Nicolas Roche (AG2R-LaMondiale) lies just outside the top 10 in 11th position as the 2012 Tour de France heads towards its final weekend, but the Irishman, who celebrated his 28th birthday on stage 3, had revealed that regardless of how he performs over the final three stages he will leave with a lingering sense of "what might have been".
Roche lined up for the start of stage 11 in the Alps in ninth position in the general classification, just 5:29 behind the malliot jaune. By the time he had reached the end of the stage at La Toussuire, that deficit had more than doubled. It's been a case of a recovery mission ever since.
"I was obviously very happy for the first 10 days until La Toussuire where I took a major setback in my top 10 [aspirations], losing six minutes - which was more than I had lost in the entire first 10 days - and now I am slowly but surely making my way back up. But I gave myself a big disadvantage," Roche told Cyclingnews as the Tour headed north towards Toulouse for the start of today's 18th stage.
Roche attacked late in the day in Brive this afternoon, launching a dramatic bid for a stage victory that was ultimately thwarted by a trademark burst of decisive acceleration by world champion Mark Cavendish (Sky). Roche eventually crossed the line in fifth and was unable to take any time out of those ahead of him in the GC. He admitted that he will be looking over his shoulder in tomorrow's time trial at Andreas Klöden (RadioShack-Nissan), who is only just over a minute behind him in 12th place overall.
"I gave it my all [today] without reflecting," he said. "I’d promised that I’d attack once. I wasn’t able to able to do it in the high mountains, which was a disappointment. Today it suited me a bit better. There was war all day long and I said why not give it everything today and try and get a stage win.
"I had to launch the sprint from a long, long way out. By going from so far out, there was a bit chance I’d lose to Luis Leon but then I had Cavendish come flying past down the right hand side of the road. Gaining four seconds isn’t going to move me up to 5th overall or something. That was all about trying to win the stage today.
"It would have been nice to put a bit of time into Klöden too, but what could I do? He was marking me, he knew that he needed to follow me. I also have to make up a whole minute on Thibaut Pinot, which won’t be easy either. While in theory I have a small advantage over him when it comes to time trialling, he showed yesterday that he’s in very good form. But the biggest worry comes from Andreas Klöden for tomorrow as he’s only a minute behind."
The Irishman also revealed that so far the Tour hadn't gone completely according to plan for his team either, and that the game of fine margins, of which AG2R have collectively thus far found itself on the losing side, is beginning to take its toll on his teammates.
"The team in general are not quite as happy as it expected to be," Roche said. "The plan hasn't gone as well as we wanted. We were hoping that I'd make top 10 and [Jean Christophe] Peraud would make top 15, or the opposite, and Peraud is way down [currently in 45th position - ed.].
"When he tried to go for his stage win, he was second to [Garmin-Sharp's David] Millar, who outsprinted him. On the other days the guys were often the first ones dropped from the breakaway. So it's been very hard mentally for the team as it has been just a step under from being able to hang in there."
Like it or not this Tour will be remembered for the tactical dominance and teamwork of Sky. The British team has upset the status quo of professional cycling over the last couple of seasons and, with Bradley Wiggins in yellow with three stages to go, Sky looks almost certain to make good on what seemed a fanciful stated ambition at its founding in 2009 - that it would win the Tour de France yellow jersey within five years. While it is safe to say that its success hasn't been welcomed by all here, Roche was full of praise.
"They had a plan and they have stuck to it. They didn't get care if there was 10, five or 45 riders up the road. As long as the [rival] riders they had on their list weren't moving they've been happy to be do what they're doing," Roche said.
"They have kind of controlled and saved their energy on the days that they have needed to. The other day [on stage 13] they rode really smartly where they waited for the grupetto so that they had Mark Cavendish and [Bernhard] Eisel to ride again instead of making [Christian] Knees do all the work. These things add up and I think that everything is taught so well that it all adds up and makes a big difference in comparison to other teams."