Nico Roche: Gravel is cycling’s equivalent of F1 drivers’ transition to rally

The Irishman heads over to the US this week to race more gravel ahead of giving the discipline greater focus in 2023.

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Nico Roche arrived at the finish line in Cittadella tired, muddy but ultimately content.

“It was tough, really tough,” he said in the narrow streets of the walled medieval city where the inaugural Gravel World Championships had concluded. “The first 30km felt like a mountain bike race to be honest. Then there were a lot of easier bits, put it that way.” It was in that first section he crashed, his competitors trying to take shortcuts and being “a little too clever” after cutting it short at the last minute on a hairpin. But the Irishman jumped back to his feet and chased back into the front group, then admitting maybe this was potentially a little too ambitious. He eventually finished 47th, 19 minutes behind the winner Gianni Vermeersch.

But for someone who’s only been able to spend about half the time on the bike as he used to in his WorldTour days, those days which a number of his rivals on the start line in Veneto are still in, he was pleased.

“After 130 km, I cramped and I had to get off the bike, and I really felt like it was the first race of the year,” Roche admitted, having raced alongside his brother Alexis in Irish colours. “What I felt that I really lacked today was just the speed on the flat and I think that’s why I cramped in the hamstring, I’ve never had cramps in the hamstring.

“When you’re a Tour de France rider, you’re just capable of doing 200 km or more at such a high speed and today it put it in favour a little bit more of that,” he continued. “It was like racing a junior race but with Tour de France riders. I think it was great fun and a lot of the pro riders appreciated it.”

As well as appreciating the racing action, Roche believes that instead of disregarding the UCI’s version of the Gravel World Championships it’s an acceptable start from the organisers, and there’s always room for improvement.

“Today it’s easy to look back and say alright, the gravel race was not really a gravel race, and there was a lot of road…a lot of road,” he said. “But I think we have to appreciate the fact that people are trying to organise it here in Europe and it’s a good start. And when I say start nothing can be perfect. I’ve been quite vocal on social media about the race but it’s about giving ideas to be constructive but today it was great to be back in the bunch with Greg and those guys.”

So, with the likes of Greg Van Avermaet and Mathieu van der Poel on the start line, did it feel like retirement never happened? Slipping seamlessly back into his top-level racing days?

“No no no, retirement did happen…not retirement, I don’t like to call it retirement,” he corrected himself. “My end to road cycling. I train 12-15 hours a week so I get on the bike but I don’t train 25-30 hours but it’s good enough to be competitive.

“Next year I’ll be a little bit more focused on it,” Roche said. “I’ve made the choice to cut down some of the other stuff to be able to spend more time on the gravel and I really liked it. I’m actually going to the States on Tuesday to race in the Belgian Waffle Race and Big Sugar, so I’m really excited to see what’s going on on the other side of the planet.”

As many other retiring WorldTour pros are discovering, the blossoming gravel scene is quickly providing a stepping stone to winding down their racing days, rather than the abrupt halt that used to come with retirement from the peloton.

“You see it a lot in drivers, they go from Formula 1 to rally or Dakar racing or endurance, motorbike racers are the same,” Roche explained. “It doesn’t quite happen in cycling, when guys quit, they quit. Now this gives, it’s not the first year, the past couple of years, this year it’s more talked about and it gives them a chance to stay on the bike. When you’re on top of the game in the WorldTour game there’s a time where your mind is tired, your body is tired but you still want to go on the bike. I was going on the bike in the winter because I still wanted to.

“It’s great to have this alternative where you don’t always want to go on the road and do what you were doing for years, it helps keep you on track,” Roche continued. “It’s great to have my brother with me, we’re training like a mini team, next year we’re going to do some races. It’s just like in motorsport where it gives you a chance to continue doing what you want, just at a different level and with a different perspective.”

Maybe at Unbound next year we’ll see a figure loom ahead of the finish line. “That looks like Nicolas Roche,” the announcer will say at the culmination of hundreds of miles of racing, the dirt obscuring riders’ faces. “It is Nicolas Roche!”

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