Friday 22 November 2019

Nicholas Roche: 'When I got to Irish Corner my legs didn't work anymore'

The Irish corner of Alpe d'Huez
The Irish corner of Alpe d'Huez
Race leader Yellow jersey holder Team Sky rider Christopher Froome of Britain cycles among a group of riders climbing the Alpe d'Huez mountain

Nicolas Roche

There are no words to describe how tired I feel after today's stage. At 13km long and with 21 hairpin bends on the way to the ski station at the top, the climb of Alpe d'Huez is the most iconic in cycling.

Thursday, July 19 – Stage 18: Gap to Alpe D'Huez, 172.5km

Every year it draws huge crowds to the mountainside, most of them camping for days in order to get a good view of the spectacle of the riders floating, dancing, grinding, weaving and clawing their way to the top. Today, for the first time in the race's 100-year history, we had to go up it twice and that was on top of tackling four other mountains along the way.

With Alberto Contador and Roman Kreuziger third and fourth overall this morning, my Saxo Tinkoff team's plan today was to get somebody into the early breakaway so that we would be up the road and ready to help them when we hit the final ascent of the Alpe.

I, Sergio Paulinho, Jesus Hernandez and Michael Rogers all had a go on the first climb of the day, the second category Col de Manse, which came after just 5km and the pace was so hot that the peloton had split into four by the top, after 13km.

The escape group went clear on a drag afterwards and even though there were only about 50 riders left in the peloton, none of us made it into the move. We tried to get across to them for a while but when they got a minute we had to let it go.


'Plan B' today was to try and make race leader Chris Froome's Sky team work hard early in the stage so the team decided to sacrifice Sergio and me, sending us up the road on the next climb, the third category Rampe du Motty, after 40km, to keep the pressure on them.

While we were never going to catch the break, as they had six minutes by that point, Sky couldn't afford to let us get over the Alpe first time up, in case we were able to give Alberto a hand if he attacked on the descent or on the final time up. But Sky played it well. They never gave us too much advantage, just enough to encourage us to keep going. We hovered in no man's land in between bunch and break for almost two hours.

By the time we got to the second category Col d'Ornon after 85km, I was already in bits but tried to ride as hard as I could to get Sergio to the Alpe with as much chance of survival as possible. I rode most of the climb with Sergio on my wheel and both of us rode on the descent but, when we got to the bottom, Sergio left me behind because I was only going to slow him down.

My agony started there. I just set a rhythm until the bunch caught me. When I saw there was still quite a big group left at the front of the peloton I decided to try and stay with them but my legs weren't with the programme. I drifted into the middle and shortly found myself out the back with a group of about 10, including 2010 winner Cadel Evans and green jersey Peter Sagan.

My legs were gone, though, and by the time I got to Irish Corner at the 10th hairpin, I was out the back of that group and waiting for the grupetto (the last portion of the peloton containing all of the non climbers) with Belarussian Aleksandr Kuchynski of Katusha. Although I was struggling and was worried that I might not even be able to follow the pace in the grupetto, the Irish fans were great and really cheered me on today.

About 3km from the top of the first ascent of the Alpe, I had a complete hunger flat and was swinging off the back of the grupetto. I had a really difficult time making it to the top with them. Over the crest of the mountain, I grabbed a bottle from our team soigneur at the side of the road and then grabbed a few energy gels and bars from the team car which was parked a bit further up. I swallowed three or four of them straight away and managed to drag myself up the short 3km ascent of the second category Col de Sarenne in the group.

While I wanted to eat as much as possible, it started raining on the descent so I was more concerned about keeping my two hands on the bars and staying upright, but as soon as it dried up a bit again nearer the bottom, I gulped down another three or four gels.

When we hit Alpe d'Huez the second time, I had come around a bit but still rode pretty close to the front of the grupetto to give myself some sliding room on the climb. When we got to Irish Corner, I moved to the front and gave the fans a bit of a wave and a smile as a thank you for all their support. It was amazing to see so many Irish fans and flags in the same place, cheering me on, and I saw a few familiar faces from home on the climb.

Alpe d'Huez is crazy. They said there were close to a million spectators at the side of the road today. Some of the fans had been there all night, drinking and partying so it was a bit like pouring 10 or 15 football stadiums on to the side of the mountain at points. Dutch Corner was a bit more manic and alcohol-induced than Irish Corner and some fans, though not all, were pretty aggressive towards some of the riders and also gave our team car a few clatters on the way by.

The noise was also deafening. Even though I was in the grupetto and not the front group this year, the excitement and encouragement from the fans was just the same. In different countries, the grupetto is called different names. In Ireland, it's known as the laughing group, but there was no laughing going on today.

There wasn't even much talking. Usually the guys in the group share around drinks or bottles of water to pour over each other to keep cool but, to be honest, today I wasn't paying attention to any of that. I just wanted to get to the top and get this day over.

After finishing in the gruppetto, half an hour behind the winner, I got into my hotel room and stood in the shower with my head down. After collapsing on the bed wrapped in a hotel towel, I flicked on the TV to see a replay of my old team-mate Christophe Riblon winning the stage.

Christophe has been in a few moves in this Tour but the last race he won was exactly two years ago and was another mountain-top finish at the Tour. That time, I was his team leader and remember punching the air with delight when I heard he had won from the breakaway group. It's one of my best memories of the Tour de France.

Christophe was always there for me when we were at Ag2r and to see him get his reward today is fantastic. I'm so happy for him and for the team too, as they lost their leader Jean Christophe Peraud to a broken collarbone yesterday.

At the moment, I feel like I've ridden 18 one-day races since we left Corsica. I'm feeling pretty run-down at this stage and am not looking forward to tomorrow at all. It's a savage stage that I'm really worried about, with two Hors Category climbs coming within the first 80km and another two first categories to kill us off near the end.

I really should go down and get a post-stage snack but there are three things stopping me. I stuffed so many energy bars and gels into myself before the final climb that I now feel sick. That's the first thing. The other two are my legs. I don't think they work anymore.

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