Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo) clicked his 2014 season into gear at the Tour of Oman a satisfied man.
In 2013, after years of knocking at the door, Roche punched through for a grand tour stage victory at the Vuelta a España, and quickly followed that up with the leader’s jersey, another first. Fifth place overall in the Spanish tour was also a career-best for the 29-year-old Irishman.
For this season, Roche takes extra motivation out of those results, setting his sights on returning to the Tour de France to help Alberto Contador take on Chris Froome (Sky), as well as lining up for the Giro d’Italia on home roads in Ireland.
VeloNews recently sat down with Roche to talk about his breakout Vuelta, Contador, and what it was like growing up as the son of Stephen Roche.
VeloNews: You’ve been in this game a long time now. Are you still excited at the beginning of a season?
Nicolas Roche: I turned pro in 2005, stagiaire in 2004, so, yes, I’ve been around for a while now. I feel like I could do another 10. When I come to October, I think, ‘Oh, this is hard, I cannot wait for the winter,’ but once January rolls around, I think I could do this all my life.
VN: What’s best about being a pro?
NR: I just love being on the bike. I find it’s my therapy, whether I am sad or joyful, I just enjoy it for different reasons, being on the bike. A lot of riders, when they stop their career, they don’t want to see a bike again. I think I’d be sad without the bike.
VN: It’s certainly part of your DNA. …
NR: I think it’s because my dad is passionate about it as well, he feels bad when he doesn’t get to go on the bike.
VN: What do you remember growing up about your dad’s career?
NR: When you’re a kid, you don’t realize it’s any different. When you’re growing up with it, it seems normal, but it’s only later that you realize how special it is. I only came to that conclusion looking at my little brothers, when they were younger, they would see me go to races, travel, train, but they could not understand that cycling could actually be a job. By looking at my two younger brothers, I realized that’s how I must have been when I was a kid. What’s daddy’s job? Oh, he rides his bicycle.
VN: How old were you when your dad won the Tour?
NR: I was three. All the memories I have consist of pictures, people telling me stories, or what I see on videos. I was little more than a toddler then.
VN: Was it a burden having such a successful legacy to live up to when you turned pro?
NR: I don’t think so. I realized very quickly that I wasn’t going to be better than he was. How was I? Only a few were better than he was, so I just decided to go my own way. People would compare me in my first or second year, ‘Oh, you’re going to win Paris-Nice when you’re 21.’ Okay, sorry to let you down. I might not never win Paris-Nice, but I can do other things. I think people caught on to that pretty fast. When you’re starting, when you’re a ‘son of,’ there are a lot of expectations on you. The first years you feel you only disappoint, because I didn’t win Paris-Nice, or the races that he won early in his career. Then people realize. Lucky enough, even with the Irish background, I didn’t get as much peer pressure. People talk of Merckx, and Belgium, but I think Axel’s situation was a lot different than mine. It would have been tougher to be in Axel’s shoes.
VN: Did turning pro with French teams help take a bit of the pressure off?
NR: It wasn’t by design. I was living in Ireland, and I came back to France when I was 15. My mother felt she wanted to go back to France, and my dad started the hotel business. I was living in Nice, and the closest big amateur club was Marseille, that was 200km down the road. When you start doing the French U23 calendar, you attract French teams. Maybe if I had lived in Italy, I would have ended up with an Italian team. It was not something that I chose. It just came that way.
VN: How big of a change was it coming to Tinkoff-Saxo last year, after riding your entire career on French teams?
NR: I enjoy this international atmosphere here at the dinner table. We speak every language you can think of. I feel at home here. I think I made the right move at the right time. Maybe if I moved three years ago, I might have made some bigger results, but I think it was the right time for me to make the move. It’s working fine, and I feel happy here, and I can express myself on this team.
VN: For 2014, you’re changing things up a bit, racing the Giro and Tour, rather than the Tour-Vuelta combo, why?
NR: To change the routine. I know the Tour, Vuelta is something that I like, and it works all right for me. This year, with the Giro starting in Ireland, it’s a whole new challenge. I never really prepared for a main goal of the year so early. I always build up to the second part of the year. It’s going to be a challenge to be ready for May. Only a few times in your career do you have the possibility of a grand tour starting in your home country, especially Ireland, so I am really looking forward to being part of that.
VN: Will you lead the team’s GC hopes?
NR: I will lead with Rafa [Majka]. He’s proven over last year that he was capable of being close to the podium. He was sixth in his first grand tour as a captain, so I think Rafa is the No. 1 choice. I will be there as a plan B. In the Giro, there are many crashes, the weather conditions are usually horrible, and so it’s not bad to have two options.
VN: How many times have your raced the Giro?
NR: Only one Giro, in 2007, I was riding for [Thor] Hushovd in the sprints. I was one of the first ones to be up the col, to chase down the breaks. That’s what you do in your first grand tour. Thor was great, I learned so much from him, about how to manage the last few kilometers of a race. You need to go through different steps of your career. I was okay doing that.
VN: Last year’s Vuelta was an intense race for you, winning a stage and taking the leader’s jersey, yet suffering in the cold in Andorra, what did you take out of the Vuelta?
NR: I was pretty ambitious going into the Vuelta. I knew I was in top form. I knew I was capable of a top-five. It was also important for the team and how they supported me. That morning I won the stage, Bjarne came up to me, ‘You know you’re winning today, right?’ I said, ‘Sure, Bjarne.’ It was either that day or the second day, those were perfect for me. I was so angry with that cold day [in Andorra]. I wasn’t unprepared, because I was smart enough to be one of the first riders to put on the knee warmers and the rain cape, and I was dumb enough to be one of the first ones to take them off on the last descent, and I immediately froze. As soon as I took off my knee warmers, I felt my knees go, ‘kkkkrch’ — ‘Oh no, I’ve made a mistake.’ I was so focused on coming to the bottom of the climb, to be able to breathe, to be able to move, not being over-covered, I didn’t realize it was 3 degrees. That was my mistake there. I paid cash for that.
