After an early season hampered by injury and crashes, Nicolas Roche showed a solid return to form yesterday when taking fifth place on the opening mountain stage of the eight-day Criterium Dauphine in France.
Roche finished in an elite front group, just seven seconds behind Belgian stage winner Jurgen van den Broeck at the top of the seven-kilometre finishing climb to the summit of Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse.
Van den Broeck first attacked at the foot of the final climb with French champion Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Konstantin Sitsov (HTC Highroad), but the trio were reeled in shortly after. The lanky Belgian climber wasn't giving up, however, and attacked again with just 2.5km left and held on to take his first ever professional victory.
Former Spanish champion Joaquin Rodriguez took second, one second ahead of Cadel Evans (BCM), with overall race leader Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) edging out Roche for fourth place on the line.
"I knew I passed 'Vino' with about 300m to go, but I was so wrecked from giving it everything in the last kilometre, that I didn't realise that he passed me again before the line," laughed Roche afterwards. "I was convinced I was fourth and even told the guys to double check the results afterwards."
Although he hasn't raced much of late, Roche has been busy training in the Alps for the past month and now has two high-altitude Ag2r team training camps under his belt, which he hopes will give him a solid base for the Tour de France in July.
"It's strange, I haven't got as many results this year, but I feel more confident than I did last year. The team trusted me when I asked them not to ride Bayern Rundfhart in Germany last week. I went to another camp with the team in La Tousuirre instead. I thought I needed more training rather than more racing, so I'm pretty happy that the whole team were behind me and trusted me."
Despite his lack of racing, Roche began the Dauphine as team leader and yesterday's ride will be a confidence boost for the Dubliner. "I'm happy enough," said Roche afterwards. "It was the ride I was expecting to do, but I wasn't convinced I could do."
Vinokourov took over as race leader yesterday with a five-second lead over Van den Broeck. Roche is 17 seconds back in sixth, while his cousin Dan Martin is 38th overall 1min 27secs behind the leader.
Criterium du Dauphine,
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