Monday 18 December 2017

Nicolas Roche: 'Petacchi can't climb out of bed, so I knew I was in trouble when I couldn't stay with him'

Tuesday, July 19 Stage 16: Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Gap (162.5km)

With just the second category Col de Mense, 12km from the finish in Gap, today's stage was not hard enough for the climbers, but too hard for the sprinters and so was seen as a rare chance for a breakaway group to succeed.

Sitting in the Tour village with my brothers and my mum before the start, things didn't look good as we were lashed out of it by a thunderstorm. The sun came out before the start, though, and coaxed the peloton into a frantic first two hours of racing.

The team plan today was to have somebody, preferably me, in the break. Unfortunately, every other team had the same plan which made the start of the stage unbelievably fast. We covered 53km in the first hour and 98km in the first two hours as dozens of groups of riders jumped clear only to be brought back again a couple of kilometres later.

I tried a fair few times. I'd jump clear in a group, ride hard for a few kilometres, get caught, drift back down the bunch to recover and then repeat the process. About halfway through the stage, on a little drag, the Canadian Ryder Hesjedal from the Garmin Cervelo team rode off the front of the peloton, dragging a couple of riders with him.


The bunch began to fragment on the climb and, as I was near the front, I went across with five or six others.

A handful more riders came across including Christian Knees and Xabier Zandio from Sky, Remi di Gregorio of Astana, Johnny Hoogerland, Jerome Coppel and two Francaise de Jeux riders; Jeremy Roy and Arnold Jeannesson.

As we opened a little gap Di Gregorio, who rode with me as an amateur, rode past urging me on. "C'mon Nico, let's go, let's go!" I told him it wasn't me he should be encouraging, but the guys who were sitting at the back of the group. I was keen to keep things moving and did a few good turns on the front as others argued about who should be riding or not.

It was Jeannesson's presence, however, that ultimately doomed the move.

Although he was just one place ahead of me in 17th and no real threat in the overall standings, the young French rider lay fourth in the white jersey competition. The rest of us knew that if he stayed in the move, we wouldn't be allowed open a decent gap.

Christian Knees, the big German from Sky, was down the back and after listening to his team manager in his earpiece spoke to me in English.

"Nico, tell Jeannesson that if he stays here, they're going to keep chasing behind. He needs to sit up."

Acting as mobile translator, I rode up to Jeannesson and told him that if he stayed in the break that we were going nowhere and he might as well save his energy for another day and go back to the bunch. Jeannesson didn't want to sit up because Coppel, sixth in the white jersey competition was also in the break. Jeannesson was afraid he would overtake him in the best young rider competition if the rest of us stayed clear.

I relayed the information to Knees. "Okay, tell both of them to stop or we keep chasing." At this point, we had ridden flat out for 17km or so, but the Sky-driven peloton were still breathing down our necks. Ultimately, neither Jeannesson nor Coppel would stop riding unless the other one did, which meant that neither of them stopped and we were caught with 65km to go, after a dogged 20km chase by Sky.

As the Sky train made contact with Jeannesson and the back of the break, some of the front portion kept going, and were joined by some of the front of the peloton including world champion Thor Hushovd and Sky's Edvald Boassen Hagen. Satisfied with catching Jeannesson, though, and placing another man in the new move, Sky sat up and the break had 40 seconds in a flash. They were gone for the day, taking almost five minutes by the finish.

It was so frustrating. I missed the move by three metres. If I'd been near the front I might have stayed away and moved back up the standings or been able to fight for a stage win.

A couple of failed attempts by my team-mates to get across the gap meant we now had nobody in the new move, so my Ag2r La Mondiale directeur sportif Vincent Lavenu gave the orders for the team to ride on the front of the peloton.

I don't know if it was a good idea, as we might lose more time tomorrow because of today's chase, but only a few guys can win the Tour. That's why they have other competitions within the race and the team one is important.

The guys kept a pretty decent speed up at the front before Voeckler's Europcar team took over and when we arrived at the bottom of the climb, I was feeling okay. The first thing I did was hand my rain jacket to Seb Hinault in preparation for the change in pace, but when Contador attacked with 15km to go, I had no answer.

I found myself on the front of a small chase group trying to close the gap. On my limit, I swung over in the hope that someone else would take up the chase, only to see supposed non-climber Mark Cavendish ride away from me. In fairness, Cav can climb when he wants to, but then a kilometre from the top, a group including Italian Allessandro Petacchi caught me and I couldn't even stay with them. Petaachi can't climb out of bed, so I knew I was in trouble.

I spent the next 10km on my own. Knowing it was game over for any GC aspirations I had left, I took the descent relatively easy and then rode hard on the flat section. I knew before the Tour that I might be in trouble physically after the interrupted season I've had but, mentally, I couldn't admit it, to myself or anyone else.

I had to convince myself I was going to be strong, fight for the overall. The power of positive thinking. If I set my sights low, then I'd never achieve the highs. It's weird. I'm getting whipped but I don't feel that bad.

I'm 22nd overall now, but the GC is completely gone out of my head. I want to get a bit of pleasure out of this race now which, to me, means getting up the road in a break. I'll need a bit of luck too.

I'll try again tomorrow. If I stay away to the finish, I'll be happy. If I get caught on the last climb, then tough, but I want to try and do something before the end.

Tour de France,

Live, TG4 1.10 & Eurosport 12.30

Irish Independent

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