After struggling on the set-piece Alpine stage to La Toussuire, Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) showed signs of recovery at the business end of stage 13 of the Tour de France to Le Cap d'Agde on Saturday.
The Irishman was present and correct when Cadel Evans (BMC) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto Belisol) accelerated on the stiff climb of Mont Saint-Clair in the final 25 kilometres of the stage. Although Roche stressed that the climb was no real indication of the lie of the land ahead of the upcoming Pyrenean stages, he was pleased to have made the split on a potentially perilous day.
"A 1k climb is much different to what's coming up in the next few days so I can't too excited about attacking on a climb like that," Roche told Cyclingnews. "Obviously I was happy and those kind of climbs suits me, so I said why not take the risk."
The flurry of attacking over Mont Saint-Claire reduced the size of the peloton considerably and the whittling down process continued on the windswept run-in to the finish along the Bassin de Thau. Roche knew that he needed to be vigilant as the race skirted the Languedoc coast, and he was safely among the 43-man leading group that contested the finish.
"I actually expected it to be worse," he said. "This morning with the guys on the bus, we were saying there would be maybe 30 guys max up there, so I wasn't far off."
After an encouraging showing on the first summit finish at La Planche des Belles Filles, when he was one of the last riders to be dropped by Chris Froome's relentless pace-making, and a solid time trial at Besançon, Roche's general classification hopes suffered a major setback on the road to La Toussuire on Thursday.
"Hopefully that was only a bad day or even a very bad day," he said. "I limited my losses to 6 minutes. I thought it was already a catastrophe to lose 6 minutes but looking back at it, maybe it could have been 10. All's not all lost, I'm still 13th and I'll be fighting to be back up there."
Roche entered the Tour with designs on a top 10 finish in Paris, although he acknowledged that his losses at La Toussuire have increased the scale of his task considerably. "I want to improve on my best result, which was 14th two years ago," he said. "I did think that the top 10 was possible but giving away six minutes was giving away more in that day than I'd lost all week. But the Pyrenees are coming, so there's still a lot to be done."
Indeed, Roche reckons that he has usually felt more comfortable in the Pyrenees than the Alps during his Tour career, although he pointed out that he finds himself in an unusual tactical position as the race enters its second major mountain range.
Already too close to the top of the standings (13th at 10:49) to be granted too much leeway to enter an early break, Roche believes his situation is complicated still further by the proximity of so many RadioShack-Nissan riders on general classification. Roche is currently laced just behind Fränk Schleck and Andreas Klöden, and a minute ahead of Chris Horner, while the squad also has been active in its pursuit of the teams classification.
"Being in the middle of the RadioShack guys make it very complicated because if I move they don't defend one place, they defend three places, because there's three in front of me [Haimar Zubeldia lies in 6th] and one just a minute behind," Roche said. "That makes four of them and it means I'm very controlled and marked by RadioShack if I try to get into breakaways.
"I'm just going to have to hang in tight and get a bit of time in the mountains, knowing that it's going to be very difficult with Horner climbing well and only a minute behind me."