Former professional and FiftyOne Bikes’ new Test Pilot, Nico Roche, shares the brightest and darkest moments of his long career
Last October, Nico Roche announced his retirement from professional cycling after a storied 17-year career in which he completed 22 grand tours, won four Irish national titles and wore the leader’s jersey at the Vuelta a España. Beyond his personal successes, he was an immensely valuable road captain and super domestique. Needless to say, he has a lot of experiences to choose from for this feature.
There are a lot of bad days in cycling, so my worst day is hard to pick, but I’d say my worst day was the double ascent of Alpe d’Huez at the Tour de France in 2013, on stage 18 from Gap. I was in a chasing group with my teammate [Sérgio] Paulinho. Alberto [Contador] made us attack with about 80km to go, because the break had about 10 minutes. Up to then we’d been cruising and controlling it, but Alberto had come up with this plan to attack on the last climb and wanted to get rid of some of the Sky guys on the first time up.
It was a suicide attack. We did 80km, just Paulinho and myself, into a headwind, on these big roads along the valley to Alpe d’Huez. I got to the bottom of the climb and just did, literally, like, 3km with Paulinho. And Sky had no problem, they were just cruising behind, while the two of us were doing a 2-up TT into the wind. Obviously, we got dropped straight away and when I got to the top the first time I thought to myself, ‘How am I going to get up this a second time?’ The second time up I was miserable. I always remember [Philippe] Gilbert coming up to me while I was swinging at the back of the grupetto, on the edge of a hunger flat. He gave me one of his last gels, a little push for 10m and said “Come on, don’t give up.” I made it to the top with the grupetto thanks to the spike of sugar from that gel.
We were in a huge grupetto, it was half the peloton, about 80 of us. I think we actually missed the time cut by a few seconds but there were so many of us that they would never send us all home. My main struggle was staying in the grupetto because if I had been a few seconds off the back, I’d have been sent home. I was completely done. I had nothing left in me.
This was my first stage win in the Vuelta. It was 2013 as well, so just a few weeks after my worst day! I had been so close before – I’d had second places on stages in the Tour and the Vuelta – but there was always someone stronger or something missing. In my first grand tour, the 2008 Vuelta, I was already second on a stage, and then at the Tour de France the year after I had a load of top-10s. I was like, “Come on! I can’t keep having all top-10s. I need to win one stage here.” It only took me until 2013, another four years, to finally be able to say I’m a grand tour stage winner.
The way I won it was great. It was a mountain top finish, attacking from the bunch. I planned it right and rode it smart. It was the way I always dreamt of winning a race. I’m not a Tony Martin type, who can target, say, stage 19 of the Tour and then do it. I target everything and then hope for the best. When you’re targeting GC at the Vuelta, you have to go for every stage.
The day before, I’d ridden really well in the TTT and was feeling so strong. So that morning Bjarne [Riis] said to me, “Believe me, this is your stage. Believe in yourself and go for it.” It was nice to hear those words… Perhaps he should have said that more often!