Six years after he took the Vuelta a España lead for a day, Nicolas Roche (Team Sunweb) is wearing la Roja, again after "giving it a shot", as he put it, by getting in the winning break of the day, and ending up by hitting the GC bullseye.
The Irishman made it into an elite escape group on an exceptionally aggressive ascent of a second-category Puig Llorença late on stage 2, then place second on the line just behind winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
That performance was enough to put Roche in a Grand Tour lead six years after moving into the top spot of the Vuelta at the southern Spanish summit of Peñas Blancas on stage 8 of the 2013 edition.
Previously fifth in this year's overall standings thanks to Sunweb's excellent team time trial on Saturday, where his squad placed fourth, Roche described himself as "speechless" when he was told that he had ousted Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) from the race lead.
The Irishman needed only five seconds on Lopez but came away with 33 instead. Roche said he had fought his best to make it into the winning break, and then, as he put it, "I decided to give it a shot and see what would happen."
"It was definitely a crazy, aggressive final," Roche, who now leads Quintana by a slender two seconds, said afterwards. "At the start this morning, some riders thought we might get a reduced bunch sprint, but it was very intense and the pace in those kilometres before the climb was very high."
"I paced myself on the climb because I wasn't feeling very comfortable, but I knew there might be a chance to anticipate and I got into the break."
Roche said his main role was to work for teammate Wilco Kelderman but also to keep an eye on the late moves. "Some friends texted me saying that you never know what happens, to keep that in mind, but I wasn't that optimistic. I never really thought about the lead till the finish, but then I thought I might have a chance."
"It was a long time, though, before they [the organisers] confirmed that I was in the leader's jersey ahead of Nairo, when they did I was so happy I was speechless."
Long-term, there is currently no indication that Kelderman will now be dislodged from his GC leader's role in Sunweb. Kelderman finished in the group of 13 chasers at 37 seconds and is currently lying seventh, 38 seconds back, meaning he is definitely still in the running.
But in what is his 22nd Grand Tour, it'd be fair to say Roche has always shone the brightest in the Vuelta a España and this year is clearly no exception.
In 2017 he was part of BMC's winning team in the opening TTT, he has twice won stages here, in 2013 when he finished fifth overall and again in 2015. Even as far back as 2008, when with Credit Agricole as a second-year pro, Roche was narrowly defeated in a two-up sprint against Imanol Erviti (Movistar).
As for how wearing this jersey compares with his experience in 2013, Roche said he had had opposite aims back then, given he won a stage early on - the second day, a summit finish in Galicia - but missed out on the leader's jersey, only taking it six days later. This time, when he wanted the stage win, he got the lead instead.
As for how long he might be able to keep it, Roche said, "we'll see what happens with Nairo in the bonus sprints, how he's looking at things. But I'd certainly want to keep it longer than last time!"
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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