Year after year, history has repeated itself in the best way possible for Nicolas Roche (BMC Racing Team) at the Vuelta a España, with consistently successful results for the Irishman. And, so far, 2017 is not looking any different.
The 33-year-old currently lies third overall, at 13 seconds from race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky). After BMC's win in the opening team time trial, Roche has – barring the lung-bustingly steep ascent to Santa Lucía, where he lost 11 seconds to Froome – been in the front group on all of the mountainous stage finishes.
"So far so good. The stages we've done are the ones that suit me better – the ones where I struggle will be like the Angliru which is that bit longer," Roche told Cyclingnews before stage six.
"The Vuelta's a race I look forward to every year, one that suits me and I know how to be ready for it. Some years it works better than others, I had several crashes in 2015 but still managed to win a stage and I'm looking forward to the next few weeks."
Compared to other seasons, Roche says, "my form's very similar to other years, although I think this time round there's a higher level of GC contenders than other Vueltas. You just have to look at the results sheet to see how many are here."
His objective, with or without the stiffer opposition, is to go for the general classification. "I could also say 'all right, I'm in good condition, I'm going to go for breakaways and try for a stage'. But at this point in my career, whilst it's important to win races, I've been riding in support for the last couple of years and I think it's important to show I can still do GC."
Roche pointed out that last year he missed out on the Vuelta because of illness, a big blow given he believes he had better overall form than this August, and even more so because the Vuelta is a race where he's always shone – no matter the season.
"I realise in cycling people have a short memory – about three months long at most. But that's normal, and I know what I am capable of doing in the Vuelta. If you look back to 2008, I've been competitive in this race every single year.
"Some years I've been better than others, but I've been 12th , 11th , the race leader [in 2013], sixth [in 2010], fifth [in 2013], and I've won two stages [in 2013 and 2015].
"So I've been there and about and I recently read that I had 36 top 10s on stages here in the Vuelta."
So far, BMC Racing Team have had the strongest of starts to the Vuelta, beginning with a team time trial victory in Nimes. Tejay van Garderen has impressed alongside Roche and lies fourth overall behind Roche, even if that might have been second had he not crashed twice on Thursday's stage 6.
"It was very important for BMC to do that because it was one of the biggest goals of the Vuelta so it was great to get that done. And myself and Tejay are up there with the best and hanging on there.
"We've got loads of mountain-top stages to come, there's still a lot to go, and it's not because we've done two right that we're going to do all of the rest right. The second weekend and the third week are going to be crucial, so me and Tejay are not getting over-excited. But we're taking it day by day and making the most of as long as it lasts."
However, it's not all been good news for BMC Racing in this year's Vuelta, unfortunately. The team indicated to Cyclingnews before the interview that Roche would not take questions about teammate Samuel Sánchez, who has been suspended following a positive doping test ahead of the Vuelta.
The Irishman addressed the issue in his column in the Irish Independent earlier this week, writing that he was "disgusted" by the news.
Back on the race, BMC came through Thursday's tough stage in the sierras of Valencia with their two GC options intact and, as Van Garderen said later, "it's great we've still got two cards to play".
"It was a tough day in the saddle all right," Roche said after the stage. "We knew it would be a hard day, one for the breakaway, and that climb [the Puerto de Garbí, where Alberto Contador attacked] made for a whole lot of fireworks behind. So there were two races in one – the breakaway and then us in the back. I hung in as best as I could and I was staying in the middle of the chasing group, hoping Tejay might come back and then I rode through the line."
As for Friday's Cuenca stage, another potentially tense finale beckons. Roche hasn't done the final climb before, but predicts - 100 per cent accurately - a tricky finish, with an 11.7km run-in to the line from the top.
"Just the name, Alto del Castillo, [the Climb of the Castle - Ed.], you can imagine, there's going to be a castle on top, with narrow, switchbacks, just with experience and a bit of imagination you can see what's going to be coming. I saw on YouTube, back in 2006 when they last did it, they split on the descent, so that's a point where you'll have to be very careful."
He warns: "It's good to be there up after a week, but I also know that every Grand Tour is full of traps and you have to be always, always focused for the whole three weeks. Anything can happen, from hunger flats to crashes, and you have to take it day by day."
But so far for Roche, so very good, and there's no doubt he can use his huge back catalogue of Vuelta experience - for worse, but also for better - to read the race well and anticipate at least some of the potential pitfalls. In a race as tough as the 2017 Vuelta, that will surely count for more than a little.
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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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