Nicolas Roche: 'A wave of emotion came over me as I pulled on the leader's jersey'
Vuelta a Espana diary
Sunday August 25, Stage 2: Benidorm to Calpe (200km)
After my Sunweb team finished third on yesterday’s opening team time trial stage of this Vuelta a Espana – an agonising five seconds off the winners Astana – I received several text messages last night. They were from my dad, my manager Andrew, and a few close friends telling me to stay upbeat and to think of the red jersey of race leader today.
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To be honest though, I never expected to be actually wearing it on the podium this afternoon.
Like most of the peloton, I went into today’s very hilly road stage expecting it to finish with a big group of about 30 riders sprinting for the line in Calpe.
I knew I wasn’t going to be fast enough to do much in that situation, so if one of my own team couldn’t win today then, like most Irish fans, I was hoping that Sam Bennett could pull off a stage win if he was in the mix.
My Sunweb team were based in Calpe for two pre-season training camps last winter, so we knew there would be a sting in the tail of today’s stage.
At our team briefing this morning, the aim was to keep our flying Dutchman Wilco Kelderman safe and get him over the final climb, the second category Alto de Puig Llorença, with the rest of the overall contenders.
Although a breakaway went clear early on, it was on this climb that the stage sparked into life, after the Astana team of race leader Miguel Angel Lopez and the Dutch Jumbo-Visma squad of Primoz Roglic upped the tempo and reeled in the early escapees with just over 30km to go.
Davide Formolo of Bora-Hansgrohe was the first rider to kick things off on the climb, followed by Pierre Latour of Ag2r and Jumbo-Visma’s George Bennett, but it was the stop-start attacking of world champion Alejandro Valverde of Movistar that had reduced the peloton to 20 riders by the top.
I was suffering a bit near the back of the group but recovered again when things calmed down slightly after Valverde took the king of the mountains points at the summit.
After a twisting 90kph descent, I knew the attacks were going to start again once the road levelled out and, with the main job done and Wilco safe in the group, I decided I was going to try and follow some of those moves.
As the road went up again gradually with 21km to go and we eased up slightly, sure enough, Mikel Nieve of Mitchelton-Scott jumped up the inside of the group as we went through a little village and I went after him.
Within a few hundred metres, pre-race favourites Roglic and Rigoberto Uran had jumped across to us and there was a bit of daylight between our quartet and the rest of the race.
When previous Vuelta winners, Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar and Italian Fabio Aru of UAE, latched onto us a few seconds later, I knew I was in a serious group.
Although there was still a long way to go, with the strong squads of Jumbo-Visma and Movistar both represented in the move and Astana with no team-mates left to help Lopez behind, we seized the opportunity and immediately began to ride together.
Our gap stayed tight for a while but with 15km to go, we had 20 seconds on the chase group containing race leader Lopez.
Our team time-trial result meant that I had begun the day just five seconds behind Lopez, so I was best placed of the breakaway group in the overall classification and was now race leader on the road.
Although I knew I just needed six seconds at the line to overtake Lopez, there were other factors at play too.
Uran started this morning only two seconds behind me, with Quintana just 11 seconds back so I knew I had to stay close to both of them.
Time bonuses of ten, six and four seconds for the first three over the finish line today meant that either of them could snatch the jersey too if they opened a big enough gap on me, so my mind was whirring with calculations.
With 12km to go, I radioed back to my directeur sportif in the team car behind for advice.
“Guys, am I in the game for red?”
“Nico, focus on the stage win,” came the reply from Luke Roberts. “If you win, you’ll be in red anyway.”
When the group started messing around with 3km to go I was thinking about attacking but after mulling it over for a few seconds, I opted to stay in my position and wait for the sprint.
Then Quintana attacked from the front, out of a corner.
There was a couple of seconds of hesitation before I followed Nieve and Aru after him.
When I jumped past them and tried to get across to Quintana in the last 2km, Uran came after me. When Roglic came across with Aru as we went under the kilometre-to-go banner, I eased up and gambled on the sprint for second.
Sprinting though, hasn’t been my strong point for a long time.
After finishing sixth from a front group of seven on stage nine of this year’s Tour de France in July, I got a text message from Deceuninck-Quickstep’s Philippe Gilbert.
Philippe is one of the best one-day riders on the planet and one of my friends in Monaco.
He said that he’d been analysing me and that I had been focused on my climbing so much recently that I’d lost my explosivity.
“I watched you today and you need to go back and do some sprinting after the Tour,” he said.
“That’s your strong point. You need to get your kick back.”
It took me a while to get over the Tour after crashing and being sick for the last few days there, but in the last couple of weeks I’ve put more explosive shorter efforts into my training regime and I think that paid off today.
With Quintana taking the time bonuses and stealing a few seconds and a tailwind behind us, I decided to kick early and jumped from third wheel with 250m to go and took second on the stage.
After crossing the line, I knew I had taken the six-seconds time bonus but had no idea how much time Quintana had taken on us so, I spent a good few minutes just waiting around with our press officer Emily, both of us uncertain as to whether I had done enough to take the race lead or not.
When the news came that I was race leader by two seconds from Quintana, a wave of emotion came over me.
To wear a leader’s jersey in a Grand Tour is every cyclist’s dream and it was an amazing feeling to be presented with the Vuelta leader’s jersey on the podium this afternoon.
It’s been six years since my last brief stint in the red jersey and I’m thrilled to be able to wear it again after a year where things haven’t gone my way so far.
I’d love to wear the ‘maillot roja’ for a couple of days on this Vuelta but two seconds is not a big advantage and the last time I had the lead in a Grand Tour, I only got one day in the jersey. Either way, tomorrow I’m going to enjoy riding in red and I’ll take it day-by-day after that.
I’d like to thank all of the people who have been behind me the last few months, pushing me and encouraging me, and especially those who sent messages to our PR girl Emily’s phone this evening, probably in anticipation that mine wouldn’t last long with all the incoming calls and messages of congratulations.
When I walked out onto the podium to pull on the race leader’s jersey this afternoon, I couldn’t help noticing a handful of Irish fags flying behind the huge group of Colombian fans who were busy celebrating Quintana’s stage win.
I hope I gave you something to cheer for today.
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