For the second time in three years, Nicolas Roche has claimed a victory in a mountainous stage of the Vuelta a Espana, this time outpowering Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing) to clinch Sky's first win of the 2015 race just four days out from Madrid.
After a hugely impressive start in Caminito del Rey and consistent riding on the climbs that followed, Roche's race went askew when he crashed on the descent from Alto de los Desiertos, his second - and far worse - fall in as many days. "Nothing broken, but I'm sore all down my right side," Roche said at the time. "It would be easier to tell you where it doesn't hurt."
Fast forward ten days and although his GC options took a mauling, Roche was determined to fight on, with his reward coming after he made it into the break of the day on stage 18, then, having attacked on the final climb of La Quesera, he outduelled Zubeldia at the finish in Riaza. This was despite the fairly major distraction for the Irishman of being badly stung by an insect three kilometres from the line.
"In the sprint, the two of us really co-operated from the moment when he caught me on the Quesera to two kilometres to go," Roche said afterwards.
Curiously enough, one of the first times Roche shone in a Grand Tour was in the 2008 Vuelta, when he was outsprinted by Imanol Erviti at the end of a breakaway on a stage to nearby Las Rozas in the Vuetla's third week, after the Irishman, en route to a solid 13th place overall, had made his final acceleration too early. This time, there were no such errors.
"We agreed that if we wanted to make it work, we had to work to get to the finish together. We shared the load and it was good that neither tried to attack the other."
Roche said he knew their advantage on chaser Jose Goncalves (Caja Rural) was scant and, as he put it, "there was no time to mess around or we had it lost."
"Coming into the last sprint, Haimar has lots of experience, I've lost sprints against him in little groups when we've raced [the Clasica de] San Sebastian. So I should have been quicker, but it was still possible that he would be."
Roche explained that getting into the break was tactically not so straightforward because both Sky and Movistar are fighting for the teams classification, and "neither of us would let a rider get in the move without a guy from our own team being there. But it was great to be in the move, and then great to have good legs in the finale."
Although Sky has raced without Chris Froome since he was injured in Andorra, Roche concluded that although this has "not been the Vuelta that everyone wanted to see [in Sky], it's not been a bad Vuelta."
"It was a big blow losing Chris Froome, it was tough to lose the GC options I had, and I was really struggling with my hip. But we've also had good days, Mikel [Nieve, ninth overall] and Ian [Boswell, third in Andorra] have done good racing, [Salvatore] Puccio got second on one mountain stage. We've been very aggressive."
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