Thursday 18 January 2018

Nicolas Roche: ‘With not enough room at the front, riders started to jump up onto the footpath’

Monday, March 4 – Stage 1: Saint-Germain-en-Laye to Nemours (195km)

Today's stage began in the town where my mother was born, and I was delighted to see my Granny Arnaud come to visit me before the start. Even though I talk to her a lot on the phone, I haven't seen her in a few months, so it was nice to catch up with her as we chatted in the shadow of Paris Saint-Germain's football stadium, where the race was due to begin.

My main aim today was not to lose time in the crosswinds, to arrive at the finish in Nemours as fresh as possible and try and save my legs for the mountains later in the week where, hopefully, I can do something to move up the overall classification.

The stage started off pretty easily as three guys attacked from the gun and the peloton seemed happy enough to give them some leeway, knowing that the open roads and lack of shelter would tire them out before the end of the 195km stage.

We had looked at the weather on the team bus and saw that the wind would be about 15km/h in strength but, as we got near the finish, it seemed to pick up and get stronger.

Blustery

The blustery conditions were intensified by the fact that there wasn't even a tree around to give a bit of shelter for large sections of the stage so, although there wasn't exactly a hurricane blowing, the wind soon made it dangerous.

There were a lot of crashes today but I was lucky enough not to get caught up in any of them. I saw one when we came off a main road onto a narrower road with about 65km to go, but I got around it by riding up on the grass. A couple of my team-mates were beside me and we just went straight to the front to try and stay safe.

With about 25km to go, the breakaways were reeled in just as we hit a really open section of road in a strong crosswind and things got a bit hectic.

Our easy start meant that everybody was fresh and raring to go for the stage win as echelons began to form in diagonal lines across the road and riders scrambled for shelter.

In an echelon, you have more shelter at the front as the first rider goes to the far side of the road and rides into the wind. Road space runs out as each rider down the line tries to ride slightly inside the guy in front's wheel to hide from the wind.

As the peloton split under the pressure of some hard riding by the BMC and Quickstep teams, I was pretty well positioned on Aussie sprinter Mark Renshaw's wheel with about 15km to go, but was soon in the hurt box when he opted for the gravel at the side of the road to get shelter from the wheel in front of him.

Unless I wanted to ride across a field, I had nowhere to go and was forced to grit my teeth and ride on the outside of his wheel into the wind. Thankfully, we turned into a headwind a kilometre or so later and I got a chance to recover.

It was hard to keep your place near the front in the finale, with 20 teams trying to keep their leaders out of trouble on back streets made narrower by traffic islands, concrete bollards and roundabouts. Soon there wasn't enough room for everybody at the front and riders took to jumping up onto the footpath to gain a few places or, in some cases, just to avoid hitting the kerb.

I had previously told my Danish team-mate Matti Breschel that I would give him a hand to get onto a good wheel in the final kilometres if he wanted to have a go in the sprint today. With 30km left, Matti came up to me and said he wasn't feeling the best and wouldn't be sprinting, which was just as well because, with about 3km to go, we came to a big roundabout where I found myself on the wrong side of the concrete road divider and was part of a group of riders forced to go the long way around.

Having entered the roundabout about 25 places from the front, I came out of it in the last 30 riders and was a bit worried about splits occurring near the front and losing a few seconds before the finish.

Luckily, a headwind and a long finishing straight meant I was okay.

As French champion Nacer Bouhanni won the stage in a frantic gallop, I crossed the line a bit further back than I usually do but, as loads of riders had lost time in the hard crosswind section earlier, I managed to move up 18 places to 61st overall and am still just 12 seconds off the race lead.

Paris-Nice Race,

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Irish Independent

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