For those old enough to have followed his father Stephen’s career, the realisation that Nicolas Roche has been a pro for 14 years comes as a shock, given that the 33-year-old looks fresh-faced and boyish.
Be that as it may, ‘Nico’ has ridden for three of the biggest teams in the sport; SaxoBank, Team Sky and, currently, BMC, where his role is to support Richie Porte in the mountains.
All that adds up to a lot of experience and plenty of time to reflect on some of the changes he has raced through. As the end of the year approaches, it’s always a good time to reflect. So, Nico, how was 2017?
“I had a busy year,” states Roche, “I had plenty of race days, 92 in the end.” For all that the modern trend is for riders to actually race fewer days, that number means Roche put in a decent shift.
92 days is at the upper end of the ‘norm’ these days. Consider that ‘crazy’ Adam Hansen, he of riding three Grand Tours in a year, only clocked 93 race days.
If Roche still races less than they did in the 1980s, there have been other stresses and strains. “It’s a global sport, almost year round for staff if not all the riders. But if guys are expected to be competitive in Australia in January, they will have been training hard from the start of November.
“I raced in Australia, the Middle East, Europe, Canada and China this year and that’s not unusual. I was talking to Bernard Hinault and he was saying that it wasn’t so different, that he had raced internationally too – twice in Colombia and twice in America – in his 11 year career. I’d still say it’s changed,” smiled Roche.
Speaking of Bernie the Badger, Hinault recently revealed that in his first winter as a pro rider he had gained 12 kilos in the off season. Unthinkable today, according to Roche.
“I maybe gain three or four kilos and I feel guilty if I’ve not ridden my bike for a couple of days. I was invited to the F1 Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season for three days, I only needed to take carry-on luggage with clothes…and a bike box. In the end I rode my bike once.”
Roche shakes his head, perhaps in disappointment at his indolence or maybe wondering if he had taken his dedication too far. Three days off the bike in November hardly seems like an abrogation of professional obligations.
You can understand Roche’s conundrum, when the pressures of performance are felt in every race. “The racing has changed a lot, it is a lot more controlled, not because of teams using race radios, but because every team has a plan for every stage in the Tour.
“The GC teams have a plan and the sprinters teams are the same, nothing is really left to chance anymore, because the stakes are too high. The days when you could say, ‘OK, I’ll get in the break today’ are gone too, I mean, you can try to get the break, but there’s no guarantee, it’s a struggle to get in the break and you never know which move will actually go.
“And you can’t try to get in the break every day because you’ll end up too tired and the one day you make it to the finale, you won’t have the legs to finish it. There are a few riders who race like that.”
And speaking of race radios, where does Roche stand on the great debate? “I don’t think they’re a big problem, I think they can make the race more exciting sometimes, because the guys in the break and the peloton play off each other, trying to manage the gap, accelerating and easing up, both of them trying to hold something back for the finale and it can get really close, we saw that a few times this season.”
“I use mine in time trials to get reminders every now and then, to remind me to drop my head or keep the gears lower and spin more. It’s good to be told that you can go flat-out through a corner, although you’ve ridden the course in a recce, you can’t always remember everything in the heat of the race.
“But if it’s just someone shouting ‘Allez! Allez!’ in my ear well no, no, I don’t need to hear that!” Roche shakes his head and laughs.
Given that Roche was in Paris as part of an Assos shindig to celebrate the Swiss companies 40th birthday, it would have been ungracious not to ask him about changes to clothing.
“It’s funny, but when Assos became the team sponsor last year, I had guys coming up to me in the early races and saying that we were lucky to be riding in the kit. The company asked me what my first contact with Assos was and I said it was as a customer, when I was racing as an amateur in France!
“I mean, I couldn’t afford much, but I loved the overshoes, they looked so neat, so I bought a pair. I really feel the cold, that’s well documented, but the rain capes are so good, they’ve improved so much in recent years.”
And with that, Roche slipped off to a local gym. “They’ve got an exercise bike and I need to burn off that lunch, so it’s not training, but I’ll do an hour on it.”
The life of the modern racer – calibrated down to the calorie.