Nicolas Roche starts the 15th Grand Tour of his career today when he lines up as part of a formidable-looking Team Sky squad for the opening stage of the Vuelta a Espana in the southern port town of Puerto Banus.
It’s an incredible record and what is all the more remarkable is that Roche has finished every one of those races since his debut in 2007.
The Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta A Espana are all landmarks on the racing calendar but Roche is unequivocal about which is his preference. “The Vuelta is my favourite of the three because I always seem to go best there; I’m sure if I went better in the others I might say those too,” he laughed.
Indeed, Roche’s fifth overall coupled with a stage win as well as holding every classification jersey in the 2013 edition of the Vuelta marked a career high for him.
He’ll be riding in support of Chris Froome for the next three weeks but has hopes of individual stage glory.
“The plan for me is as it has been since I signed for Sky this year — protect Chris Froome. He’s aiming to do something very rare of achieving a Tour/Vuelta double and we’ve a strong team going to try and help him achieve that. But this will be a different race to the Tour, it is not as dangerous and doesn’t demand as much 24/7 protection of Froome in the peloton. The course is extremely difficult as well so it means I might not be there to do as much as I have done for Froome in the Tour.
“I’ll have a support role, yes, but I should get chances of my own too.” The first chance for Team Sky is today’s opening 7.4km team time-trial stage where they’d be expected to push for the podium. But Roche has criticised the organisers for designing a course fraught with danger.
“The time trial course is a bit of a disgrace,” said the Dubliner. “If it was a proper individual time-trial, then you might get away with it but to put a full team of riders on that isn’t on.
“It’s one thing having a technical section but to not have 100m of normal time-trial road isn’t good enough.
“We go from a pier to a walkway, through restaurant passage ways, over a wooden bridge which we’re not even sure we can pass in the car… “We go over a pedestrianised marble street, onto another sandy bit and because we’re going over the beach, they put these plastic ramps so people can cross to the beach… I know they want something spectacular but there’s no normal kilometre. I took a photo of the back wheel of my bike sinking in sand!”
Aside from today, the 11th stage into Andorra looks a real challenge and is one of the hardest stages in terms of elevation in recent cycling history and features over 5,000 metres of climbing. (Everest Base Camp is 5,300m).
Dan Martin, the only other Irishman in the race, believes it simply shouldn’t be allowed and Roche admitted it’ll be key in deciding the outcome.
“That will be key,” Roche said. “
We’re racing for 10 days until then so people will be extremely tired and anyone on a bad day there can forget about winning. The stage starts on a climb so we’re going to have to be 100% switched on.”
Favourite Froome can expect stern challenges from the Astana pair of Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana as well as Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
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