Nicolas Roche: 'Cavendish hit the deck but I had an extra few seconds to avoid the pile-up'
Wednesday, July 4, Stage 4: Abbeville -- Rouen 214.5km
As it was my 28th birthday yesterday, we were allowed a celebratory drink with our dinner. My team sponsors, Ag2r, actually have a vineyard near Bordeaux and have their own wine so one of the sponsors brought four bottles of sauvignon to the table and we had a glass each with our meal instead of the usual bottle of champagne.
I didn't quite get the big cream cake I would have liked but we made do with an apple tart complete with two candles, one pink and one blue, in the shape of the numbers two and eight on top of it and everybody sang 'happy birthday' to me in English, before I sat down for a cup of tea with my friend Angelo, who had travelled up from Italy to see me.
After yesterday's stage, I was a bit p***ed off about the fact that 65 riders were given the same time at the finish because of the crash in the final 500m of the finishing climb. The UCI have a rule that if you crash, or are held up by a crash, inside the final 3km, you are given the same time as the group you were in when the crash happened, which is fair enough. But there weren't going to be 65 riders on the same time on that hill if the crash hadn't happened and I reckon sometimes the rule is abused and guys that are dropped almost ride into crashes to get the same time.
Of course, I tweeted my frustration in the heat of the moment, only for my friend and former team-mate Maxime Monfort, who now rides for the Radioshack team of race leader Fabian Cancellara, to pull me up on it.
As well as answering me on Twitter, he rode up alongside today and reminded me that sometimes the rule works for you and sometimes against you, but it usually evens out over the course of the season. We had an amiable chat about it and as it turned out, today he was right.
The first half of today's stage took us along the coast, which meant that the roads would be ripe for attacks if a team wanted to use the high winds coming off the sea to split the peloton in groups.
I was pleasantly surprised, though, to see three guys go away pretty early in the stage and the peloton settle into a steady tempo. Although I still had to be on high alert and ride near the front just in case some team decided to put the race in the gutter and up the tempo, the stage could have been a lot harder.
Don't get me wrong. Although the speed is a bit easier in the middle of the stage, we're not all sitting around chatting about where we're going on our holidays. Everybody is worried that an attack will come and nobody wants to get caught out if the wind picks up or changes direction. I had Sebastien Minard with me all day today as minder. He stayed with me right until the last climb, killing himself riding out in the wind as I saved my energy and sheltered in behind him on the edge of the peloton.
With around 8km to go there were a few attacks as Sylvain Chavanel again went in search of the seven seconds he needs to take over the yellow jersey on the final climb, but it was too quick and there was too much wind for that type of attack to stick.
A small road, maybe a bit steeper and narrower would have been the perfect scenario for a late move, but it was more like a motorway climb and nobody stayed away, even if all the jumping around did string us all out on the descent.
As we reached the all-important 3km to go banner, I was sitting in the top 40 riders or so, with all the sprinters and their lead-out men packed into the first 25 riders as the rest of us were strung out in one long line behind. About 300 metres later, somebody touched a wheel in the middle of the sprinters and there was a massive crash.
South African Robbie Hunter of Garmin bounced off the ground at around 55kph and his bike flew through the air while Sky's world champion Mark Cavendish and a heap of others also hit the deck or ran into the back of each other. As I was still in the long line of riders in single file a few metres behind the sprinters, I had an extra few seconds to avoid the pile-up, but I was left in a little group of 15 or so as the front end of the group disappeared up the road.
Although I knew we were inside the last 3km and should be given the same time as the group we were in when the crash happened, I was still worried that the judges would add on the 35 seconds or so that it took to get to the line after German sprinter Andre Greipel of Lotto Belisol had won the stage. I looked around and saw fellow GC contenders Robert Gesink, Ivan Basso, Vincenzo Nibali and Ryder Hesjedal in my group and just riding to the line. I knew we would be okay.
My co-team leader, Jean Christophe Peraud, finished with me and while he was thankful to have avoided the last crash, he had already been on the ground with 50km to go when Italian Nibali fell in the middle of the road in front of him. It's his second crash in two days and he nearly has more bandages than skin at this stage, so he's a bit grumpy.
I dropped one place to 21st overall, but I am still only 25 seconds behind race leader Cancellara. I'm happy to have survived another day.
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