Nicolas Roche: 'I lost more time today than I lost in the last two Tours put together'
While waiting on the start line this morning, we were warned by team manager Vincent Lavenu that he had seen guys warming up before the start, which is always a sign that things are going to kick off early.
Although we had the climbs of the Col du Telegraphe and the Col du Galibier before the summit finish at Alpe d'Huez, today's stage was just over 100km and as it was the last chance for anybody to change the GC before the time trial, it looked made for guys to go from the gun.
After three days of attacking and yesterday's epic in the breakaway group, I was expecting my legs to be sore this morning and was hoping for an easy first few kilometres. What I wasn't expecting, however, was Alberto Contador to go ballistic at the bottom of the Telegraphe after just 10km and rip the race to pieces.
There had already been lots of attacks before the bottom of the Telegraphe, which came after just 14km. We had Christophe Riblon in the early break and although they were pulling clear, there was no sign of the peloton easing up at all.
When Contador jumped up the road within a kilometre and a half of climbing, all hell broke loose. Yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler jumped after him and the pace increased again.
Despite three days of antibiotics, my sinus problem hasn't got any better and I think I'm getting a chest infection. When Contador attacked for a second time, the pace increased again and I suddenly took a fit of coughing and spluttering that saw me drift quickly down the peloton and out the back.
Riders started to pass me left, right and centre and I started to get worried when the first car behind the bunch passed me shortly afterwards. I was hoping there was a big group behind me, but I heard the commissaire, or referee, talk into the race radio microphone. "Contador is pulling clear, he has 20 seconds. At the back of the peloton Nicolas Roche is getting dropped. There are five riders behind him."
I thought to myself: 'Uh oh, this is going to be a very long day.' I knew that if I didn't get into the grupetto, the big group of non-climbers that had formed somewhere up the road ahead of me, I was in big trouble.
I climbed the whole Telegraphe on my own, still trying to catch my breath. Near the top, the second team car pulled up alongside me. "Nico, what's done is done. You need to get to the grupetto and finish." With that, they drove off to look after the guys still in the action.
Although I was still riding hard, the downhill gave me some time to catch my breath and I started to recover a little bit. On the way down I heard in my earpiece that the grupetto were already three minutes behind the Contador group. I rode flat out to try and get back to them on the next climb, the 17km long Galibier. Just a day after riding up it in the breakaway group, here I was riding up the opposite side, trying to regain contact with the last group on the road.
Going through the town at the bottom, I looked out for the following cars of the grupetto, but couldn't see them anywhere. Once we started to climb however, I could make them out in the distance and that spurred me on a bit more. Although I was flat out, I was flat out for a guy who was wrecked, so it took me until three kilometres from the summit to catch the first riders. I rode straight past Tyler Farrar, Tony Martin and Mark Renshaw because I knew they were kamikaze descenders and would catch and possibly drop me on the far side of the mountain.
A kilometre and a half further up, I made contact with the back of the grupetto. In Italian, grupetto means little group, but there were 75 riders in it, including green jersey Mark Cavendish, world champion Thor Hushovd and world time trial champ Fabian Cancellara.
Mikael Buffaz of Cofidis did a double take when he saw me move up the group. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "Bad day," I replied. He must have thought I took it the wrong way because he came back to me a few minutes later and said, "I wasn't trying to be cheeky, I was just surprised to see you here."
I said: "I know, I'm just having bad day after a hard day yesterday."
Before the start, I had cut the top off one of my drinking bottles and stuffed a gilet into it. As I crossed the summit at the back of the group, I took out the body warmer, put it on and began my descent which was ridden at a ferocious pace.
Everybody was worried about making it inside the time limit imposed by the race organisers every day. The time limit is based on a percentage of the winner's time and if you don't finish inside the limit, you're out of the Tour. The percentage changes every day, according to the perceived difficulty of the stage, so the managers work out how fast the winner will ride and add on the percentage, but it's a guessing game at best.
Today we figured we had maybe 27 minutes, but were already 12 minutes down going over the top of the Galibier and could easily lose another 15 on Alpe d'Huez.
The crowds on the Alpe were incredible.
We had two motorbikes acting as Moses, parting the seas of over exuberant fans as we rounded each of the 21 hairpins on the way to the summit.
Although everybody wanted to get to the top as quickly as possible and get the stage over with, nobody wanted to be responsible for dropping anybody else. Anybody that went too fast out of a hairpin or on a steeper section got a bollocking from Cancellara or one of the other senior guys.
During an earlier bad patch, Garmin-Cervelo's David Millar, who had been dropped before me on the Telegraphe and finished dead last at the back of the grupetto today, told HTC rider Bernie Eisel to leave him on the road.
Eisel turned to Millar and said: "Davey, we go home together or we go to Paris together."
The pace was easy enough on the climb and I was pretty comfortable, but it's no great honour to be comfortable in the grupetto.
I lost more time today than I lost in the last two Tours put together, finishing 25 minutes and 27 seconds behind stage winner Pierre Rolland.
At the summit, we were 18 seconds outside the time limit, but we knew we had strength in numbers and they wouldn't send 75 of us home.
The way I'm feeling at the minute, I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.