Skin in the game
Stage 1, July 1st: Düsseldorf (Germany) to Düsseldorf, 14km time trial It had been 30 years since the Tour last started in Germany, and the country waited a long, long time for another Grand Depart. But with the opening time trial underway, I felt so sorry for the people of Dusseldorf. They turned out in their droves to see the event and support the riders, but it was horrible for them. There weather was horrendous all day – pouring rain, slippery roads on the slick city streets and quite a few crashes.
One took out one of the race favourites, Spain's Alejandro Valverde. The Movistar rider fractured his kneecap and a bone in his ankle and was out of the race on the very first day. As you can imagine, many of us were very, very nervous.
Because of the treacherous conditions I took it as easy as possible in the corners. I still put in a good performance, but I think I could have been a bit better if I had taken more risks. But it is the first day of the Tour de France, and it is better to finish with your all your skin sill on . . .
I didn't lose any time to the main competitors, except to defending champion Chris Froome. All in all, it was a decent start for me.
Forewarned and forearmed
Stage 2, July 2nd: Düsseldorf to Liège (Belgium), 203.5km
This ended up being a great day for my QuickStep Floors team, but a horrible stage. The racing was nervous and we had to endure awful weather again. Despite the conditions, there were again so many people on the side of the road, standing in torrential downpours, to cheer us on.
At races like this we have a team car in front which drives to the finish line ahead of us, relaying course information back to us riders. That car was about 20 kilometres in front of us and, bizarrely, didn’t see a drop of rain all day. Likewise at the finish, which stayed bone dry, while we were being soaked to the skin in the peleton.
One of the riders on our team is Philippe Gilbert, a local to the area who knows it well. He explained that there is a treacherous roundabout where apparently there are crashes every time a race passes through there in the wet.
Sure enough, as the peloton went through it a load of riders clattered to the ground, including Froome (Team Sky) and last year's runner-up Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale). Forewarned is forearmed and because of Philippe's local knowledge, we stayed well out of trouble.
At the finish my teammate Marcel Kittel did an incredible job and won the sprint. It's amazing how the atmosphere changes when that first victory is out of the way. So much tension lifts and the win builds a momentum that is easy to continue after you have had such a good start.
Back on the podium
Stage 3, July 3rd: Verviers to Longwy 212.5km
This day was important, and one I had targeted beforehand. It concluded with a finishing climb over a kilometre in length. Before then, we spent part of the stage on the Spa-Francorchamps F1 circuit and to ride around there was fantastic. It really made me smile. But in general it was such a difficult day, just up and down all the time on very heavy roads.
Towards the end things became extremely tetchy, with a lot of corners going through the town of Longwy and then onto that finishing ramp. Thanks to great work by my teammates I came to the bottom of climb in about 15th position and felt really comfortable the whole way up.
Richie Porte (BMC Racing Team) had a go on the steep part but he was brought back. Things then stalled at the front but I slingshotted past, staying in a great position. It was all about keeping momentum.
In the sprint the Slovakian world champion Peter Sagan pulled his foot out of the pedal and had to click back in before he could get going again. However, while it may have been a mistake I think this was actually a good thing for him; it probably helped him to win the stage. Before that, he had jumped with 250 or perhaps even 300 metres to go, going so early into the headwind and uphill that we thought, 'wow, this is perfect.'
But when he pulled his food out he kind of stalled, and then we ended up in the wind straight away. Then it was just a straight drag race between us. Obviously I am never going to beat Sagan in those circumstances, but I was happy to be sprinting against those guys and to get third. It was a good sign.
Nobody is above the law
Stage 4, July 4th: Mondorf-les-Bains to Vittel, 207.5km
Day four was one of those stages that is very boring, but had a really dramatic finale . . . and for all the wrong reasons. Early on, a single rider got clear and was out alone all day. Everybody knew it was going to be a sprint.
The last kilometres were crazy. There were guys taking a lot of risks because everybody was still so fresh. There were two crashes inside the final kilometre. One delayed my teammate Marcel, who was unable to sprint for the stage as a result. And then the other saw Sagan and the British rider Mark Cavendish get tangled up.
Cavendish hit the barriers and fell at full speed, fracturing his shoulder blade. I felt so sorry for him having to leave the race as he was battling mononucleosis earlier this year, but recovered in time to start the Tour. Now, less than a week into the Tour, he was heading home. It shows how tough the sport can be.
