Nicolas Roche: 'Imagine driving through a rainstorm, the windscreen fogging and the wipers off'
Today my Ag2r team are down to eight men. After a discussion with the team managers last night, John Gadret didn't make it to the start this morning. John rode the three-week Giro d'Italia in May, winning a stage and finishing fourth overall.
He hadn't originally planned to ride both the Giro and the Tour, as he would not have had enough time in between to recover, but the team persuaded him to make the most of his good form and both he and Hubert Dupont, who finished 12th in the Giro, were added to the roster at the last minute.
John had been riding down the back of the peloton for most of the first week and at first, I thought he was just trying to stay out of trouble and waiting for his chance in the mountains. But it soon became clear that he was struggling to recover from one of the hardest Giros in years and the bad weather didn't exactly do his morale any good. Hubert, too, has been having a hard Tour so far, but is starting to come around and, hopefully, will be there when we hit the big climbs today.
A six-man group went clear early on today and took four minutes on us straight away. As there were six very strong men up front, the bunch kept a good tempo behind them for the whole stage. There was no taking it easy. In fact, we averaged 43kph for the stage, which with all the climbs and the wet roads, was pretty fast.
We had a bit of an incident at around 70km, just before the feed zone. I thought the hectic pace was slowing down and myself and Jean-Christophe Peraud decided to stop for a much needed wee.
Maxime Bouet and Hubert stopped with me and brought me back through the cars, but the pace was so fast that it took us a while to get back into the bunch. But it could have been worse. Christophe Riblon stopped with Jean-Christophe, who took ages to answer his call of nature. As Christophe waited patiently to bring him back up, the peloton were getting further away.
The two guys remounted and set off in pursuit, but Jean-Christophe, who is lying 27th overall, started to panic a little and instead of riding in Christophe's slipstream and saving his energy, took off on the next little hill and dropped Christophe.
It took Christophe another 9km to get back and gave him another reason to be grumpy at the back of the bus today. Jean-Christophe didn't do it on purpose. He just panicked and wanted to get back into the bunch as quickly as possible, leaving the guy who was supposed to be helping him stranded behind on his own.
Six kilometres later, we went through the feed zone. Usually this kilometre-long stretch of road sees a bit of a slowdown in proceedings as we grab our musettes, or feed bags, from our team soigneurs at the side of the road. This year though, we seem to be flying through them. Since last year, the Tour is one of the few races to have introduced a litter zone before and after the feed zone to try and make the race environmentally friendly.
Everybody throws their empty bottles, food wrappers and other rubbish to the side of the litter zone, where they will be collected and recycled by the race organisation. But this year we've been going so fast through the feed zones that by the time you get your food into your pockets and your litter ready to throw away, we're gone past the litter zone so I don't know if the rubbish gets collected.
Today, because the HTC team were keen to bring the gap down to the breakaways for sprinter Mark Cavendish, we whizzed through the feed zone and missed the litter zone. Most of the time, fans at the side of the road pick up the stuff as souvenirs, but I might do my bit for the environment today and have a word with the organisers to move the litter zone back a kilometre or so to give us time to get our rubbish ready.
Today I ate two bananas, a cereal bar, two big jam biscuits and two slices of apple tart before the feed zone, so I wasn't that hungry for the energy gels and bars that we usually get in our musettes. I also drank four or five bottles. On a hot day, I could drink 10, or more.
I was feeling okay today, but it was hard to judge how I was going as I just sat in the middle of the bunch for most of the day before moving up towards the front near the end. With 15km to go, the break still had 35 seconds and with the sprinters' teams driving along at the front, we were touching 80kph on a long flat section in the rain.
The weather on this Tour has been miserable and today was yet another wet stage. The last 10km were incredible. I couldn't see one metre in front of me. At the front there were 15 or 20 guys preparing for the sprint, but just behind that everybody was trying to keep their distance, praying nobody touched a wheel in front of them. There was no way you could stop in that rain and the slightest touch of the brakes could have caused carnage.
I chose to keep my glasses on even though I couldn't see a thing through them. Imagine driving a car through a rainstorm with the windscreen fogging up and the wipers off and you get the picture, but I knew if I took the glasses off my eyes would soon be stinging from the rooster tails of grit and dirt being thrown up by the wheels in front of me. A few times I gave them a wipe with my gloves, but it was pointless.
We caught the six escapees in dribs and drabs around the five kilometre mark and this can be dangerous as they drift back down the outside of the peloton at a much slower pace. If you're not looking, you can slam into the back of them easily.
When it's raining like today, you sometimes don't see them until the last minute. It's the same in the sprints. When the sprinters' lead-out men pull off the front in the final 300m or so, they often stop pedalling and if you're not alert or have your head down in full flight you can clip them too.
We had been told over the team radio to watch out for a bend in the last kilometre, but it was more of a slight curve in the road and nothing happened. I just rolled across the line in the middle of the bunch as Mark Cavendish repaid his team's efforts with his third stage win of this Tour.
Thursday is the first big mountain stage of this Tour. We climb the first category La Hourquette d'Ancizan for the first time, followed by the Hors Categorie Col du Tourmalet and the finish at the ski station of Luz Ardiden. I'm anxious about the stage. I haven't ridden a 20km or 30km climb in a race in over a month and don't know how I will be going. It's the first stage where the big hitters will have to show their hand and we will see who is going good and who is going bad. Hopefully, I will be still in contention at the end of it.
Tour de France,
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