By Gerard Cromwell
Ireland's Nicolas Roche took the biggest win of his professional career yesterday when he held off a fast finishing peloton and soloed to victory on stage one of the four-day Tour du Limousin stage race in France.
Roche was part of a three-man breakaway group including Geoffrey Lequatre (Agritubel) and Hannes Blank (Differdange Apiflo Vacances) that went clear after 50 kilometres of the 170-kilometre opening stage from Limoges to Gueret. This trio built up a maximum lead of five minutes over the peloton, but with the sprinters' teams massing at the front, the gap was whittled down to just half a minute with ten kilometres remaining.
"I went off on a climb after 50 kilometres, with Geoffrey Lequatre and a German rider," said an ecstatic Roche afterwards. "I know Geoffrey pretty well and we worked well together and the German helped out, too. We opened up a gap of five minutes with 80 kilometres to go, but it came down to three minutes with 50 kilometres left and then it kept coming down slowly and with ten kilometres to go, we were just hovering in the front."
On the final climb of the day, Roche attacked his companions and dropped them. The 24 year-old Crédit Agricole pro built up a lead of 20 seconds on the four-kilometre incline and a flat out descent saw him enter the final kilometres with just a 10-second advantage over a marauding peloton. Roche, who was riding his first race since the Olympic road race in Beijing, kept his head down and used up all his reserves to hold off the sprinters by a mere three seconds for stage glory and the overall race lead.
"With about ten kilometres to go, we had about 30 seconds and I just attacked on the last climb. I knew the climb was five kilometres long and there was a five-kilometre descent after the hill and that my effort would have to be flat out all the way over the top and down to the finish. When you have the whole peloton chasing you, it's very hard to stay away. I did the last five kilometres with maybe 12 seconds, so I must have been going really well, but I was so determined today, I just had to win, and I managed to hold on by three seconds."
With his French ProTour team due to fold at the end of the season the result has come at a good time for the Dubliner. "It's fantastic. I was really determined today. I've been very frustrated recently and put all my anger into today. When I got off the bike, the tears came and I could barely walk. It took me 15 minutes to get my breath back. This is definitely the biggest win of my career. I don't know if we will defend the jersey tomorrow. Winning this race overall would be fantastic, but it's not going to be an easy ride. We will have a meeting with the manager tonight or in the morning. Today I was away for 120 kilometres and at the finish I just gave it everything, so it depends how well I recover too."
Roche now leads the race by 11 seconds from Steve Chainel (Auber 93) and Lequatre, thanks to time bonuses earned in two second places in intermediate sprints along the way yesterday. He also leads in the best young rider competition, and the combination classification. The race finishes on Friday in Limoges.