Sagan was disqualified, something some people disagreed with. There was plenty of debate about the decision. It looked like a pretty vicious move, although only he knows if he acted deliberately or not. But at the same time, you could say that the French winner Arnaud Démare’s swerving in the sprint was also pretty extreme, yet he wasn’t even warned.
Obviously we have to follow the judges’ opinion. At the end of the day, we are role models for others. If a kid dies after making a move like that, how would we feel then. They need to be shown that it’s not allowed. And just because Sagan is the world champion, I don’t think we have to give him special dispensation. The decision to send him home showed that nobody is above the law.
Always the bridesmaid . . .
Stage 5, July 5: Vittel to La Planche des Belles Filles 160.6km
This was the first day that really felt like the Tour de France: it was super hot, the road was melting, and we were racing on some incredible up and down roads, winding left and right and lined with fans.
A really strong breakaway got clear and this made the race super difficult. We put Philippe Gilbert in the move, and the strength of the break made the BMC Racing Team of Porte work really hard behind.
I felt completely relaxed, as I have felt through this race so far. I’ve already had a great season so I don’t feel any pressure on me. My team did a great job of looking after me, giving me plenty of water, helping me save as much energy as possible and then putting me into perfect position before the start of that final climb of La Planche des Belles Filles.
They even went really hard at the bottom and put everybody in a bit of the red to test guys out a bit. I felt really comfortable, really good.
When the Italian rider Fabio Aru (Astana) attacked, I didn't think it was a good idea to go after him then. I thought that Sky were really going to put the hammer down and chase him down on the flat section. And, because BMC had been riding all day, I also thought that perhaps Porte would have gone after Aru if Sky didn't. I could then just have followed him and made my move for the stage win.
But in the end we kind of all looked at each other. There were some attacks –Froome went, we were on his wheel, then I pushed it for a while to try to continue the momentum. All the time Aru was out front, gaining.
We were all together for the sprint and luckily I was able to open up a gap on the guys and gain a little time. Obviously it was a little frustrating to be second again on a stage, particularly as I have been the bridesmaid far too many times in the last couple of years in the Tour. But we are moving in the right direction. I feel really good and hopefully it will continue like this.
Going with the flow
Stage 6, July 6: Vesoul to Troyes, 216km
After my strong ride on Wednesday, a lot of guys were saying well done to me on Thursday morning, that it was an incredible ride. It was really nice to see that.
Obviously I have been around a long time now. I know a lot of guys in the peloton. I am quite friendly with a lot of people as well. I am very relaxed about things, and even though this Tour and this year is going so well, I am still the same relaxed person in the peloton. I think I probably get a bit of respect for that as well - I am not the typical, stressed out general classification rider. I’m willing to chat to everyone.
The stage was a flat one and a sprint was expected. The biggest difficultly was the heat as it was 35, 36 degrees. It is just a matter of eating and drinking a lot, and also making sure not to get caught on in what was a nagging crosswind.
At the end the day’s break was hauled back inside the final five kilometres and my teammate Kittel was able to win the bunch sprint. It was his second stage win of the race, and further boosted what has been already great atmosphere in the team.
It’s always the same on the Tour de France. If you start off well, generally the race continues well. It is almost like a big pressure release. Everybody is desperate to win one stage. And when you don’t have that pressure, everybody just enjoys themselves. Things flow really well, and you can keep winning.
Another champagne moment
Stage 7, July 7: Troyes to Nuits-Saint-Georges, 213.5km
The wind was stronger on Friday, coming from the side. That's always dangerous as it can lead to splits in the bunch and people losing a lot of time. Indeed, I think that is why the day's route was selected, trying to make those splits a possibility.
As I’ve shown that I’m going really well, I’m always conscious about not being caught out by the teams of the other general classification riders. So I was mindful of staying concentrated, keeping near the front and staying out of trouble. The team was a great help.
Things were nervy because of the crosswinds but unfortunately for the organisers, the wind wasn't quite strong enough to split things. The day's break was hauled back, yet again and in the sprint to the line Marcel just edged out the Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen. It was one of the closest-ever finishes in the Tour, but he got it and took his third stage win.
Together with my second and third on stages, we have almost won five out of the first seven stages. You can imagine how good the atmosphere was on the team on Friday evening and how motivated we all are for Saturday and Sunday’s big mountain stages.
They will be very important for my chances for the overall classification but now, this evening, it is a chance to sip a bit more champagne, enjoy the atmosphere and savour the good times. Being part of this success is really a great experience. Let’s hope it continues like this.