September 17, 2010 by Irish Peloton
Climbing, time trialling and a bit of glic
With two stages to go in the 2010 Vuelta a Espana, Irishman Nicolas Roche currently lies in 7th place in the overall classification. Sunday’s stage is a criterium race around the Spanish capital Madrid. It is akin to the Champs Elyseés stage of the Tour de France and will almost certainly come down to a bunch sprint and as such will have no effect on the General Classement. This leaves Stage 20 as the final opportunity for Roche to gain time. Or phrased another way, it is the final hurdle to overcome in his quest not to lose time.
The overall times of the riders above and below Roche are so close going into this penultimate stage. Joaquim Rodriguez in 4th place and Carlos Sastre in 9th are separated by only 34 seconds. Roche lies just about in between these two riders on time, while Frank Schleck, Xavier Tondo and Tom Danielson also find themselves within this 34 second bubble. After Phillipe Gilbert impressively won Stage 19 there was some confusion about the G.C. (I was mightily confused anyway), after Eurosport’s graphic after the stage showed Roche in 6th place, up from 8th. Frank Schleck was no where to be seen. I can’t pretend I wasn’t delighted at this curious turn of events, had Frank Schleck completely blown? But it wasn’t to be for Roche, who has since been moved back to 7th from 6th with Schleck reclaiming his rightful position in 5th. Apparently the champion of Luxembourg had punctured within the final three kilometres, so he was attributed the time of the group he was in before he punctured. This group finished 15 seconds down on Gilbert (but a not-to-be-sniffed-at six seconds behind Roche’s group).
If things go well for Roche he could end up in 4th which would be a phenomenal achievement, being Ireland’s highest ever G.C. place at the Vuelta since Kelly won the whole thing in 1988. But does Roche have the potential to up his game that extra few per cent? Will he ever have what it takes to win a Grand Tour?
I came across an article recently in the September 1993 edition of Cycle Sport magazine in which Stephen Roche is interviewed about what it takes to win the Tour de France. Now obviously winning a Tour is harder than winning a Vuelta (just ask Seán Kelly, Tony Rominger, Alex Zulle, Denis Menchov etc. etc.) but the underlying principles remain the same. Roche talks about four vital areas required by any potential Tour winner. The first two aspects that Roche mentions are climbing and time trialling. “So far, so obvious” says the article. These are aspects which Nicolas Roche can work on over the winter months. They are aspects of racing which are measurable and there are training methods which if followed properly can improve a rider’s ability, as long as they have the natural capacity to improve. It is the second two aspects of racing which Stephen Roche discusses that are perhaps more interesting but are far less tangible. Here’s an extract of the article which I hope Cycle Sport will forgive me for quoting extensively from:
The third factor is not something a rider can develop except with experience. ‘You’ve got to be able to understand and read things. Whenever a group goes up the road, I know who’s in it. I always see it. It annoys me sometimes, because people always come and ask me who’s away. I may not know the names, but I’ll know the teams and can calculate who will go next, so if I miss it the first time I’ll get the second boat. A lot of riders can’t grasp this. Even when I’m riding at 20 kilometres per hour and nothing is happening, I’m watching what is going on. A lot of riders switch off.’
Roche points out: ‘After the first week there are several races going on within the race: for the green jersey, the mountains jersey, the team prize, all of which are fairly prestigious. There’s not usually any specific arrangement entered into by teams, it’s fairly automatic that these teams will work under certain circumstances, so without doing anything else you get a hand.’
Obviously, if you’re aware of who is where on the road at a given time, and have the ability to work out quickly whose interests a particular break serves, and whose interests a break goes against, you can calculate roughly who may react in a given way, and plan accordingly.
This leads into Roche’s fourth item, where we begin to enter the realms of cycling’s imponderables. ‘You have to be able to find help when you need it,’ is how Roche introduces his quick guide to the alliances which can make or break a Tour winner. He points out: ‘One of Indurain’s strong points is that he’s friends with everyone, even if it’s diplomacy, he just gets on with them. If Chiappucci had more friends in the peloton he would have won at least one Giro by now. It was one thing which helped me a lot when I won the Tour.’
