Two years ago on the second category ascent of Monte da Groba on the Vuelta’s stage 2, Roche had gone clear of a group of 25 riders in the final kilometre for a solo win, in the process becoming just the fifth Irishman ever to capture a Vuelta stage.
This time round, Roche followed a key move by Nairo Quintana (Movistar) halfway up the Caminito del Rey, and then pressed on with Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) and Tom Dumoulin (Giant Shimano) as the Colombian contender faded fast on the higher slopes of the climb.
The Irishman launched a full-on attack with around 1,500 metres to go but finally had to settle for third as Dumoulin and Chaves then made a counter-surge that left him out for the count.
That said, Roche is now third overall and simultaneously confirmed that he has come through the Tour de France and gone onto the Vuelta in excellent shape.
“It was a bit of a cat-and-mouse situation, and that’s not my favourite game. I’d have preferred a steadier tempo on the climb,” Roche told a small group of reporters after warming down on the rollers outside the Team Sky bus.
“I knew the climb from the recon we did [on Thursday] and when I went I thought I was going to get up there and give it my all. But I was a bit over-optimistic and it was a bit far, then when Chaves went, that was it, my card was played.”
Despite doing the recon. Roche admitted that he had actually forgotten one of the switchbacks on the middle of the climb, and “after the hairpin it went harder again and that was it.”
“I thought I’d get a gap and then I’d hold it, but there was no way, Chaves was, one, very quick to react and, two, he just left me there.”
Rather than stay with Froome, Sky had reached the collective decision that Roche would play his own card on the climb during the race itself.
"With about four to five kilometres to go, we were all there in the line. Then when the attacks started, Froomey said ‘Nico, if you want to follow, follow’, and I thought it’d be a good idea to follow early. So I did.”
As for the GC stars, Roche said he did not think that the top names were holding back in order to save themselves a spell in the red jersey of the leader. Rather, they were all playing a long game.
“They can afford to give guys like me 30 seconds. It’s an extremely hard Vuelta, one then watches the other who watches the other who watches the other, and when it’s a short climb like that, you quickly pick up 20 or 30 seconds if you go a bit slower.
“If it was a longer climb, they’d probably have got a team-mate with them, but it’s not massive gaps in any case and we’ll see over the next few days how things go.”
As for his own chances, the Irishman recognised that at one point he had thought he could do “the same as two years ago. It did cross my mind, I thought ‘yeah, f….cool, I’m in again, you know.”
“But it’s a bike race, I’ve had more thirds than victories. Still it’s good for the morale to be back into racing and to be attacking. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on the attack.” And with 19 stages still to come, it may well not be the last time the Irishman is in the thick of the action in the 2015 Vuelta."