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By Michael Rogers, Quick Step-Davitamon professional cycling team
The Alps … what an experience they were. And the people. I have never ever ridden through so many crowds. Whatever happens, it is an experience I will never forget.
With them behind us now, I’ll have a bit of time to reflect back on the experience; well, that is until the Pyrénées come under our wheel and the road goes painfully up again.
Today’s stage was hard, hot and hurt as the result sheet shows (I was 78th at 15:38, along with 13 others). This time I couldn’t finish with the leaders, as I did on stage seven where I was fourth, or even as I did in stage eight where I hit the last climb up l’Alpe d’Huez with Lance Armstrong’s group before finishing 34th at 9:29 – a result that was naturally influenced by the circumstances of our defense of the yellow jersey.
It’s true that I’ve done a fair bit of work recently, probably more than I had anticipated as Richard Virenque getting the yellow jersey added to the demands on me. That can only help me in the long run experience-wise. It was great to see the crowds support Richard like they did too. You can hear about the French loving Richard, but you have to really hear it first-hand to believe it.
It was a great day, that second of three in the Alps to l’Alpe d’Huez. I was pretty happy with how I went, especially getting back onto Armstrong’s group after losing touch on the Col du Galibier. I lost touch when the U.S. Postal Services team did a big surge. I just couldn’t keep with them. But I also knew if that I could just not lose too much time I could regain it on the descent. I did and by the time we hit the base of l’Alpe d’Huez I was tucked nicely into Armstrong’s group with Richard there in yellow to ride for.
I had no idea Richard wasn’t feeling that good when I rejoined him. I thought he was all right when I came back on the descent of the Galibier, and that we could have a good crack at defending his jersey. But I knew he was in trouble when I took his helmet from him to hand back to the team car at the bottom of the climb and he didn’t come through to go in front of me.
In that situation there was not much I could do. The only thing left for me was to help Richard as much as I could. That meant I had to ride in front of him and set as high a tempo as I could, but one that he could maintain in my slipstream. On television, it may have looked like that I am riding within myself. But trust me, it was a hard climb up.
Cycling’s most famous climb, l’Alpe d’Huez is not that hard in itself. But when you get there after racing over three or four passes and with 200k under your belt it is pretty hard.Also, riding tempo like I had to for Richard – to suit someone else’s pace rather than one you would feel more comfortable in setting – can also make it harder mentally as much as physically. Not only do have to ease up at times, breaking your rhythm you also have to constantly look over your shoulder to make sure he is all right. That creates added strain.
Throughout the climb I tried to encourage him, saying not to lose too much time on Armstrong. He didn’t say a lot back as rode up to the finish though. Also, in the heat and with the noise of the crowds around I realized the best thing to do was to stay focused and concentrate on the job. Although, Richard did say sorry later. We had lost the yellow jersey. And while he is fixed on winning the King of the Mountains jersey, we know he was really disappointed for us. He knew we loved having the yellow jersey in the team.
Still, with the race barely at the halfway mark, we can say that it has been a good race for us. It was a shame Richard couldn’t hold the jersey – especially for France’s Bastille Day celebrations. But at the end of the day we have won a stage and have had the yellow jersey, which a lot of teams haven’t yet done. We should use that success to motivate us for the second half of the Tour, especially when the accumulated fatigue sets in. I know I’ll use it. Having never raced a three-week tour I am fast approaching the unknown.
What is known for now though is I’ll sleep well tonight.