He warms to his theme: ‘When I had a bad day at l’Alpe d’Huez in 1987 I got help from Luciano Loro, a guy at Del Tongo who I spoke to every now and then. He saw I was in a bad way and rode tempo.’
He adds: ‘At La Plagne Delgado attacked me at once on the climb when I’d been away. I had to be intelligent and cool enough not to panic. Loro and Denis Roux of Z rode for me. I didn’t ask them. Their tempo was just right: I couldn’t have gone any faster.’
These spontaneous alliances, says Roche, are part of being a good diplomat, and are formed on a ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ principle. ‘They know it could happen that on another stage they’ll get away and you will turn a blind eye. You know that’s why he’s doing it, not because you’ve got blue eyes.’
This third aspect, the ability to see and evaluate how the race will develop, has been rendered largely moot by the advent of race radios. Instead of riders being required to come to these conclusions on their own and formulate an appropriate plan, they have a directeur sportif watching the telly in the team car and then barking instructions accordingly. As Christian Vande Velde once said “You become dependent on these radios. You can’t think for yourself so you become braindead”.
Indeed, Nicolas Roche has grown up in the era of race radios and has definitely not been required to think for himself as much as his father did, but what Stephen Roche talks about is still very much a requirement of a successful rider. Stephen Roche was famous for it. He had an abundance of it. But what is ‘it’? Perhaps it could be described as guile or being race savvy. But the best word I can come up with to describe it is the Irish word ‘glic’. It’s translated in the Collins dictionary in front of me as ‘Cute, Smart, Intelligent, Wise, and/or Cunning’. ‘Glic’ – sums it up nicely I feel. But does Nicolas Roche have it? I would have to say…not yet.
I recall Paris-Nice this year, where Roche got a number of high stage placings but failed to convert any of his opportunities into wins. He seemed all too willing to be the fall guy who chased down the last minute attack only to be left with a depleted store of energy when it came to the group sprint. Stephen Roche himself has said “In order to win, you have to be willing to lose”. Perhaps the pressure of landing a big victory, which still eludes him, is playing on Nicolas Roche’s mind.
There was also a stage in this year’s Tour de France in which Roche exhibited unorthodox race tactics. On Stage 16 into Pau, seven minutes after Armstrong’s breakaway group had crossed the line, the peloton came barreling home led by Thor Hushovd who was hoovering up Green Jersey points. Huffing and puffing just behind Hushovd in this sprint for 10th place was Roche. For a rider who was aiming for a high G.C. place and nothing more, why was he taking part in a sprint like this? It is fair enough for a G.C. rider to stay close to the front of a bunch sprint in order stay out of trouble and avoid crashes, but Roche was full on sprinting. I didn’t understand it.
However, Roche has displayed a bit of a wise head in this year’s Vuelta on Stage 16 when Frank Schleck attacked on the Alto de Cotobello. Roche was in 6th place on G.C., only one second ahead of Schleck. But by not panicking and trying to follow Schleck’s wheel, he managed to ride at a pace he could sustain the whole way up to the finish. Had he overreacted and tried to follow Schleck he would have run the risk of blowing completely and losing a lot more than the 36 seconds he ended up conceding.
But annoyingly, on Stage 19, although the climb in question was tiny in comparison, he seemingly did the opposite. Luis Leon Sanchez attacked along with Dario Cataldo before the foot of the final climb, Roche attacked out of the bunch himself and tried to follow but couldn’t quite get on to the back wheel. Perhaps Roche was worried about Sanchez who lay in 10th place overall, or perhaps he had his eye on the stage win, which had he nabbed, would have seen him move from 8th to 4th due to the bonus seconds on the line. Either way, he should have known to remain calm and stay close to eventual stage winner Phillipe Gilbert, who I would say, has ‘glic’ coming out of his ears. Had Roche saved his energy and followed Gilbert around, he could have gained even more seconds back on his closest rivals.
As for Stephen Roche’s fourth point in the Cycle Sport article, I doubt us mere fans will ever be totally privvy to the wheeling and dealing that goes on in the bunch. But young Roche seems like a well-liked affable character. And while it would be nice to have all three top Irish riders on the one team in the future, ’tis no harm to have them spread out on different teams fighting your corner when you need it most. Roche can be busy working on his ‘glic’ in the meantime. After all, according to Mark Twain, “good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgement”.