Nicolas Roche feature: Physical and mental breakthrough at the Vuelta a España
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Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Nicolas Roche feature: Physical and mental breakthrough at the Vuelta a España

by Shane Stokes at 9:08 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews, Vuelta a España
 
“Right now, I know that I am in good shape. I have to stay focussed”

Nicolas RocheHaving won a stage and also led the Vuelta a España for a day, Nicolas Roche is currently experiencing his best Grand Tour performance to date.

The Irish rider had a quiet Tour de France, partly due to working for Alberto Contador and also because he was two kilos over his racing weight. Since then, though, he trained hard at an altitude camp in order to be in peak condition for the Vuelta.

Having benefited from that camp and also got his weight down to its optimum level, Roche has had breakthrough performances in the Vuelta. Firstly, he won stage two, jumping clear on the steep final climb and clocking up the first Grand Tour stage victory of his career.

It was an important success for him, not least because he already had notched up several near misses in the past, including second on stages of both the Vuelta and the Tour de France.

On Saturday Roche had another big boost to his morale, pushing ahead on the final climb of Alto Peñas Blancas and hitting the line third. The time gain plus the bonus secured put him firmly into the red jersey of race leader. It was another first for his career, another boost to his confidence.

Since then Roche has slipped back slightly; fourth place on Sunday’s stage saw the day’s winner Dani Moreno (Katusha) take over by a slender second, then finishing seventh at Alto Hazallanas on Monday saw him drop a further place to third.

Still, he continues to ride strongly and remains one of the riders in contention for a podium place in Madrid in a week and a half’s time.

VeloNation has spoken on several occasions to Roche during the race and it is clear that he has a bigger self-belief as a result of what has happened. For many years he was banging on the door, hovering just off a big result, yet was unable to achieve the win that would move him to the next level.

He was very consistent, but when push came to shove another rider always seemed to elbow his way in ahead of him.

This time, hitting the ground running with some very good form at the start of the race, he grabbed the result he needed. That has had a clear benefit; he’s simultaneously more calm and more focussed.

The nerves have abated, and the mental energy he puts into the sport is now helping rather than hindering him. Instead of pondering on questions, he’s focussing on answers.

Delivering on potential after years of near-misses:


Nicolas RocheAsked if he felt he had made a physical or mental breakthrough on the race, Roche was clear in his response. “Both,” he told VeloNation. “I am definitely in great condition and I am really happy as I have put in so much effort to be here.

“All year long I was only thinking about the Vuelta, because in the Tour I had a different role. I knew my role was clear in the Tour, I knew my role was clear in other races. But every year I have always gone well in the Vuelta. I knew that if I did everything right this year, I could do something.”

Roche spent several years as team leader of the Ag2r squad and gave that up last winter to move to the bigger Saxo Tinkoff team. While he knew that he’d be required to ride for Alberto Contador there, he reasoned that he would also be able to learn from Contador and others, and also to get a new perspective on areas such as training, tactics and nutrition.

The overall result was that he believed he would improve as a rider and be able to show that in other races.

“I had more confidence because I knew that the training with the team had brought me up a bit. I also knew that I have also matured a lot with this team,” he explained, talking about his state of mind heading towards the Vuelta. “If you see me race now, I am a lot more careful than before. I am at the front of the bunch a lot more.

“Last year I was maybe not as concentrated when I was racing. I would be sitting in the middle of the peloton. Here we are always fighting for position in the top end.

“So it’s an accumulation of all of these things that have made a difference, as well as the fact that I was able to win the other day. That really made an impression as I’d been waiting for so long for a win in a three week race. I could feel the pressure lift right off afterwards.”

Essentially, Roche believes that success has enabled him to be more calculating since then. His father Stephen, who won the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and world championships in 1987, was once told that you have to be prepared to lose in order to win. In other words, to gamble and to take chances rather than being over-cautious.

It’s a philosophy that his son has been able to adapt since his stage two success.

He attributes that change in approach to his seizing of the red jersey on stage eight. “I think without that win the other day, I don't think I would have had the confidence to give everything to try to go for those eight seconds I needed,” he said. “I think if I had been in a defending position, I would have just stayed with that group behind and tried to hang on as long as possible. I would probably have finished tenth or twelfth on the stage, and been fifth or sixth in GC afterwards.

“Instead, I saw the opportunity with two, two and a half kilometres to go. There was a risk, but I said to myself ‘this is a chance of a lifetime. Eight seconds is not the end of the world, and if I don’t get them and I get caught, I’m only going to lose maybe ten, twenty, thirty seconds.’ Okay, fair enough, instead of being third or fourth on GC, I would be seventh or eighth. But I had to try.

“Winning the stage the other day, having been so close to that jersey, all I had in mind when I went with two kilometres to go was to stick as long as I could on Basso’s wheel, and to be able to grab those few seconds to get the jersey.

