At 5.0 last Sunday evening, Nicolas Roche closed the door of his apartment, descended three flights of stairs and went for a stroll around the deserted streets. He had spent the afternoon - his third Sunday of lockdown in Monaco - racing on a stationary bike in his living room against 12 of the best cyclists in Europe.
The virtual Tour of Flanders had simulated the final three climbs of the famous Belgian classic and gone out live on Eurosport. Roche had raced flat out (average H/R 177) for almost an hour and finished third behind the Olympic champion, Greg Van Avermaet.
He had showered and changed, but his adrenaline was still pumping and a thin layer of sweat was shiny on his brow. He reached into his pocket and scanned his phone. His sponsor, Sunweb, were happy with his performance but needed a message for the team website. He thought about it for a moment, stared into his phone and pressed record.
"I'm on my way down for an ice cream after my third place today (laughs). It was tough. It was one of the toughest 45 minutes I've done in a long time. I think it was a great initiative from the organisers to do such a thing, and also the team to back it up and I was very happy to be part of this adventure.
"And you know, more than any result today I think it was very important to give the fans, the sponsor, the media and the race organisers a good show. I think we all went very deep, we had a good race and we all played the game. And I hope you guys really enjoyed it. Take care guys. Stay safe."
He posted the clip later on his Twitter account, and the thing that strikes most when you watch it the first time is how little he has changed. He's 36 this year and has spent 15 seasons at the coalface of the world's toughest sport but there's hardly a mark on him.
But look again. Look closer . . .
I found a love for me
Oh darling, just dive right in and follow my lead
Well, I found a girl beautiful and sweet
Oh, I never knew you were someone waiting for me
'Coz we were just kids when we fell in love
Not knowing what it was
I'll not give you up this time
But darling, just kiss me slow, your heart is all I own
And in your eyes, you're holding mine
Ed Sheeran with Andrea Bocelli
The month is November 2011. Inside the Peloton - a collaboration with Gerard Cromwell - has just won Sports Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards and I've travelled to his home in Varese to interview him for the first time.
It's not what it should be. Nicolas is charming and easy to like, but I ask the wrong questions and struggle to find him. I don't even scratch him, but two moments seem relevant now.
He pulls a box from a cupboard late in the interview and shows me some recent pencil drawings he's made - a farmhouse with a courtyard and some olive trees. "I would love to have a masseria in Tuscany," he explains. "A nice house on top of a hill with some olive trees in Arezzo or Siena. It will have a restaurant inside. I'm thinking about 'L'Olivo' as a name."
"Sounds lovely," I reply.
"You should always have big dreams for the future," he says. "I love my job and I want it to last as long as I can, but I am already thinking about what will give me satisfaction after my career."
"That's interesting," I observe. "Because I don't think your father found that."
"No, I agree," he says. He had lots of ideas but . . .
'How does it feel to be Nicolas Roche at 27?" I ask.
"Happy," he says. "I'm happy that my life with Chiara (his Italian girlfriend) is growing and we are going in the right direction. When I was younger, I thought of settling down and having kids but I am so focused on my career, although it's a bit selfish to do that."
"To do what?"
"To think that way. And she is only 21, so there is no rush for her. And the next three years are so important to me. I feel I'm getting there, but . . ."
"The feeling that I'm at my top," he says. "I don't know what that means in terms of performance but if I can finish my career and have a top five in the Tour I would be happy. Winning it? I don't think so."
"Is that hard to admit?"
"Yes," he says. "It's like telling a kid (who loves football) he is never going to win the World Cup."
"When did you realise you were never going to win the Tour?"
"I think I've known it from the start," he smiles.
He was telling me something.
It's eight years later. We're sitting in a corner of the Columbus Hotel in Monaco and I've asked about the Maori tattoo on his arm. He turns around, pulls his jumper over his head and shows me his back.
"Yeah, I've a lot," he laughs.
"What's the script? I ask. "War and Peace?"
"It's a song - 'Perfect' from Ed Sheeran. Initially I was looking to do one or two lines but I couldn't decide."
"So that's the whole song?"
"Yeah, I preferred the version he does with Bocelli, so half is in English and the other half is in Italian. I was in the car one day and it just moved me. It's a romantic song . . . a love song . . . I'd have goose bumps when it came on."
"You're telling me something here," I observe.
"I don't know. I'm asking."
