feed zone, fourth overall Joaquin Rodriguez tried the school yard lunchbox trade as he tried to swap whatever he had in his feed bag. After offering his food to half a dozen riders, eventually somebody swapped him and the little Spaniard rode off happy.

Today was slower than normal as the peloton took it easy after two hard days in the mountains. The thing about riding slower is while it might be easier on the legs, you end up spending longer in the saddle and we were just two minutes short of five hours' racing today.

Things began to liven up in the final 20km when a crash in the middle of the bunch split it into four parts. Dan's Garmin team went to the front to try and get rid of some their sprinter Tyler Farrar's competition but they began to stall as we hit a strong headwind with about 15km to go. Here, we caught Houanard and the rest of the break after they had spent four and a half hours riding hard for nothing.

With Mark Cavendish having abandoned a few days ago, lots of teams reckoned their sprinter had a chance in the final gallop so the run-in was pretty chaotic, with waves of teams coming to the front before the wind took its toll and they drifted back. I surfed the peloton from one side to the other as things kept changing at the front but was really just looking to stay out of trouble.


Knowing he was due a b*******g after the stage, Houanard stayed at the front instead of drifting out the back with the other three escapees when he was caught and even helped place our sprinter Lloyd Mondory near the front as we turned a hairpin with 1,100m to go. "At least now they can't say I didn't do my work for the team," he said to me afterwards. "Maybe now I'll only get half given-out to."

In the sprint, I was riding in my usual safety zone of around 25th to 30th place. Near enough the front not to miss any time splits, but far enough away to avoid any crashes. With about 150m to go there was a huge crash about four places in front of me. Farrar hit the deck seconds after he had leaned into Polish rider Michal Golas, who landed on his face at 70kph. As guys in front of me locked their brakes, I dived to my left, hoping nobody would hit me from behind. I missed the carnage by inches and slipped through as the stack of bikes built up behind me. Up ahead, 23-year-old German sprinter Marcel Kittel took his first Grand Tour stage win as Mondory snatched fifth and another UCI point for the team.

After a quick shower and some chicken, rice and fruit on the team bus, we hit the road for another two-hour transfer to our hotel. On the way, we had a post-stage debriefing, which doesn't normally happen until later in the hotel. The main topic was Houanard's involvement in the early break. Julien said there was no point in spending half an hour planning the stage if people were going to ignore it. "But I did my work at the end of the stage," pleaded Houanard. "I helped Lloyd and he got fifth."

"That's not the problem," said Julien. "The problem is you didn't follow team orders. The energy you wasted today might be needed to close a gap tomorrow or the next day."

As I'm writing this, Houanard is sitting beside me laughing. "I'm just young," he giggles, even though at 25 he's only two years younger than me. In fairness, it's hard to fault his enthusiasm.

Vuelta a Espana,

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