GRAUS, Spain (VN) — Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) was happy to step out of the team bus and see clear skies and warm Spanish temperatures ahead of Monday’s climbing stage.
Forty-eight hours earlier, the Irishman plummeted out of contention on the long, 25-kilometer descent off the Col de Envalira high in Andorra under rain and cold, dropping from second to sixth.
Roche said his legs turned into “two pieces of wood” in the intense cold and rain.
“I suffer a lot from the cold. I was clever enough to put the knee-warmers on, but then I was stupid enough to take them off on the last descent. From going from having the knee warmers on to taking them off, well, my legs just froze,” Roche told VeloNews. “They were two pieces of wood. And that was it. I paid a big price for it.”
Roche was the top GC victim in Saturday’s brutal stage that saw 14 riders abandon, including Ivan Basso (Cannondale) and Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack-Leopard).
Roche rebounded Sunday, attacking hard in the Vuelta’s “queen stage,” taking back a few seconds to revive his podium hopes.
Roche saved the day Monday, finishing ahead of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) to retain his sixth place overall at 3:43 back and his podium ambitions.
“I am going to keep fighting. I’ve said that since the first day, that I want to take it day by day, and fight every single day for it,” Roche continued. “For the moment, let’s break into the top-5, then I will think about the podium.”
Team boss Bjarne Riis said it was a blow for Roche to lose so much time in the cold, because otherwise the Irishman is enjoying the best form of his career.
“He was great [Sunday]. Sometimes in the weather like this, you can get in trouble. It wasn’t just him, we also some of the other favorites. Everybody got cold, some more than others. For Nico, it was toward the end of the descent, and he lost a lot,” Riis told VeloNews. “The podium is still possible. Many things can still happen in this race. We keep focused, and keep trying, just like [Sunday]. He’s already made a fantastic race.”
Roche won his first grand tour stage on the Vuelta’s first weekend, claiming the red leader’s jersey twice early on, yet he has surprised many with his consistency over the Vuelta.
A strong time trial Wednesday kept him in second place overall, barely a half-minute behind Nibali, but it all unraveled in Andorra.
Riis said Roche has taken a huge step in development as a rider with his performance in this Vuelta despite the bad luck in the rain.
“He’s never been this close. He’s developing as a rider. He’s taking it to the next level this year,” Riis continued. “He’s been learning a lot. He learns how to be a leader, to handle a grand tour. It’s stressful, you need to stay calm. It’s important for the future. I think he has the capacity to be a strong rider. He’s shown that here. A good time trial, he’s climbing pretty good.”
The 29-year-old Roche joined Riis this season after racing for a mix of French teams since turning pro in 2005.
Roche worked to support Alberto Contador during the Tour and entered this Vuelta with motivation to ride a strong GC, with eyes of topping his career-best grand tour result of seventh in the 2010 Vuelta.
Things have gone better than he could have expected, but his podium hopes took a major setback Saturday. Riis said Roche will go down swinging.
“The morale is high. He has all the reasons to have morale. He’s going strong, better than ever,” Riis said. “He’s up there on GC, up there with the big climbers, it’s been a great Vuelta.”
Roche is already putting Saturday’s setback behind him, and he’s trying to remain focused on what opportunities that still lay ahead.
“It wasn’t the form. I am not going to lose the form in a day,” Roche said. “I’ve been confident. I’ve been riding well. I felt OK until the second-last climb, when it went, it went, that’s it …”
Roche is hoping the Iberian sun will continue to shine brightly all the way to Madrid. If it does, he will likely end up with his best grand tour result ever.