"I don't know," he says, laughing. "Maybe I should stop listening to songs."
My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.
The month is June 2005. Six months have passed since his debut as a professional and he's made a solid if unspectacular start: a sixth place finish at the Tour du Finistere in April; a fifth place finish at the Tour de Vendee in May; and a 50kph crash at the Tour of Luxembourg in June that dislocates his elbow. But it's a cloud with a silver lining.
Pierrot Soers from Tienen in Belgium is a successful car dealer and a massive cycling fan. Nicolas had first got to know him through visits with his father, and had spent chunks of his childhood in the Soers' family home.
Pierrot was 60 that summer and planned to celebrate with family and friends at a classy local eating house called De Beekhoeve.
The crash meant Nicolas could join them, and when he pulled up a chair in the swish dining hall he was struck by a script on the wall: 'Keep whispering your dreams - you never know when your angel is listening.'
Words mattered to Nico. He had 'Strength and Honour' etched on his skin after watching The Last Samurai and the angel and dreams had struck another chord. "I remember thinking, 'When I win my first big stage in a Grand Tour I'm going to get that as a tattoo'," he says.
They don't call them Grand Tours for nothing. In his first - the 2007 Giro d'Italia - his best finish was 13th on the stage to Riese. In his second - the 2008 Vuelta a Espana - he had two top 10s and lost the stage to Las Rozas in a photo finish. In his third - the 2009 Tour de France - he had four top 10s and was second again on the stage to Colmar.
Close but no cigar, and for the next four years that's mostly how it was.
The second stage of his 11th Grand Tour - the 2013 Vuelta a Espana - was from the Galician city of Pontevedra to a summit above Baiona called the Alto do Monte do Groba. You can read all about it on Nico's chest, just above his right nipple:
Keep whispering your dreams
You never know
If your guardian angel is listening
Monte do Groba 26/08/13
He had won six times and improved every year since that night with Pierrot in Belgium, but this was the big one, his place in history, and he was absolutely ecstatic.
Then the day got even better.
One of the more unusual aspects of the Vuelta that year was the five opening stages raced in Galicia which, for the teams, meant almost a week in the same hotel. It was Friday, the eve of the opening stage, when he noticed Deborah for the first time. He was having dinner at the team hotel in Pontevedra and she was sitting at a distant table.
He walked on by and threw her a smile.
It was two days later when the flame was lit. He had fulfilled his obligations - media, doping control, massage, dinner - after winning at Alto do Groba, and was chatting with some teammates when she sashayed across the lobby. He jumped out of his seat, asked her to wait, and returned a moment later with his winner's bouquet.
"My numbers on the back," he smiled.
She sent a text the following morning. Deborah Robles, a Madrilenian, was working on the race for Vodafone and had no immediate plans for dating. That suited Nico fine - "I was kind of busy myself" - but they met for coffee the next day at the Vodafone stand. And before almost every stage after that.
"My Spanish, and her English, was limited at the time, but we managed to communicate. We met up for drinks in Madrid (after the final stage), and the next day she drove me to the airport. I was going directly to the World Championships in Florence, but we made plans to see each other and she came to Monaco for five days. And then for another five days when the season was over."
A year later they got engaged.
I'm at the stage now where the next two or three years are the most important of my career, and I want to give myself every chance I can to make the most of it. If that means moving to Italy or Switzerland to train and race, then it has to be done. As for a family of my own, I haven't really thought about it yet. I think it would be too easy for me to be away from home while my wife or partner brought up a baby. A lot of cycling marriages and sporting relationships in general end in divorce once the athlete has retired. Suddenly they have all this time on their hands and don't know what to do with it. Often their family has got used to them being away and have grown up and gone their own ways by the time retirement kicks in.
Some of the guys in the peloton have kids, and it's nice when they come to visit them during the races. They have photos of their wives and kids in their suitcases. It's a lovely thing to have, and it's an extra motivation as well. I miss out on stuff like that. But being married to a cyclist is hard, with all the travelling involved and days away, and both parties have to accept those terms for as long as your career lasts.
Inside the Peloton
His first home was in Saillancourt, a north-western suburb of Paris, but winters were spent with the Roches in Dundrum and summers with the Arnauds on the Ile d'Oleron. In 1988, his parents moved to Dundrum then returned to Saillancourt after a year. In 1995, his parents separated and he moved to an apartment in Osny with his mother.
