Stage 7: Epernay to Nancy - 234.5km
It’s a funny feeling right now at Sky. For two years we have had a big favourite at a grand tour such as the Tour de France, but now we don’t have one – at least, not of the billing that Chris Froome understandably had as the defending champion until he left the race on Thursday.
But there is a good feeling, too. It’s not only me who has the chance to make the best of an opportunity – in my case, to lead the team. For everyone else in the team, there is a fresh challenge ahead to see what we can achieve.
We would obviously still love to have Chris here, but I appreciate the opportunity that I have. And to have Chris’ team here riding for me doesn’t happen often either.
What is sure is that it’s nice on the bus to not have the stress and pressures that traditionally come with having a major favourite of the calibre of Froomey.
It was different today before the start of stage seven at Epernay, to have so few people form in front of the bus when we arrived – but I’m realistic about that, and why.
I also know that attention can all change at the drop of a hat. But it is still nice to get off the bike, get your bike and get out of there without having people all around you.
It can be pretty confronting ... and can be fickle.
It’s the sort of sport where someone wants an autograph and screams for one like their life depends on it until someone like Alberto Contador pulls up beside you and the fans who wanted so much of you forget about you straight away.
That’s just how it is.
As for the race? As usual, I made sure on Friday that I was as close to the front as consistently possible.
It was a long day, and after so many kilometres I knew that nearing the end the minds of many riders would be at their weakest from holding their concentration so long.
My last move to go off the front inside the last kilometre was aimed at just staying clear of any trouble - despite the pace on those last climbs being aimed at thinning out the numbers up front, such as the sprinters.
All in all, I felt good and in control of how I was racing. That alone was a first and positive signal that I am ready for what is to come. I feel day by day that I am getting better and better.
And I’m looking forward to the stages that are now to come in the Vosges. It makes for a safer and better race when the legs decide the finishes, not the crashes and not your luck.
What has also been nice in this year’s Tour is seeing how many Australians have again been on the side of the road … even if they are cheering for the Orica-GreenEDGE guys and not me, it’s just nice to see Aussies out there on the road.
I’m sure I’ll see a lot more Aussie spectators as the Tour continues into the Vosges, and later into the Alps and Pyrenees as numbers in the peloton up front start to lessen.
I know a number of stages are pencilled in as technically harder than the others on paper, such as Monday’s 10th stage from Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles.
It is an absolute leg breaker of a stage with seven climbs, including the last one to the finish; but then it all comes down to how that stage is raced and the tactics employed.
Stages rated as less hard can be as decisive as any stage, as Thursday’s from Epernay to Nancy showed with its impact on the general classification hopes for some riders, such as American Tejay van Garderen (BMC) who crashed near the end.
The reality, for better or worse, is that on the Tour, fate can change at the drop of a hat.