Nicolas Roche: 'I sprinted absolutely eyeballs out for biggest win of my career so far'
I'm not really supposed to be in China this week. I'm supposed to be at home in Dublin promoting my new autobiography, 'Inside The Peloton'. But instead of doing a book tour in Ireland, I'm riding the inaugural Tour of Beijing, a new five-day race on the prestigious WorldTour calendar.
Part of the reason I'm here is because 2011 hasn't exactly been the best season for me, or my Ag2r La Mondiale team.
Personally, I haven't had much satisfaction from racing this year. Any glimpse of good form I've shown this season has been overshadowed by injury or crashes.
As this season draws towards its conclusion, my team are in trouble, too. Ranked No 18 in the world, we are in the relegation zone in football terms and need every UCI point we can get to stay in the Premier League.
Taking all of this into consideration, my directeur sportif, Vincent Lavenu, reckoned that I'd be better off trying to harvest UCI points in China than signing books in Dublin and, thus, dispensed his strongest team to China to do just that.
Today was the toughest mountain stage of the race, with one second category and three first category mountains on the 162km to Yong Ning.
I had earmarked this stage as one that I felt I could do well on, so at the team meeting this morning I said that I needed the guys to position me well going into the final climb with about 15km to go.
Although they probably have heard this 100 times before, I was really up for today's stage.
On the road, I told the guys I was going to do my best to try to win the stage and to trust me.
As we went through the feed zone after 85km, we had Lloyd Mondory about two and a half minutes up the road in a breakaway group of five riders and I told the guys everything was going to plan, that there were six of us in the front of the bunch and Lloyd was in the break.
Lloyd's group were caught with 30km to go, on the penultimate climb and immediately Seb Hinault and Julien Berard went to the front and increased the pace for me.
At the foot of the final mountain Christophe Riblon and Mickael Cherel led me onto the bottom at the front of the bunch and I knew it was time to put my money where my mouth was.
The only other Irish rider in the race, Radioshack's Philip Deignan, went clear with 15km to go and opened up a gap of about 12 seconds. I knew I had to follow him.
Jumping clear of the peloton, I was followed by Sky's British rider Chris Froome, who almost won the Vuelta last month. We caught Philip near the summit and I led our three-man group over the top.
We never had more than a handful of seconds' lead and knew that we had to put absolutely everything into our attack if we wanted to stay away. Although we didn't need to say a whole lot, we agreed to ride flat out until 500m to go.
With 3km to go, the peloton was breathing down our necks. Our gap hovered at between five and eight seconds and any time I turned around they seemed to be getting closer.
My stomach was doing somersaults as we went under the red kite signalling the final kilometre with maybe four-seconds lead.
I looked back as we turned onto the finishing straight and saw the peloton heaving behind us. Usually when I get to get into this position, I manage to mess it all up in the last few metres. But not today. Please God, not today. I can't lose today.
I was determined to do it right. I had everything calculated. As Froome was best placed overall of us three, I knew he would be riding flat out for time, so I left him on the front for the final 900m or so.
I was worried about Philip's sprint, though. At 500m to go and with the bunch within touching distance, all bets were off, we were both going for the stage win as Froome drove towards the line in the tailwind.
With Philip sitting behind me ready to pounce, I took one last glance back with 300m to go and knew I had to go.
I jumped as hard as I could and sprinted absolutely eyeballs out. Philip wasn't giving up though and came halfway up my bike, but I held him off and won the stage. My first win in two years and my first on the World Tour.
Philip and I threw an arm around each other as we freewheeled after the finish. We've known each other since we were 13 or 14 and the last time we were in Beijing we shared a room in the athlete's village for the Olympics.
Philip won his first race in front of me, so I'm sure he'll have no trouble with me finishing in front of him today.
Today's win, the biggest victory of my career so far, came at the right moment on every level. For Ag2r, we needed the UCI points to stay in the WorldTour.
For Ireland we needed the points to have an extra fourth rider in the road race in London 2012 and Philip's second place only adds to those points.
On a personal level, I needed a big win to justify all the training and sacrifices I've made over the past two years to myself.
My mum, dad and girlfriend Chiara phoned me -- as did loads of friends and family from home. They were all delighted.
They're the ones who have been trying to keep my morale up when things weren't going my way, telling me to keep my head up, keep training, keep eating properly and resting properly and it will come right eventually.
It was hard to believe them at times, but thankfully today they were proven right.
Tour of Beijing Stage 4
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