Sunday 15 December 2019

Nicolas Roche: ‘I swung so wide, I hit a big green hand being waved by a spectator’

Nicolas Roche

The good news is that my knee was fine this morning when I woke up. I was a bit worried about it at the start, but it was fine all day and I had no problems.

I think my easier-than-normal rest day on Monday paid dividends today. Normally, I would have done almost three hours' riding, but the pain in my knee meant I turned back after 20 minutes and spent most of the day in bed reading my book and actually resting.

About a half an hour before the start today it started lashing hailstones.

They were the size of golf balls. We all dived for the cover of the team bus and were busy changing our sunglasses to clear lenses and putting on rain jackets when Maxime Bouet said he still had to go and sign on.

Before, some of the big riders would just sit on their buses until the last minute if it was raining and ride off without the crowd having the opportunity to see them in the flesh signing on before the start.

But there is a new rule on the Tour this year which means that if you fail to sign on at least 20 minutes before the start, you are out of the race.

Because of the hailstones, the announcer had also taken shelter and everything outside had gone very quiet, so we told Max that the sign-on had closed.

In blind panic at the thought of being thrown off the Tour, Max ran all the way to the sign-on in the hailstones as we sat in the bus laughing our heads off.

On the bus, our manager decided it would be a good day for a breakaway to stay away and wanted somebody from our team in it. I wasn't totally convinced, however, as I thought the stage would end in a bunch sprint.

Even though there were four climbs along the way to Carmaux, they weren't hard enough to blow the race apart and I knew the sprinters would want to keep it together to give themselves every chance to go for another stage win.

What most people don't realise is that the start of each stage is really, really fast as riders try to establish breakaways early on. Today we covered 51.6km in the first hour of racing which made it the fastest first hour so far on this Tour.

There was a massive crash after only 10km and, with bodies and bikes spread all over the road, it caused a huge split in the bunch. While groups of riders were trying to go clear up the front, I was caught in the second half of the bunch with the likes of Alberto Contador, the Schleck brothers and a lot of the GC riders.

After a good 7/8km of hard chasing, mostly by Contador's Saxo Bank team and Allesandro Petacchi's Lampre squad, we regained contact with the back of the bunch.

By then a five-man group, including my minder Sebastien Minard, had gone clear and I stayed where I was for most of the stage.

As the roads were good wide main roads today, and we were riding into a headwind for a lot of the stage, I could afford to stay in the final third of the bunch as it was pretty easy to move up if need be.

What kills you is going through narrow towns and villages where the bunch is strung out and everybody is in one long line. Then you have to stay near the front. On the better roads today I took it easy down the back and had Blel Kadri and Maxime Bouet with me for most of the day.

A lot of the guys were talking about the recent crashes during the stage today. I passed Dutch rider Johnny Hoogerland in the bunch at one point and had a few words.

I think everybody has a bit of sympathy for him and Juan Antonio Flecha after being knocked down by the TV car while in the break on Sunday. I asked him how he was and even though he had 33 stitches in his buttocks and legs. He just shrugged and gave me a smile.

He said before the start that he felt better on the bike than he did walking up the stairs, but didn't know if he'd be able to finish the stage. I told him to hang in there and keep it going, which is all you can do.

It was the same with Flecha. He was probably fed up of guys asking him how he was by the time I got to him, but he just smiled and said thanks for the few words of encouragement.

In the last 30km, I moved up to the front alongside Jean-Christophe Peraud for the final climb, but I didn't think the last 20km would be so fast. The climb didn't look so hard on the profile and I thought the HTC team would string the peloton out on the ascent and keep it together on the run-in in the hope that their sprinter Mark Cavendish could get rid of some of his rivals on the hill and then take his third win of the Tour.

On the way up the climb, however, Frenchman Tony Gallopin of Cofidis attacked and when the green jersey of Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert followed him and formed a little group with yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler and Dries Devenyns of Quickstep, it caused confusion in the bunch.

I thought it was a good idea, but there was too much of a headwind. Myself and Jean-Christophe agreed that, if another group went, we had to go with them.

With some of the sprinters dropped on the hill, the top teams looked at each other to chase while they all waited for their team-mates to get back to the front.

Tony Martin of HTC jumped across the gap and sat on the back of the new break, hoping that team-mate Cavendish would get across and knowing that, if he didn't, he would have a free ride to the finish.

Cadel Evans tried to go on the top of the climb and I jumped with Cadel, but the chase group came back to us and Sky got their guys going on the front and strung it out. It was one of those times when I wanted to go with the move, but was probably better off not having gone as we caught them in the final 5km.

I was looking forward to having a go in the sprint from the small 25-man front group, but then some of the guys who had been dropped on the climb made their way back on, so I asked Blel to bring me up near the front to keep out of danger.


When he dropped me off, he kept going himself and went clear with Rob Ruijhg of Vaconsoleil with 4km to go, but they were soon brought back by the sprinters' teams.

The descent to the finish was very fast and I almost took the whole bunch out with 600m to go. I didn't know that the right hand bend was so sharp and I tore into it on the inside behind Mark Renshaw.

I swung so wide on the exit that I had to lock up the wheels and clipped a big green PMU hand that was being waved by one of the spectators inside the barrier.

It could have been worse and I could have taken a few riders out of it.

After that, I decided to stay where I was and forgot about sprinting. As German Andre Greipel took his first stage win, and my team-mate Seb Hinault took seventh, I crossed the line in 19th place to stay 13th overall.

I think I'm getting better and better each day now, definitely better than the first three days.

I don't feel that I'm strong enough to be attacking and concentrating on the GC at the same time, but I'd like to be able to pull off some kind of a move this week. Today, on the climb I was feeling okay, but going up 20km or 30km climbs later in the week will be a totally different effort and, hopefully, I can go well.

After the stage we had another long transfer to our hotel. On the way, we were sitting in a long line of traffic waiting to get through a section of roadworks when the Radioshack team bus came up the outside of the line and tried to cut in front of us.

Our bus driver and their bus driver spent the next two minutes gesticulating and shouting abuse at each other through the window. I think this race must be rubbing off on them.

Tour de France,

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