- Lifestyle & Sports
- 06 May 16
His father Stephen Roche won the Tour de France. But while he hasn't quite achieved that eminence in cycling, Irishman Nicolas Roche has been up there among the top professionals in the sport for almost a decade now. In a fascinating interview, he talks about drugs, Paul Kimmage, Maria Sharapova – and lots more besides...
It’s fair to say that from the outset, 31-year-old Nicolas Roche was steeped in cycling. His father is Stephen Roche, who famously won the Tour de France in 1987, and he is also the nephew of former cycling professionals Lawrence Roche and Neil Martin. For good measure, he is a cousin of 2008 Irish road champion, Dan Martin.
Raised in France and Ireland (he spent a year in Blackrock College), Roche had the inevitable interest in cycling as a kid but he also enjoyed rugby and soccer. Turning professional as a cyclist in 2004, Roche subsequently rode for a number of teams, including Cofidis, Credit Agricole and Ag2r-La Mondiale. Now based in Monaco, in 2015 the cylist transferred from Saxo-Tinkoff to Team Sky: he helped Chris Froome to victory in last year’s Tour de France.
A forthright character who writes a regular cycling column for the Irish Independent, when Hot Press catches up with Roche, he is at the end of another hard day’s riding at the Volta, a Catalunya race. Though tired after the exertion, he is nonetheless happy to discuss some of the most important issues currently affecting cycling and sport in general.
PAUL NOLAN: I was reading your piece in the Indo today about the Volta a Catalunya, which you’re riding in at the moment. How’s it going?
NICOLAS ROCHE: It’s not going as well as we planned for the team – but that’s the beauty of sport. We’ve been really applying the pressure to try and get ourselves into it – even today, we attempted a new tactical approach. Froomey hasn’t been able to go for a win. This is his first race in Europe after returning from illness, so he has to get back into the rhythm. Nevertheless, we tried out some interesting new stuff.
You joined Team Sky at the start of last year. Has it been a big culture change?
There are 16 different countries in the team. You’re having a conversation at the dinner table and you find yourself going from English to Spanish, then jumping into Italian. Here tonight, we have a Spaniard, a Welshman, an American, a Dutchman – it goes on. We have eight riders and seven nationalities.
Having competed in the Tour De France several times, does it give you a greater appreciation of your Dad’s achievement?
Yeah, you do understand how hard it was to win. Obviously, it’s the central event on the calendar and it’s always a privilege to participate. It’s a completely different sort of race. The media interest is three or four times greater and it actually feels like the whole thing goes even more professional. In a way, you’re happy that the whole year isn’t like that – you wouldn’t be able to sustain that intensity for 12 months. But the Tour is a real adventure.
How tactical is the team’s approach?
There’s a strategy worked out early in the year. I suppose one of the things about cycling, and sport in general, is that it’s very hard to have a Plan A and just stick to that. Everything can change from one moment to another. There are 25 teams with a different strategy and they’re each trying to impose their own race on the others, so that’s why we’re communicating by radio with the sports director in the car. It’s not always about having our own thing – occasionally what other teams do can be beneficial for us.
Is it all geared towards Chris Froome winning?
Definitely, when you’re in a team like Sky, that’s the way it’s set up. To be in with a chance to win, everyone has to be 100% behind the team leader.
Have you talked to him about what it's like to win?
No, it’s not something we’ve discussed. Obviously, we were together when he won last time, so you kind of live the experience. Of course, we don’t get to go up on the podium and put our arms in the air – we just help him win it. We’re kind of on the same adventure, but the space he’s operating in is way bigger. We get a little glance at it. Winning the race is one thing, but dealing with the after-Tour stuff – he’s super busy.
Presumably there’s a lot of jealousy in cycling, when teams are just geared around one guy.
Jealously is everywhere in the world – you always want to go better than your neighbour. You want a bigger car, a better looking wife, a bigger house. Unfortunately, it’s part of the human make-up. I’m not saying everyone’s jealous, but you find it in every part of life.
Are riders building towards being the main guy, or do you just accept you’re a team player?
When you come to a place like Team Sky, it’s something you accept, or you don’t come to Team Sky. You choose if you want to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a massive pond. You’re not the main protagonist, but you’re part of winning the Tour – you’re part of that book. In my career, I've been through both phases. I rode the Tour a couple of times on my own and my best result was 12th. I could see that was alright, and maybe some day I could aspire to being in the top ten. But making that leap is massive – it’s almost the equivalent of winning. So when you come to Team Sky, it’s a different choice. You come to try and help Chris Froome win.
You had had a Twitter row with Paul Kimmage over the publication of the latest report by cycling’s governing body, the UCI. Do cyclists think of him as a real pain in the arse at this point?!
