Rider Announcement: Nico Roche

When he finally retired at the close of the 2021 road season, Nicolas Roche was one of the most experienced riders in the pro peloton, with a mammoth 17 seasons at the top of the sport.

Representing the likes of Sunweb, BMC, Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo and AG2R La Mondiale, his palmarès boasts 12 victories, including Irish road and time trial titles. There were two top 10 finishes at the Vuelta, where he won two stages and wore the overall leader’s jersey. He rode a huge 24 grand tours.

Since retirement as well as gravel racing he’s been working in brand ambassador roles and you may have heard him commentating in both English and French.

Nicolas inherited some of his sporting genes from his dad, Stephen, one of only two men to win the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and World Championships in the same year. Though he spent much of his childhood at home in Ireland, his dad’s work meant Nicolas spent a lot of time in France, and he currently lives on the Côte d’Azur.

It might be a lovely place to ride but after all those years at cycling’s coalface you’d have thought he’d have had enough of racing, especially with his other work, so why gravel?

NR: “Gravel didn't come to mind when I stopped. I stayed in Ireland for about four months and did Dancing with the Stars, I started just going on the bike again and I had a gravel bike. Although I was training most times on the road, I was enjoying it and took in a few trails here and there.

“My brother works for the Service Course in Nice and he's a gravel guide on weekends, so he was already doing gravel, so I went out a couple of times with him.

“I went off and did the Giro with Bianchi in May, and although we were filming most of the day I could go from filming spot to filming spot on the bike rather than the car. The last couple of weeks were in the Dolomites and I was really enjoying this, I just saw this off road as a complete new scene.

“I did an event with my brother [which] didn’t go too well, a lack of experience, hitting a rock, but I was like, ‘okay, I'll come back.’ I did one in Italy about a month later and I really enjoyed that. The idea initially was just kind of escaping with my brother and sharing time with the family because I've just been on the road for so long.

“My little brother and I do a boy's trip and do this race in Sweden and I loved it, Nathan Haas was there as well and he was introducing me to some of the gravel guys, and the last night we went out for a pizza and beer. I was like, ‘I like this vibe,’ and I felt I could be competitive, but also do other stuff, because my idea was not to go 100% in gravel.

“I then decided I want to see what's happening in the US, so I went that October for BWR [Belgian Waffle Ride] Kansas and Big Sugar.

“I think I found a sweet spot where I can train, stay fit, work with the brands, I can do everything now, I can be an ambassador, I can travel the world, race.

“All I want to do is be competitive, I don't have the pretension or the time to train to win and the level has gotten extremely competitive, but I train enough to have fun and be there in the mix as long as I can.

“I started focusing a bit more last year and I managed I think 15 or 17 races, I was nine or 10 times in the US, one time in Australia and then all the rest were Europe. So I managed to get quite some race days, and I'm going to do the similar programme over the next two, three years.”

The Gralloch: Can you ride without being competitive?

NR: “Even if it's against myself. When I train it becomes very frustrating where I'm not getting any PBs anymore, I’m already five or six kilos heavier but I'm also 20 or 30 watts less powerful. I did a test up the [Col de la] Madone and I was six minutes slower than my PB!

“I want to be competitive on my own terms. I hurt myself through my career but not too badly, and I don't want to hurt myself badly on a gravel race, so I will take considered risk, but if I have to pull the brake on a descent, because I feel I'm pushing my limits, or at the start because the guys are chopping me, I will touch the brake and make it later on.

The Gralloch: You had the brand ambassadorial roles but how difficult was it to get sponsors, Assos and Bianchi are iconic names.

NR: “The first two companies I started working with when I when I stopped was Ekoi and Assos and there was no plan of racing, it was about being a normal ambassador.

“Then Bianchi approached me to work on a really cool project called Giro Reflections, I had a lot of fun, we clicked and I felt that I could associate myself to the brand. The racing bits only started last winter [2022/23] when I was like you know what, I want to give it a go for a year or two.

“A friend of mine has a consulting business in London called Straight Line Consultancy and he said he was gonna support me. And then last but not least, SRAM, the whole group SRAM, Zipp, Hammerhead and Time pedals.

