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Tour de France: The toughest day of the entire Tour so far

By Nicolas Roche

Friday July 17, Stage 13: Muret to Rodez (199km)

Yesterday's undulating route saw us leave the Pyrenees and head towards the Alps, taking in three smaller climbs.

Billed as an easier 'transitional' stage, for me, yesterday was the hardest day of the Tour by far.

Our team plan was to try and control things without worrying too much if a small breakaway group got clear. Our main goal was to get race leader Chris Froome to the line safely and without losing time to his rivals.

While the stage itself was 199km long, we also had a 12km neutral section and once we were out of that, the attacks started straight away and the rolling roads made for a pretty hard opening with FDJ rider Alexandre Geniez keen to get away and the first one to open a gap.

Within a few minutes, the Frenchman was joined by five others and they disappeared.

The Giant-Alpecin squad then hit the front of the peloton and began the chase for their sprinter John Degenkolb.

Two more riders, Andre Grivko of Astana and Perrig Quemeneur of Europcar, attacked in an effort to get across to the six leaders but Giant-Alpecin reeled them in after a few kilometres.

The German squad's presence at the front saved us from having to do the work but while we didn't care whether the break came back or not and might have set an easier tempo, they wanted a bunch sprint finish and set a hard pace all day.

I'm usually really comfortable in the heat and even enjoy riding in temperatures of around 30 degrees but yesterday we raced in 40 degrees, the hottest day of this Tour.

Richie Porte, Leo Konig, 'Yogi' Stannard and Luke Rowe all went back to the car for bottles at some point, but the pace was so fast that we also had team carers dotted along the course with drinks.

Because the stage was so fast there was no cooling down and I drank more than 15 bottles and ate a lot as well. I even squirted a bottle onto my legs near the end to get my temperature down.

The lead sextet had a lot of horsepower so despite the chase it took a long time for their four-minute lead to drop.

As we approached the third category Cote de Saint-Cirque after 131km, we were still three minutes down on them so Tinkoff-Saxo also put men on the front and upped the pace.

With Peter Sagan leading the green jersey competition, they knew that the uphill sprint was a prefect chance to gain more points on his non-climbing rivals.

After the top, we turned into a crosswind and the faster tempo split the peloton in half with last year's winner Vincenzo Nibali finding himself in the second group due to a puncture. His team-mates dropped back for him though and he regained contact.

As I was near the front of the peloton at the top of the third and final climb, the fourth category Cote de Selve with 30km to go, I grabbed a musette from a team carer and swung it over my shoulder before reaching in and distributing the ice-cold bottles.

As well as the three categorised climbs, there were a lot of hard hills and drags that really hurt your legs.

My role was to stay towards the front near the finish to make sure Froomey got to the line safely so when somebody let a gap open on one of those hills, I had to do a long sprint to close it before slotting in behind the three guys who were pulling, with Froomey and Geraint Thomas on my wheel.

With 13km to go, one of the Yates twins from Orica-GreenEdge set a really difficult pace up a long drag with Wout Poels, myself, G and Froomey behind him.

We went into a right hander shortly after though and I lost the guys, finding myself second in line and hanging onto a scorching Steve Cummings from MTN Qhubeka as we closed in on the last three of the six breakaways.

I looked around for the lads but there wasn't much I could do as Cummings was absolutely flying and I had to sprint out of each corner just to stay with him.

With G and Froomey well placed in the last kilometre, and the three leaders dangled just metres ahead of us, we turned right onto the finishing hill where, with about 600m to go, my legs went bang.

As Greg van Avermaet of BMC caught the escapees and upset the sprinters to win the stage ahead of Sagan, I felt like I hit a wall.

With Froomey leading home all of the GC contenders for sixth, it showed just how hard the finish was.

Afterwards I grabbed something to eat and drink and hopped on the home trainer to wind down before cooling myself with a cold shower.

Belfast Telegraph


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