While the quality of the hotels we stay in on the Tour de France varies greatly every night, it seems like every hotel on this Tour has a different approach to Covid-19 too.
From a pretty grotty one star hostel-type place in the middle of nowhere where crowds congregated for food, everyone was touching everything and there was a pretty haphazard approach to the virus midweek, last night we had a better hotel with a much stricter protocol.
Normally the first one down to breakfast every morning, I usually grab a cup of coffee and check a few emails while I wait for the others. This morning though, one of the hotel waiters – who mistook me for one of the team staff at first (must be the grey hairs), told us that they don’t normally serve breakfast any more and I wasn’t allowed touch anything until it was on my table.
While we had our own breakfast room for just the team, other guests had to pre-order their food and have it delivered to their rooms.
On the drive to the start this morning I was reminded how big these diaries have become and how many people from different countries read them when I got a text from my old team-mate Thor Hushovd asking me about my argument with his compatriot Amund Jansen a few days ago. Norwegian TV even interviewed me about it this morning ahead of the stage start.
Bumps and altercations happen regularly in bike racing but Amund was in my group on the road yesterday and we shook hands and had a two-minute chat on the way to the finish so it’s all over as far as I’m concerned.
The team plan this morning was to try and get somebody into the breakaway so I was on the front alongside Soren (Kragh Andersen) as soon as the flag dropped and was really keen to get into the early move. As it happened, Soren was the first one to attack and went clear in a 13-man group that went on to contest the stage win.
As Soren was riding towards eighth on the stage behind Nans Peters of Ag2r, the grupetto formed on the Port de Bales after about 90km. I just kept riding until another group with Casper (Pedersen) and Marc (Hirschi) formed near the top and we rode the 40km to the finish together. After a few minutes I noticed French star Thibaut Pinot towards the front of our group, being nursed along by some of his FDJ teammates.
Pinot was a pre-race favourite in Nice but a crash in the opening days meant he was struggling with back pain today.
My cousin Dan Martin was also in the group and struggling with back pain after crashing at the recent Dauphine. As the fans screamed and cheered at us on the 10km long Col de Peyresourde, a lot of whom had no masks on, we wondered aloud about the likelihood of the rest of the season going ahead.
Even though fans have to ride their bikes to get up the climbs this year, it was so packed it felt like a normal year, which it most certainly isn’t.
Sunday September 6, Stage 9: Pau to Laurens (154km)
Another mountain stage today offered another opportunity for a breakaway group to go clear and chase a stage win on this Tour.
For my Sunweb team, having somebody in that breakaway was our priority and we were all ready for action as we rolled out of Pau this morning.
An endless barrage of attacks from the flag drop however told us that most other teams had the same idea and we went over the fourth category climb after 9km all together.
My young team-mate Marc Hirschi jumped clear over the top and despite pulling a foot out on a bend, hovered a few seconds up the road for a full 4km before being reeled in.
With Marc caught, I jumped up the road next and dangled ahead of a hard chasing peloton, hoping that a moment of hesitation would see a little group snap off the front and come across to me.
I could see groups attacking behind me but after 4km of riding flat out, I could hear Casper in my radio, “Nico, we’re really flying at you. Take a breather!”
I eased up for a few seconds and got caught at the bottom of a hill, where my previous effort and the pace of the next attack saw me immediately drift down through the peloton.
After that, there were five or ten kilometres where I was trying to catch my breath and struggling to move back up the bunch before Casper saw me and brought me up to the front.
Back in the game, I was in another few moves, including one with world champion Mads Pedersen, but as we hit the 11km long first category Col de Hourcere after 58km, where Soren, Tiesj (Benoot) and Marc were in a little group out front, I knew it wasn’t going to be my day.
As Marc rode clear on the climb to begin what would be an epic ride out front, I began to think of the days to come. After a frantic opening hour and a half, there was no point in killing myself to stay with the GC guys on the second half of today’s stage. Instead, recovery was the focus so that I can have another chance to escape the clutches of the peloton if the opportunity arises in the coming days.
Sometimes people at home see that myself, Dan Martin or Sam Bennett are 50th or 60th overall and are disappointed at the placing, but the reality is that we’re not here to win the Tour de France and our overall position or time loss doesn’t matter.
Personally, I’m here to try and win a stage and, like everyone else that’s here for the same reason, that means that I have to pick my battles. Today my battle ended on the Hourcere.
With three more mountains and 80km to go to the finish though, I didn’t want to ease up too soon and waited until the peloton split near the top, where I found myself with Nikias (Arndt), Joris (Nieuwenhuis) and Tiesj, in a middle group of about 20 riders.
Towards the top it was six degrees, foggy and raining. For some reason our second team car radio wasn’t working so they couldn’t hear us call for rain jackets. I grabbed newspaper from fans at the side of the road and stuffed them up my jersey to keep the wind out but soon they were soggy and useless.
Thankfully, a friend and former team-mate, Roman Kreuziger of NTT, saw me struggling and gave me his sleeveless rain jacket for the descent as his car had just given him a long sleeve one from his car.
After counting down the metres on the horrible Col de Marie Blanque, with about 20km to go, a big bunch of about 80 riders, including Sam and all the sprinters, crested the last climb together joking about how we had let too many riders go clear and would never catch them now .
On the run-in, Luke Rowe of Ineos asked me if I wanted to hear the result of the stage.
He told me that after being been out front alone for almost 80km, Marc was caught by a group of four GC contenders with just a kilometre and a half to go and had finished third behind Pogacar and Roglic.
Today was a super ride by Marc and I think anyone who saw the stage was rooting for him to win. As we tried to tell him just how good a ride he had done afterwards , I could see the tiredness and the disappointment on his face.
At just 22, he has already finished second and third on stages of his first Tour and I don’t think he’s finished yet. Now though, he is trying to take his mind off the what-could-have-been by watching a movie down the back of the bus. Thanks to coronavirus he will have plenty of time to mull it over.
With trains and planes not an option, we have a five hour drive to our next hotel.