Just over a month ago, there appeared to be a real question mark over the chances of Nicolas Roche riding this year's Tour de France. A torn hamstring saw him pull out of the Tour de Romandie and forced him to take two and a half weeks completely off the bike. However, a quick return to form has put him back into contention for what would be his second ride in cycling's biggest event, giving him a chance to build on a strong debut last year.
Roche was fourth in the GP Canton d'Argovie last Sunday, then netted 21st in yesterday's stage one time trial in the Tour de Suisse. The latter performance was hindered by wet weather which saw him hold back on the descent, and so perhaps a better reflection of his form can be derived from the fact that he ended up third-quickest at the intermediate time check, which came close to the top of a long hill.
"I didn't want to take any risks, and I lost a fair bit of time on the descent and the last two kilometres, where there were three corners," he told Cyclingnews after the stage. "I didn't want to chance falling. But I was happy with the first part, as I had one of the best times at the top of the climb."
Roche again rode well on stage two, being prominently placed on the climb near the end of the stage and moving to 15th overall. Despite the layoff, he said that he knew his form was solid prior to this return to racing.
"I wasn't surprised [to get fourth in the GP Canton d'Argovie] because even though I had only re-started, I had done my usual test climbs when I was training and my time was good enough," he said. "So I knew that even if I wasn't at my top, that I was competitive."
It is important for him to show his AG2R La Mondiale team that he is in good condition despite his layoff. Making the Tour squad appeared to be a given prior to his injury, thanks to results such as 10th overall in Paris-Nice, fifth overall in the Volta a Catalunya and a smattering of high stage placings in those events, plus the Tour of Romandie.
Once he was sidelined from the bike, he knew that the pressure would be on to secure his place on the nine-man team for July's big event. He swam regularly during the period when he wasn't allowed to train, and also ate very carefully in order to lose weight and bring his body fat down.
Now, returning to racing and straight away showing good form sends a message to team manager Vincent Lavenu. "I think it is important to do so," the 25-year-old said. "It's saying, ‘okay, I was injured, but I did a lot of work and everything and stayed very focussed during those three or four weeks.' If I was hoping to make the Tour team, I knew I had to work hard; doing swimming to keep fit, losing weight. The other option would have been to instead aim for the end of the season. If I wanted to do the Tour, I had to do everything right."
Roche was originally due to do the Dauphiné Libéré but his disrupted schedule saw the team switch him to the Tour de Suisse. That gave him an extra six days to get ready. Now that he's got some form, he plans to do something in the race and prove that he deserves a berth on the team for France.
"I will have a different approach to the usual races. I don't think I am going to chase the sprints like I usually do," he said. "There are two sprinters on the team here and I will let them take care of that. I will just try to focus on the mountain stages…I am not saying that I am going to win them, but I'd like to try to follow the best guys and see how I do. It will be good for the experience.
His plan is to pick and choose his moments, using energy where it is most needed. "It is important to approach this race as not just trying to win my place in the Tour, but also riding it as the Tour de Suisse is an important event in itself," he said.
"I'll try to do well, but also will keep the Tour in mind. That means that I am not going to go full gas every day. I won't be up there fighting for fourth and fifth place in the sprints, but will try to save energy for the important stages."
The AG2R La Mondiale team is likely to finalise its selection for the Tour de France the evening of June 27th. The various national championships are held that day and the team management will study the results as part of its selection. Roche won the Irish championships last June and earned the right to wear one of the most distinctive champion's kits in the peloton. Clad in a white jersey and shorts and with a thick green band running horizontally around his chest, he was very easy to spot during last year's Tour. Placings of second, third, eighth, eighth and tenth on stages also helped, as did a very solid 22nd overall.
His plan is to win the championships again this month, then return to the Tour de France and improve upon what was a very solid debut one year ago.