A disappointing finish in the last month’s Dauphiné Libéré cast doubt over a Tour de France starting birth for Nicholas Roche which, until then, looked a certainty. The AG2R La Mondiale rider came 81st in the race, leaving the Irish National Road Championship as his final opportunity for a starting place for ‘Le Tour.’ He won the race and his reward was a phone call confirming his place on the AG2R team for Saturday’s time trial, a day after he turns 25.
“I was hoping for both,” says Roche of the race win and the Tour start, “but I wasn’t expecting both. On Monday morning I was just landing in Italy, coming back from Ireland and it was nice just switching on the phone and about two seconds later the phone rang, telling me that they had a meeting and I was going to the Tour. It was fantastic news. I was thrilled and over excited. I had barely recovered from the emotions of winning the day before and all ready I was on another high.”
Having competed in last year’s Vuelta a España and the Giro d’Italia the previous year it remained the last of the three Grand Tours he had yet to race; his performance in the Dauphiné a minor hiccup along the way that raised doubts in the riders mind.
“At the start of the year I was a lot more confident (in getting a Tour place) than in the last few weeks. I had lost a bit of confidence. I wanted to go, I was hoping to get picked but then I doubted as well. I went all right in the sprint stage (of the Dauphiné) where I was sick.
“On the mountains I was hoping to get up there, to be able to hang in with the guys, be competitive and be where the racing and action was happening. I was not good enough to be with the guys on the climb so I was pretty disappointed because three weeks before, in Catalunya, I was able to play on the mountain. It was like falling back a performance.”
If the doubt born of his lowly finish in the Dauphiné was a test, he overcame it by winning last Sunday’s Irish National Championship. He was the only AG2R rider who won his National Championship, adding to his claim for a place on the Tour his father last rode in 1993.
“I knew I could do it. I was hoping to do it, but every year in the nationals I always make more or less the same mistake of over attacking, panicking and letting off too much energy by doing too many mistakes. This year I said I would play it a bit smarter and for once it worked. It was difficult, but the way the race went suited me. I was hoping for a very fast race where we would slowly but surely wear each other out. That was my experience with longer races and I hoped it would pay off and it actually did.”
The national title that boosted Roche’s Tour de France also brought him down memory lane. “When I was on the podium with Paídi O’Brien, I just realized it was fourteen years since I raced with Páidí and it seems like it was two or three years ago.”
Páidí O’Brien and Roche were team mates at the last team he rode for as an amateur and the team where Roche learnt the most as an amateur. “Racing with Vélo Club La Pomme–Marseille was like racing with an Irish team. There were five Irish on the team, myself Páidí, Philip Deignan, Timothy Cassidy and Denis Lynch. It was a fantastic year and the five of us just supported each other every week through the year.”
Roche is now a key component of Irish cycling, and rode for Ireland in the Olympics in Beijing, but due to dual nationality (he was born in France), his relationship with Irish cycling has often been strained.
”In Ireland I was too French and in France I was too Irish. It didn’t help me at all. When I was younger and I moved back to France I wanted to be on the Irish team for the junior tour of Ireland. They refused because they said I was racing abroad and they were not sure how it was going, even though I had one around fifteen races back in France. The Irish didn’t want me when I was a junior even though I wanted to race for Ireland.
“Eventually they realized I wanted to race for Ireland. It was really difficult but the year after when they wanted me to come and do the Irish tour with them I told them no because the year before I wanted to be on the Irish team and they didn’t want me. So I called two or three friends and I went with a team of my own and won the junior tour and then went on to do the worlds’ in Zolder with the Irish team. At the start, ten years ago, the mentality was different. Things have changed a lot and for the better.”
He turned pro with Cofidis in 2004 following a doping scandal involving members of its team, but his biggest problems early on was with the expectations placed on him. “They had all ready restructured the team. It was 8 months after that so it didn’t have any effect on me. The two years after I turned pro, at Cofidis was difficult because I was still pretty young.
“The fact that I was Nicolas Roche, son of Stephan Roche, meant they were expecting me to be able to win a lot of the big races straight away, as a 20 year old. I wasn’t able to do it. They were always kind of disappointed with my performances and they were not judging me equally. For them, I was Stephen Roche’s son and I should be winning Paris-Nice at 21,” says Roche, but expectations aside, turning pro aged 20 is no mean feat.
“My dream was not just to turn professional. Turning professional is one thing, staying professional is another and then being good at it is another. I wanted to be able to perform well. I didn’t want say I was a pro and get my ass kicked every weekend. Turning pro early meant that I was able to start learning quicker. I had a hard time the first few years, but eventually I got some experience, different opportunities and in my second year I finally won my first race. It was a big step up, incomparable; from racing, training and pressure.”
Roche’s focus in his first Tour de France will be helping more senior team mates and trying to grab a stage win.
“From my point of view it will be helping Vladimir Efimkin who was top ten last year and Cyril Dessel who was top ten two years ago. For me it will be to protect them as much as I can in the mountain stages. On the other side we have a sprinter Lloyd Mondory and I will try to help him for the sprints as the rest of the team is based on pure climbers. I enjoy the thrill in sprinting and when I am going well I also enjoy the climbing which is a completely different thrill. It is fantastic as well. My third role will be to try breakaways at some stage, and maybe win a stage.”
After Roche’s National Championship it was a pressure filled week. Following his return to Italy on Monday, it was back on a plane Tuesday morning bound for France. “At the moment I am still at the stage where it is just 100 percent pure stress. We got all the new kit as AG2R changed colours. On Tuesday we did one lap of the time trial. Thursday morning we did two laps and then we drove down to Monaco. Thursday was all about the medical procedures, pre Tour, and in the afternoon was the team presentation.”
Having lived in Cannes for eight years Roche is familiar with Saturday’s time trial route and has his sights firmly set on Saturday, postponing any birthday celebrations until after the Tour.
“It will be like another day. I won’t go mad. My girlfriend will be around, so she will come to give me a quick happy birthday kiss, but then I will go to bed early and focused on the time trial. It is in Monaco, so this is my home race for two days. I know the time trial pretty well. I have done it four or five times all ready this year and really I want to be focused.”