Nicolas Roche: 'Cavendish went by as if he was launched out of a cannon. My head dropped in desolation'
July 20, Stage 18: Blagnac to Brive-la-Gaillarde 222.5km
With just three days left until the end of this Tour, today was the last chance for everybody bar the sprinters and time trial specialists to win a stage.
As it happened, I came within 100m of winning my first Tour stage, but my attack in the final 10km wasn't planned this morning at all.
After two really hard days in the Pyrenees, my first hope was that the breakaway would go early and we'd be able to sit in and take it easy ahead of tomorrow's 53km time trial. As usual, little groups of five or six riders darted up the road as soon as the flag dropped but it took around 65km for the break to establish itself, and it was way bigger than anyone thought, with 16 riders.
For the sprinters' teams, small groups are easier to reel in near the end than a group this size so nobody was keen to give them too much leeway. The plan for my Ag2r team was to either get a rider into the breakaway or chase it down until we did. The guys were so obsessed with trying to be in the first moves of the day that they were following everything and were too tired to go with the one that stuck.
We were one of a few teams trapped in the bunch that had no riders up front. So we put Blel Kadri and Mikael Cherel on the front with some of the other teams and tried to reel the break in. With just three riders left up front, hovering about half a minute ahead, we approached the final fourth-category climb of the day, the Cote de Lissac-sur-Couze, the summit of which came 10km from the finish.
Before the bottom, my directeur sportif spoke into my earpiece to tell me that the last hill was a bit longer than it looked in the road book. Instead of a 1.5km climb on paper, he said there was a long drag before it and a really quick descent towards the finish.
As we began to climb, I knew it was my kind of hill and was sitting near the front of the peloton. About a kilometre from the top, Dries Devenyns attacked and I went after him.
My jump took me up to the Belgian's wheel and I sprinted again and dropped him straight away. Andreas Kloden, who is directly behind me in the overall standings, immediately followed me. Although that meant I wouldn't gain any time on the German before the final time trial tomorrow, I wasn't going for time now; I was just thinking about the stage win. Kloden's presence up front also meant that his Radioshack team wouldn't be chasing us and I had some help to stay away.
Kloden though, rather than riding smoothly through, accelerated each time he passed me, making it harder for me to ride with him, which was probably the general idea. Soon Luis Leon Sanchez caught us on the descent and I was glad to have some more horsepower with me. Although we never got more than 15 seconds lead on the peloton, with 6km left I knew we were going to catch the three remnants of the early break: Luca Paolini, Adam Hansen and Alexandre Vinokourov.
With 5km left and having caught the front group I knew we had a much better chance of holding the peloton off with six riders than if there had been only us three, even if we only had 10 seconds lead now. But Vino and Paolini wouldn't ride with us, which was a bit stupid as they still had the possibility of winning the stage.
I tried to keep the momentum going every time it stalled, but as we went under the 'kilometre to go' kite with a handful of seconds advantage, I turned around and saw the yellow jersey of Bradley Wiggins riding at the front of the peloton. If there's one man you don't want chasing you in those circumstances, it's a three-time Olympic pursuit champion.
I knew Wiggo was riding full gas to try and drag his Sky sprinter Mark Cavendish into contention, but when our group took the last corner, everyone looked at each other. With 500m to go, I knew I had to go immediately if I was to have any chance of staying away.
I just went for it, sprinting full gas, hoping I could get a metre's gap over the rest of the break but when Sanchez followed me I thought 'oh s**t'. I knew he would be just waiting to pop by me when we got closer to the line but I just kept sprinting. If he came by me, he came by me. If not, I'd win the stage -- or so I thought.
As I gave it everything I had left, Sanchez started his sprint with about 150m to go. Just as I was thinking 'I'm not giving up,' Cavendish went past us on the far side of the road, as if he was just launched out of a cannon.
I was stunned at the speed he went by. Myself and Sanchez's heads dropped out of sheer desolation and fatigue but we kept pedalling on empty in the hope of taking second.
We were dead, though, and Matt Goss and points leader Peter Sagan also overtook us before the line and I ended up fifth.
I was then mobbed by journalists and couldn't catch my breath. I was so tired at the finish and had so much lactic acid in my legs that I couldn't actually walk when I got off my bike.
There was so much pain in my legs that I had to get back on the bike and pedal on the home trainer in front of the bus in an effort to recover enough to get up the steps of the team bus.
As I was aware that there was a four-and-a-half-hour drive to our next hotel I didn't want to delay things and did my interviews from the saddle. But the Tour organisers had arranged for the top 20 riders on GC to get a helicopter transfer and I was driven to the airport.
Today's efforts might cost me a few seconds in tomorrow's final time trial, but it was worth the effort to try and get a stage win.
I'm 11th overall (my cousin Dan Martin finished 61st and is 35th overall) and I could move into the top 10 if I take time out of Thibaut Pinot or Pierre Rolland or I could drop down the standings if Kloden or Chris Horner take time out of me.
Tomorrow is a big day. I'm going to give it absolutely everything. That way, whether I finish 10th or 12th overall, I won't have any regrets.
Tour de France,
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