In the end, Nicolas Roche was greeted with cold water rather than champagne in Vejer de la Frontera after stage 4 of the Vuelta a España. His late attack ahead of the uphill finish looked set to land him victory, but the stage would prove to be 100 metres too long and he would have to settle for fourth.
Rather than enjoying the acclaim of the crowds from the podium, Roche would end his day sitting on the road just past the finish line with just his soigneur for company, pouring water on his face. In time, a group of reporters gathered around the stricken Roche, who managed to arrange his tired grimaces into a smile as he rose gingerly from the tarmac to speak with them.
“Today I thought I’d chance it, you know,” Roche said, now sitting on the top tube of his bike. “These are the types of finishes that I usually like and I thought I might as well make the most of my form on these types of finishes at the start of the Vuelta.”
Roche swooped across to Samuel Sanchez’s wheel with a shade under two kilometres to go when the former Olympic champion attacked ahead of the short descent that preceded the final uncategorised haul to the line.
Once the gradient began to bite once again, Roche rid himself of Sanchez, and though the peloton was closing rapidly, it appeared for time as though the Irishman had enough in reserve to hold on for the win and perhaps even take the red jersey of race leader to boot.
As eventual stage winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) started their sprints in the final 200 metres, however, Roche was swept up and he had to settle for fourth place on the stage. He remains in third place overall, 15 seconds down on Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge).
“When I saw Samu go, I thought this is great because I could get a bit of a head start on that last kick but when I looked back at that 175 metres to go sign, I could just feel the air coming from behind and I said ‘Aw,’” Roche said matter-of-factly. “That was it and Valverde won.”
It was Roche’s second impressive cameo at this Vuelta, following his third place finish at Caminito del Rey on stage two. Like at the Tour de France, Roche’s main brief in Spain is to support the overall aspirations of Chris Froome, but the racing here is not as tightly-controlled as in July, and he has been given ample licence to roam when the occasion arises.
“There’s a bit more freedom than at the Tour. We have [Mikel] Nieve, [Sergio] Henao and myself on the climbs, and I have a little bit more freedom on these first few short climbs,” Roche said.
“At the Tour it’s quite different. You can’t afford to lose any energy, you need to have the strongest rider and have the strongest team around him. But in the Vuelta or the Giro, you can play your cards a bit differently, so it’s great that the team are letting me go with the flow a bit on these short climbs.”
Roche was adamant that his newfound liberty should not be interpreted as a suggestion that Froome’s form is not sufficient to claim overall victory in Madrid. The Tour winner more or less broke even with his general classification rivals at Caminito del Rey two days ago, after all, and he finished safely in the front group on Tuesday.
“Ah, you know, he’s ready,” Roche said. “At this stage, if he wasn’t ready he would have done another programme so I strongly believe that the Vuelta is right for him. It’s a perfect TT [on stage 17 in Burgos – ed. ] for him and I know it’s two weeks away and there’s a long way to get there, but I think that TT is really suited to him.
“Even if he was only at 90 per cent, he’s still Christopher Froome, twice winner of the Tour de France, so I’m confident in my team leader and the team.”
Roche’s own apparent Indian summer of form, meanwhile, is in keeping with the tenor of a career where his star has so often shone more brightly in August and September in Spain than at any other point in the year.
“It’s always been like that since I was a kid, I have a hard time at the start of the year and then I slowly build up,” Roche said. “And usually the Vuelta is the race where I can actually be on the attack and go for it.”
Despite a Vuelta back catalogue that includes 6th and 5th placed overall finishes (in 2010 and 2013, respectively), Roche dismissed the notion that he might combine this early aggression and his obligations to Froome with his own tilt at a high finish in Madrid. “No,” he said. “Definitely not when I leave all that energy on these attacks.”