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Nicolas Roche may have hung up his WorldTour bike at the end of 2021 but the 38-year-old has remained in competitive shape, and on Sunday he will race in the elite men’s category at the UCI Gravel World Championships in Italy.
Roche had a successful WorldTour career that spanned three decades and included national titles and two Vuelta a España stages. When he eventually called time on his career last autumn he had no plans to become a gravel racer but over the winter he began to slot in a handful of off-road rides into his busy schedule, and before he knew it his younger brother Alexis had encouraged him to sign up for his first gravel race in France.
“When I was back in Ireland during the winter I started to get into riding my gravel bike. It was handy as a winter bike because of the weather and then my brother called me about a big gravel race in June with the UCI series. I did a month-long trip with Bianchi during the Giro and I was on the bike every day for it,” Roche told VeloNews ahead of Sunday’s race.
“That got my fitness up and I was in the front group at the race until I punctured three times. I enjoyed it and realized I needed to work on my technique. Then my brother pointed me to another race in Italy and I really enjoyed it. This has been something that I’ve really pushed myself for. From there I qualified for worlds in the summer.”
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In fact both brothers qualified and the pair will represent Ireland. Nicolas will compete in the pro elite race and will rub shoulders with many of the riders he competed against in the WorldTour, with Peter Sagan, Nathan Haas and pre-race favorite Mathieu van der Poel all on the start list.
Given that Roche hasn’t raced pro riders since his retirement it’s hard to determine where he stands against the favorites ahead of the race. His form is moving in the right direction, with consistent mileage in training over the last few months and a handful of races already ticked off.
“I’m pretty competitive. Obviously I can’t compare myself to someone who has raced the Tour de France or someone who has prepared for the world championships, so I have to be realistic but I’ve averaged about 15 to 16 hours a week since May,” he said.
“I’m missing about ten hours a week compared to last year because of work commitments with TV and Trinity Racing but I’ve managed to get in a couple of 20-hour weeks along the way. I’ve not been able to follow a proper training program but I’m curious to see how I compare. I’m not at my Tour de France level weight but I’m where I was at the end of last season, which I’m happy about. I’ve not done 190km this year though.”
Whatever the result, Roche has found a new lease of life on the European gravel scene over the last few months. While he hasn’t yet raced gravel in the United States he’s learned to appreciate the balance of competition and camaraderie that the discipline is built on.
“I like the whole adrenaline and the adventure of it,” he added.
“I also think that I’m the type of rider suited to gravel. I feel like there’s a lot of breakaway style riding in gravel, with riders going deep and really managing their efforts. I like the idea of pacing yourself for hours and doing it just for yourself.”
“The riders in the gravel community have been really great when it comes to giving me tips and advice. It’s incredible when your direct competitors, the guys you’re trying to beat at the weekends, are giving you help and sharing their experiences with you. After racing we hang out for a beer and I really enjoy the camaraderie. We want to kick the shit out of each other in racing but then have a few beers in the evening. We’re not at the level of being pros and that makes it a lot more chilled out.”