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BAOINA, Spain (VN) — Thirty minutes before the start of Sunday’s second stage at the Vuelta a España, Nicolas Roche (Saxo-TInkoff) said he was feeling good coming into the Spanish tour.
The 29-year-old Irishman certainly didn’t waste any time proving it, pouncing clear in the final kilometer to win atop a steep first-category climb that saw Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) take the leader’s jersey.
The victory means everything to the son of cycling legend Stephen Roche.
“I’ve been so frustrated over the past few years. I’ve only won eight races, but I have had so many second places, also in both the Tour and in the Giro,” Roche said. “Today, I have finally won a big race. It’s a massive dream to finally win a stage at the Vuelta. I am overwhelmed to win here today.”
After riding in support of Alberto Contador at Saxo-Tinkoff at the Tour de France, the Vuelta is Roche’s chance to ride for results.
Roche has been knocking on the door of a big Vuelta performance for years. Since turning pro in 2005, the Spanish tour soon became central to Roche’s main goals.
His best results have come in the Spanish race, including a career-best grand-tour performance with seventh in 2010.
After riding his entire career for French teams, he switched to Saxo-Tinkoff this season, with very clear ambitions.
“I knew, coming to Saxo, I would be riding to support Alberto [Contador] at the Tour, and I think I did a good job this year at that,” Roche said. “Back in November, we planned I would race the Tour and Vuelta, with the idea of working at the Tour, and having freedom at the Vuelta. That’s the way I wanted it. The Vuelta has always been a very important race for me.”
With the stage win, and a 20-second winner’s bonus, Roche slips into second place overall at eight seconds behind Nibali.
Roche admits he’s not a top favorite for the Vuelta. With Contador skipping the Vuelta, Roche says there are “three or four captains” on Saxo’s deep Vuelta squad. He will share the race leadership with Roman Kreuziger, Chris-Anker Sorensen, and Rafal Majka.
“We are all friends, and we speak every day. Roman was fifth at the Tour, so we’re hoping he can have another great Vuelta,” Roche said. “If I can finish in Madrid in fourth, fifth, or sixth, I will be very happy.”
Roche on Alberto: ‘He wasn’t racing for second’
Roche had a front-row seat for the action at the Tour de France, where Contador faced off against, and eventually succumbed to, a superior Chris Froome (Sky).
Roche said Saxo-Tinkoff can “hold its head high” over its performance at the Tour.
Despite some brave racing and daring tactics, Contador was unable to take on Froome, and even suffered the humiliation of sliding from second to fourth in the final mountain stage at Semnoz.
Speaking to VeloNews before the start of Sunday’s stage, Roche said he was impressed as he watched Contador take it to Froome every chance they had.
“Alberto was at the Tour to win. He wasn’t there to be second. He attacked and tried something every single day, and I think he paid for it in the end, when he slipped to fourth, but you cannot say he didn’t try,” Roche said. “We made it an interesting race.”
Roche said the team threw everything they had at Froome, including attacks in crosswinds and on descents, all with the idea of trying to rattle the Sky machine.
“Every morning at breakfast, Alberto would ask, ‘What we can do today to try to destabilize Sky and win?’ That’s all he was thinking about,” Roche said. “Second, third, 10th, 15th; it wasn’t going to make a difference to him. All he wanted was to be sure that when we arrived to Paris, we had given 100 percent.”
Though some have wondered whether Contador can bounce back from such a defeat, Roche said he was impressed with Contador’s combative, risk-all style.
“It was a cool mentality, because some say it’s a pity, that maybe we could have had both Roman and Alberto on the podium. There are no regrets. The team rode a great tour. Alberto was there to race to win, and not race for second.”
It’s a mentality that Roche seems to be picking up on. With the biggest win of his career already in the bag, the Irishman vows to keep fighting.
Roche hopes to keep rolling all the way to Madrid, and into the world championships, and then finishing off the season at the Tour of Beijing in China.
“This is my favorite part of the season,” he said. “I’m excited about the next three weeks. I wasn’t in the best of shape for the mountains at the Tour, but I made up for it in the flats. I’m hitting this Vuelta in good shape.”