The Roches in Romandie

Nicolas Roche has had a solid season so far which has seen him rise to 40th in the UCI rider rankings. He’s had eleven top 10 finishes which include stages which finished in a bunch sprint and much more mountainous stages. He is proving his ability on a wide range of terrain. He placed 8th, 6th, 4th and 3rd on stages in Paris-Nice back in March, he also finished 9th, 8th, 6th and 3rd on stages in the hilly Volta a Catalunya where he also finished 5th overall. In addition, he took a 3rd place at the Swiss one day race, the GP dell’Insubria. But, unlike his compatriots Martin and Deignan he is still missing a big win on his palmarés.

Dan Martin won the Route du Sud in 2008, while Deignan took the biggest Irish win for 18 years by taking a stage of the Vuelta a Espana last year. Roche has had no such luck, despite remaining the most consistent of the three, so far he hasn’t got the wins that this consistency deserves. On Stage 1 of this week’s Tour of Romandie, he again took a top 10 placing, finishing 3rd behind Francesco Gavazzi and the increasingly impressive Peter Sagan. Roche is getting closer and you’d have to feel that the big win is only just around the corner.

His performance in Paris-Nice showed a remarkable consistency, only finishing outside the top 20 on one of the seven road stages. It could be said that Roche may be wasting energy by trying to be competitive on both the sprint and mountain stages. Roche is considered an outside favourite for the overall at the Tour of Romandie. Perhaps he would be better served leaving the bunch sprints alone and saving his energy to race against his G.C. rivals on the mountain stages later in the week. After all, we didn’t see the likes of Kreuziger, Valverde or Menchov battling out in the bunch sprint today. But this would be going against his instincts and betraying his competitive urge to rack up his first Pro Tour win. Perhaps he’s taking a leaf out of his father’s book…

When Stephen Roche won the Tour of Romandie in 1983, the first time he competed in the race, he didn’t win a stage but managed placings of 2nd, 3rd and 5th. The 2nd place was earned on the flat first stage, when he broke away from the bunch with Gerard Veldscholten. Roche lost the two man sprint for the stage and the prospect of the leader’s jersey to the Dutchman but the pair finished almost a minute and a half ahead of the bunch which left Roche perfectly poised to take the jersey when the race reached the mountains. This opportunity came on the hilly stage 3 when Italian Mario Beccia soloed home for the stage win with the Aussie Phil Anderson close behind in 2nd place. But right by Anderson’s side as he crossed the finish line was Stephen Roche. The pair finished just ahead of Grand Tour big hitters Roberto Visentini, Giovanni Battaglin and Lucien van Impe, but Roche had done enough to take the leader’s yellow jersey. Roche’s 5th place stage finish came on the final stage time trial where Phil Anderson in 2nd place overall was aiming to overcome a 51 second deficit to take the overall win. However Roche’s strength in the time trial was evident on the day when he beat Anderson by 4 seconds, slightly extending his overall lead and claiming his first Tour of Romandie.

Stephen Roche finished in the top 10 on a flat stage, a mountains stage and a time trial displaying his all round strength. He took this strength to another level the following year in 1984. He again didn’t win a stage but on his way to victory he took two 2nd places in the two time trials, along with 5th, 6th and 9th on road stages. He left the Tour of Romandie that year as only the second rider to win the race in two consecutive years. Reigning Tour de France champion Laurent Fignon won the opening prologue with Roche finishing just behind him. Roche followed this up with a solid performance in the mountains knowing he had the safety net of the final time trial to fall back on.

He finished in close proximity to all the subsequent stage winners, all of whom were really strong riders: Robert Millar, winner of stage 2, would go on to win the King of the Mountains jersey at the Tour that year. Bernard Vallet, winner of stage 3, won the polka dot jersey himself in 1982. Laurent Fignon, the redoubtable Frenchman and winner of stage 4 was in the midst of back to back overall victories at the Tour de France. Finally, Johan van der Velde was the winner of Stage 5a, a former winner of the Tour of Romandie, a winner of the White jersey at the 1980 Tour, and would go on to be a triple winner of the points competition at the Giro d’Italia.

After these stages, Roche remained in 2nd place on G.C., trailing the Scot Robert Millar by 10 seconds. However, Millar was not noted for his time trialling ability, the immediate threat to Roche’s chances at defending his crown came from the Swiss rider Jean-Marie Grezet who lay only 17 seconds behind the Irishman.  Grezet’s performance in the final time trial was enough to win the stage and beat Roche into 2nd place on the day by 20 seconds. But when bonus seconds were allotted, the pair found themselves exactly level on time after 6 days of racing. Roche was awarded the victory due to his superior stage placings throughout the week.

Even though Roche finished in the same group as Grezet on many of the stages, his willingness to battle to the front of the group to take a higher placing ultimately resulted in the overall victory. In an interesting aside, Grezet would also go on to finish 2nd that year on Stage 18 of the Tour de France. A stage which finished at La Plagne and which was won by Laurent Fignon. In 1987, Fignon would again win a Tour mountain stage to La Plagne, but that stage was more famous for the Tour winning heroics of Stephen Roche. The man from Dundrum would go on to win the Tour of Romandie again in his amazing year of 1987, no other rider has ever won this race three times.

Perhaps Nicolas Roche is aware of the tale of the 1984 Tour of Romandie. While I’m not suggesting that the overall may come down to a count-back on stage placings this year, I would be happier to see him at the front of the race all week than sitting anonymously in the bunch. He currently lies in 10th place overall with the hardest stages still to come. I applaud his swashbuckling attitude to racing and if he remains this consistent, a big victory will most certainly come his way…unlike Jean-Marie Grezet, who never won a major stage race in his career, and would never again come as close.

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