Friday 23 August 2019

Nicolas Roche's Tour de France diary: 'With Florian's strength I might finally fulfil my destiny'


Crashed out: Our injured team leader Tom Dumoulin misses the Tour
Crashed out: Our injured team leader Tom Dumoulin misses the Tour

Nicolas Roche

Back in 2009, I made the short trip from my home in Nice to Monaco to ride my first Tour de France.

As a baby-faced third-year professional, the Tour started on my 25th birthday that year and I've spent most of my birthdays since then racing my bike around France for three weeks.

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This year, however, the Tour starts a few days later than usual so as a surprise, my mum brought my youngest brother Florian to visit me in Monaco before I left for the airport on Tuesday.

A day after his 18th birthday last May, Florian was diagnosed with leukaemia for the second time and he has had a pretty rough year since.

After the rest of the family were deemed incompatible, my other brother Alexis - who was only nine at the time, donated his bone marrow to save Florian's life 12 years ago. But this time we had to find a new donor.

Thankfully, by the time Florian had gone through months of chemotherapy and radiation in a sterile hospital room, a compatible donor was found for a second transplant in October.

Although Florian was eventually released from hospital in mid-December, because his immune system was so fragile, none of us were allowed to go within three metres of him for fear of passing on an infection.

At Christmas, Mum set up a table for us in one part of her sitting room, with Florian confined to a table on the other side. We weren't allowed near him, but at least we were able to be there with him and have dinner together.

Florian has only been outside a couple of times since then, so it was a really fantastic surprise for me to see him at my door and also a great excuse to have a slice of cake with him before I headed to the airport and the start of another Tour de France.

Tomorrow, I line up for my ninth Tour de France and 21st Grand Tour in total.

This week I counted 85 top tens on Grand Tour stages with my three victories all coming at the Vuelta a Espana.

At 35, my name on the start list definitely brings up the average age of my new Sunweb team here, but it's because I'm 35 now and have so much experience that Sunweb wanted me in the first place.

The first part of this season has been mainly spent racing with the younger guys and after two Spanish training camps in December and January, my first race with my new team was the Tour de Provence in France in February.

For some other teams, the four-day stage race might have been a chance to offer me a leader's role and see how I got on, but instead we gave young Australian Michael Storer a taste of team leadership and I roomed with him, shared my knowledge and offered any advice I felt he could do with along the way.

I still feel like a young lad myself, but at the Tour of the Basque Country in April I realised that I was 11 years older than the second oldest rider, Sam Oomen, on the team for that race and I've actually only ridden one race this season, Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy, with our main team leader, 28-year-old Tom Dumoulin.

Results-wise, it's been a quiet enough start to the season for me so far, but I feel the team have really trusted me to be ready for this Tour.

At the Tour of Romandie, I felt some semblance of form coming back. At the Tour de Suisse I had great support from the team and finished tenth overall. In between, we spent two and a half weeks in Tenerife, living at altitude, climbing Spain's highest mountain, Mount Teide, every day and I feel like I've a good foundation under me now.

After Switzerland it took me a few days to recover, but I went to Livigno for some more altitude training and to get away from the extreme heat in Monaco and the traffic. Even though I was training every day, it felt like a mini-holiday and was very good for the head.

A knee injury caused by a crash that put him out of the Giro d'Italia in May has lingered and ultimately forced Dumoulin out of this Tour, so in the past week or so the team's focus has totally shifted from trying to win the race outright with Tom to concentrating on stages instead.

In 2009, I finished 22nd overall in my first Tour and came within a whisker of winning stage 14 into Besancon.

Back then, I had ambitions of becoming a GC rider and harboured dreams of perhaps one day even standing on the podium of a Grand Tour.

At that time, a stage win at the Tour seemed part of my destiny, but it has eluded me ever since.

I've spent most Grand Tours suffering to hang in on the tough mountain days. When I lost time, I tried to jump into breakaways to get it back and it's been one big loop of chasing time around France, Italy or Spain.

So it's a completely new mindset for me, but it means I will have the luxury of not worrying about time and I can't ask for anything more.

A stage win is still the dream and if I can stay as strong as Florian is over the next three weeks I might just have a chance.

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