Wednesday 22 November 2017

Nicolas Roche: 'I'm really p***** off now. After the stage, I sat on my own sulking'

Wednesday, September 15 Stage 17: Penafiel to Penafiel 46km Individual Time Trial.

Last night during dinner, the drug testers called me for my fourth anti-doping test of this year's Vuelta.

At least they let me finish my pasta before they brought me off for my urine test. I didn't sleep much last night. There were two main reasons behind that. One was today's looming time trial and the other was the simple reason that because we hadn't raced on Monday, I just wasn't physically tired.

One of the guys loaned me a movie called 'One Week'. It didn't look too bad, but my mind was wandering all over the place, back and forth to today's race against the clock and I only watched about half an hour before turning it off.

This morning I was up at 8.0 and after breakfast I went out training at 9.30. My legs felt okay on my hour-and-a-half spin but I wasn't going hard, it was just a muscular wake-up for the effort ahead.


I rode back to the hotel, shaved my legs and went downstairs for an omelette and a bit of pasta for lunch. We left the hotel in the team bus for the 50-minute drive to the time trial course at around 12.30 and I watched a bit of Sunday's stage on Eurosport before my warm-up began.

As usual, I did about half an hour in front of the bus with my bike going nowhere on the stationary rollers as my heart rate gradually increased to 175bpm, then 180bpm without putting too much stress on the legs.

A time trial is all about rhythm, all about pacing yourself over the distance. You need to keep a good average speed, hold it until the end of the race and finish with nothing, knowing that you've left everything out on the road and that you couldn't have taken another second on your rivals even if you wanted to.

I knew that if I started out too fast in today's 46km test, I could blow up in the last few kilometres. I also knew that if I started out too slow, I would never regain the time lost in the early kilometres. I've been nervous about this time trial since yesterday. Sometimes, nerves can work to your advantage.

Not today.

I didn't have my heart rate monitor on for the stage, so I was trying to keep my speed as close to 50kph as possible. I rolled down the start ramp and went off thinking I was going okay. At the first intermediate check point, after 15km, I had gained around 30 seconds on Franck Schleck, meaning the Luxembourg champion was only 15 seconds ahead of me in fourth place overall. I was gaining on him.

Soon, though, I couldn't keep my rhythm steady at all and felt terrible on the bike. My speed kept dropping to 48kph, then 45kph, and I kind of panicked a little bit.

At the halfway point the team manager relayed the information into my earpiece that I had 25 seconds on Schleck. I needed 45 seconds to move into fourth overall.

On the way back, I had a very slight tailwind and tried to keep my speed up around 55kph. Once in a while, the speed on my bike computer would shoot up to around 58kph and I tried to really accelerate for the last 20km. I was keeping a nice 56-57kph average for a long time but then, with three kilometres to go, I wasn't able to hold 52kph and faded terribly to register a time of 56 minutes and 12 seconds for 38th place on the stage, while Schleck finished 26 seconds slower than me.

The surprise of the day, though, was Peter Velits of HTC Columbia. The Slovakian had begun the day in sixth place overall, a minute and 26 seconds behind me. I was told beforehand that he was a good time triallist and had been Slovakian national time trial champion twice as an U-23 rider, so I was prepared to lose my fifth place to him today.

Velits, though, pulled a storming ride out of the bag to actually win the stage and not only leapfrogged me, but also Schleck and overnight leader Joaquin Rodriguez to jump up to third overall. Velits blitzed the rest of us to win the stage in a time of 52 minutes and 43 seconds. He was a full three minutes and 29 seconds quicker than me and even beat the world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara by 37 seconds.

Although I was prepared to lose one place to Velits today, I wasn't ready to lose three places, which is what happened when Xavier Tondo and Tom Danielson recorded better times than me to claw their way over me on the leaderboard and I dropped to eighth place overall.

I know I came into this Vuelta with modest ambitions of a top-15 placing, but I secretly harboured thoughts of a top-10. But when you get a taste of being in the top five, you want to stay there. It was great this morning, starting off fifth overall, and I'm really disappointed not to be able to stay there on a stage where I was really convinced that I could.

I don't think I did a terrible time trial. To lose less than three minutes to world time trial champion Cancellara is not disgraceful, but I just didn't do as good a ride as I hoped for. To have fought so hard for the past three weeks and only lost seconds on the mountain stages and then to have given away time on a stage like today's, where I should have probably gained time, makes me angry.

I'm only 19 seconds off fourth place with four days to go but the problem is now I have to worry about four more guys, as I also have Carlos Sastre breathing down my neck, 10 seconds behind me in ninth.

Sastre won the Tour de France in 2008 and came into this Vuelta stating that he wanted to win his home Tour. Nobody paid much attention until now, but it's rapidly becoming apparent that either him or Schleck, both strong climbers, could take overall victory now in Madrid on Sunday.

I can't afford to have a bad day on Saturday now, or it's all over. With four mountains on the penultimate stage and the finish on top of the savagely steep, 22km-long, Bola Del Mundo climb, anything can happen on Saturday and I can lose my top-10 place.

It's bad enough at the moment, having dropped out of the top five. It feels like when you give a toy to a baby and then take it out of his hand. Even if you give him another one, it's not as good. It's a perfectly good toy, but it's not the one he wants. To be in the top five is a much stronger feeling than being top-eight, even though top-eight is better than being top-10.

I'm really p****d off now and after the stage I sat on my own at the front of the bus, with just a banana, a bottle of sparkling water and sore arse for company.

I've already given out to anyone I've met so far, for nothing, and the constant stream of well-meaning texts from friends in Ireland and France just make me more p****d off. Christophe Riblon and the team managers know to ignore me as I pull my baseball hat down, turn up the volume on my iPod and sulk in the corner. They also know I'm not going to be in a good mood until Saturday evening -- at the earliest -- and that's only if I do well on the climb.

I've heard the weather is going to be terrible for the next three days, so I hope it stays dry on Saturday. Everybody has a bad day on Grand Tour.

Hopefully, mine was today. I can't afford another one.

Vuelta a Espana,

Live, Eurosport, 3.0

Irish Independent

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