VN: How satisfying was it to win the stage, and then to take the jersey?
NR: I’ve been chasing for both for last five years. I was already second in the Tour, second in the Vuelta, a couple of times I went too early, others I went too late. I think in the Vuelta I think I’ve had 15 to 20 top-fives, and I just couldn’t make it. I had this deep frustration. It was nice to finally get it right once.
VN: Did you discover there was a big difference to win, or was it simply a question of the pieces coming together on the day?
NR: In 2008, I was second in one of the stages in a photo finish with [Imanol] Erviti, it was less than a couple of millimeters. That would have been quite different, to have a grand tour stage at 24, instead of nearly 30. It was such a relief. That’s it. I am not always second best or third best. I can be the best, at least for one time. I knew that I finally had reached top form. I would have been so disappointed if I didn’t get one or the other, but I never expected to get both. Once I got the win, I was thinking if I take a risk, maybe I lose the top-five, but I could also get the jersey, so even if I am bad, I will be around eighth, ninth position, and I was doing a bit of calculations. When [Ivan] Basso went that day, I said, ‘Let’s go.’ I am only 10-12 seconds down, with bonuses, I said, ‘All right, let’s go.’ Maybe a few years ago, I would have thought about it more and hesitated, but there I was racing freely, and I was ready to take risk. The team was ready to protect me. Bjarne told me in the earpiece, ‘Okay, Nico, are you ready to chance it?’ I just went for it.
VN: Do you believe you could ever win a grand tour some day?
NR: That’s a dream. I have to take it step by step. I was chasing a top-five in the Vuelta for a few years, I was sixth, and I made fifth. I believe I could podium if things go right. If I ever make a podium, then you think about winning, but it’s a long way to go before winning a grand tour. There are only a few riders in the bunch that can say, ‘I can win a grand tour.’
VN: You were there last year with Contador struggling to find his way against Froome. How was that experience from the inside?
NR: It was impressive to watch Alberto, the dedication, and the never letting go, it was something I appreciated. That’s something that helped me in the Vuelta; it’s not over until it’s over. Alberto fought all the way to the very end. We stuck together as a group. We all believed that we could do it. What mattered is that we believed and we tried to do it, and every day Alberto attacked, we attacked. We tried something every day. Sometimes it worked great, sometimes it worked a little bit, sometimes it didn’t work at all, but the goal was that we needed to attack. By sitting on Froome’s wheel, we were not going to beat him. There was also a risk of losing everything, and on the last day in the mountains, I think Alberto paid a bit for all the attacks, but as a team, we said that was fine. Every day he was trying to go for it. He wasn’t satisfied with second. He’d rather be third or fourth. Okay, last year, he was a bit short, and probably lacking a bit of racing, and doing a lot media stuff with his comeback. I think this year, he’s more quiet, that extra focus, also knowing how strong Froome is, he is going to get back to work harder again.
VN: Was it more fun racing that way, rather than just ride defensively?
NR: It was probably one of the Tours that I’ve been in the weakest form over the past four years, I was struggling in the high mountains. Even though I wasn’t in my 100 percent form, I was enjoying my Tour, because every day we were really close as a team. That made a difference, at least for us as a team. This year, we’re going to go there with a very similar team, a very tight team, very bound to achieve that.
VN: Froome has emerged as the dominant Tour rider. What will it take to beat him?
NR: He’s dominated the past few years. When he’s in top form, and he’s got a team around him, and he can race the way he wants the race to be raced, he’s almost unbeatable. Things change from year to year. You’re never free from being beaten by someone stronger. It would make things more interesting for the Tour if Froome is beaten. It would create such a buzz. If he wins the Dauphiné by 10 minutes like last year, well … but cycling is pretty interesting at the moment.
VN: A lot of the discussion during last year’s Tour was about the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, how did riders try to deal with that?
NR: It’s frustrating, because when you’re riding a bike, people link that with doping. At some stage, you cannot get upset with that, because you’d just end up shooting yourself. It’s something you have to learn to cope with. It’s never pleasant. Every time you go somewhere, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ ‘I’m a cyclist.’ ‘Oh, you dope!’ The first thing they ask, ‘Do you ride the Tour?’ And the second is, ‘Oh, you must dope.’ That’s what people see, but it seems like things are changing. People are realizing that cycling is much better. It takes time. It’s not magic. You can’t wave a wand, and everyone’s clean overnight, but I think things are going the right way. A lot of the stories that are coming out now might have happened 10, 20 years ago. All they see is scandal. They don’t make the difference between what’s happening now.
VN: Do riders in the peloton believe Froome?
NR: I hope so. I want to believe that, or else I would be pissed off with him. It’s terrible to think you’re getting your ass kicked by someone’s who cheating. I want to believe that the guys are racing clean at the front today. For us riders, to continue in that clean way, you have to hope that the guys you are competing against, and who are beating you, are simply better.
VN: Can riders in the peloton tell who’s on the gear these days?
NR: It’s difficult to ever know. It’s often unfair to say to someone who’s going bad, they’re on it, or off it. It’s very easy to say that. You just don’t know. If we work on percentages, between number of athletes, number of tests, if you get seven or eight [positives] a year, it’s actually a very small number.
VN: It seems the peloton’s changed a lot since the Armstrong era, is that true?
NR: I would not have enjoyed being a cyclist in the 1990s, to be under that kind of pressure. I am happy that I was pro after that. Today, if you take your job seriously, you can get results and have a healthy life. There is no one pushing us to do bad things. The guys today can go into the sport and you can race clean.