Friday 15 December 2017

Nicolas Roche: 'I sprinted to the line because I couldn't believe what was happening'

Nicolas Roche celebrates after crossing the line to win Stage Two of the 'Vuelta' cycling race between Pontevedra and Alto Do Monte Da Groba
Nicolas Roche celebrates after crossing the line to win Stage Two of the 'Vuelta' cycling race between Pontevedra and Alto Do Monte Da Groba

Nicolas Roche Vuelta Diary

Having warmed up on turbo trainers on one side of the port in Vilanova de Arousa, the race organisers thought it would make good TV if every team boarded a boat for a two-minute ride to the other side of the port for the start of today's team time trial.

Saturday August 24, Stage 1: Vilanova de Arousa - Sanxenxo (TTT) 27km

It was a nice idea, but as I peered down at the fish swimming underneath the floating glass jetty that doubled as our start ramp I couldn't help wondering how slippery it would have been had it been raining.

While I felt pretty strong, the team time trial was a bit of a shock to the system after a few weeks without racing but at the halfway point we were only nine seconds behind leaders Omega Pharma Quickstep.

We were hoping to stay close to them over the second half of the stage and crossed the line with the second fastest time but knew there were quicker teams still out on the course.

Although we came into this Vuelta with ambitions to perform well in the overall classification, my Saxo-Tinkoff team are not team time trial specialists so it was nice to come away with the sixth fastest time on the stage, 30 seconds behind Kazakh team Astana.

Sunday August 25, Stage 2: Pontevedra - Alto Do Monte Da Groba, 176.8km

When my Saxo Tinkoff team-mates and I went to check out today's finishing climb last Thursday, I knew this could be a good day for me to get a decent result.

The final 11km-long first category ascent to Alto Do Monte Da Groba wasn't too steep, with a 4pc or 5pc average gradient, and I noticed there were a lot of flatter bits which suited a powerful rider rather than a pure climber. It seemed a perfect climb for me.

In the team meeting on the bus this morning, boss Bjarne Riis backed up that theory when he announced that while Roman Kreuziger and Rafal Majka were to stay close to the overall contenders on the summit finish, I was to give it my all today. He really believed I could win the stage.

Although I've felt great in training the last few weeks and have been targeting this race all year, I've been around long enough to know that things don't always go to plan.


There haven't been many days in my career where I could say beforehand 'today I think I can win'. Today was different. I can't really explain it but the last time I had this feeling was in China in 2011, when I ended up winning the third stage of the Tour of Beijing. I haven't had it since.

Talking with the guys this morning, I agreed that I could get a top result. It was in the back of my mind all day. But if you'd told me I was going to win the stage, I wouldn't have believed you.

The stage started routinely enough with the peloton settling into a decent rhythm as three riders went clear early on. But they opened up a maximum lead of 12 and a half minutes at one point and as I rode back up past the team car having stopped for a pee mid-stage, directeur sportif Fabrizio Guidi, who has really believed in me and encouraged me since joining this team, threw his hands up in the air and shrugged as if to say, 'Sorry Nico, the plan is out the window, the break is going to stay away'.

But when the Lampre team went to the front of the peloton in the final 60km or so the gap began to fall and the trio were just over a minute clear at the foot of the climb, with 11km to go.

I was feeling pretty good and was in around fifth position behind Vincenzo Nibali and Jakob Fuglsang of Astana on the early slopes. We caught the last of the escapees with 9km to go as the Movistar team of pre-race favourite Alejandro Valverde hit the front and really ramped the speed up.

With about 2.5km to go I was fighting for Valverde's wheel when his team-mate Eros Capecchi tried to barge his way in, saying that he was there first and should be allowed onto his team captain's wheel as his team were riding on the front.

We had a bit of a high speed finger wag that ended with me telling him that I didn't particularly care whether he was there or not. I was here now. I said that wanting to be on your team-mate's wheel was okay when you're riding on the front with 50km to go, but not with 2.5km to go.

The sprinters don't talk about whose wheel they'd like to be on coming to the finish, so I didn't see why climbers should be all polite and ask where they would like to be situated in the run-in.

Valverde looked very strong and I knew that if I came to the finish with him I was going to lose. With a kilometre and a half to go, Leopold Koenig of NettApp attacked and I seized my chance and went after him.

Katusha's Daniel Moreno came flying up to my wheel with about 1,200m to go and with the Spaniard having won Fleche-Wallone earlier in the year on a really steep uphill finish, I knew I had to stay with him. We caught Koenig 900m from the summit while Domenico Pozzovivo of Ag2r also bridged across to us shortly afterwards.

Over the earpiece I heard Bjarne telling me to stay calm and looking around the group I knew I was in a good position. As Bjarne's voice faded, I told myself 'Right, this is the chance of my life, I cannot mess this up'.

With 600m to go, Pozzovivo went clear. Koenig tried to go after him while Moreno looked at me to respond. Usually I would have panicked and ridden flat out after Koenig but today I stayed calm. I was ready to lose the stage in order to win. I knew Pozzovivo was a good climber and I could only afford to give him a short leash before reacting, but he only gained a few metres before Koenig half closed the gap.

I bridged to them both before attacking as hard as I could with 350m to go. I was worried about Moreno but, to my surprise, he'd been distanced. Knowing the climb was a real advantage today because I knew that the final 150m were slightly downhill. I knew if I gave it my all on this final hard bit then I could use the speed over the top to get to the line.

I looked back to see where everyone was but, even though I had a decent gap, I continued to sprint to the finish line because I couldn't believe what was happening. I was going to win a stage of the Vuelta. I didn't want to leave anything to chance.

In the final few metres, I had time to freewheel and even managed to pull up the zip of my jersey so the sponsors could get a decent photo, before throwing my arms in the air two seconds ahead of Moreno.

A few metres past the line I steered straight for the team car and with my legs in bits from the effort, simply fell up against it before a team soigneur grabbed me.

After a few congratulatory hugs from the team staff, I walked towards the finish podium delighted with myself as Fabrizio and our PR guy Anders Damsgard, who were still driving behind the peloton, stopped the car in the middle of the road, got out and started dancing and jumping around, hugging each other.

I've had umpteen top fives in big races. I've had second places on stages of the Tour de France and the Vuelta so to finally win today was a huge weight off my shoulders. I was even happier that I had won in the way that I always dreamed of winning. On a mountain-top finish; attacking near the summit and winning alone. It was the best scenario I could ever dream of.

Having earned a 10-second time bonus for my stage win today, I'm now just eight seconds off the red jersey of race leader, which is now worn by Giro d'Italia winner Nibali.

As it turns out, the race leader's jersey is actually the only one I don't have now. Having taken maximum points at the top of the final climb, I have the blue and white polka-dot jersey of King of the Mountains. I also have the green jersey of points leader and as I'm leading two classifications and second in another I also have the white jersey of the combined classification which is given to the best all-rounder. My first trip to a grand Tour podium to collect a jersey saw me repeat the feat three times in one day. I'm spoilt now.

With five visits to the podium, live TV interviews, a press conference and an anti-doping test to do afterwards the team bus was long gone before I got finished so I couldn't get my clothes until after the hour and a half transfer to the hotel so it's been a long day, but I'm not complaining.

I have 76 messages on my phone to reply to now so thanks to everyone back home for all of their support, even when I wasn't going so well. There are not many days in your career that everything works to plan but today I was lucky. I had really good legs and it worked out perfectly. Today was one of those days.

Vuelta a Espana,

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