Nicolas Roche: 'Some stopped for a pee while I pulled in and took off my vest'
July 13, Stage 12: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne -- Annonay Davézieux, 226km
If somebody had just switched on the TV at 3.0 this afternoon and saw the whole peloton riding easy on the flat, with a five-man breakaway group 12 minutes up the road, I'm sure they would have thought today was an easy day on the Tour de France. They would have been mistaken.
As today was the longest stage of this year's Tour, at a whopping 226km, we were up pretty early this morning to go to the start. When we got there it was raining, so I decided to wear an undervest under my short-sleeve jersey, which I realised was a big mistake after just 20km as we tackled the first climb of the day, the 14km-long first-category Col du Grand Cucheron, in scorching sunshine.
Today was one of those days that the break was 99pc sure to stay away, once there were no dangerous riders near the top of the GC in it, and a few big groups of riders went clear on the climb. But race leader Bradley Wiggins' Sky team set a pretty quick tempo on the front of the peloton behind them. There was no respite at all as the 'Men in Black' stayed on the front all the way down the descent and led us straight back up the next climb, the 20km ascent of the first-category Col du Granier.
As the various groups of escapees came together and fell apart again around a minute ahead of us, Norwegian Edvald Boassen Hagen's pace, which had already been almost flat out, increased when Portuguese rider Rui Costa of Movistar tried to drag a few more riders clear on the slope and soon most of the race was in trouble.
A lot of people were suffering and even though we were only halfway up there were riders all over the place. With the sprinters long gone out the back, a good few of the guys ahead of me on the general classification -- guys like Pinot, Kloden and Brajkovic -- were dropped 5km before the top of the climb.
I was struggling too, though, and with around 2km to go to the summit I drifted off the back in a little group with stage winners Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland of Europcar, King of the Mountains Fredrik Kessiakof and a few others. There was still over 130km to go!
My team-mate Max Bouet and Jean Christophe Peraud were both in the original breakaway group but Max had been dropped and my little group caught him about a kilometre from the top. He stayed with me to the summit before hammering it down the descent to regain contact. When we got back on, there were only about 20 guys left in the front of the bunch and everybody kind of looked at each other to see who was doing what.
As Jean Christophe and four others pulled clear of the rest of the escapees up the road, green jersey Peter Sagan attacked the bunch on the descent and was in no-man's land between bunch and break with a handful of riders. A few more dropped riders got back on and pretty soon the Orica GreenEdge team of Matt Goss, second in the green jersey competition, hit the front and lined us out in an effort to catch Sagan.
We didn't catch the Slovak until near the feed zone and, with Sagan brought to heel and Sky happy that there was nobody of any importance up front, the pace eventually dropped in the peloton after about 110km of racing.
Sky also realised that it was in their interest to slow things down and allow their dropped world champion Mark Cavendish and sidekick Bernie Eisel to get back on. It was better for them to have two extra riders to ride on the front to the finish rather than use up the guys that had been riding in the mountains all week and would need to do it again in the coming days.
Taking advantage of the lull, some riders stopped for a pee while I pulled in at the side of the road and took off my undervest. About 10 minutes later, I reached into one of the three pockets in the back of my jersey for some food, only to discover they were empty. All of my race food had fallen out while I was taking my vest off and I had to ask one of the guys to go back to the team car and get me some more.
Even though things calmed down a bit from then on and the break opened an 11-minute gap, there wasn't much talking in the peloton today. The hard stage yesterday and fast pace over the first two mountains this morning meant that everybody just rode with their heads down, in silence, counting the kilometres to the finish.
With just five riders up the road, there were still plenty of points on offer at the finish towards the green jersey competition for the sprinters, so the last 25km was flat out again.
I knew the finish was very twisty and had a few hills on the run-in, so I had to stay near the front in case a split in the bunch occurred. Seb Hinault kept me near the front before doing his own sprint in the last kilometre. Seb took eighth, I was 14th on the stage while my cousin Dan Martin was 91st.
Almost eight minutes earlier, David Millar of Dan's Garmin Sharp team edged out my team-mate Jean Christophe for the stage win. I have been rooming with Jean Christophe for the past three nights and he is actually a nuclear engineer. After a silver medal winner in mountainbiking at the Beijing Olympics at the age of 31, he took the last three years off work at one of France's biggest nuclear energy companies, Areva, to become a professional cyclist.
Tomorrow is Bastille Day in France and right now we are caught in a massive traffic jam on the way to a two-hour transfer to our next hotel. My mother, brothers and Nana Roche from Ireland are coming to the start tomorrow, so I'm looking forward to seeing them.
The finish town of Le Cap d'Agde is a famous holiday spot in France and will be jam-packed with people celebrating Bastille Day. The last 30km are very dodgy, though, and it could be another stressful day with crashes in the finale.
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