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Mont Ventoux
Photo ©: Sirotti

Roche junior steps out of the shadows

By Gerard Cromwell (irishcycling.com)

Roche during the Jnr. Tour of Ireland
Photo: © Shane Stokes
Click for larger image

The row of little white marquees that line the feed zone of this year’s World Cycling Championships in Zolder, Belgium, are almost indistinguishable from each other. Even the little placards with each country’s name on them are all the same size, the same colour and the same shape. About halfway down the row though, one tent stands out above the rest. There is a big Irish tricolour flying high over the entrance and there is a large crowd gathered inside and out. Inside, deep in the shadows of the tent, stands one of Irish cycling’s bright new hopes, Nicolas Roche. He is surrounded by well-wishers, some draped in the tri-colour, and he smiles, poses for photos and converses politely with everyone, moving seamlessly from English to fluent French.

The cherubic looks. The angelic smile. Even his style on the bike, the way he rides, like a metronome, legs pumping like pistons with very little movement from the rest of his body. Irish cycling fans have seen it all before. In their heads they roll the clock back fifteen years or so, compare him to his father and they see a carbon copy of a future world champion.

Nicolas has grown up in the cycling shadow of his father, Stephen Roche. The family surname is enough to instil hope in the most pessimistic of Irish cycling fans. It’s enough to bring the youngster to the attention of the world’s cycling media even before his bike is unloaded from the team car. The pressure of expectation is always there. Could be another Tour winner! Could be another World Champion! He’s had 18 years of it now and just shrugs it off.

"I’m not too worried about the name thing" he says, having just finished the 128 kilometre junior (U/18) race. "Today I just wanted to do a good ride, get a result, as I had a very bad time trial on Wednesday. I was really disappointed about that. I was hoping to get a good result today, so I said I’d give it a go in the last few laps."

Like father, like son
Photo: © Shane Stokes
Click for larger image

Roche junior had showed earlier that not only does he have his father’s looks but he has also inherited some of his cycling talent. With three laps to go in the ten-lap junior race, Nicolas stormed across to a dangerous looking five-man breakaway group with Australia’s Nicholas Sanderson. One lap later they were joined by two more to make a nine man leading group. With the gap to the peloton hovering at a mere 26 seconds, these nine rode hard to maintain their lead. "With one lap to go," he says, "there were thirteen riders up there, with almost every strong nation represented. I thought we’d survive to the finish, especially when we got the bell. I was disappointed to be back in the bunch with half a lap to go. Then I got caught up in the first crash and lost my place at the head of the field and when I eventually got back up I was caught up behind another crash. There was no way I was going to get up in the sprint then. I had lost too much energy up the front earlier on."

The Roche name could also be a reason for his breakaway partners’ reluctance to work with the youngster. Nobody wants to help tow a group to the line and be beaten by the son of a Tour De France winner. "It felt very strange up the front," says Nicolas. "There was only really about five or six of us going through and the others were skipping a couple of turns pretending they were tired or eating, or drinking or whatever. We weren’t really organised. I think that’s what got us caught. I went through ten times more than some of them and I didn’t go through every time. The guy from Holland was very strong and he rode a lot.

With bunch sprints and mass crashes being the order of the day at this World Championships the junior race proved to be no exception. "It was like the film ‘Last Man Standing’" added Roche. "It was really dangerous. At the World Championships everybody’s nervous. There were guys pulling their brakes for no reason. You just had to be vigilant."

Nicolas gets some help from Dad
Photo: © Shane Stokes
Click for larger image

Stephen Roche admitted he was nervous for his son. One of only two men ever to have won the Giro D’Italia, Tour De France and World Championships in one season, Stephen stayed away from his son’s side for much of the day in an effort to relieve some of the media attention that was focussed on Nicolas. "The World Championships are like a lottery" he says, still standing outside the Irish tent and letting his son handle his own press attention. "Nicolas has been riding well and training really hard for this race. With the circuit not being as hard as he would have liked, Nicolas knew he’d have to do what he did, get away in a group rather than wait for a sprint. He rode brilliantly today. He was very upset with his ride in the time trial earlier on in the week, so he wanted to put in a good ride today. I think he can be very, very proud of the performance he put in today."

The number of crashes, including a mass pile-up in the finishing sprint which saw bodies being catapulted left, right and centre and a young Aussie rider finish the last 50 metres skidding along the tarmac at over thirty miles per hour on his face, had the former Tour De France star worried at times. "Like any father you worry. No matter where you are. You worry about him being hit by a car crossing the road. There is an element of danger attached to any sport, but you try not to think about it too much. You hope it doesn’t happen to him."

Next year, his first as a senior, is exam year for young Roche. "I’ll be taking next season nice and calm, nevertheless I’ll try my best to get some results and get into a bigger club the year after." With that, Nicolas Roche stepped out of the shade and joined his father under the spotlight of a waiting photographer. He could be there a while.