By Bjorn Haake in Las Rozas and Shane Stokes
Nicolas Roche (Crédit Agricole) posted one of his best results in his young pro career when he ended the Vuelta a España stage 18 in second place, only centimetres behind winner Imanol Erviti (Caisse d'Epargne). In fact, it was the best Irish Grand Tour stage result since his father Stephen won a stage of the Tour de France in 1992.
An exhausted Roche stood at the finish, huffing and puffing. Some people were still suggesting he may have won the race, but eventually the news was broken to him that he finished second in the close sprint against Erviti. Roche's head dropped and he looked very disappointed, having come so close to a major victory. "I am frustrated, it's a pity," Roche said. "You only get a few opportunities like that, they don't come along too often."
But soon his smile came back, as he was explaining his finish to Cyclingnews. "There was a sharp corner 500 metres from the line," he said. "I was hoping the sprint would go from a long way but they stalled after the corner and started looking at each other. The other riders who were behind were getting closer to us, so it was a risk."
Asked if he went too early, he agreed. "I did, but the rider from Caisse d'Epargne was very strong. He did a lot of riding in the final bits. On the corner I was a bit behind. He went strong at the bottom, so I thought if they'd slow two seconds I could go a bit early."
As it turned out it was too early, as Erviti was firmly attached to Roche's back wheel as they struggled up the final hill. Erviti then came past Roche and looked like the easy winner. But Roche was not giving up just yet. "I sprinted again to try to get back to him. But he was very strong and a good winner." No sooner had he said that, the winner of the day rolled by and the two shook hands, with mutual admiration for each other's efforts.
Roche was overall pleased with his Vuelta. "I am happy. The goal was to get into the break and maybe get a bit of time in the GC. I came here saying the most important was going for stages, but the way things went I was well placed in GC. Today and tomorrow were the last two chances. Today was definitely my better chance than tomorrow."
The game plan for Friday's stage 19 was clear. "I will just try to hang in... It is a tough day, with two first category climbs. I have no idea how it will go. It is pretty tight on GC behind me, only four seconds back to the next rider, but I will hopefully keep my place. Okay, there is not much difference between thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, but I'll keep pushing. It all depends on how I recover, then I'll try to do my best in the time trial."
While a high stage placing was always possible, few would have expected him to be so high up in GC at this point. Roche is himself surprised, although he said that he had intended trying to do well in the overall classification, 13th at the moment.
"I have always shown good qualities in stage races," he stated. "That said, I didn't see myself up in thirteenth overall. When I spoke to the team manager before the Vuelta, we said we'd see how it went. The plan was to try to be in around 25th or 30th place, then maybe get into a ten minute break in the final week. However I wasn't expecting to be up in seventeenth and to go to thirteenth overall."
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