Monday 20 November 2017

Nicolas Roche: 'This is Hubert's 13th Grand Tour and, as luck would have it, yesterday he crashed and broke his wrist, sprained his ankle and damaged a vertebra'

Saturday, July 7, Stage 7: Tomblaine -- La Planche des Belles Filles 199km

Since this Tour began a week ago in Belgium, my team-mate Hubert Dupont has had the logo '13GT' written on his helmet in black marker. I noticed it ages ago, but kept forgetting to ask him what it meant.

It was only when he returned from a post-stage trip to hospital last night that I found out. This is Hubert's 13th Grand Tour and, as luck would have it, yesterday he crashed and broke his wrist, sprained his ankle and damaged one of his vertebrae. His Tour is over.

This morning as we boarded the team bus for the start, Hubert came and said goodbye to everyone and it was sad to see him go home as we headed towards his favourite playground -- the mountains. Every year, Hubert has been a great help to me on the big climbs -- pacing me, nursing me, cajoling me, in whatever order is necessary, but today as we head for the hills, his season is over.

After a week of riding on the flat, today's first mountain stage was really all about one hill, the climb to the finish at La Planche des Belles Filles.

Once the break went early today, everybody took time out for a pee stop before BMC and Sky started riding a steady tempo behind and waited for the final mountain. Today was very different to a normal mountain stage where there are a few long 20km climbs to get into a rhythm. Today's finish was just 6km straight up and flat out.

We knew from looking at the route map last night that there was a very fast descent, followed by just 2km of flat before the final mountain, so my Ag2r team-mates Mikael Cherel and Seb Minard made a big effort to get me towards the front of the bunch near the top of the penultimate climb. After the descent, Mikael did a great job to position me right behind the Sky boys, in about 10th place, as the first summit finish of this Tour began.

I was pretty nervous at the bottom and it was almost a sprint as we hit it flat out. I was hoping that was as hard as it was going to get. As the Sky team of second overall Bradley Wiggins drove the pace relentlessly at the front, guys were dropping out the back door like it was going out of fashion and with 3km to go, there were only 10 of us left in the peloton and four of them were from Sky. It was an amazing tempo.

I had been suffering for a while, but willed myself to keep going, knowing I would move up the overall classification if I could just hang in there. But 2.5km from the summit the pace got a bit too quick for me and I was dropped.

Once my head goes down and my shoulders start to move, it's a bad sign for me. I paced myself for the last couple of kilometres to try not to lose too much time and lost about 10 seconds before riders started coming past me one by one -- Haimar Zubeldia of Radioshack, then a few seconds later Janez Brajkovic of Astana.

A few seconds after that my friend Maxime Monfort of Radioshack came past. I tried to up my pace to match each of them, but couldn't stay with any of them and just tried to keep my own tempo.

This morning, I reckoned I would finish in around 10th place and not lose more than a minute on the stage. I finished 11th and lost a minute and six seconds, so I'm satisfied with that.

Although I've been placed in bunch sprints, flat stages and other mountains stages, I've never had a top-10 in a mountaintop finish at the Tour.

But the Tour is always full of surprises. Guys you expect to be up there get dropped and guys who are on the edge of making it, guys like young French climber Rein Taaramae of Cofidis, do a super ride and overtake you in the classification. A lot of the top guys got dropped today, so I am now eighth overall, a minute and 22 seconds behind new race leader Wiggo.

Sunday July 8, Stage 8: Belfort -- Porrentruy 157.5km

With the first individual time trial coming tomorrow, everybody expected the breakaway to get clear early on today. We hoped they would be given a big advantage, providing there were no dangermen in it, and be allowed contest the stage between them as those looking to make their mark on the overall classification rested up ahead of their first big test.

Although the youngest rider in the race, 22-year-old Frenchman Thibaut Pinot of FdJeux did win alone, the day didn't exactly go to plan.

Obviously, everybody wanted to be in the first breakaway of the Tour that had a real chance of staying away to the finish, so the first 100km of racing was mental, with non-stop attacks.

Huge groups were going away and there were a lot of riders getting clear that weren't too far behind me on GC and would overtake me if they stayed ahead. Sky were keeping a pretty high pace at the front of the peloton and I knew that all of them couldn't stay away to the finish.

At one point we had three guys in the front group, Jean Christophe Peraud, Mikael Cherel and Blel Kadri. I don't know how, or why, but only Blel managed to stay with them for any length of time and we're expecting the hairdryer treatment from our team boss tonight.

In the middle of all this, shortly after the feed zone, somebody decided they didn't like their race food and threw it between my front wheel and fork, where it began to act like a handbrake. With the race still flat out and not wanting to stop, I tried to get it out with my hand, but couldn't shift the tinfoil-wrapped sandwich or whatever it was and was forced to a halt.

Having extracted the unwanted lunch brake, I jumped back into the cavalcade and along with team-mate Maxime Bouet, we hopped from car to car to get as much shelter as possible, rejoining the peloton just minutes before a big crash saw Olympic champion Sammy Sanchez of Euskaltel break his hand and collarbone.

Having gotten over the first six climbs in good shape, the summit of the first-category Col de la Croix came just 10km from the finish and was the last chance for any more attacks. Although Liquigas and Sky had whittled the peloton down to around 25 by halfway up, there was a real acceleration when Lotto hit the front towards the top and Jurgen van den Broeck attacked.


I was around 10th in line alongside Monfort and Brajkovic, but suddenly the rear wheel ahead of us was 10cm in front, then 50cm, a metre, two metres, 10m and, in a flash, nine riders including race leader Wiggins, defending champion Evans and the other favourites were gone.

Myself, Monfort and Braijkovic tried to close the gap before the top because we knew that once they got over the summit, there was no chance.

It was a really strong headwind and even though everybody was riding as hard as they could, apart from Ivan Basso, who had team-mate Nibali up front and Jelle Vanendert, who had Van den Broeck ahead, we lost a minute to the yellow jersey group.

It could have been worse, but that's not the point. Every day could be worse, but I'm p***ed off today wasn't better, that I didn't close the gap to the nine guys before we got over the top of the climb. A minute is a lot of time to lose and I could do without giving that time away to guys I was hoping to be fighting with for a top-10 place overall.

I dropped one place to ninth, ahead of tomorrow's 41.5km time trial. My cousin Dan Martin is down to 69th overall after finishing in 64th place on today's stage. I've done good time trials in the past, but have messed up a lot more and it's going to be hard, even if I feel I'm in better condition than I was in 2010. Okay, I'm not a superstar of the Tour, but I'm looking forward to it, even if it is my biggest handicap.

Tour de France,

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Irish Independent

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