Friday 23 March 2018

Nicholas Roche: 'I knew there was no point killing myself to finish 24th or 25th'

Sky's Chris Froome rides up the final slopes of Mont Ventoux after a devastating climb to extend his lead in the overall classifications.
Sky's Chris Froome rides up the final slopes of Mont Ventoux after a devastating climb to extend his lead in the overall classifications.

Nicolas Roche

After helping our team leader Alberto Contador move a minute closer to Chris Froome's yellow jersey with an all-out attack in the crosswinds yesterday, my Saxo-Tinkoff team were all in high spirits last night

Saturday, July 13 – Stage 14: Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule to Lyon, 191km

Although we were staying in the same hotel as Froome's Sky team afterwards, their riders ate in a separate dining room, so I didn't see them. But in a nice sporting gesture some of their staff came over and congratulated us on our tactics.

But as we donned our new yellow race numbers and helmets that identified us as leading team on the Tour, this morning we were quickly reminded by our directeur sportif that yesterday was over and we couldn't lose our focus.

With a huge mountain-top finish coming tomorrow at Mont Ventoux, the likelihood that a group of lowly placed riders would be ignored today by the GC contenders' teams, should they escape early on, meant that the first two hours of racing were incredibly fast. A group of 15 were clear after an hour-and-a-half but Euskaltel and Lampre missed the move and chased them for half an hour before eventually giving up with 96km gone.

After a very hard end to yesterday's stage, my legs were a bit sore this morning but I was lucky that as the break got established the pace settled down for the last 60km.

Coming into the finish in Lyon, it was extremely dangerous with the number of people at the side of the road so Sky upped the pace a bit in the last 15km just to stay out of trouble and we followed suit, riding alongside them at the head of the bunch with Alberto sheltered on our wheels.

Even though we lost seven minutes to the escapees today, none of them were well-placed overall so it didn't really matter. I just tried to recover as much as possible today so that I can give the lads a hand tomorrow.

Sunday, July 14 – Stage 15: Givors to Mont Ventoux, 242.5km

This was another big day: a whopping 242km stage ending with the savage 21km ascent of Mont Ventoux. The plan was for me to try to get up the road early on if a big group went away so that I would be up the road on Ventoux if Alberto needed me later on in the stage.

While a few years ago I could jump up the road five or six times at the start, nowadays I don't seem to have that kind of freshness. Although I got into a move on the first two fourth-category climbs, neither of them stuck and, as usual, a 10-man escape went on the third one after an hour of racing.

While some people used the brief ceasefire to stop for a quick pee a few kilometres later, leading climber Pierre Rolland attacked us in an effort to get across to the group and rack up a few more King of the Mountains points.

If Rolland was expecting the break to wait for him, he was disappointed. As they continued to open the gap with Rolland stuck in no-man's land, his Europcar team took the huffs and tried to force them to wait by riding flat out on the front of the peloton for another hour or so. Although they cut the escapee's lead in half, bringing it back to three-and-a-half minutes, they had started their chase too late and had to concede defeat around 150km into the stage, when Movistar then took over.

My day was spent mainly riding out in the wind with the other guys, getting bottles and keeping our three highest-placed riders, Alberto, Roman Kreuziger and Michael Rogers, as well positioned as possible ahead of the final climb. We approached today's feed zone so fast that myself and Sergio Paulinho were designated to grab the mussettes as the other guys had to concentrate on staying up front. I handed mine to Alberto, who took the bottles out of the bag and shared the gels and bars with the rest of the team.

With six hours in the saddle under our belts by the finish, eating and drinking enough was very important, so at about 80km to go, I went back to the car for some food and drinks for the guys.

I stuffed some energy bars and gels into my back pockets before cramming three bottles of water in on top of them. A few years ago, you were able to wedge bottles down the back of your jersey, behind your ear, but our jerseys are so skin-tight today that I had to stuff another five bottles down the front of mine before riding back up with them wobbling all over the place, banging off my legs.

It's not easy to get back to a peloton speeding along at 50kph when you're carrying an extra five kilos, so I have nothing but admiration for Sergio who had already done this five or six times today and has pretty much been doing it since we left Corsica two weeks ago.

Having caught the escapees on the climb, Sky drove the rapidly diminishing front group along. As Alberto, Roman and Mick tried to hold or improve on their overall positions on Mont Ventoux, I tried to stay with the group as long as possible in case any of them needed a wheel or a bottle or had any problem.

When Basque rider Mikel Nieve attacked about 10km from the summit, I was suffering and knew there was no point in killing myself to finish 24th or 25th on the stage. I will have another role to play in the coming days, so I let go and set my own rhythm.

While my only aim was to get to the top, and perhaps save a slight bit of energy to be able to help the guys again in the next few days, I wondered why some of the guys who had been dropped earlier were still giving it everything as they rode past me a few kilometres later, but it's easy to forget there is the best young rider category, the best team, and other awards to fight for.

After about 3km on my own, my old team-mate Christophe Riblon rode alongside me and we kept each other company to the finish. As the team bus was parked on the other side of the mountain, I had another 5km downhill ride after the line, where I probably did my weirdest interview ever. As I descended, a French TV motorbike drove alongside with a camera, while another carrying a guy with a microphone asked me questions. "What did you think of the climb? Has Froome won the Tour today? Can Alberto still win the Tour? Is the gap too big?"

Although I had crossed the line 16 minutes later and didn't know much about it at that stage, Alberto and Roman both lost another minute and 40 seconds to stage winner Froome today but are still in third and fourth place respectively.

While Froome now looks in a very strong position, four minutes and 14 seconds ahead of Bauke Mollema of Belkin with the guys another 11 and 14 seconds further back, we still have another week to go.

My Saxo-Tinkoff team could still have two riders on the podium in Paris, possibly one of them on the top step. It's the Tour de France. . . anything can happen next week and we're definitely not giving up yet.

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