Thursday 23 November 2017

Nicolas Roche: Dan spat his colleagues out like pips from an orange

Stage 4: Llanars-Vall de Camprodon/Port Aine-Rialp – 217.7km

Nicolas Roche

Our hotels in this race have become something of an in-joke among our Saxo-Tinkoff team over the past few days and things got off to a bad start last night when we had to park in another hotel as there was no room at ours.

With no restaurant available, we also had to eat at another hotel and it was only on the way back that my team-mate Evgeni Petrov noticed that the single star alongside the hotel sign was in fact a snowflake and not a star at all. But a bed and a pillow after a tough mountain stage is all you really need.

With five mountains and another 60km of climbing ahead of us, today was the toughest stage of the race.

Although I began three minutes behind race leader Alejandro Valverde, I didn't think I was far enough down the standings to be given much leeway by the peloton to go on a breakaway, but decided to have a go anyway.

After a couple of failed moves as riders flogged themselves into a strong headwind, I decided to wait for the third category climb of the Coll de Morella, 40km into the stage.

Twisty

Four or five riders dangled up the road as we approached the summit. I attacked again and Canadian Ryder Hesjedal came with me going over the top and the descent was so twisty, that I knew if we went flat out we'd get across to the leaders.

A bigger group came across at the bottom to make it a 23-man breakaway and, as we pulled clear, I was surprised to see my cousin Dan Martin in the move. Dan began the day in ninth overall and whereas I had nothing to lose, he was taking a gamble by putting all of his efforts into the escape.

If it didn't work out and we were caught on the final climb, it would be hard to stay with the fresher guys if they countered from the peloton and he could have lost a lot of time.

With the bunch keeping us on a tight leash of around three minutes for most of the six-hour stage, Hesjedal did a lot of work for Dan, keeping a really high tempo on most of the climbs and making sure we stayed clear.

Focused on gaining as much time on the peloton as possible, nobody was too worried about the intermediate sprint after 140km. As we approached it, Dan was on the front, with me due to roll through next. I joked about outsprinting him for the three-seconds time bonus, but we stayed in our positions as we crossed the line.

At that stage, we never thought Dan would need those three seconds in his hunt for the overall victory, but I'm glad now that we didn't contest them, even for the laugh.

When overall leader Valverde crashed out on a gravel-strewn descent mid-stage, there was a bit of panic behind and our gap went up to four minutes. But 20km later it was down to two and a half minutes again.

I asked Dan what he thought of us giving it a go on the descent off the penultimate climb, the Port del Canto, with about 50km to go, but he said it was really open and windy and would be hard if you were isolated.

With the peloton closing rapidly, I reckoned I wanted to get as far as possible up the road ahead of them before the final 19km climb, so about a kilometre from the summit of the second last mountain, I went up the outside of the group and rode away.

I wasn't expecting much, but opened a gap of around a minute on my breakaway partners and spent the next 35km or so out front on my own. The next time I saw them, there were only about six left as Dan led them across to me about with 16km to go.

When they caught me I slotted into fourth place in line, but Dan's climbing prowess and my earlier efforts combined to see me exit through the back door shortly after.

As Dan continued to spit his colleagues out like pips from an orange on the snow-lined ascent, I was caught by the Sky-led peloton a couple of kilometres later. I tried to hang onto them for as long as I could, but my legs gave out with about 12km to go and I knew it was useless. I was in a hole and it was time to stop digging.

People will probably say I shouldn't have attacked so early, that I should have followed Dan today, as he went on to win the stage solo by 36 seconds and become the new race leader. But the way Dan went up that last climb, it wouldn't have mattered how long I waited, he would have dropped me anyway, so I have no regrets really and I'm happy that I had a go.

Dan has two important days coming up with a climb coming in the final 10km on Saturday and eight times up Montjuic on Sunday. But he's shown in the past that he's capable of winning these races and, if he recovers well tonight, I think he can do it.

Tour of Catalonia, Live, Eurosport, 2.30

Irish Independent

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