Tour de France: 'We had a bit of a barney because he wanted me to ride harder'
Thursday, July 19, Stage 17: Bagneres-de-Luchon to Peyragudes 143.5km
With five mountains and the final summit finish of the Tour ahead of us, we rolled out of Bagneres-du-Luchon this morning knowing that today was the last real chance for Vincenzo Nibali and his Liquigas team to unship race leader Bradley Wiggins, and were expecting fireworks.
After just 20km of racing we hit the first-category Col de Mente, where a combination of rain, fog and incessant attacking made the 10km ascent a real b*****d of a lung-opener.
A group of 16 or 20 riders slipped away near the top and Sky began to chase, as Pierre Rolland, who had begun the day in ninth place overall, was in the group. After a hard chase, we caught them just at the King of the Mountains sprint line, where the fog meant you couldn't see two bike lengths in front of you.
Here, Nibali took advantage of the weather conditions and his descending skills to slip across to the break and they had 50 seconds at the bottom, forcing Sky to chase again.
With Edvald Boasson Hagen riding on the front, the guys in the breakaway knew they weren't going to be allowed any leeway once dangerman Nibali was with them and soon they had persuaded the Italian to sit up, eventual stage winner Alejandro Valverde offering the Italian a final handshake of condolence before he dropped back to the peloton.
Content to have Nibali back in the fold, Sky eased up a little and a big group of dropped riders came back to us and there was more attacking on the second category Col des Ares after 50km.
My team-mate Blel Kadri got clear in a chase group of seven and merged with the front group, containing another team-mate Jean Christophe Peraud, shortly after to make one big breakaway up front.
A lull in proceedings saw Wiggins and couple of his Sky entourage stop for a wee, which meant it was a good time for everybody else to do the same.
Sebastien Minard and Christophe Riblon got me into a good position going into the bottom of the hors category Port de Bales, with about 100km to go, and Dominic Nerz of Liquigas began to set a tempo on the front that whittled the peloton down to around 25 riders.
At the summit, I grabbed a musette from my soigneur with two more bottles in it as I knew there would be no time to drop back to the car with just a 15km descent followed by the final 15km climb to the mountain-top finish.
I was expecting Liquigas to attack on the downhill but was happy they didn't. Instead, they strung us out as we headed towards the foot of the last climb and, one by one, guys went out the back door as double Giro winner Ivan Basso set the pace for Nibali as the road began to rise skywards.
Although Haimar Zubeldia (fifth), last year's winner Cadel Evans (seventh) and Janez Brajkovic (eighth) were all gone by the '10km to go' mark, they were a few minutes ahead of me at the start of the day and I knew I wouldn't gain enough time to leapfrog any of them in the GC.
My main concern on the climb was not to give away too much time to Radioshack duo Chris Horner or Andreas Kloden, who began the stage directly behind me in 12th and 13th and are better time triallists than I am. I also hoped to be able to take a bit of time out of Thibaut Pinot, who started the stage three seconds ahead of me in 10th overall, and maybe Rolland.
I rode beside Pinot for a long time on the climb but wasn't expecting him to be going so well in week three. I was hoping he'd crack today but he was climbing very well, actually going clear with fourth-placed Jurgen van den Broeck and Rolland with 7km to go.
When the attacks came, I just couldn't follow them. I have trained myself to be able to ride up mountains steady and hard for a long time, but I still can't follow the little jumps and accelerations of the pure climbers.
I knew that there was a short downhill section coming up with about 5km to go before the last 4km uphill and I tried to sprint the last 300m over the crest before the descent and gave it everything on the downhill in the hope that I could catch them.
I found myself in a little group with Kloden and my cousin Dan Martin for the final three or four kilometres. As Dan rode away from us, myself and Kloden had a bit of a barney on the last uphill section. The German, who has finished second in the Tour twice before, wanted me to ride harder, but I was already going as hard as I could.
As it wasn't fast enough for him, he kept attacking me the whole way to the finish. I'd drag myself back up to his wheel but couldn't get past him, so he'd curse, attack me again and eventually gained 16 seconds on me by the line.
Pinot and Rolland finished fourth and fifth on the stage, while Horner was back in ninth and Dan 10th and is 36th overall. Today was tough. I didn't go as well as yesterday but I can't say I was terrible either.
I was 12th on the stage, which isn't a bad result at all for a mountain-top finish -- in fact, it's probably one of my best -- but it's a pity that I lost time on my direct rivals. I'm still 11th overall, but lost a minute and eight seconds to Pinot, 28 seconds to Horner and 16 seconds to Kloden.
Even if we're out of the big mountains now, I think tomorrow will be pretty flat out all day as it's the last chance for a lot of guys before the time trial on Saturday and the final stage to Paris.
It's pretty long, at 222km, and it all depends on how Sky ride the stage. Either way, I hope it's a lot easier than it has been the past two days.
Tour de France,
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