“I have also signed to be an ambassador with Nice Metropole which is the host of the [Gravel] World Championships in 2025.

"We're working on developing not only the course for the World Championships, but also developing gravel routes. Nice Metropole and the little cities around at the moment is very much road cycling and mountain bike, and we're trying to coordinate trails and actually classify some as gravel and have a proper gravel trail guide.”

The Gralloch: Was there any other sport for you bearing in mind your family heritage?

NR: “As a kid I was a very good cross country and then 400 metre runner, then I played soccer until I was probably 13. I was in Blackrock College playing rugby [but] I did my cruciate ligaments and that's when I focussed my sporting activities more on on cycling.”

The Gralloch: Was it difficult being a professional cyclist bearing your dad’s career in mind?

NR: “At the very beginning, especially being in a French team. A lot of the staff knew my dad so they they still had these memories of my dad winning Paris-Nice at 21.

“So although I was a good kid for the time, I turned pro at 20 which wasn't the normality back then, I didn't win Paris-Nice in my first year. I did win a race in my second year, but people expected me to be extremely competitive in my first year, I felt that was never good enough to reach expectations because I was Steven Roche’s son. I was a disappointing Steven Roche’s son for the first few years.

“I think the first year where people started taking me more seriously was in 2008. I won two races [he was second in a Vuelta stage and 13th overall] and I think I was the most kilometres in breakaways in the WorldTour over the year, so that was where people said ‘he’s actually not that bad, that young kid’.

“I wasn't exactly like my dad. My dad was really strong at time trialling and climbing, I was quite fast and robust and I could make my way in bunch sprints, so I had different qualities and people identified me as as a different rider.”

The Gralloch: What the moments that stand out the most?

NR: “There's a few. I would say the Vuelta in 2008 as a whole, because that was the first time I realised that maybe I should try focusing a little bit on GC. Then in my 2010 season where I really was pushing for GC and I finished sixth in the Vuelta.

“The next big one was winning my first World Tour in China because I already had second in the stage in the Vuelta, a second [in the] Tour de France in 2009, I was just always there and abouts, getting podiums and second paces, I hadn’t won a WorldTour race yet.

“I have to say that 2013 Vuelta because not only I was able to hang in there for GC, I wanted to try and fight for the podium, I didn't make it I made fifth, but I won my first Grand Tour stage.

“It was like okay, now whatever happens in my career I've won a Grand Tour stage, and I wanted to be in that in that category. I’ve had a top five in a Grand Tour and I wore a leader’s jersey, so that was ticking a lot of boxes that I had dreamt of.”

The Gralloch: What's been your gravel highlight so far?

NR: “I will say that Big Sugar race [2022], I finished fifth, that was the one that really made me click that I wanted to do gravel racing, spend some time in the US, go and explore the world and do stuff right outside my comfort zone.

“In terms of performance last year when I was second at BWR [Belgian Waffle Race] in Canada. I was defending second place and I pushed myself physically but also technically. I had two pro-mountain bikers trying to chase me down this last 10 kilometre downhill, that was one of the times where I had to unplug the brain a little bit and put myself back into real race mode. It was like nope, I've worked so hard to drop them on the climb they're not coming back in the descent, a mental thing just for my pride.”

The Gralloch: There’s no UCI race in Ireland, but the country has strong links with Scotland so how will it feel to race The Gralloch?

NR:  “I do prefer red wine over Guinness but my heart still lies in Ireland and I consider myself an Irish ambassador around the world, especially when it comes to sport.

“I do hope something happens in Ireland, I have been trying to push doors that haven’t been opened but unfortunately no one’s really backing me. So second best thing is going and racing in Scotland because I absolutely love Scotland.

“I’ve been a bunch of times to Edinburgh and Glasgow, one of my biggest dreams is to go up to the Highlands and take some old vintage car or an SUV and spend time just eating salmon and drinking whisky by the fire.

“I’m really excited to come and ride this year, I was gutted last year when I saw the dates because I already had my flights to the US, now I changed my calendar because I really wanted to come. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

“It’s also important on the personal side because one of my sponsors is Scottish so it will be really cool to be there.”