Tour De France “It’s the hardest race, the most beautiful race”

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Nicolas Roche is one of three Irish riders in this year's Tour. Credit: © Team Sunweb/Vincent Riemersma.

Nicolas Roche, one of three Irish riders in this year’s Tour de France, is looking forward to starting the first Grand Tour of the season in Nice on Saturday, the town he has lived in for almost 20 years.

The son of Irish cycling legend Stephen, Nico, is “pretty excited (as) I’ve been looking forward to this Tour for over a year now. Starting in Nice, I was looking forward to it in November when they announced it.”

This will in fact be the third time in the 36-year-old’s career that the Grand Boucle has started in the Nice area, with the riding adding: “I’ve also been lucky with the Tour in Ireland so I can’t complain with the itineraries.”

Since November’s announcement of the Grand Départ in the south east of France, Nicolas had been looking forward to racing on roads he knows very well, in front of his family and school friends who were “looking forward to coming here and enjoying the Tour de France, obviously it’s a little bit different now,” he adds.

Despite the usual start time of August for the Tour de France every rider is at the same stage of fitness and preparation due to the postponement and rescheduling of some of the season’s main races:

“2020 you just have to reset your standards and create a new normality. We’re all at the same point, it’s no different for anyone”, Nicolas explains. “For me it was key that the Tour de France happened and they’ve managed luckily enough to have it this time of the year – we just have to adapt”, he says matter of factly.

He continues by reiterating that all participants starting Saturday’s Tour are equal, and not one of them has an advantage over the other as a result of the enforced interruptions to the 2020 season:

“We’re all at the same standards and it’s the same for everybody – I’m actually happy we can start and get on with it because it’s so important for us athletes, but also for teams, the media and the business as a whole.”

While the Nice-based rider was in lockdown in France, initially for a fortnight, and then for an extended period of time, he trained at home on the balcony, a regime which was blended in with the rest of his training. With most teams organising new schedules after the Covid-19 lockdown, new training camps were tried to get ready in the best way for the Tour de France.

Looking back now on his training regime during what should have been a busy part of the racing season, Roche professes to having “trained like a maniac on the trainer” as he always believed the 2020 season would be rescued in some way.

“Everyone was asking me afterwards why did you train so hard? It’s easy to look back today and say I should have backed off because the Tour (de France) is in August but back in the lockdown, initially it was only a 2 week lockdown and racing and the Olympics and everything was still going to happen.”

The former Irish Road Race champion continues explaining about his mindset:

“It’s easy to say now, Nico you trained too hard on your home trainer but back then in early March we had no idea what was going to happen. Most people thought the Tour of Romandie was going to happen the first week of May, so for me it was about doing two weeks on the home trainer and that was it. And then after two weeks, they said it was going to be four weeks.”

With local knowledge of roads always an important factor in the sport, Nicolas feel with the unseasonal forecast for this weekend, his local insight may be an advantage to his and his team’s safety on the opening weekend of Le Tour.

“You know the good parts of the road but you also know the bad parts of the road. They’re forecasting storms for tomorrow (Saturday) and I know that these roads are lethal in the wet and I have a little bit of fear of the rain on the roads as it hasn’t rained here for a while so they could be greasy”, he warns.

Looking ahead to Sunday’s second stage, the Irish rider says the weather could potentially make racing conditions dangerous:

“Sunday’s stage is quite tricky as well and we go quite high at altitude so that will be a little more problematic if it rains. In this Tour we’re going to get some heavy showers, we’re going to get thunderstorms, we’re going to get maybe snow as it’s very common it snows in the month of September in France.”

He emphasizes that we could witness a radical change in weather conditions throughout the three weeks of racing:

“We’re in Nice, south of France, the end of August, it should be 25 degrees of sun and the day of the Tour (start) it’s going to rain and it’s probably going to be sun again next week when we leave again. I think our issue this year is going to be the real radical change of weather that we could have: 25 degrees one day and 5 degrees and rain the other day, and that is really difficult on your body.”

If the conditions are right on Sunday, Roche is adamant the route would suit a breakaway:

“It’s (Sunday) a perfect day for a breakaway as it’s really difficult. It is a really really open stage and I think on TV we could see some great racing as the roads are perfect for it.”

With Team Sunweb undertaking their first Grand Tour since the departure of Tom Dumoulin, meaning the German outfit will not have General Classification ambitions, what exactly is Nicolas Roche’s role?

“My role here is pretty open. The team has come with a sprinter’s train and then four all-rounders; we have no interest in the General Classification. Our role is to take it day by day and try and make the most of the day, so on those 4 or 5 flatter stages I will be in a little bit of support of the sprinter’s team. It doesn’t mean I’ll be doing lead-out, but it means that in the last 20km I’ll help to position the train so they don’t have to commit too early so they actually do their own lead-out. At about 20km to go, I get into position and ride for about 10km to keep them out of the way and keep them safe when we start this drag racing. Then I swing off when the race gets a little crazier and I get out of the way for the sprint.”

While success for Team Subweb would be a stage win, or wins, Nico feels he may finally achieve that coveted Tour de France stage win to add to his 3 previous Grand Tour stage successes.

“Obviously a stage win is something I have been chasing now for the last couple of years and have been so close so many times but I haven’t managed to nail it. There are a lot of opportunities in the Tour. There are a lot of higher mountain stages that are going to be very tough but there are also a lot of medium mountain stages where usually breakaways have a better chance to ride – so my goal would be to get those opportunities. One of my dreams when I was a child was to win a stage in the Tour de France. I haven’t done that yet so I’m still chasing that dream – that would be a very successful Tour” he acknowledges.

Team Sunweb will target stage wins rather than the General Classification. Credit: © Team Sunweb/Patrick Brunt.

Belgian Toesj Benoot will lead Roche’s Team Sunweb and will be accompanied by sprinters Cees Bol from the Netherlands and German Nikias Arndt. Rouleurs Søren Kragh Andersen of Denmark and Jasha Sutterlin from Germany will add strength to the team to assist talented young riders Swiss Marc Hirschi and Dutchman Joris Nieuwenhuis who will be making their Grand Tour debuts.

Le Tour de France 2020, beginning on Saturday with what Nico describes as “apparently one of the toughest weeks ever in the Tour de France – definitely the toughest week I’ve done”, the Grand Tour will then wind its way around France before ending in Paris on September 20.

Nicolas Roche will be joined by fellow Irish riders Sam Bennett of Deceuninck – Quick Step and Dan Martin of Israel Start-Up Nation in “the hardest race, the most beautiful race.”

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