Roche in strong position after first week of Tour de France

It’s been a fabulous start to the 2010 Tour de France for the sole Irish rider in the race, Nicholas Roche.

The 26-year-old Dubliner riding in only his second Tour has put himself in a very strong 11th position after one of the most technically difficult and physically demanding opening weeks in recent years.

Roche had stated prior to last Saturday’s start in Rotterdam that a top 20 finish overall and possibly a stage win were his goals for this year’s race and while he has not yet delivered the latter, he is certainly showing good enough form to challenge for one.

The crosswinds of Holland, the cobblestones of Belgium and the ensuing madness that typifies the first week were just three factors the 200 or so riders had to contend with and with multiple crashes on each stage, riders simply could look afford to look too far ahead.

Frank Shleck for example. The Saxo Bank rider came into this year’s race in the form of his life having won the Tour of Switzerland recently, but was unlucky to crash heavily on Wednesday’s stage and has since been forced to retire.

Roche however, has had no such bad luck and has been hugely impressive in the opening week. Here is a day by day account of his week.

Saturday July 3rd, Stage One, Rotterdam, 8.9 kilometre time-trial

Roche believed he was good enough to get inside the top 20 on the opening day but had to settle for 47th place over the testing course made trickier by the incessant rain that fell throughout the evening.

He covered the distance in a time of 10 mins 49 seconds, just 49 seconds slower than the blistering time set by Swiss powerhouse Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank).

Finishing ahead of several Tour contenders such as Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), Andy Shleck (Saxo Bank) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas) indicated what a strong ride it was from Roche.

Seven-time winner Lance Armstrong dealt one of his main rivals Alberto Contador (Astana) a minor psychological blow when he posted a time five seconds quicker than the Spaniard which was good enough for fourth place behind Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia) and David Millar (Garmin Transitions).

Sunday July 4th, Stage One, Rotterdam to Brussels, 223.5 kilometres

Today’s stage was always billed as a stage for the sprinters and so it proved.

However, those at the front at the finish were not the riders fans expected as three massive crashes inside the final two kilometres wiped out most of the peloton.

Italian veteran Alessandro Petachi (Lampre) won the stage for his first Tour de France stage win in seven years but in truth, the main talking points centred around the crash fest that marred the closing stages of the race.

With less than two kilometres remaining and the peloton all strung out, English rider and multiple stage winner Mark Cavendish appeared to misjudge a tight right-hand bend and hurtled straight into the barriers, bringing down a host of contenders for the stage.

There was a far bigger crash with 500 metres to go with much of the bunch either coming down or being delayed behind it, including Nicholas Roche.

He suffered no serious injuries and rolled over the line in the same time as the winner in 152nd place.

The result was good enough to see him move up two places on General Classification, from 47th to 45th and remain 49 seconds behind race leader Fabian Cancellara.

Monday July 5th, Stage Two, Brussels –Spa 213 kilometres

Sylvain Chavanel (Quick-Step) was the name on everyone’s lips today as he soloed to victory in a remarkable show of strength, attacking seven fellow breakaway riders ten kilometres from the finish and managing to stave off several late assaults.

As well as the stage win - his first since 2008 - he also took the race leader’s yellow jersey from Fabian Cancellara after most of the bunch agreed to ride slowly following a number of big name crashes on the descent of the Stoickeau-one of the main mountains that defined today’s stage.

Chavanel had been in the break from as early as the 10th kilometre and along with his breakaway riders managed to build a gap of seven minutes on the peloton.

After the peloton had crested the Stoickeau-Category three climb a motorbike crashed on the way down, with oil spilling across the road.

In the already slippery conditions a number of big names came down heavily including pre-race favourite Andy Shleck and his brother Frank.

As a result, Fabian Cancellara was able to arrange that all riders in the front group would ride slowly, to give the stricken riders a chance to regain the group and thus lose no time.

Nicholas Roche managed to stay upright all day and came in the bunch, four minutes down on Chavanel which saw him move up from 45th to 34th place after several riders failed to regain contact with the peloton.

