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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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Nicolas Roche (Team Saxo - Tinkoff)
Irishman looks ahead to 2014 Giro start
Nicolas Roche is confident that Bjarne Riis can find additional sponsorship for his Saxo Bank team in 2014 despite recent speculation in the Danish media that some riders would have to agree to pay cuts in order to secure the squad’s future.
Riis has been left with a gap in his budget following the decision to part company with backer Oleg Tinkov, although he has dismissed reports that Alberto Contador had been asked to reduce his salary by 15%. As recently as the weekend, however, only 16 of Saxo-Tinkoff’s existing roster had signed contracts with the squad for next season, seven short of the minimum required by a WorldTour team.
“I don’t know any more than what you know. I’ve read the articles on Cyclingnews and read Nikki Sørensen’s comments [on possible pay cuts at Saxo – ed.] and that’s all I know,” Roche told Cyclingnews. “Unfortunately I have no extra information. I trust Bjarne will find a sponsor and obviously I’m faithful that the team will continue next year and continue well.
“Now I’m on holiday and I’ll cut off from the internet for the next couple of weeks, but I’ll trust in the people who are working to find the budget and trust that things will be fine.”
It has since emerged that Riis and Contador will hold a press conference in Madrid on Thursday regarding the future of the team, an announcement that ought to bring a degree of clarity to the rumours regarding the team's financial standing in recent weeks. Such speculation has been in no way dampened by the actions of its erstwhile backer Tinkov, now reportedly in talks to sponsor the Cannondale squad for 2014.
Having already used Twitter to issue robust criticism of Contador’s Tour de France performance, the Russian has lobbed some more social media bombs in Saxo’s direction in the past week, stating that he hoped to sign Roman Kreuziger and Rafal Majka. “We are ready to see them in our next team,” wrote Tinkov.
Roche was diplomatic when asked if Tinkov would be missed by his former riders. “Well, I haven’t had much to do with Tinkov. Actually the only thing he said about me was that I’m a gentleman, although he used that as a way to have a go at Alberto,” he said.
“When I read some of the tweets, it’s never nice to see he’s insulted riders from our team and riders from other teams. But at the moment, like you said, it’s not an ideal situation for the team to be in without a second sponsor. I’ve tried to stay away from all the political side, primarily because I can’t do anything – if I say to you today that I don’t like this or that, it’s not going to change much.”
In spite of the uncertainty at Saxo-Tinkoff in the latter part of the season, Roche himself enjoyed a solid debut campaign with the team, supporting Contador at the Tour and then riding to 5th place overall at the Vuelta a España. While Riis' is a contentious presence in the sport given the insalubrious episodes of his past, Roche had high praise for the Dane’s strategic sense, and pointed to a difference in mindset between Saxo and his former Ag2r-La Mondiale team.
“With Saxo, there was a lot more taking risks to win a race, whereas with Ag2r, especially over the last two or three years, it was more important to defend the positions we had because we were pretty low on WorldTour points,” he said. “I think that’s the main difference, even though Ag2r had a great year this year with Betancur and Pozzovivo.”
Looking ahead to 2014, Roche is eyeing an alteration to his well-worn Tour-Vuelta combination of recent years in order to ride the Giro d’Italia on home roads in Ireland, although at the race presentation in Milan on Monday, he stressed that no decision will be made until Saxo’s first gathering at the end of November.
“I’ve done two grand tours in a year for the last five years now, but riding in August is completely different to riding in April or May,” he said. “That time of year has never been great for me before because I’ve always planned for later on in the season, so it would mean changing my race programme and doing something completely new.”
Roche has not raced the Giro since he made his grand tour debut in the event in 2007 during his time at Credit Agricole, although his primary duty on that occasion was to help Thor Hushovd. “I was told that if there was a mountain I was to sit up and ride in the gruppetto because the main goal was to win stages with Thor,” he said. “It was a completely different way to approach the Giro but it was great and I learned a lot.”
But while Roche saved himself as best he could on the Zoncolan in 2007, he spared nothing when he first raced in Dundalk, which features on the route of stage two from Armagh to Dublin. Roche claimed his first victory as an under-14 in the County Louth town, and he laughed at the idea of returning as part of the Giro gruppo.
“You could have thought of maybe going through it in the Tour of Ireland but never in the Giro,” Roche said. “It’s just really exciting to have such an event starting back in Ireland.”