At the start of Vuelta a España, few would have predicted Nicholas Roche to have been Team Sky’s highest ranked rider, in fourth overall, four places and eleven seconds ahead of Tour de France champion Chris Froome.
But the team’s usual single-minded approach in Grand Tours of putting everything towards the aim of winning the overall with their team leader has been relaxed for this Vuelta, granting Roche the freedom to, at least to some extent, ride for himself.
First he was let off the leash on stage two, where he set off in pursuit of Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) on the finishing climb. Then he was not asked to hold back and help Froome when he was dropped on stage six’s uphill finish, instead attacking himself in search of a stage victory.
And on Monday, upon crashing, a trio of domestiques were instructed to briefly abandon their post of looking out for Froome, and sent to pace Roche back into the bunch.
All this suggests that Sky aren’t putting all their eggs in one basket. Unlike at the Tour, where months of planning and preparation went into Froome’s bid for yellow, Sky are willing to offer some degree of leeway for its riders’ personal ambitions, and Roche looks like one of the main beneficiaries of that.
When Roche moved to Sky at the start of the season, there were fears he would become just another cog in the team’s well-oiled machine. Throughout his career the Irishman has made a name for himself as an exciting, attacking climber, happier when out in front looking for stage wins rather than sitting passively in the peloton.
Prior to the Vuelta, it seemed as though those fears were well-founded. Roche had hardly been able to ride for himself, only finishing in the top ten of a race on one occasion (the Tour stage won by Simon Geschke) and generally riding in a domestique role. Therefore it has come as a relief to see Sky allow the 31-year old some scope to express himself this past week.
The question now begs - how high can he ultimately finish at the Vuelta? So far his race has played out notably similar to the 2013 Vuelta, where he won the opening road stage and spent the rest of a hilly opening week in the top three overall. Although he did falter somewhat on the serious climbs in the second half of the race, he did hold on to seal fifth overall, is highest Grand Tour finish.
A repeat performance seems unlikely, however, given that Froome’s second place finish on stage nine will have cemented his status as overall leader. There will be occasions in the coming stages when Roche will have to sacrifice himself - especially given the calibre of the other GC hopefuls - and such commitments has seen other Sky super-domestiques like Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte lose top ten placings on GC in other Grand Tours.
Watch Cycling Weekly's guide to the 2015 Vuelta
Then again, with the likes of Sergio Henao and Mikel Nieve on board and riding well there won’t be so much pressure on Roche to take all the burden of responsibility, and this season alone has seen both Astana at the Giro and Movistar at the Tour place two riders on the podium.
Roche undoubtedly has the talent to pull off another top ten finish - possibly even a top five - and Sky seem willing to appease hopes of pulling it off, at least to an extent. Wednesday's queen stage will be key.
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