Saturday 17 March 2018

Nicolas Roche: 'The team has faith in me as leader for this Tour and I feel the guys are really behind me'

The week before the Tour de France seems to get more hectic and stressful every year, with barely a minute to relax. This week, I've been in three different countries in 36 hours and sometimes it's hard to remember what day it is, never mind what country I'm in.

For me, the chaos started around 5.0 last Friday evening when I left Varese for a trip home for the national championships. Coinciding with one of the busiest holiday weekends in Italy, the weekend got off to a bad start when my girlfriend Chiara and I got stuck in traffic on the motorway on the way to Bergamo airport.

We were so late when we got there that while I dragged my bike and bags to the check in, Chiara rushed to park the car. The airport carpark was full, so she had to drive back out of the airport to the long-term car park, but that was full too. With only about half an hour to boarding, she ended up just abandoning the car at the back of the airport and walking for about 15 minutes back to me.


One of the last couples on to the plane, we only made it to Dublin because our flight was delayed and didn't arrive until near midnight. But at least we weren't as bad as my cousin Daniel (Martin). His flight from Girona was delayed too and he didn't arrive until about 1.30am.

As usual, my Nana's house in Dundrum was full to the rafters and Dan's Mam and Dad took up their by-now-familiar position on the couch in the sitting room. I live alone in Italy, so when I come back home, it's great to see everyone again and it makes you realise you have a lot of support at home and a lot of people willing you to do well.

After a short spin with my cousin Eric, Uncle Peter and my dad's former masseur Paul Tansey the next morning, I spent a couple of hours around Avoca and Powerscourt gardens on Saturday afternoon.

Having lunch with Chiara and my Aunt Pamela, just relaxing and enjoying the surroundings on a beautiful sunny day, reminded me why it's my favourite place to go when I get home. Chiara and I hardly got 10 minutes together for the three days I was home, so this was my favourite part of the trip.

Sunday's title race didn't exactly go to plan for myself or Dan. We both made it into the race-winning breakaway group of nine, but I ended up fourth and Dan was only beaten in a photo finish by defending champion Matt Brammeier of HTC highroad.

It was my first race back after a crash in the Criterium du Dauphine had left me looking like something you'd see hanging in a butchers window. Battered and bruised, I had cuts running literally from my shin to my finger tips and they're only beginning to heal now. I needed an operation to repair a hole in my elbow and two stitches in my chin. Having banged my head off a concrete road bollard I was in a daze for almost three days afterwards and had to take five days off the bike because I could hardly walk.

When Daniel went clear the last time up Slieve Beagh, I was missing a bit of race rhythm. As he was followed by Matt Brammeier, being seventh wheel out of seven when they jumped wasn't going to make it any easier on me. Although I was closing the gap on them by the top of the climb, I had three An Post guys on my wheel waiting to pounce. Not wanting to drag them across to Dan, I sat up and told them to ride. They tried to bring them back, but as soon as they ran out of steam, David McCann attacked and stayed clear for bronze.

I remember former pro Mark Scanlon saying that winning the nationals and getting to wear the shamrock jersey for a year was like having a target on your back in the pro races, but I think it's important for the Irish jersey to be seen in the big pro races and was disappointed not to be able to wear it in this year's Tour. The nationals though, were a perfect exercise to finish off my pre-Tour preparation.

With photo shoots, interviews and meetings arranged, my three days at home weren't just hectic for me, but everybody around me. My Nana's house was overrun with bikes and paraphernalia and everyone was busy ferrying me around all weekend. My sister Christel bought an apartment in Dublin recently, but I was so busy that I didn't even have time to go and look at it. I felt like I spent the whole weekend running around and even managed to do a quick interview at McDonalds in Dublin airport on the way home.

I got back to Varese about 10.0 on Tuesday night and had just about enough time to go for a nice meal with Chiara in our local restaurant. Her birthday is next week and mine is on Sunday, but I won't see her until the Tour's first rest day on July 11, so this was our joint birthday party. Afterwards, I went home, gave myself a quick pre-Tour haircut, unpacked my stuff from Ireland and repacked my cases for the Tour.

The next morning I was up at 7.0 so that I could fit in a two-hour spin before catching a flight to Nantes and the Grand Depart of the Tour de France, but when I got to the airport my flight was cancelled. Myself, Ivan Basso and a few of the Liquigas guys ended up having to get a flight to Paris instead of going direct to Nantes, which meant that I didn't arrive at the team hotel until 10.30.

There was no lie-in on Thursday morning as I was woken at 7.0 for the team's pre Tour anti-doping test.

In the morning we did a couple of laps of the team time-trial course, testing out some new wheels from our supplier, Reynolds. After lunch, it was into some new kit and onto the bus for the team presentation, which was very long, eventually getting back to the hotel for dinner around 6.0.

Yesterday we did three hours, including the last 50km of today's opening stage. I was pretty surprised by the final 2km climb and wasn't expecting it to be as hard. I thought the Mur de Bretagne on Tuesday would be the first big hill, but the very first stage has a really tough uphill finish. I think it will suit Philippe Gilbert or even someone like Alexandre Vinokourov, Sammy Sanchez or Thor Hushovd. I'd better be up there too.

I'll definitely have to ride up the front and stay as close as possible to the leaders in order not to lose time. Last year, I didn't contest the early bunch sprints, trying to save my energy for the overall battle and the high mountains later on. But this year, everyone will have to be focussed and stay alert on the early stages as you can lose a lot of time on these little uphill finishes if the bunch splits on the early stages.

With Blel Kadri, Sebastien Minard, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Hubert Dupont, John Gadret, Christophe Riblon and Maxime Bouet we have a great team for this Tour, consisting of mainly climbers to help me in the mountains. In fact, we've only got Seb Hinault for the sprints. I think the sprints on this Tour will be very hard to win as we don't have someone who can beat the likes of Cavendish, Hushovd or Petacchi in the big gallops, but the team is pretty strong and we're also keen to get in breakaways.

Blel is riding his first Tour and he's really excited and is happily taking in every little detail of the race. The first thing he noticed was my haircut. In my rush to get ready, I'd missed a spot at the back and left a big tuft of hair sticking out.

He didn't mention it though until I was out in public and then made a show of me, taunting me that people were gawping at me everywhere I went. He cut it off before the team presentation though.

Even though I haven't had as many results as last year, I actually feel stronger coming into this Tour. I have only one UCI point to my name this year, from my fifth place on the opening stage of the Dauphine. That's 115 points less than John Gadret and 70 less than Jean-Christophe Peraud, but the team has faith in me as leader for this Tour and I feel the guys are really behind me, which is great motivation. That's why maybe this year when I talk, I have a bit more self-confidence, because I know the team is really behind me.

Although my season has been disrupted a lot, I still hope for a top 10 overall. But it's the Tour de France and everybody is ready for it. There are 50 guys who want to be top 10. I just hope... not for good luck, but just for no more bad luck so that my legs can come back and I can show everyone I'm still progressing and get back to the top level. Hopefully, I can give a bit of satisfaction to all my fans and everybody that has followed me and supported me over the years.

Tour de France,

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