Roche refuses to be defined by father’s triumphs

IRISH cyclist Nicolas Roche carries a famous name into tomorrow’s Tour de France — but refuses to haul around any extra baggage.

He is tired of people asking him the obvious questions — will he emulate his father Stephen? Will he win the Tour de France? “Look, Stephen does his thing and I do mine,” he interrupts. “He’s working for his own purposes. He’s working with Skoda this year so he’ll be doing his own thing and that’s a good thing.

“Last year he came to see me at the Dauphine (mini stage race prior to the Tour) and we had a bit of a chat but when we’re on the bikes we don’t talk about cycling. There are so many other things to talk about other than that. So we give the bike a bit of a rest.”

The pressure is still there though and it’s something Nicolas has dealt with very well.

As team leader of the France-based Ag2R La Mondiale team, he carries the hopes of the squad, its sponsors and fan base to deliver a good result.

Without the team he is nothing. Without the sponsors he has no job. It’s something he is acutely aware of on the eve of just his third Tour.

“Every time you go out you try to represent those underneath you as best you can. The team, management and sponsors know that so it is up to us, the riders, to do well. It is our responsibility.’’

In that respect, he admits: “I can’t wait to get going. Other years I’ve probably had strong legs but been a bit down in the head but this year, with all the crashes and injuries I’ve never been as motivated. I’m pretty confident even though I haven’t had the results to back me up lately. We’ve a great team and we’ve been with the guys since the start of the year. We’ve a good morale and that should auger for a good Tour.”

The Dubliner comes into the race on the back of a stop-start season, a spell of good form usually followed by bad luck. In November he suffered tendonitis, in February a torn muscle, in May he crashed at Fleche Wallonne and earlier this month he had to withdraw from the Dauphine.

“The body is getting way better every day though,” he enthused. “I’m not 100% yet but I’m getting better and better. Hopefully the next four or five days I’ll improve more. I remember when I crashed in March it took me three weeks before things went well again so it’s been two-and-a-half weeks now and it’ll be three weeks on Friday so I’m not panicking and I’m pretty convinced that slowly but surely the form will come back to where it was at the Dauphine.”

This year’s Tour has four mountain-top stage finishes and just one individual time trial, 42.5km in length, so it is very much a route which encourages the climbing specialists. The standout favourites for victory will once again be Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador but should they have bad days, there’s a cluster of riders in the peloton who have the ability to capitalise — and Roche, the only Irishman taking part, is among them.

Asked which days will decide the Tour, he ponders before offering, “The start at Luz Ardiden (stage 12) and then obviously afterwards when we get into the Alps and the finish on the Galibier (stage 18) and the finish at Alpe d’Huez (stage 19) so you know, there’s four really hard days but there’s always a few tricky days in the middle where anything can happen and the second time-trial (stage 20) will obviously be very important too.

Though a podium place is beyond his capabilities, for now, Roche knows he’s heading in the right direction and agrees when it’s put to him that success for him will be improvement on last year’s 15th place finish.

“Exactly, I still want to stick to that. That was my plan initially. I don’t want to think about crashing or injuries or that. I just focus on my goals and try to stick to them and try to get as close to the top 10 as possible.”

When I call him he’s having a team lunch in the start town of Passage du Gois in the Vendée region of western France.

So Nicolas, I ask, who’s going to win? “Just a minute,” he replies as he moves away from the table. “Contador obviously,” his assured reply.

That’s one question Roche, who joins 197 other riders for the 3,430km three-week race, will be happy to answer differently in the very near future.

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