In 1996, his parents got back together, returned to Dublin and bought a house in Rathmichael. In 1998, his brother Alexis was born and the family moved to Antibes. In 2000, Florian was born and the family moved to a different house in Antibes. In 2001, his parents divorced and he lived with his mum in another house in Antibes.
So the notion of 'home' and 'settling down' was always curious for him.
His first long-term relationship was with Sabrina, a French girl from Marseilles. Then he met Stefania and moved to Varese for eight months. Then he spent four years with Chiara in Varese, Chiasso and Monaco until the summer of 2013, when he went solo for two months . . . And met Deborah.
Why was she the one? That's tough for him to answer now when all he can see is the wrong, but she was gorgeous, and bright, and they made each other laugh . . . which is not quite the same as making each other happy.
In April of 2015, seven months before they were due to be wed, he was flying to a training camp in Tenerife and was drawn to a property supplement in the in-flight magazine. They had planned to live in Madrid, and had checked out a couple of small apartments there, but this new development in the suburbs was in a different league.
He was almost bubbling when he called Deborah. Why go small when they could go big? A garage for the bikes . . . a nice pool . . . a proper wine cellar . . . a real home? She told him her uncle had just reserved one of the sites and he was sold. "I made the reservation online during the training camp," he says, "and paid a 30 per cent deposit a month later." But the ink hadn't dried on the contract when it was causing problems. "She wanted half the value of the house before we were married," he says.
"Why was that an issue?" I ask. "Wasn't she going to be entitled to that anyway?"
"No, because we had a prenup."
"Yeah, that was the agreement."
"How did that work?"
"What's mine was mine, and what's hers was hers."
"Why did you want a prenup?"
"To protect myself. How many athletes have lost everything, or had their lives or careers ruined by divorce? It's one of the biggest reasons for depression in sport."
"So there was a doubt in your head?"
"No, I wanted to protect myself. But yeah, there's . . ."
"How do I balance the prenup with the love songs on your skin?"
"You're a romantic?"
"A prenup is not romantic."
"You don't get the point I'm trying to make?"
"No, I agree with you, and looking back we should not have married. I think I was trying to prove that I could have this settled life . . . be married . . . have kids . . . buy a house. I was thinking, 'I'm 33. I think she's the one. Maybe it's time.'"
The wedding was set for October 23 at the Cathedral in Monaco. The build-up was a little fraught at times, but on that Friday afternoon when they walked down the aisle he was sure that he loved her. And that she loved him.
It didn't last.
We treat the failure of marriage as though it were the failure of individuals to achieve it - a decline in grit or maturity or commitment or stamina rather than the unravelling of a poorly tied knot.
The Burning Library
It's a cloudy afternoon in Monaco in November 2019. The interview has entered its third hour and I'm reading him a quote about retirement: "It's incredibly depressing. You're 34 and it's over but you're too young. You have to find something else to do and you're not sure what. You come home and you start looking, trying to work out what is normal life, and you just don't know."
"Yeah," he concurs.
"Who do you think that was?" I ask.
"I don't know."
"I can relate to some of that."
"The fear of stopping. I'm very passionate about this sport but it's not the racing, I just . . . love being out on the bike. It was raining yesterday, and cold, but I went out for three hours. And it wasn't the guilt of losing a day's training, or that I might put on 500 grams, I just needed to get out of the house. So it's . . ."
"The life. The travelling. The hotel to hotel. Even in winter I need to travel. I've just got back from Sam Bennett's wedding and I'm leaving tomorrow for Budapest. I'm addicted to airports. I can't stay still. One of my closest friends, Amael Moinard, said to me, and it's true: 'Your problem, Nico, is not that your life is chaotic - it's that you like the chaos.'"
What chance did Deborah have?
Her first month as a cycling widow was January, 2016. Nico's second season at Team Sky began with three races in Majorca, but the problem was the training. "We had these altitude camps in Tenerife," he says. "I came home and we went out that night for dinner but I was so tired. I almost fell asleep at the table. She was furious."
The pressure started to build. He left for Spain, then France, then England. There was another altitude camp, a month at the Giro d'Italia, and a week in Poland. By August, when he returned from the Rio Olympics, she'd had enough. He didn't see her for four weeks.
