Nicolas Roche: 'My legs were burning like hell but I didn't care, today was the day I could make a difference on this Tour'
Friday, July 12 – Stage 13: Tours to Saint Armand Montrond, 173km
Since the start of this Tour, my Saxo-Tinkoff team have been riding near the front in an effort to keep team leader Alberto Contador out of trouble, away from crashes and in a good position to avoid any splits in the peloton that may occur in the crosswinds. Today, that tactic finally paid off.
This morning, looking at the stage map, I noticed that there was one big danger zone, between kilometre 40 and kilometre 120, where the wind could play havoc if anyone wanted to try to break the race up.
As the feed zone was bang in the middle of this section, I reckoned the race might be too fast to grab our feed bags from the soigneur at the side of the road, so I stuffed enough food into my jersey pockets to get me through the whole stage just in case.
From kilometre zero, even when it was easy, my Saxo-Tinkoff team rode up the front, wary of the crosswinds, and just 40km or so into proceedings we were rewarded when Mark Cavendish's Omega Pharma Quickstep team blew the race apart.
Shortly after Quickstep put the hammer down in the crosswind, the Dutch Belkin team gave them a hand, and with squads from the flat lands of Belgium and Holland driving into the wind, the peloton soon began to fracture.
With Cavendish's rival, three-time stage winner Marcel Kittel, a minute behind in the second half of the bunch, his squad knew the Manxman had a great chance of earning his 25th stage victory if Kittel didn't rejoin us, so they kept driving the race along.
A few kilometres later we heard on the radio that second overall, Alejandro Valverde, had punctured. Although we knew if he didn't regain contact Alberto would jump up a place to third overall, we didn't want to take advantage of a puncture.
So as Quickstep and Belkin put everyone in the gutter on the right hand side of the road, we were all on the left as Matteo Tossatto rode out in the wind with the rest of us on his wheel.
By the time we approached the feed zone, Valverde was two minutes back with not much hope of getting back to the front, even though most of his Movistar team had gone back to help him.
As we flew passed the bemused soigneurs, I was the only one able to grab a mussette. I handed a bottle to Alberto, a bottle to Bennati and shared the food between the lads but kept the baby can of coke for myself.
As the gap to the Valverde group hovered at about two minutes for the next 50km or so, there were no team cars allowed in and we all began to run out of water.
This, added to the relentless pace, saw more guys get blown out the back door and by the time the team cars were allowed through and Mick Rogers grabbed a few bottles for us, everyone was struggling.
As we approached a little drag on an open section of road with about 30km to go, I looked around the group and noticed a lot of weary bodies. I turned to Mick and said 'Let's go. Full gas'. Mick turned to Alberto.
Alberto lifted his head, glanced around, knew it was the right moment and roared two words.
Our team sprinter here, Daniele Bennati, is really strong on the flat and when Benna goes it's fasten-your-seatbelts time.
Benna hit the front and absolutely drilled it. Within seconds there was another split in the front group and race leader Chris Froome had missed it. In fact, only 14 riders made the split and six of them were from my team. From that moment on we knew we had to ride as hard as we could to open the gap on Froome and get Alberto as much time as possible before the finish.
Benna was riding so hard at first that I couldn't pass him and had to tell him to slow down to let me come around him and get the whole team working on the front. Soon we were all riding in team time-trial mode, and even though we knew Cavendish and Peter Sagan were sitting at the back waiting to outsprint us at the finish, we didn't care. We just wanted to open that gap on Froome.
The hardest part was between 20km and 12km to go but even though we had a block headwind, we continued to open the gap. At first, we had 10 seconds, then 23 seconds, 50 seconds and it kept opening in the closing kilometres.
My legs were burning like hell, but I didn't care because today was the day I could make a difference on this Tour. My job was to put as much distance as possible between Alberto and Froome, and by the end of the stage we had clawed back a minute and 18 seconds and moved him up to third overall.
I said in my first diary that my personal ambition was to have a role that could change the outcome of this race, so even if I rode so hard that I got dropped before the end of the stage today I had to give my maximum.
The other day I closed an important gap for Alberto and then lost 20 minutes on the next climb. If I lose another 20 minutes tomorrow who cares? I wanted to have an impact on this race and today I had an impact.
At the finish Cavendish outsprinted Sagan but by then I was running on fumes and couldn't hold them and finished 11th. But today wasn't about getting a high stage placing. If that was the case, we could have let Benna sit at the back and have a go in the sprint.
Everyone gave 100pc today to open that gap and we got our tactics spot on. I'm pretty satisfied with my efforts.
Even after the stage, on the team bus when we were talking about what just happened, I had goosebumps.
When I crossed the line I was swamped by the media, looking for quotes on what had happened but I couldn't even stand up, never mind answer their questions.
My legs were completely gone and I had to sit down for ages to try to recover. Usually I do a little warm-down on rollers after the stage. Not today. Today I'm worn out.