Nicolas Roche: 'Riders slung their bikes over their shoulders and ran up on to the grass banks to avoid the melee'
Tuesday, July 3, Stage 3: Orchies to Boulogne-sur-Mer (197km)
Today's stage started off absolutely flat-out and a five-man breakaway group, which included my team-mate Sebastien Minard, went clear after only 6km of racing.
Alongside Seb, though, was Andriy Grivko of Astana, who started the day just 38 seconds down on race leader Fabian Cancellara. That meant the Radioshack team soon hit the front in an effort to keep the breakaway within touching distance, and they hadn't much chance of survival.
About 70km from the finish we turned off the big main roads we had been on most of the day and headed on to much smaller, narrower roads. The wind began to pick up and drops of rain came as we hurtled along, making things a little bit more technical and adding to the nervous tension in the peloton.
I'd been expecting a lot of crashes on yesterday's flat sprinters' stage but they never came. Maybe somebody saved them all up for today instead.
While I got held up by three big crashes, I was really lucky and managed to get around them and back into the peloton relatively quickly.
With about 50km to go, there was a massive group on the ground and because the road was so narrow and surrounded by high banks of grass, everybody behind the fallen riders had to stop. Soon there were scenes more akin to a cyclo-cross race than the Tour de France as riders hopped off their bikes, slung them over their shoulders and ran up on to the grass banks to avoid the melee in the middle of the road.
As I was in the middle of the road, some guys had fallen behind me and some to one side. I stopped, carefully stepped over whoever or whatever was on the ground in front of me and kept riding. The crash caused a big split in the peloton but thankfully I was with a large group of Omega Pharma Quickstep guys and they rode pretty hard and we got back on within a kilometre and a half.
Other guys were not so lucky and never made it back. I heard later that Kanstantin Sitsov of Team Sky broke his femur in the fall and I think my cousin Dan Martin was also held up by that crash and lost over five minutes.
There was another big crash around 20km to go. I don't know what happened but a group of guys fell in front of me. Simon Gerrans went head-first into the ditch, his landing cushioned by a barbed-wire fence!
Luckily for me, the guys who fell were a little bit to the side and I could take one foot out of the pedals and slowly pass them. I didn't panic because I was with Olympic champion Sammy Sanchez, and with most of his Euskaltel team driving hard, we got back on within 2km.
Even though the various crashes ensured the bunch was a lot smaller than it was when we left Orchies, the last 20km were still really nervous and stressful. The end of the stage was a little bit like the Amstel Gold or Liege-Bastogne-Liege classics, with narrow roads and rolling hills making it hard to hold your position at the front of the peloton, and there was a good bit of pushing and shoving.
The short, steep uphill finish is the type of finish I like but it's also the type of finish that sprinters, GC contenders and climbers all think they can do well in and all want to have a go at, which makes it a mad scramble to get to the bottom of the climb in a good position.
Sylvain Chavanel of Quickstep put the cat among the pigeons when he attacked into a corner with about 6km to go. He only needed seven seconds to take over the race lead from Cancellara so the alarm bells rang in the Radioshack camp and they hit the front again; 3km later, however, 'Chava' was back in our company having overshot a corner in his eagerness to get the yellow jersey.
I came into the hill badly positioned, in about 15th or 20th place, and when I made my effort it was just too late. As I moved up on the right-hand side, behind Sanchez, one of the Orica GreenEdge riders, who had been on the front at the bottom of the hill, blew his lights and stalled on the climb in the middle of the road.
Two guys tried to get past him but went for the same gap and collided, causing another crash to my left, one that held up half of our group, but I was concentrating too hard at that stage to pay much attention to it.
I passed Sanchez in the last 100m or so and drew up to the back wheel of Cadel Evans. I thought I'd be able to go past last year's Tour winner but I couldn't and finished seventh as the 'Tourminator' Peter Sagan won another stage, despite having had to change bikes earlier in the race.
When the peloton caught the break, Sebastien Minard was knackered and couldn't stay with us, while the rest of the team apart from myself and Jean-Christophe Peraud were caught up in crashes, which meant that we lost a bit of time in the team classification, but it's no big deal at the moment.
As we drove to the next hotel in the team bus, Mickael Cherel and Seb Hinault had ice packs and bandages on their knees as the physio treated them. Mikael fell in the first big crash and Seb came down in the second, so while I'm happy to get my first top-10 and be 20th overall after the first four days, I'm even happier to have stayed out of danger.
As it was our last night in Belgium, I bought a round of Leffe beer for the team staff. Although we don't get to drink beer on the Tour, it's my 28th birthday and we've already decided that instead of the usual bottle of champagne we will celebrate with a glass of wine with our dinner. I hope they have some cake too.
Tour de France,
Live, Eurosport, 12.30 / ITV4, 2.0