“When I passed the line, I was completely fucked. I didn’t realise what was going on at all until I heard two or three minutes afterwards that I had taken the leader’s jersey. I was like, ‘wow,’ then the soigneur jumped into my arms and gave me a huge hug. I had massive goosebumps. It was amazing.”

Pushing on after the Tour:


Nicolas RocheRoche has ridden the Giro – Tour double on several occasions and has generally tended to cope well with doing two Grand Tours back to back. He first rode both races in the same season in 2010; he was fourteenth in the Tour, then placed sixth in the Vuelta. The following year, he was 25th in the Tour and sixteenth in the Spanish event. Last season, he weakened towards the end of the Vuelta but still finished twelfth overall, the same position as he finished the Tour.

That pattern meant that he was confident of recovering in time for the Spanish race.

“I was going strong in the Tour,” he said, looking back, “but the problem was that I was essentially carrying a backpack that was handicapping me on the hills. The team put me on a new protein-rich diet earlier this year which didn’t really work for me. It caused me to put on weight, and I was still heavy in the Tour.

“My watts on the flat were higher than ever so I knew the condition was there. All I had to do was to drop those two kilos.”

Although he was disappointed not to be a bigger factor in the mountains of the Tour, Roche ended it relatively fresh, mentally. Riding for Contador and Roman Kreuziger meant that he didn’t have the pressure of being team leader. He was also psyched to try to achieve a good result of his own in the Vuelta and, because of that, was willing to change his post-Tour routine and to resist the impulse to ease back.

Instead of spending time at home, he packed his bag and bike and did ten day’s altitude training in Switzerland.

“It is so easy in July after the Tour to just relax and have a beer,” he said. “It was pretty hard in the head to go to a training camp, but once I was there it was great for me. I was 100 percent focussed on the Vuelta and I was around a good group of guys - Roman [Kreuziger], Matteo Tosatto and Gasparotto, who was preparing for the [autumn] Classics.

“We were all in the mentality to be as focussed as we could to make the most of it. I think it was very beneficial. It saves you going and hanging around with your friends at home. It was much better for me to be up there.

“I am not saying it is only altitude that makes me go so good, as that would be too easy – we’d all be going to altitude. But from what I experienced, it is something that I will try again. I’d done it before with Ag2r, but never between the Tour and the Vuelta. That plus losing the two kilos have helped make a difference.”

Time trial and beyond:


Nicolas RocheRoche was sitting third overall heading into the stage eleven time trial, 53 seconds behind stage ten winner Chris Horner (RadioShack Leopard) and ten seconds behind Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).

Asked if he still had thoughts of trying to get the red jersey back in the race, he said he’d jump at the opportunity if it was possible. But, to do that, he was aware that a good showing against the clock is necessary.

“If I lose three minutes, I will be seeing red…but only in my eyes,” he joked. “I would be way off the jersey if that happened.

“The TT is going to help me see a bit more where I am. I will try to do as much as I can.”

In the past, the time trial was one area of Roche’s Grand Tour armoury that had cracks in it. He tended to lose time relative to others there. For example, during the 2010 Vuelta, he started the second TT fifth overall but, in finishing only 38th against the clock, he slipped to eighth in GC.

He lost three minutes 29 seconds that day. Had he been just one minute quicker, he would have finished fourth overall in Madrid.

Because of that, he knows he needs to perform today to boost his chances. The fact that it is a hilly route may help, but so too the improvement he has made this year.

“I have been trying to work on it more this year. I am definitely not a specialist, but my time trial has improved,” he said. “I think I am more confident. Before, I used to be capable of doing some great TTs occasionally, but then I would mess up in the next one. I think this year they have been more constant.

“Okay, I took it easy in the mountain TT stage in the Tour, but the other ones I have done this year were more regular, So there seems to be progress.

“I am trying to keep focussed. When you are a kid and they teach you to head the ball, they say ‘don’t be afraid of the ball, attack the ball.’ I think it is that image that I am trying to picture for the TT.

“Rather than saying ‘shit, it’s a TT, it is forty kilometres of pain, or whatever,’ I am thinking, ‘okay, it is a TT, I am going to ride it a certain way with a plan.’ Not going in there being afraid to lose time, but thinking that maybe I can actually save time. That’s how I will approach it.”

Roche insists that he’s not looking too far ahead, wanting to remain focussed one stage at a time. “I’m looking at the TT, then after that I will try to save as much energy as possible on Thursday and Friday. I want to be able to perform at the weekend, that is crucial.”

He points out that the most important thing is consistency, to avoid bad days. He explained that he had one in last year’s Tour de France, and another in the Vuelta a España, and that both cost him four or five places.

He knows that it’s crucial to use energy wisely. “I think the hardest is still to come in the race. Next weekend is definitely going to be extremely hard and there are at least another five or six days that are really important.”

“Okay, we are halfway through the Vuelta, but feel that at this stage we are only a third of the way through the difficult stages. Right now, I know that I am in good shape. I have to stay focussed.

“The third week of a Grand Tour is the most important one, and that’s yet to come.”
 

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