Tuesday July 6th, Stage 3: Wanze - Arenberg Porte du Hainaut 213km

Today’s stage had the potential to see a major upheaval in the General Classification with experts predicting the four sets of cobblestones that lined the route would spell the end for a number of GC riders.

Alberto Contador was one such rider some believed would suffer while Lance Armstrong was adamant the day would be “carnage”.

The day didn’t pan out as many expected however with an unlikely victory going to Norwegian sprint sensation Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test team).

Roche was just as impressive and came in 12th position, coming home in a small group of seven riders behind a front group of six 53 seconds down on the winner.

Contador (Astana) was also in Roche’s group but punctured inside the final kilometre. He lost 20 seconds to those and one minute 13 to Hushovd and Schleck. However he gained 55 seconds on seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong, who punctured earlier on and never regained contact.

General classification after stage 3:

1, Fabian Cancellara (Team Saxo Bank) 14 hours 54 mins 0 secs

2, Geraint Thomas (Sky Professional Cycling Team) at 23 secs

3, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team) at 39 secs

4, Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin - Transitions) at 46 secs

5, Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) at 1 min 1 secs

6, Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) at 1 min mins 9 secs

Irish:

11, Nicolas Roche (Ag2r La Mondiale) at 1 min 42 secs

Wednesday July 7th, Stage 4: Cambrai – Reims: 153.5 kilometres

Alessandro Petacchi won his second stage of this year’s Tour with another stunning sprint finish, this time into the town of Reims.

The 37-year-old proved that age is no barrier to success after he rolled back the years to execute a text book finish and best a number of his younger rivals to the line including Julian Dean and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky). Mark Cavendish was only good enough for 12th place.

Roche came in 35th position, happy enough to sit in the bunch and roll over the line in the same time as the winner to retain his superb 11th place overall. He is still just one minute 42 seconds off the race leader Fabian Cancellara and will hope to improve on that when the race hits the mountains next week.

The day was marked by a long-distance breakaway move by five riders, with initial attacker Dmitri Champion (AG2R-La Mondiale) being joined up by Iban Mayoz (Footon-Servetto), Nicolas Vogondy (Bbox-Bouygues Telecom), Francis De Greef (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Inaki Isasi (Euskaltel-Euskadi). The move however was swallowed up inside the closing kilometres by a fast moving peloton.

General classification after stage 4:

1, Fabian Cancellara (Team Saxo Bank) 18 hours 28 mins 55 secs

2, Geraint Thomas (Sky Professional Cycling Team) at 23 secs

3, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team) at 39 secs

4, Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin - Transitions) at mins 46 secs

5, Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) at 1 min 1 secs

6, Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) at 1 min 9 secs

Irish:

11, Nicolas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale) at 1 min 42 secs

Thursday July 8th, Epernay – Montargis: 187.5 kilometres

British rider and six-time stage winner of the Tour de France Mark Cavendish finally picked up his first win of this year’s race with victory into Montargis today.

The HTC Columbia rider had been under pressure coming into this year's Tour following a string of near misses and an early season hampered by poor form but he laid all that to rest with a blistering finishing 200 metre kick to see off next placed Gerald Ciolek (Team Milram), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky Professional Cycling Team).

Nicolas Roche sprinted in a fine 14th place. The Ag2r La Mondiale rider remains an excellent eleventh overall, one minute 42 seconds behind the ongoing race leader Fabian Cancellara (Team Saxo Bank).

As was the case the day previously, a long distance breakaway featuring three riders was the story of the day. Jurgen van de Walle (QuickStep), Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne) and Julian El Fares (Cofidis) jumped away inside the first 10 kilometres and remained clear for most of the 187.5 kilometre stage. The bunch controlled the gap however and while Gutierrez made a strong solo bid with seven kilometres remaining, he was hauled back three kilometres from the line, setting things up for a big bunch finish.

General classification after stage 5:

1, Fabian Cancellara (Team Saxo Bank) 22 hours 59 mins 45 secs

2, Geraint Thomas (Sky Professional Cycling Team) at 23 secs

3, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team) at 39 secs

4, Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin - Transitions) at 46 secs

5, Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) at 1 min 1 secs

6, Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) at 1 min 9 secs

Irish:

11, Nicolas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale) at 1 min 42 secs

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