By Shane Stokes
Almost two decades after his father Stephen had his most successful season, Cofidis rider Nicolas Roche is moving to the next level of his own budding career with a strong ride in the Tour de l'Avenir. The 22 year old Irish rider registered his first pro win on Sunday when he won a three man sprint at the end of the 149 kilometre stage to Metz. He, Ivan Melero (Orbea) and René Mandri (Auber 93) were over two minutes ahead of the bunch, with Andre Cardoso (Portuguese National Team) sandwiched in between.
The result saw second-year pro Roche take over at the top of the general classification. He and his Cofidis team successfully defended the lead on Monday's fifth stage, which was won by Edvald Hagen (Norwegian National Team) ahead of Sergey Kolesnikov (Omnibike Dynamo Moscow) and Stef Clement (Bouygues Telecom).
"This is my first pro win and I am very pleased with that," Roche said on Sunday, "especially as I took the yellow jersey as well. I felt pretty good all day, but was nervous coming towards the end because lately I have not been the smartest coming to sprint finishes. But I am really happy that it worked out as it did today."
Roche was also clear in a long distance break on day two but was caught by the bunch inside the final kilometre. He had been racing for second on the stage.
"Today [Sunday], I said that if I could get into a little break, then maybe it can change things a bit," he explained. "The last time I was out the front, Cofidis actually put riders on the front of the bunch so that the break didn't get too much time. All the teams were represented so at one stage we had almost nine minutes. Everybody thought it was going to be over but the team wasn't confident enough to put the whole race on my shoulders. So the team rode a little bit to keep the momentum going.
"Today, because I was in the front I knew that it would confuse some people because they were waiting for Cofidis to ride again. Also, the rider in the lead lost two of his team-mates in a crash yesterday, so his team were not going to be able to ride and of course our team was not going to chase. So by the time those in the bunch realised who was going to ride and who was not going to ride, we had six minutes. We went full blast from there to the end."
Although Roche held on to the race lead on Monday's stage, he had said the day previous to that that he was unsure of his chances as regards the overall. "I have no idea yet because the race gets really hard after this. We are first and third on GC now, so they might give a chance to the other guy [Cofidis team-mate Amaël Moinard – ed.] still. They say he is a better climber than I am and I have already done 300 kilometres in the breaks, so I have lost a lot of power. But I think we have a nice advantage because we have three guys up there - Maxime Monfort is still up on GC. So we have three cards to play."
The race continues on Tuesday with a hilly 161.5 kilometre race from Nancy to La Bresse. A first category mountain comes close to the finish and so Roche's ability to defend the lead will depend on both his climbing strengths and how he has recovered from his breakaway efforts early on in the race.
Meanwhile his first cousin Daniel Martin also took a good win on Sunday when he triumphed on the final stage of the Giro della Valle d'Aosta in Italy. The VC La Pomme rider dominated the concluding 10.1 kilometre uphill time trial, finishing a full 43 seconds ahead of runner up Alessandro Bisolti (U.C. Palazzago Saclà Maiet Europea).
The performance saw him jump from eighth to second overall, finishing the six-day 2.2 ranked event 1'12 behind final winner Bisolti. He will target a strong ride in the espoir world championships later this month, while Roche must be a good bet to get a slot on the Irish squad for the elite road race.