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Nicolas Roche is in a new role, yet it’s a familiar one.
For the past two seasons he was part of Team Sky and, in 2015, gave his all to help Chris Froome clock up the second of his Tour de France victories.
Now, following an off-season transfer to the BMC Racing Team, he is seeking to play the same role with someone else. In July of this year he will dedicate himself to Richie Porte’s Tour chances. All going to plan, he believes that the Australian can emulate Cadel Evan’s victory in 2011.
“I have backed Richie up for the last couple of years when we were in Sky,” Roche tells CyclingTips, speaking on Tuesday. “I just know how good of a climber he can be. He has proven that he is also super-competitive in time trials. Now it just making sure that everything goes right for him.
“In the Tour you need a bit of everything. You cannot have an unlucky day or a bad day. Last year unfortunately he punctured at the wrong time. Looking back, maybe he could have otherwise got a podium.”
The time gaps certainly bear that out. Porte conceded one minute 45 seconds after flatting on stage two. He was deeply disappointed to incur the early time loss but persisted, equalling Froome on several occasions in the mountains. He ultimately finished just one minute and 12 seconds off second place overall.
If he has better luck next July, he is in with real a shot of yellow.
“There are only a few riders in the peloton who can dream of winning the Tour,” Roche reasons. “I think Richie can be one of those, along with Quintana, Froome, Nibali, a few others. There are only about five or six of them who can say ‘I can win the Tour.’
Porte can go into the Tour with that aim.
He got his season off to a storming start in the Santos Tour Down Under, winning two stages plus the overall classification. That gave him an immediate psychological edge over Froome, who had to be content with sixth overall in the lesser-ranked Herald Sun Tour.
There is a long way to go until July and plenty of races to contest, but the Australian will feel good about how his second year with the BMC Racing Team has begun.
Roche knows Porte well: both live in Monaco and occasionally train together. They were also teammates at Sky in 2015, after which Porte headed to the BMC Racing Team while Roche stayed one more year.
The Irishman has long been aware of the Australian’s strength, but said at the BMC pre-season training camp that Porte’s self-belief took a big jump in 2015.
Curiously, this happened despite his big target that season not going to plan.
“I noticed a change in him in the Giro that year,” he stated then. “He went into that race more ready than ever. He and I had been training beforehand at a team camp in Tenerife. Richie was just surreal in training. I was convinced he was going to win the Giro.
“Things didn’t work out. A bike race has so many unpredictable things. His form didn’t quite hold as well as it was when we were training and he had a few mechanicals too.
“But mentally he was ready to be there, to go for it. Even though he had bad luck and ultimately abandoned the Giro, you could feel that it was one of the lessons he learned. I think last year he was ready not to give up.”
Roche holds up the 2016 Tour campaign as an example of how much that persistence benefited Porte.
“He had his mechanical [in the Tour], lost minutes, and just said, ‘no, not giving up. I can make it.’ And you just saw him going from 20th to 15th to 10th and then making his way all the way to 5th.
“As a result, I think mentally Richie has really, really stepped forward. And we already know physically he was super strong because he showed it in Paris-Nice, Catalunya and other races.”
The subtext is clear: Porte had the engine before, now he has the confidence.
If those two combine and his luck holds in July, he could well be in the running for his biggest career result.
‘One of the most experienced pros out there’
Speak to Porte, and he too has good things to say about Roche. At the same pre-season training camp he described the Irishman as a friend off the bike, and listed qualities that he felt he would bring to the team.
“He’s one of the most experienced pros out there. And he is a good road captain. I think that’s a great guy to have in the team. I think it’s nice to have experienced guys like that who can do the thinking for you on the road.
“It’s not just [about] directions from the car. Nico knows how to read the race. You don’t buy experience like that. He’s just so cool and calm in these situations. It’s awesome to have.”
Of course, Roche’s signing wasn’t just about what he can do in service of the Australian. He may be willing to play the role of dedicated teammate, but he’s a strong bike rider in his own right.
In 2010, for example, he finished 14th overall in the Tour de France and then netted sixth in the Vuelta a España. Three years later he returned to the Spanish Tour, won a stage and finished fifth overall.
In 2014 he was took the opening leg of the Route du Sud and went on to top the general classification. The following year he was once again riding strongly in the Vuelta, sitting fourth overall until stage ten, but then crashed and dropped to 22nd overall. He bounced back to take the eighteenth stage.
Last season he was passed over by Sky for the Tour de France and reacted to that decision by winning both the Irish road race and time trial championships. Illness meant he missed the Vuelta and so he focussed on a strong end of season, clocking up sixth in the Tour of Britain and then placing a close second overall in the Abu Dhabi Tour.
Had he not ridden in the service of Alberto Contador in 2013 and 2014 and Chris Froome between 2015 and 2016, he may well have achieved more results for himself.
Now, although he’s fully dedicated to helping Porte when required to do so, Roche is hoping to stretch his own limits a little more.
“I think this team suited me perfectly at this time in my career,” he said. “I’ve tried many things, from being a team leader to helping out. And I think at this stage I have enough experience to be able to do three things. One, I really believe in Richie and I think I’m gonna give him as much support as I can in the major races.
“Two, it’s my 13th year now as a pro. I have enough experience – plus speak four languages – that I can have a different role in communication and helping out younger riders. That’s even though I’m not old and I don’t consider myself old. I hope I’ve got a good few years to go.
