Roche looking for stage wins in Tour de France

Nicholas Roche will carry Irish hopes at this year's Tour de France which starts this Saturday with an 8.9 kilometre prologue around Rotterdam.

Nicholas Roche will carry Irish hopes at this year's Tour de France which starts this Saturday with an 8.9 kilometre prologue around Rotterdam.

The 25-year-old Dubliner is the country’s sole representative in the famed bike race after it was announced by their respective teams that fellow professionals Philip Deignan (Cervelo Test Team) and Daniel Martin (Garmin-Transitions) would not start.

The son of former Tour de France winner Stephen, Nicolas will start his second Tour with his team Ag2r, having impressed in his debut Tour last year netting four top ten finishes.

Roche’s season had been in doubt after he tore his hamstring muscle back in March but his quicker-than-expected return from that setback saw him line up at the Tour of Switzerland earlier in the month.

A strong showing there, where he finished just outside the top ten, propelled him back into contention and, following his second place finish at last weekend’s National Championships in Sligo, his Directeur Sportif at the team Vincent Lavenu gave him a real vote of confidence by naming him as one of the team leaders alongside Rinaldo Nocentini who wore the yellow jersey for four days last year.

Roche has been on the cusp of a big win for the past two seasons and, while a top placing in general classification along with the race favourites may not be realistic just yet, Lavenu thinks the 25-year-old will be the team's best chance for overall success.

Roche went home with second and third place finishes in stages last July, and will go into the race as one of the team's best chances for a stage win.

Philip Deignan has not been so lucky however and a recurring illness has prevented the Cervelo Test Team from naming him as one of its nine riders for the race.

The news will come as a disappointment to the Donegal man who had been named on the team’s preliminary list to ride the race, but after he was forced to quit the Tour de Suisse it was decided the best thing was to focus on the Tour of Spain in September.

Deignan, who won a stage at the Tour of Spain last year will now undergo a period of rest and recuperation before looking at a revised race programme for the remainder of the season.

The 26-year-old had shown signs that his form was improving when he figured in a 13-man break on the queen stage of the Swiss race a few weeks back only to suffer with illness the following day.

His season has already been disrupted by a knee injury, over-training, fatigue and a bout of food poisoning which have forced him to withdraw from a succession of races.

Ireland's only other pro-tour rider Dan Martin was also unfortunate to lose out on making the nine-man composition for his team Garmin Transitions.

It had been expected that Martin would make his debut in the race. Having completed the Giro d’Italia back in May and finishing a commendable 57th out of only 139 finishers, hopes were high that he would make the final selection but, like Deignan, it was decided that he needed rest if he is to have a strong end of season.

He will most likely target a stage win at the Tour of Spain which is extremely hilly this year and that should suit him as he is one of the most talented climbers in the sport at present.

This year’s race promises to be anything but predictable with at least 10 riders capable of taking the overall.

Defending champion Alberto Contador (Astana) is installed as the pre-race favourite, and justifiably so, but this year’s Tour is a much tougher assignment for the two-time winner whose only certainty is that he can take nothing for granted.

Seven-time champion and seasoned tactician Lance Armstrong (Radioshack) has already shown flickers of his old self at the Tour of Switzerland, while two-time runner-up Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) has experienced a renaissance since becoming world champion.

Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) also starts as a favourite but the 2009 runner-up may yet play second fiddle to brother Frank whose win at the Tour of Switzerland revealed that he can now time trial almost as well as he can climb.

The top tier of potential winners is not complete without Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) whose motivation is drawn from the potential to become the first British rider to win the race and to emulate his success of finishing fourth last year.

While all six riders rank among the favourites to win the race the list of riders capable of upsetting their ambitions and of securing one of the three places on the final podium in Paris is considerably longer.

Giro winner Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo), Carlos Sastre (Cervelo Test Team), Robert Gesink (Rabobank), and Levi Leimpher (Radioshack) are going to be there or thereabouts, while Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Doimo), Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions), Michael Rogers (HTC Columbia) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) are all solid outside bets.

AG2R for the 2010 Tour de France:

Maxime Bouet (FRA)

Dimitri Champion (FRA)

Martin Elmiger (SUI)

John Gadret (FRA)

David Le Lay (FRA)

Lloyd Mondory (FRA)

Rinaldo Nocentini (ITA)

Christophe Riblon (FRA)

Nicolas Roche (IRL)

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