Sunday 18 February 2018

Nicolas Roche Diary: 'It was like an obstacle course with guys pulling bikes off each other in the middle of the road'

The wet conditions forced 147 of the 208 starters to abandon the race
The wet conditions forced 147 of the 208 starters to abandon the race

Nicolas Roche

For the past week at these world championships Cycling Ireland have commandeered a block of apartments just outside Florence.

Sunday, September 27, World Road Race Championships, Florence: 272km

Sharing a two-bedroom apartment with my cousin Dan Martin and a big central dining and TV area with the whole Irish squad, it's made for a pretty homely, relaxed atmosphere for everybody. Until today.

Although the apartments are pretty spacious, with all the comforts of home, it's not exactly where you want your whole team to spend the last few laps of the elite men's road race.

But as Portuguese rider Rui Costa surged clear of Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez to claim his first ever rainbow jersey of world champion, after almost seven-and-a-half hours of racing in some of the worst conditions imaginable, our four-strong Irish team sat watching begrudgingly in the TV area.

With only four riders qualified for these worlds, as opposed to the eight-man teams of the bigger nations, we knew last night that we didn't have the firepower to try and control the race, so the Irish team tactics today were pretty clear. We had to stay as close to the front as possible, try and conserve as much energy as possible and let the other teams do the work until, hopefully, either Dan or I could do something in the finale.

The world road race championship is a one-day war of attrition. At 272km, the length alone is enough to wipe out probably a quarter of the peloton, while the two hills on this year's course would make it even harder for the rest of us to get to the finish.


Throw in a bigger than usual peloton of 208 riders, a few narrow descents and seven-and-a-half hours of torrential rain and thunderstorms and today you had cycling's version of the national lottery.

Two crashes in the first 3km of the rain-lashed neutralised section emphasised the importance of trying to ride near the front of the bunch if you hoped to stay upright. Although I stayed in the top 20 riders and was really focused today, it didn't really make any difference.

After just 30km it was so dark that you couldn't see three yards ahead of you and there were crashes left, right and centre. I heard a few wallops behind me but I knew that if someone fell in front of me, the road conditions were so slippery that there would be no such thing as a near miss.

After 106km of living on our nerves, the peloton approached Florence and the 16.5km finishing circuit, which was to be covered 10 times. Immediately, the speed shot up and things got even more frantic. Sam Bennett was riding alongside me near the front while national champion Matt Brammeier was on the opposite side of the peloton looking after Dan. As we crested the first climb, I moved up about 10 riders to take the descent near the front. Sam had been right beside me going up the climb but as I moved up someone crashed into him near the top, ripping the spokes out of his front wheel and forcing him to wait for a new one.

On the second short, steep climb I held my position in the top 15 riders or so and was descending near the front when Slovakian rider Peter Velits' bike aquaplaned on a slight curve and went from under him.

For about 30 metres, Velits and his bike were sliding along the ground in front of me but I knew the second I touched my brakes I was joining him, so I tried to freewheel in the hope that would slow me down enough to let him slide clear.

Unfortunately, though, his bike caught my front wheel and we both flew off the road. As one of my racing shoes hadn't unclipped from the pedal when I fell, I slid along with my bike still attached and when I came to a halt, my leg was at such an angle that I couldn't actually stand up and Velits had to pull my bike off me. After picking myself up and scanning myself and my bike for the usual injuries – cut ankle, scraped knee, bruised hip, bent brake levers – I saw that a pile of about 20 riders had also hit the deck behind us.

Sam and Matt had been further back and had seen me fall. As I picked my way through the carnage, they waited for me to help pace me back up to the peloton. By now, though, my nerves had gotten the better of me and I wasn't cornering as quickly as I could have, which was just as well as every time we went around a corner there were bodies and bikes on the road. It was like an obstacle course with guys pulling bikes off each other in the middle of the road.

After a lap of chasing in atrocious conditions, we caught Matti Breschel of Denmark. Matti rides on the same pro team as me and like me is in decent form and had been expecting a lot out of today. We both vented our anger as we realised our chase was futile and there was no way we were going to regain contact with the peloton. A few hundred metres later, the four of us had abandoned the race, leaving Dan as the sole Irish representative, but next time around Dan crashed in more or less the same place as I had and it was game over for Team Ireland.

Like at the Tour de France, the race organisers had a mobile X-ray bus at the finish today, to save riders having to go to hospital if they crashed. As Dan left the pits area after his fall, there were about 40 guys waiting in the queue to be X-rayed, with our soigneur overhearing the radiologist asking if there was anybody actually left in the race.

As we sit looking at the finish on TV, we're all pretty frustrated here. Teenager Ryan Mullen got Ireland off to a good start with seventh in his first ever U-23 time trial last week and I had a pretty decent 13th in the elite time trial.

The set-up here was definitely the most professional I've experienced while riding for Ireland and we knew that if myself or Dan could get to the last lap in the front group then we had a really good chance of our best world championships in years. I feel sorry for all the fans who travelled over and stood at the side of the road in the rain in the hope of an Irish medal.

Injury-wise, myself and Dan have fairly superficial cuts and grazes and came away better than most of those who fell and we'll both be back in Italy next weekend for the Tour of Lombardy classic, which will be my last race this season.

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