Irish ace Nicolas Roche targeted this year’s Giro d’Italia as soon as Belfast’s Grande Partenza was announced and, with the countdown to the first stage almost over, the Tinkoff-Saxo man is relishing the prospect of riding on the Emerald Isle.
Roche, 29, will be one of three Irishmen on the start line in Belfast – his cousin Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Team Sky’s Philip Deignan the others.
And after overcoming a troublesome knee injury in order to earn a spot with Tinkoff-Saxo, Roche – who finished fifth at the Vuelta last season – is keen to show his true form in the first Grand Tour of the season.
He told RCUK: “I’m excited, I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a long wait and now we’re finally there so I’m really looking forward to it.
“I’m not quite sure what I can achieve, but I would surely be disappointed if I didn’t make the top ten.
“I’ve never ridden the Giro for GC before, so I’m kind of in no-man’s land. But I’m hoping my form will get better as the Tour goes on, and when those hard mountain stages come in just over two weeks’ time I’ll be there.”
As the son of a former champion in Stephen Roche – whose Giro success formed part of his Triple Crown win in 1987 – Roche junior has found himself in the spotlight during the countdown to the Big Start.
I don’t feel like I have that extra pressure because of my Dad. I just want to do well because it’s in my nature to do everything as good as possible without trying to prove I’m a better racer than he is
But despite his famous father, the former Irish champion insists he has never felt the pressure of living up to the surname.
Nevertheless, he is keen to start proving his talent having impressed since switching to the Danish team last year, both as a domestique to Alberto Contador and as a contender in his own right.
He said: “I don’t feel like I have that extra pressure because of my Dad. I just want to do well because it’s in my nature to do everything as good as possible without trying to prove I’m a better racer than he is.
“I think he was one of the best riders of his time, and it would take a lot for anyone to achieve what he achieved. I’m definitely not in a competition against him.
“Actually, for me, it’s even better the fact that he won so many races because I think if he was fifth in the Vuelta you would be comparing with me, but the fact that he won so many at some stage I’d lose so many ‘battles’ against him that you get bored saying it.
“At least we’re playing in different fields. He has had his career and I’m very proud of what he’s done and I do my own stuff without worrying about whether or not I can be better than he was.
“I’m now almost at the age of 30 and I feel like I’ve only done four or five years pro, when in fact I’m starting my tenth. So in that respect I realise that I haven’t done a lot of things I was set to do and hopefully over the next few years I can compensate that.”
The Giro will spend three days in Ireland, starting with a team time trial in Belfast city centre, before the first road stage takes riders out to the coast and back to the Northern Irish capital.
The routes are pretty basic. There’s nothing crazy. I think it’s well balanced
Its stint on the Emerald Isle is then concluded with a stage from Armagh to Dublin and Roche believes organisers have selected a balanced route but does not expect it to hold any fears for himself and the other GC contenders.
“The routes are pretty basic,” he explained. “There’s nothing crazy. For the team time trial, I think it will be good. There’s a nice finish in Dublin to the three days, and the starts in Belfast and Armagh too so I think it’s well balanced.
“You can always re-do things over and again, make them more touristy for example and take in places like Kerry but I think with all the technical aspects the course is fine enough.”
Roche’s season so far has seen him take in the Tour of Oman and Tirreno-Adriatico alongside one-day races in Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo.
A knee injury ruled him out of the Ardennes Classics, prompting a slight reshuffle to his original race programme.
But fresh from completing the Tour de Romandie last week, the Irishman is happy with his shape ahead of the Grande Partenza.
“I felt I needed Romandie having had time off racing,” he explained. “You can train as hard as you want, but I think you also need that bit of speed that you can only get when you ride those WorldTour events.
“Hopefully now, with the hard work done coming into the Giro – all the training camps I’ve done as well as the Tour de Romandie to get to speed – things will work out good.”
Hopefully now, with the hard work done coming into the Giro – all the training camps I’ve done as well as the Tour de Romandie to get up to speed – things will work out good
Belfast is currently experiencing Giro fever, with pink taxis, big-screen advertising and cycling fans converging on the city.
Having watched his father compete alongside Sean Kelly, Roche junior is now part of what many believe is the next big era for Irish Cycling.
And the 29-year-old is keen to see the country continue its recent rapid development as young riders begin to make their mark in the upper reaches of the sport.
“I definitely agree Irish cycling is back on the up,” Roche told RCUK. “You have Daniel here as well and Philip is starting.
“You’ve also got the likes of Sam Bennett and Ryan Mullen and the guys are really progressing on the track with Martyn Irvine.
“There’s a great development in Ireland, helping things and pushing it forward. It took a while to get everything going but now it’s going and going for the better.
“There’s a project for the under-16s and I kind of created the Nicolas Roche Performance Team to give a chance to the juniors to go race abroad as well, so when they go away with the national team they are ready, rather than discovering it for the first time when they go away for a Nations Cup race.
“I think for the next few years, it should continue to develop.”
Obviously to see Alberto in such form it gives us hope for the Tour. I always said one of the reasons I joined Saxo was because I wanted to one day ride for someone who was good enough to win the Tour
More immediately however, Roche has the Giro d’Italia to contend with before he tackles the Tour de France for the sixth straight year.
At the Tour, Roche will ride in support of Alberto Contador – whose blistering start to the season has marked him as being right back to his best form.
But Roche insists while seeing El Pistolero performing is a lift – and leaves him eagerly awaiting the Tour de France too – he prefers to look after number one.
“To go back to the same idea as my Dad, I concentrate on my own stuff which is already hard enough,” he explained.
“But obviously to see Alberto in such form it gives us hope for the Tour. I always said one of the reasons I joined Saxo was because I wanted to one day ride for someone who was good enough to win the Tour.
“That didn’t happen last time but, realistically, I think this year we have a chance. Maybe last year we believed in it so much that even when it wasn’t working out we continued to believe in it.
“But this year, everyone’s said ‘OK, now we have a proper fight’. Froome has shown he is still the man in charge by winning at Romandie but Alberto has shown he is back to his best.
“For cycling fans I imagine it will be a great Tour to watch and very exciting. It’s been a while now where you have a race with two riders who can dominate wherever they go. We’re going to be there for a big confrontation in July now.”
It is difficult to argue with Roche’s assessment of the Tour, but as precursors go the Giro is set to be equally spectacular.
And Irish fans will be hoping Contador is not the only Tinkoff-Saxo man to impress on the Grand Tour stage this season.
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