Nicolas Roche showed his continuing strong start to the season yesterday when he sparked off the winning move on stage three of Paris-Nice. The Irish road race champion attacked on the early part of the short, steep Côte de la Martinie, which peaked just three kilometres from the finish line, and led the whole way up.
Peter Sagan (Liquigas) was the only rider able to take his wheel, with Tony Martin (Columbia HTC) scrambling to get back on towards the summit, and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) Alberto Contador (Astana) and Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) joining up after the prime line.
It was an impressive show of aggression by Roche, whose father Stephen won the overall classification back in 1981, but his aim of taking a stage was foiled when Sagan and Rodriguez finished ahead of him in Aurillac.
“Things nearly went to plan, but the plan was to win!” 25-year-old Roche told Cyclingnews afterwards. “The team rode very well for me, and the riders who rode the climb last year in the French national championships told me what it was like.
“I took a lot of risks to stay up the front before the climb, as everyone was fighting to be there. The roads were really, really narrow but my team-mate Christophe Riblon gave me a great lead-out before the climb, getting me into position. My plan was that if [defending race champion Luis León] Sanchez went, I would go with him. And if he did not go, I would just hammer it as I was feeling really good at that stage.”
Sanchez didn’t move on the climb and so Roche kicked hard, immediately opening a gap. Sagan joined up, Martin inched his way closer, while behind Contador and Voigt broke clear of yellow jersey Lars Boom plus the other GC contenders.
“I really, really gave it my all as I knew if I could get on top of the climb without being caught, and if there was a group of 15 or 20 [at the top], I would still be there for the sprint,” Roche said. “However I turned around and then I saw that there was actually a bit of a big gap there. Then when I saw Contador coming across, I thought, ‘oh, this could be an interesting move.’
The six riders sped on towards the finish, where Sagan launched the sprint and held off Rodriguez and Roche. The neo-pro did very little work once the break was clear, but Roche feels it would have been difficult to have beaten him anyway.
“He was second yesterday in the sprint. He is a first-year pro, but he was fifth or sixth the other day in the prologue, second yesterday and won today. He is the revelation of Paris-Nice; nobody knew him a week ago, and now he is famous.”
Upward trend after disappointing prologue
Roche has shown improving early-season form, finishing 18th on Mont Faron in the Tour of the Mediterranean and then third in the recent GP dell'Insubria. He would be in a far higher GC position in Paris-Nice had the opening prologue gone to plan. He was 105th, 53 seconds behind Boom, and said that he made what he terms a ‘complete strategic mistake.’
“I always tend to use big gears [in time trials], always had the reputation of going with too big a gear, so I just tried the opposite,” he explained. “I was cruising, but not going at any speed. I wanted to keep spinning, but it didn’t work out. The time trial was just eight kilometres long and there was no point in doing it there.
“It wasn’t a question of legs. I was even more frustrated, because I think it was one of my worst-ever performances in a time trial. I was in perhaps my best condition for a long, long time. I was really, really frustrated and I got the whole team worried as well, as they were hoping I was getting a top 20.”
Third yesterday and sixth on stage one, he’s moved up to 21st overall, 44 seconds behind Voigt in the general classification. He has a chance to make more progress on today’s stage to Mende, which offers another explosive climb in the finale.
Roche points out that the finishing ramp is both longer and steeper than yesterday’s climb, and so there is no absolute guarantee that he will perform as he did there. However he is motivated to try again and to make the most of his strong early-season form, which is at least partly due to starting the year four kilos lighter than in 2009.
“I’ve given the team a bit of confidence in that they know my condition it there,” he said. “I should get a good bit of help on stage four. I feel very motivated. It is a great opportunity for me. Vlajevec is not feeling good so he didn’t want to play the GC, and Nocentini is out with his fracture. I was third in line, but now I am first in line. So it is a great opportunity for me to assume my role, to be protected, and to try to earn the confidence of the other riders on the team [as a leader].”