They tried again. She travelled with him to some end-of-season races in Qatar and Abu Dhabi and the months that followed were pretty good. "We got a dog and went to about three different weddings," he says. "And the house in Madrid was almost finished." But the new season brought old tensions and a sad, unspeakable truth.
"I realised I was happier on my own," he says.
Every race was a chance to get away, so he did: Volta Valenciana, Abu Dhabi Tour, Paris-Nice, Vuelta Pais Vasco, Tour de Romandie, Criterium du Dauphine, Tour de France, San Sebastian, Vuelta a Espana.
The month was August 2017. He was back on the race where, two years earlier, he had fallen for a girl from Madrid and it was happening again. Another coup de foudre. Another Madrilenian. "She made me smile and happy," he says. "I thought I was 25."
But he was 33. And Deborah was pregnant.
A month later, she called him at the World Championships in Norway and said she didn't want to see him again. A month after that, her lawyers filed for divorce. A week after that, he returned to Monaco and was disowned by a boyhood friend: "You're a monster, Nico." And then things got really shitty.
Eight months later, on the eve the Giro d'Italia, he was sent some eye-watering demands from Deborah's lawyer and informed that she had just given birth to a baby girl. A day later, on the morning of the prologue time-trial, his mother called from a hospital in Nice and told him Florian had been diagnosed with leukaemia for the second time.
He slept three hours that night. And the night after that. And the night after that. Bike racers who don't sleep are like dogs who chase cars - no future in it - and by the end of the second week, he was on his knees. "I felt like I was suffocating," he says. "I got dropped and couldn't climb. My heart rate was at 140. I started to cry.
"Max Sciandri (team director) came up to me: 'Come on Nico. Hang in there. Tomorrow is the rest day.' But I couldn't do it. It was just too much for me. I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown. I got off the bike at the feed zone and that was it."
It was the first time in 13 years he had failed to finish a Grand Tour and he spent the guts of two months wondering if he'd ever get back. "I had an interesting call from the (BMC team) management saying that the state I was in was useless to the team. That I should get some counselling and get my act together. That I was not going to ride the Tour."
He saw a therapist in Monaco but did most of his healing in Dublin with his grandparents, Larry and Bunny. "My granny is the boss of the family," he says. "She's always the one trying to ease the tension, and help out. She's someone special. My grandad is the lecture-giver. He'll sit with me when I make the porridge at breakfast, and give me the lessons of life."
Thank heaven for little girls
Three months ago, in the first week of January, he caught a flight to Madrid and a car to the suburbs to the house he had never lived in, and the daughter he had never seen: Chloe Roche Robles was almost two years old. Deborah was watching and waiting at the door. She cautioned him that their daughter was not a toy: if he entered her life, he had to stay in her life.
"No, I want her in my life," he said. "This is not a game."
Their first hour was easier than expected. He got a crash-course in the basics - nappy changing, food, bibs - and then they headed to a local boulangerie for a treat. A month later he went back again, and took her to the zoo and a park.
"The zoo was great," he says. "The park was more difficult. She got bored very quick and was cranky, and I had to learn patience, which I didn't think I had. But we had a really nice day and when I left she gave me a nice hug and a kiss. I bought her a teddy bear in the zoo and every time she sees one it's 'Nico, Nico, Nico.'"
The connection makes him glow.
"I'm not going to lie," he says. "In the beginning, I saw her as a nightmare and a source of problems. All I could think of was the money and the house. That wasn't fair on her. And it wasn't the man I wanted to be. I couldn't live with myself knowing I had a daughter and wasn't going to see her. So it's been great. I love my time with her. It's been an incredible change in my life."
"What about your childhood?" I ask. "And what happened with your parents?"
"Yeah, I've thought about that," he says. "I've been through divorces. I've seen plates fly through the house. I didn't want that for my kids but in the end, I did something quite similar. But yes, I was aware of it. I wanted to be . . . more calm and to build something. And in the end I wasn't capable of it."
"That sounds definitive?"
"No, I've learned a lot from this."
"Did you tell Sam [Bennett] not to do it?"
"No, I'm responsible for my own mistakes. I'm not against the institution of marriage. I see so many of my own family . . . friends . . . relatives . . . who are married 50 and 60 years and are happy. I mentioned my grandparents - they're a perfect model for a family - so I'm not bitter against marriage at all. I messed up somewhere along the line and made a few mistakes. But I'm still young, and there's a lot to be done."
Sunday Indo Sport