Nicolas Roche was the toast of the Vuelta a Espana yesterday when he won the 18th stage of the race in a two-up sprint against home favourite Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing).
It was one of the best days of the Irishman’s career and just his second Grand Tour stage win in almost 10 years in the professional peloton.
It was all the more satisfying for Roche as he’s endured a torrid 10 days following successive crashes last week where he dropped out of contention for the overall and took some real beatings in the mountains.
Coupled with that was the fact his Sky squad lost their team leader and big favourite Chris Froome to injury in Andorra a week ago and they hadn’t won a stage of this Vuelta prior to yesterday.
So Roche was understandably very emotional afterwards when asked what the win means to him.
“I’ve had a few seconds and thirds, I’ve always been lacking that little bit in the finish but today it finally worked out,” he said.
“I looked to see if Haimar’s shadow was coming up behind me in the sprint and it was so I didn’t want to put my hands up in the air until I crossed the line, but once I did it was like… whoooa,” he added with a huge grin.
Roche was part of a large break that went away on the 204-kilometre stage from Roa to Riaza but clearly feeling strong, he attacked the escape and bridged across to Frenchman Cyril Gautier (Europcar) who had absconded from the lead group.
Roche dropped him and was out front solo by himself for a while, going over the final climb of the day when Zubeldia jumped across to him.
Both riders worked well on the tricky descent as the chasers began to look at each other behind.
That was essentially the winning of the race for Roche and it was no surprise to see Zubeldia shirk a few turns in an effort to save himself some energy for the final.
Inside the last kilometre, the chasers had been swept up by the main group of contenders so it came down to a drag race between Roche and Zubeldia.
“We rode together all the way, the two of us were really good to cooperate since the 15k to go sign. We really gave it a lot and I think that was our only chance.
“Coming into the sprint, I wanted to lead it out because Haimar is someone with a lot of experience and I’ve lost a few times to him in the past.
“I didn’t want a slow-start sprint, I wanted a high-speed one to manage my own pace so when I smiled at the end it was because I was happy it worked and It was like ‘oh yes, for once I didn’t mess up’.”
The Vuelta is a race Roche has usually done well in. He won a stage here back in 2013 while also spending some time in the race leader’s red jersey.
“I discovered it in 2008 and it’s where I started to get my first General Classification results. It’s where I found I can be a competitor over three weeks.
“I found that this was my terrain, okay some years I come here and do better than others but I’ve always been quite competitive on stages.
“I also like to race in the heat and the Spanish fans on the side of the road are amazing. They’ve given me a lot of support over the years and I just enjoy coming here.”
In the race for the red jersey, Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Aplecin) survived an onslaught of attacks from his main rival Fabio Aru (Astana) to keep his slender three-second lead over the Italian going into today’s 19th stage.
Aru attacked Dumoulin relentlessly on the final climb of the Puerto de la Quesera, but the Giant-Alpecin rider was a match on each occasion and even repaid the Italian with a few accelerations of his own on the descent before the finish line.
Today’s stage takes the riders 185 kilometres from Medina del Campo to Avila and there are two categorised climbs.
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