Nicolas Roche Feature: With new motivations, the time is now to fulfil his potential
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Sunday, March 03, 2013

Nicolas Roche Feature: With new motivations, the time is now to fulfil his potential

by Cillian Kelly at 5:27 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews
 
‘I will fight hard to reach my limits in a clean way’

Nicolas RocheNicolas Roche is 28 years old. He has won one race in the last three years, a stage of the Tour of Beijing in 2011. Coming into the prime of his physical abilities, it seems it is now or never for Roche to fulfil his potential. He had been riding for French teams since he turned professional in 2004, but over the winter he made the move to Team Saxo-Tinkoff, a team with a more cosmopolitan feel.

Amongst Roche's teammates now is the best Grand Tour rider of his generation - Alberto Contador. As a result, Roche now must take his career in a new direction. He can no longer target a high general classification in the Tour de France. He must now relinquish sole leadership for the Tour de France, a responsibility which he had been enjoying at AG2R-La Mondiale for the past few seasons. When announcing his new team, Roche acknowledged as such in his column in the Irish Independent, explaining that his future at the Tour would be different.

“Going into the Tour with a chance of winning it, albeit with a team-mate rather than myself, will be a new experience for me,” he wrote then. “This may give me a bit more freedom to go for stages or, at the very least, will teach me how to defend a yellow jersey at the world's biggest bike race.”

However, Contador isn't the only rider whose season goals may coincide with that of Roche. Perennial Grand Tour top ten finisher Roman Kreuziger has also been signed by Team Saxo Tinkoff. Speaking to VeloNation about his move recently, Roche discussed whether he was aware that Kreuziger, a rider of similar ability, would also be signing on the dotted line.

“I knew Roman was in discussions with [Team Saxo Tinkoff], but it had not been agreed [at the time - ed.]. It is hard to make decisions on which team to go to based on rumours you hear, and also based on who is currently there,” he said. “For example I was looking forward to working with directeur sportif Nick Gates at Saxo-Tinkoff. However he has since left the team to move home to Australia.

“But once you are confident in the structure of the team, and confident in the discussions you have with them, you have to base decisions on that.”

It's not just the possible clash of aspirations with teammates which Roche has had to consider over the off season. There has also been the protracted UCI process of deciding whether his new team would be granted a World Tour license for the coming year.

The UCI World Tour is made up of 18 teams, although it contains nineteen teams this year thanks to a fiasco surrounding the Katusha team. The teams are ranked in order of their sporting value and, provided that they pass a number of other criteria (including financial and ethical), the first fifteen teams in the ranking qualify for the following year's WorldTour. The teams ranked sixteen to twenty are subject to further scrutiny to determine which of those receives the final three slots.

Team Saxo-Tinkoff were among these bottom five places and its future as a World Tour team, and therefore its future as a team guaranteed to be riding the world's biggest races, was under threat. With these administrative issues out of Roche's control, which may have resulted in him not being able to compete in his favoured races, he could be forgiven for questioning his decision to join the team.

However he said that this wasn’t the case. “No, I do not regret it…the team have now received the WorldTour license which I will admit was a big relief. The decision on the team receiving the license is based on sporting value, but also ethics and administration which is important to note.”

A quick look at Roche's results so far this year would suggest that he isn't wasting any time in showing his new team that the lack of regret works both ways. So far this year he has ridden two events, both French stage races - the Tour Méditerranéen and the Tour du Haut Var. Between the two races he has ridden six stages. Including the six stages and the two final general classifications, he has yet to finish outside of the top twenty.

These supremely solid performances also include an eighth place in a 24.3km time Tour Méditerranéen. Prologues and Irish national championships aside, this is Roche's best ever placing in a professional time trial.

So what's changed? Despite focusing primarily on G.C. so far in his career, Roche has always remained semi-competitive in bunch sprints. Consequently, the high stage placings are not overly surprising. The fact that he is achieving good results so early in the year is a product of an unhampered and injury-free winter's training. The change that is most impressive this early in his time with Team Saxo-Tinkoff is most certainly that 24.3km time trial in southern France.

Roche's struggles with time trialling is something which he has admitted has affected his chances of success thus far in his career. An aspect of his riding which had not been helped by the fact that his former AG2R-La Mondiale team had not provided him with a time trial bike to train with for the first three years of his time there.

In his Irish Independent column shortly after his move to his new Danish team was announced, Roche stated what was high on his list of priorities in terms of improvement over the coming year.

“One of the things I'm really looking forward to is getting some help with my time trialling,” he wrote. “Riis told me that he wants me to do some tests on the track this winter so that he can have a look at my positioning and time-trialling skills.”

It seems Roche and Riis have wasted no time in getting down to business, as Roche described to VeloNation:

“Since joining the team I have been to several training camps, worked on my time trial position, met nutritional experts in Copenhagen…the list goes on. I have had my busiest winter ever trying to find little gains to improve me as a bike rider, and the team have helped me with this and in fact pushed me to do it when sometimes I would have preferred to stay at home and train,” he said. “They have confidence in me as a rider and have put a lot of effort in to me, I hope I can repay them with good results.”

As his Tour of the Mediterranean time trial showed, there was plenty of room for improvement. Roche revealed that the adjustments made to his time trial position yielded a drop of 50 watts required when maintaining a speed of 50 km/h - more of a maximal gain than a marginal one.

Nicolas RocheRiis was the directeur sportif behind Carlos Sastre's victory in the 2008 Tour de France. The diminutive Spaniard was an ace climber but was never renowned for his abilities against the clock. Clad in the Yellow Jersey, Sastre arrived at the final time trial of the Tour, a rolling 53km test, holding a 94 second lead over the Australian Cadel Evans. It was a lead which most expected Sastre to lose over such a long distance. But Sastre only relinquished 29 seconds of his advantage and as a result, he won the Tour de France.