“And then finally I think it’s also a team where I can have a go at some races myself. So, for me at this stage in my career, it’s also important not to fit in one role and specifically be a team-mate, helper, or whatever. It is good that I can try and make the most of all three.
“It’s important that I can also still have a bit of freedom. I’m still hungry for some results. Every time I get a chance I’ve proved I’m still competitive. On the other hand, I’m really excited in going for some big races and helping out Richie.”
One of Roche’s big advances last season was against the clock. He built on that Irish TT championship win by riding strongly in other events, including eighth in the Tour of Britain time trial and eighth in the European championships.
He made tweaks to his position and also benefitted from some enforced time away from racing.
“I think that time trialling has let me down in some races,” he says. “It put me off some really, really top GC results in the past in the Tour and the Vuelta, and more even in shorter races where the time lost in time trials is just not possible to recover on a single mountain stage.
“I think last year not riding the Tour and the Vuelta…I had a lot of time to be able to actually train on the time trial bike. Some years I think I’m so obsessed with trying to climb well that I kind of forget to go out on the time trial bike. It’s a funny machine. You think it’s the same, but there are different crank lengths. You are further forward on the saddle.
“Every time you jump on the bike you just feel your quads are gonna explode the first few seconds. It is a basic and maybe I was at fault but, as I said, when I was chasing GC I was always so obsessed not to lose time on mountains that I didn’t get the chance to properly give it a go in time trials.
“This year I focussed a little bit more. And because I was ill a few times I had a lot more training without racing, so I could fit in TT sessions.”
He’s hoping to be able to benefit from that improvement in the months and years ahead.
In fact he recently had another mental boost in that discipline when he was part of the victorious BMC Racing Team squad in the team time trial in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana.
So, looking ahead, what will his opportunities be? Roche isn’t yet sure, but will try to be in strong shape for Paris-Nice. That race is also a target for Porte, who will likely have team leadership, but Roche has also been asked to hit form for the event.
After that his programme will see him do an altitude training camp before contesting Pais Vasco and the Tour de Romandie.
The Tour de France is a near-certainty, and then he hopes to ride two of his favourite events, the Clasica San Sebastian and the Vuelta a España.
Those races are two of his favourite events and as he tends to carry strong form out of the Tour de France, he hopes to shine there.
“I’ll hopefully be the GC guy for the Vuelta,” he says. “It will be decided closer to there as it will also depend on what Tejay is doing. There is also Samuel Sanchez in there as well.
“But in a Grand Tour, with experience over the years, it is never a bad thing when you go with a couple of guys who are ready to ride GC.
“Even if there is on paper there are three or four of us who are semi-protected going into it, I will prepare as if I am going for GC. Then we will see what happens on the bike.”
How to beat Team Sky
Froome’s Sky team has dominated the Tour in recent years, taking four out of the past five editions of the race. That success began with Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 Tour. Since then, Froome won in 2013, crashed out the following season, and then took back-to-back victories in the past two editions.
It’s a daunting statistic for the team’s rivals, but the BMC Racing Team is perhaps better positioned than most to try to turn things around.
Firstly, Porte is one of the most explosive climbers in the sport and has beaten Froome in the past. Secondly, both he and Roche know Team Sky extremely well, having spent a combined total of six years at the squad.
They have the benefit of insider knowledge, both of the team’s strengths/weaknesses plus its training methods. They also know Froome better than most.
So, what do they believe it would take to beat Sky?
“One, clearly physical capabilities,” said Roche. “It’s not going to be easy to find a rider that can drop Froome on a climb, beat him on a time trial. But there are other ways to try and get a tactic to beat [them]… The great thing about cycling is as predictable as it can be some days, there are so many other days where it’s just not predictable.
“There are so much things that are left to try, like taking the race on at a certain point and catching a lot of people out.”
Indeed that’s exactly how Froome lost last year’s Vuelta a España: Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana and others stole a march, gained a large gap and ultimately caused the Briton to lose a crucial amount of time.
Roche has also ridden for Contador and holds him up as an example of what can be done with guerrilla-style tactics.
“That was one of Alberto’s strong points over the last few years – if you had a second where you weren’t focussing, he’d go for it and try to make the most of it. Sometimes it didn’t work but, the few times that it did, he changed the face of the race.”
Roche does however accept that it’s not enough to bank on such tactics working. He points out that Sky has signed up some very strong riders and that strength in depth makes things more difficult to beat them.
“The team is pretty well organized and the riders are super solid. When you when you look at some of the teams in recent years in the Tour, out of nine riders [on Sky] four or five of them are capable of finishing in the top 10.
“So when people say, ‘it is not possible, there are 20 riders and there are still five Sky.’ Yes, but individually they have, or they are capable of, finishing in the top 10 of the Tour or a Grand Tour. So that’s Sky’s technique – ‘we make sure we avoid any problems. We just take the best and make them ride for Chris, the super-best rider.’”
Still, notwithstanding that strength, Roche underlines that Froome is human, just like anyone else. Because of that he can fail. Because of that, he is beatable.
“Chris has won a lot of races and he been dominating the Tour over the last few years,” he states. “But he hasn’t won all the races. He’s been beaten in the Vuelta. He’s been beaten in other races, so there is that chance to show that if you have a good plan and everything works out, you can beat him.
“But I can help Richie all I want – at the end of the day, it is going to be Richie’s job to beat Froome on the climb on the day. He has done it in the Dauphine and races like that…I’m pretty sure he could do it again.”
Porte believes so too: July will show if that will indeed be the case.