Another Tour de France, another team leader. After stints in the service of Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, Nicolas Roche lines up in Düsseldorf next Saturday as a mainstay of the BMC team built around Richie Porte, the man whose remarkable run of form thus far in 2017 has led some, Froome included, to label the Tasmanian as the favourite to win the 2017 Tour de France.
Porte does not have the back catalogue of Froome or Contador – he has never finished on the podium of a Grand Tour, far less won one. But Roche sees at least one common trait between his leaders past and present.
"There's a big requirement to be a team leader: you need to be demanding," Roche told Cyclingnews. "It's a very tough sport. When you're at the biggest race in the world with a team of high-profile riders around you, you can't be relaxed and having beers at the hotel. You have to be demanding. You need the team to be behind you, and to make that happen, you need a strong character. So in that perspective, they're all very similar."
Porte has always been a forceful personality, right back to his stint under the tutelage of Bjarne Riis at Saxo Bank in 2010 and 2011, but being strong willed does not automatically translate to being a strong leader. The Tasmanian's first real experience of the role came at Team Sky during the 2015 Giro d'Italia, where even before to his crash-enforced abandon, he evinced distinct signs of unease at carrying the burden of leadership.
Perhaps the change in environment has helped, but over the course of his year and a half at BMC, Porte has appeared increasingly comfortable in the role. Missing out on the podium at last year's Tour was a frustration but his fifth place overall was still a confirmation of progress made.
Roche spent the 2015 campaign alongside Porte at Team Sky and detected the change when they reunited at BMC after a year apart.
"I think it's taken Richie a couple of years to mature and grow into being a team leader, with all these responsibilities," Roche said. "I've raced with him all year long and I've seen how he's really settled into the role of a real team leader. He's a lot stronger than he was a couple of years ago and he's ready."
For seven days on the Critérium du Dauphiné, Porte seemed only to underline his readiness for the Tour, winning the individual time trial and dealing comfortably with his rivals in the high mountains. The tumultuous final stage of the race, where Porte conceded his jersey to Jakob Fulgsang (Astana), put a rather different slant on the week, even if his strength on the final ascent to Plateau de Solaison meant that he left the race disappointed but hardly despondent.
"It was half tactical and half physical," Roche said of BMC's shortcomings on the day, though he warns against over-analysis. "It's very easy at this stage to look back and analyse it all because it went bananas and we lost, but if Richie had won, we wouldn't have cared."
Under normal circumstances, BMC's decision not to dispatch a rider in the early break might not have been so pivotal, but Roche, still hampered by the effects of crashing into his own team car two days previously, was unable to provide the kind of support he would have liked, and Porte was isolated come the finale. "We won't make those mistakes in the Tour and we'll be able to support him in those crucial moments," Roche said. "We all learned from Dauphiné and we're ready for the Tour."
The BMC team
When BMC announced its Tour selection last week, it was striking that team management had resisted the temptation to deploy Rohan Dennis, winner of both time trial stages at the Tour de Suisse. The Australian, forced out of the Giro d'Italia by an early crash, would have been favourite to take the first maillot jaune of the Tour had he been picked, but he will instead throttle back and prepare for the Vuelta a España, as originally planned.
While Damiano Caruso was hugely impressive at the Tour de Suisse, BMC hardly boasts the climbing strength in depth of Team Sky or Movistar. However on a Tour route where set-piece mountain stages are in relatively short supply, that might not be any hindrance to Porte, who can in turn rely on men like Roche, Greg Van Avermaet and Alessandro De Marchi in the medium mountains.
"There are some really hard mountain stages where it's purely about legs but then there are those stages where anything can happen, so I think it's going to be a very open Tour," Roche predicted. "I think this Tour route might not suit Richie at 100 percent, but it suits the team well. Anyway, the way Richie is going, I think he will be able to make the most out of this Tour.
"The team is very well balanced, and very well suited to the medium mountain days where we're going to have to put Richie in a good position. And then in the high mountains, it will be very important for me and Damiano to be at our best."
Just shy of his 33rd birthday and facing into his eighth Tour de France appearance, Roche will also serve as a road captain for BMC, having served his apprenticeship in that role during by riding alongside men like Michael Rogers, Matteo Tosatto and Daniele Bennati during his time at Tinkoff.
Roche's own tenure as a GC leader at AG2R La Mondiale, too, has influenced his approach.
"My role has evolved with experience, and slowly but surely I've become that rider who tries to make a few calls on the road and help Richie any way I can. I've matured into that role and it's a lot more about experience," Roche said.
"When you were a team leader yourself, you kind of know what's needed. I look to anticipate things, and move the team into the kind of positions I'd have asked for if I was team leader. At the end of a week or three weeks, details like that can make a bit of a difference."