Riis and his team were an integral part of improving Sastre to a point where he was capable of putting in such a performance, a fact not lost on the two Roches.

“For years, my dad has been telling anyone prepared to listen that I need a strong, charismatic directeur sportif who can take me in hand and has the knowledge and years of experience to help me progress,” Roche wrote in his column. “So it's hardly surprising to hear that he thinks I have made a good decision in joining the Danish squad.”

‘The sport has changed and I know this in my mind’

But any talk of Riis's ability to improve a rider must be appended with the fact that he has admitted to doping during his own career and he also stands accused of introducing riders to Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, the man who was this year on trial as part of the Operation Puerto case in Spain for his pivotal role in the blood doping of many famous names, including Tyler Hamilton and Alejandro Valverde.

Although Riis clearly possesses an ability to improve riders mentally and technically, was his sinister side a deterrent for Roche when making a decision on a team for this year?

“There are very few teams which have no one tainted by a doping case, but that does not mean these people cannot have learned from their mistakes and be a part of the solution,” he answered. “Teams seem to be in a no win situation on this; I know that Team Sky get a lot of criticism for their zero tolerance approach, whereas Garmin Sharp also get criticism for their approach accepting peoples' past decisions and allowing them to remain in the team. I respect the decision of each team to decide their own policy.

“The sport has changed and I know this in my mind. I also know that I will never take drugs, so I focus on myself and my own path and try not to let others’ actions affect me too much.”

But perhaps the sport hasn't changed as much as Roche would like to think. Contador was still banned when Roche signed for Team Saxo-Tinkoff. In addition, as well as Riis being accused of wrongdoing in the Operation Puerto case, he is also currently being investigated by the Danish anti-doping agency. Does Roche really think the sport has moved on?

“I think cycling, like all sports, has a problem today, but cycling is doing the most out of any sport to combat that problem and as a result of this, the sport is in a much different situation than it was in the past,” he answered. “It really is true that the biological passport, which cycling was the first sport to introduce, has changed the landscape of the sport dramatically. The very strict whereabouts system we have to follow, and the out of competition tests we have to accept in the past few years have also really helped improve the sport.

“We as cyclists accept these restrictions on our freedoms, and we do so readily, as most of us want a clean sport. Yes, Contador was banned, but this shows that cycling is not afraid to ban even the champions in its quest for a clean sport. I have won races, and I know I am clean.”

Throughout his career so far, Roche has never shied away from the media spotlight. He has produced his own book 'Inside The Peloton' which was released in 2011 and he often appears on Irish television and speaks on Irish radio about all things cycling. It is more by design than by accident that Roche has manoeuvred himself into the position as the go-to-Irish-guy in the peloton when it comes to the media. But there are times when Roche's interviews seem to be lacking in a clear message and his thoughts can come across as disorganised, especially when it comes to matters of doping.

He accepts that the message is sometimes not conveyed as clearly as he would like. “It is hard with the media sometimes, and I am easily misunderstood,” he told VeloNation. “Please remember I am a professional cyclist, not a trained media or P.R. person. All I can say is I have not and never will use performance enhancing drugs. I hope that is clear enough. I have dedicated my life 100% to cycling, everything I do revolves around it, and I have been lucky to make a career from it.

“I would say cycling is definitely on the right path and it is possible to race and win clean. If my limits as a cyclist are to only win a few races and fight for a top five in a Grand Tour, so be it. I will fight hard to reach my limits in a clean way, and will never take drugs to try and cheat the system. I know that at the end of my career I will be satisfied that I did everything possible to fulfil my potential. I have had some good results to date, and I know I can still improve. This is what motivates me.

“I give everything to cycling and I am sure that the work pays off . I'll keep on training hard. If I can become a champion, great, If not, no problem as I will know I gave everything I had. I will be satisfied to have tried without any regret. Cycling is my passion, I love my job, I am very lucky to be able to do it. And it's not because I didn't win or won't win the Tour that I am a failure.”

Paris-Nice and beyond:

Nicolas RocheRoche's current race is Paris-Nice, which began today. It is a race once dominated by his father Stephen and his Godfather Sean Kelly. This race provides further opportunity for him to test out his time trialling ability in the shape of a short prologue and a mountainous effort on Col d'Eze.

The first of those was more modest than he was hoping for, with his time loss of twelve seconds putting him back in 79th place. He said that he had felt good, however, and it’s difficult to accurately gauge a rider’s form on such a short, twisting and technically demanding course as was used.

Losing time to his rivals was never the plan, but the gaps are minute and the days ahead will give a better indication as to whether or not he can challenge for a high overall finish, his stated goal.

After the Race to the Sun, he will continue his season at Milan San Remo followed by the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta al País Vasco. He then shifts focus to the Ardennes Classics before attention finally turns to the Tour de France for which his final preparation race will be the Tour de Suisse. No decision has yet been made on whether he will ride the Vuelta a Espana.

It seems to be week-long stage races like Paris-Nice where Roche can prove himself, where he can reach his limits and fulfil his potential. Eyebrows may be raised behind Riis-tinted glasses if his performances in major races begin to improve significantly. Although this is Riis's fault, it is Roche's problem, an unenviable one. In an era where doping talk is no longer taboo, this conundrum is a metaphor for an entire generation. All Roche can do is to trumpet his cleanliness and keep improving. So far this year, he's doing a fine job of both.

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