Tuesday 12 December 2017

Nicolas Roche: 'More guys slammed into the fallen rider, then each other, until the road was blocked with bodies and bikes'

Wednesday, July 3: Stage 5: Cagnes-Sur-Mer to Marseille (228.5km)

Jerome Coppel of France, left in red jersey, crashes during the fifth stage of the Tour de France
Jerome Coppel of France, left in red jersey, crashes during the fifth stage of the Tour de France

Having spent much of my youth living just down the road from today's start in Cagnes-Sur-Mer, I also spent my junior days racing with the club in nearby Draguignan and a couple of seasons with VC La Pomme club in Marseille as an amateur, I knew today's route like the back of my hand and was delighted to hear plenty of old team-mates and friends cheer me on in almost every town along the way.

My girlfriend Chiara came to the start today to wish me a happy 29th birthday and I had plenty of old school friends and family there too. In fact, between today's start posse, twitter and other social media, I don't think I've ever had as many happy birthday wishes in my life.

At almost 230km, today's stage was the second longest of this year's Tour and if you included the neutralised section, we had spent a good six hours in the saddle by the end of it.

After a short but very hard team time trial yesterday, there were a few sore legs in the peloton this morning and it would have been easy to get distracted and find yourself at the back of the bunch today.


Thankfully, we rode out of town at a pretty sedate pace. Even when six riders went clear from the gun, nobody really took after them.

About 4km into the stage, I spotted my Granny Roche and my cousin Jude at the side of the road with a massive flag saying 'Happy Birthday Nico'.

At that moment, I happened to be at the very front of the bunch and as the break had just gone clear and the pace was pretty slow, I thought about stopping for a quick hello, but by the time I had made up my mind whether that was a good idea or not, we had already gone past them.

As it turned out, the GreenEdge team of yellow jersey holder Simon Gerrans came up and set a pretty easy tempo on the front for the first half of the stage, maybe too easy in fact, as the six escapees had opened up a whopping 13 minutes on us midway through the stage.

Letting the gap get so big meant that if the sprinters wanted to contest the finish, their teams would have one hell of a chase to bring them back in the second half of the stage.

With 47km to go, the breakaways had six minutes but the addition of the Lotto Belisol, Argos and Omega Pharma Quickstep teams at the head of the peloton saw it cut to just two minutes as we hit the final uncategorised climb of the Col de la Gineste with about 16km to go.

Having torn a tendon in his index finger when he hit a spectator's camera yesterday, my team-mate Benjamin Noval was a bit worried about pulling his brakes today and spent most of the day at the back of the bunch trying to avoid slamming into people and on the climb, there was another massive crash on the left-hand side of the road which unfortunately saw Michael Morkov and Roman Kreuziger hit the deck.

Roman twisted his ankle when he clipped out of the pedals and Michael hurt his knee, but I don't think it's anything serious.

From about 15km out, myself and Matteo Tosatto tried to keep team leader Alberto Contador out of trouble on the right-hand side of the road as the sprinters' teams bounced around the front of the peloton in an effort to give their man the best lead-out possible.

As well as the usual jostling for position, leaning on each other and occasional elbow to the ribs, another thing you have to look out for in any bunch sprint are the sprinters' lead-out men suddenly slowing down and drifting off the front of the bunch after they put their man in position.

With about 300m to go, eventual stage winner Mark Cavendish was tucked behind two of his Omega Pharma Quickstep lead-out men, ready to pounce.

As the first one finished his sprint and let Gert Steegmans take over at the front, he suddenly stopped pedalling and dropped back through the middle of the peloton like a stone.

Although I wasn't really sprinting for a place, I was alongside Chris Froome in the thick of things when, a few places ahead of me, I noticed this guy sprinting with his head down. Just as I was wondering whether he was going to look up in time to brake or not, I got my answer when he ploughed into the back of Cav's lead-out man and fell with about 100m to go.

Having seen it coming, I'd already moved to the far right in the hope that he was going to fall to my left – and he did.

Behind me, I don't know whether through a lack of concentration or tiredness, more guys slammed into the fallen rider and then each other, until the whole road was blocked with bodies and bikes. Lucky to have stayed upright, I rolled across the line in 25th place. With all the guys who fell given the same time as the stage winner there was no real change in the overall standings today. I'm still nine seconds behind 'Gerro' in ninth overall.

After the finish, myself and my cousin Dan Martin had a quick chat with our former VC La Pomme team manager Frederic Rostaing.

Fred has had Irish riders Philip Deignan, Mark Scanlon, Denis Lynch, Sam Bennett and Tommy Evans through his club in the past and, like myself and Dan, many of them have gone on to the pro ranks since. I haven't seen him in about two years and it was nice to be able to catch up for a few minutes and reminisce about the time we used to want to do this for a living.

Irish Independent

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