By Gerard Cromwell
Cycling Ireland has announced Ireland's two-man team for the Olympic Games road race in Beijing, China on August 9. The only two Irish professionals to ply their trade at cycling's highest level, the ProTour, Crédit Agricole's Nicolas Roche and AG2R La Mondiale's Philip Deignan, will line up for the 245-kilometre Olympic event.
Roche will follow in the footsteps of his father Stephen, who represented Ireland at the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980 before going on to become a legend in the professional ranks. Both 24 year-olds have plenty of experience and have ridden together on numerous Irish teams at World Championship level.
Now in his fourth year as a professional, Roche has progressed steadily each year and looked likely to make his Tour de France debut in July. Illness three days before this week's Tour de Suisse has forced Roche to skip what should have been his final Olympic preparation race. Olympic selection though, has made that blow a little easier for the Dubliner.
"I was disappointed to miss the chance of riding the Tour," said Roche. "But I'm absolutely delighted to be going to the Olympics. I was hoping to get the call today and I'm really, really delighted to be picked."
Roche has been in consistently good form this season taking numerous top 10 placings, culminating with a stage win and two days in yellow at the GP Internacional Paredes Rota dos Móveis in Portugal last month. His record in big races over the years, including good performances for Ireland at previous Junior (U-18) and U-23 world road race championships, make him an automatic choice for selection.
The course around Beijing is a gruelling 24-kilometre loop, with 10 kilometres of climbing on each of the seven laps, making it comparable to a Tour de France mountain stage. The route takes in many of Beijing's landmarks, passing through the city zoo, past the Great Wall of China, Tiannamen Square, Yonghegong Palace and Temple of Earth Park.
"I've heard the course is very hard," said Roche. "With 10 kilometres of climbing, followed by a long descent before going straight back up again. People who rode the Olympic test race have told me it's crazy, with a very hard climb each lap and that it's more like a mountain stage of a big tour. So it's going to be hard.
"I'm going to focus my training in the next couple of weeks on mountain climbing and myself and Philip will probably have a training camp in the Pyrenees or the Alps after the Irish Championships next weekend," he added.
While last year's Tour de France winner, Spanish climber Alberto Contador, is already being touted as a pre-race favourite, many of the world's top sprinters have deemed the circuit to be too hard for them and withdrawn from selection. The high humidity and dirty city air is sure to make this a race of attrition.
"I don't mind the heat," says Roche. "I raced in Malaysia in February and I reckon it will be the same type of weather, air quality and humidity."
The hilly Beijing course would suit an in-form Deignan, whose best results have come in tough mountain stages of big tours. Although the Letterkenny youngster missed much of the early season with injury, he completed his second Grand Tour, the Giro d'Italia, in May and is currently in action in Switzerland for his French AG2R team.
Deignan took two top 12 placings on mountain stages of last year's Vuelta a España and has also previously finished on the podium on mountain top finishes at the Baby Giro and Tour de l'Avenir. The duo head for an Alpine training camp organised the Irish Sports Council on July 14th.
"I've been racing with Philip since we were 15," says Roche. "He won his first race and I was second. Since then we've been on Irish teams together. We've roomed together and even lived together for a year in Marseille with VC La Pomme.
"It'll be great to ride the Olympics together and we'll probably train together up until then," he added. "Every athlete in every sport wants to go to the Olympics at some stage. It's the dream and it's my goal for the year. For me it's a very important race. I know we only have two riders in the race, but the Olympics will be a lot different to the Worlds or races where other teams can have 12-man teams. I'm really looking forward to it."