To be honest, for years it seemed that he was only after cycling. At some stage, a lot of people said, this is all he’s talking about. But look, how much did he contribute to the Lance Armstrong story? It’s good to see that he’s also now focusing on other sports, because personally, I felt that the exclusive focus on cycling was a bit unfair. Whereas now, it’s about doping in general. Yes, for many years, doping was a big issue in cycling – and still is. Everyone is fighting against it, but it’s still an issue, as it is in sport in general.
What other sports are you talking about?
It’s a massive issue in rugby, as you’ve read over the past six months. Now it seems that finally stories are coming out from tennis. Before, when someone was done, they’d just send them on holiday to Bora Bora for two weeks. They’d pretend the person was sick or on vacation, rather than taking a decision. It was dealt with internally – which was scandalous.
Paul Kimmage's specific criticism of you was that you should have been more vocal about that reform report from the UCI.
We did subsequently meet up and talk. It was good to have a chat with Paul. We discussed my responsibility and the power of my voice in the fight against doping. All he was saying was, I should talk louder – and I do talk about being anti-doping. But what he was saying was that I should do it even more. So we had a great discussion. Yes, initially he tweeted about that report, when I’d just briefly read what was going on. It was an interesting three or four hour interview.
Do you think he and other critics are wrong to be so skeptical about the current state of cycling?
No. Thanks to him, the whole Armstrong story was resolved. He really participated in that hunt, which was one of the biggest doping stories of the ’90s. So he’s not wrong. Unfortunately, there are always riders being caught. But on the good side, cycling is one of the sports that’s absolutely doing as much as it can to eradicate doping. It’d be difficult to do that, but it’s great that they’re fighting to limit it as much as possible, whereas other sports just don’t give a damn.
What ones in particular?
Look at Sharapova – you’re reading some articles about her and it’s like, ‘Oh, but she’s a role model for her country, forgive her'. Like, what the fuck? The girl’s using meldonium – which to me is fucking doping – for the last decade and she’s making 50 million a year. Sorry for my language, but people see a cyclist and they say, ‘Oh, he’s doping'. But this girl is caught doping and, you know: she’s still a role model. There is a massive difference in perception. But I read Paul’s article about Sharapova’s excuses and he said, 'You may as well laugh about them, because they’re not valid'. I thought it was a great article.
I asked Paul specifically about Chris Froome winning the Tour de France, and he seemed suspicious. Do you think he’s wrong about that?
Well, I definitely hope so with regard to Team Sky, because I’m not doping and I certainly hope my teammates aren’t. But there are many cyclists in the world and I’m not monitoring what they’re doing at home. I just hope that most of them are honest about the job. All I’m saying is that cycling is doing a lot to prevent doping, but it would be very foolish to believe that there is no doping.
Have you encountered it directly?
Another big issue in sport currently is racism. You don’t see many black faces in cycling.
It’s coming. In the last three or four years, you’ve had the arrival of a team from South Africa. Initially they were called Qhubeka. They’ve done a huge amount to promote the sport and really given a chance to riders. In the beginning, some were from Eritrea. Here in Catalunya, I would say there are five or six people from outside the traditional cycling bases, so obviously it’s a minority, but it’s starting. That particular team are doing a lot to promote African cycling. There are a few Algerians and Moroccans on the scene now as well. In the same way, there aren’t many Asians. There are a few Japanese and a few Chinese, but it’s still a very central European or North American sport.
Is that because traditionally, cycling was more of a middle class sport like tennis?
Maybe not middle class, but to start you have to be able to afford a bike. Obviously, in Europe, sooner or later in your life, you get a bike for Christmas. Whereas, I’m not sure that every kid in Africa has that chance, so that’s the first step.
You grew up for a while in France, which is obviously very multicultural.
Well, when I was 12 I wasn’t thinking about whether my mate was black or white. I’m quite open – I live in Italy, I’m married to a Spanish wife, I speak four languages, so I’ve no issues with that. But when you’re 14 or 15, you’re not going to races with that on your mind. I’m not judging my partner on the bike on his colour. But I don’t think there’s been as many cases of racism in cycling as there has been in other sports. I don’t think there’s any segregation – I think that they’re quite welcome actually. Which is a big difference, because there are other sports where there is severe racism.
On a lighter note, when you’re doing a long race and you have to go to the bathroom, is it true that you sometimes have to go as you’re cycling?!
You have to stop and have a piss! And then you expend a bit more energy to get back to the bunch. It’s a general feeling – there’s always a moment in the race where it slows down, and that’s when you take the opportunity to release the pressure!
Presumably Team Sky’s ambition this year is to win the Tour de France again.
Obviously, yeah. I’m in the pre-selection, but the actual team is only announced on the Friday beforehand. To keep everyone on their toes as much as possible, the team is only released a couple of days before. On the Friday or Saturday, you get the yes or the no.
Is that a fraught time?
It is, especially because I absolutely love the Tour and it’s something I look forward to, regardless of whether I’m going on my own or as a team member. For the last seven years I haven’t missed one, and I don’t want to miss to it.
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 11 Jan 18