By Jonny Long published
Nicolas Roche is sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair in a narrow corridor inside a grand, Grade-II listed building in the centre of London. A few metres away through thick walls are the remnants of the crowd who just listened to him and his team-mate Romain Bardet chat for the past 45 minutes.
Of all the talks happening over the three days of Rouleur Live a couple of months ago, this was the most popular. The combination of two big names in cycling, Roche’s retirement and the intrigue surrounding what exactly is going on at Team DSM resulting in people having to squeeze through the doorway to get within earshot.
“I can’t say too much or they won’t pay me in December,” Roche half-jokes when the subject of the tumultuous times at DSM - which mostly concerns the continued exodus of talented riders - is brought up on stage.
At the start of the year Roche had seen himself riding professionally until he physically couldn’t do it anymore, yet one day in August he awoke before a race and knew it was time to do something else. This is a common phenomenon amongst ageing pros, yet Roche never thought it would happen to him. Until it did.
Intertwined with this epiphany that his career would soon be over was the diverging path his employers DSM wanted to go down. Part of their philosophy, like many other outfits in the WorldTour these days, sees an emphasis placed on young talent, More specifically, malleable young talent.
“Teams want control on everything and I was collateral damage of that,” Roche continues. “Sometimes experienced riders clash with ideology.”
After 17 years in the pro ranks, there were some things Roche was unwilling to compromise on to please his latest employers in a decorated career. He knew how to prepare and execute his job to the best of his ability and had the track record to prove it.
However, this control and seriousness exerted over professional racing no doubt continues to ratchet up as the scientific revolution within the sport continues its arms race.
“Lennard Kamna had a breakdown, this should not happen,” is another snippet of Roche's candid on-stage conversation, his former team-mate having not raced on the road since May after taking a break from the sport, the German now set to return in 2022.
Sat on the plastic chair in the green room, his audience reduced from hundreds of people to just one, Roche ponders each question before answering, staring into the distance as he lasers in on exactly what it is he wants to say. When he does make eye contact, a steely gaze pierces your skull. He is deliberate, a man who has achieved a lot already and is not done just yet.
After finishing his final races, a fitting, understated send-off at the Irish National Championships, Roche entered the final months of collecting paychecks from professional cycling.
The first thing he did with his newfound freedom? Jump out of an airplane.
A photo posted by on
"I guess so, it wasn't intentional but it definitely is," Roche tells Cycling Weekly of whether flinging yourself out of an aircraft and hurtling towards the ground is the perfect metaphor of retiring from the peloton.
"I think many saw it as me realising there's a lot of other ways to enjoy different things that I haven't done when I was a cyclist and jumping out of the plane is something that I would not have done during my career.
"Maybe I also needed the adrenaline rush and I was absolutely shitting myself before the jump. I just think I needed to be in that uncomfortable zone, although it's only a month since I retired so it's not like I miss it desperately. But it's just the...it was a challenge and I just needed to challenge myself."
Although there are still itches Roche clearly needs to scratch, it's not like his diary has become any clearer since his final race. Travelling between Ireland, France and Italy for both business and pleasure, the wedding of his team-mate Nikias Arndt in Germany, test-driving for the e-Scooter World Championships, and also getting ready to compete in Dancing With Stars on Irish TV.
"I'm still looking to plan for the future because today I don't have a 100 per cent guaranteed job for next year," he admits. "I have a couple of things coming up, I have a lot of things that are pending."
In 2020, when many pro's last years was ripped away from them by the pandemic, Frenchman Yoann Offredo provided possibly the rawest account of what it's like to finally climb off after all those years of riding a bike for a living as fast as you possibly can.
"I miss my legs hurting when I go upstairs after training," Offredo said at the time. "I used to spend around 30 hours per week on my bike. I’m no longer tired enough to get to sleep at night. At 3am I’m still awake and I’m asking myself questions. In the morning I’ve sometimes woken up in tears."
"I've been extremely exhausted actually," Roche counters. "I felt like I got hit by a truck.
"I think I just had so much stress, anxiety and pressure that once I managed to slow down I felt like everything just hit me. I've been extremely tired, even on the bike, in the gym, or in normal life. I can see where [Offredo] is coming from but I've been sleeping quite well."
The 37-year-old has the mindset of "going in there and trying to kick ass" whatever he ends up doing. During his career he was told many times that his various businesses and business interests were a distraction from his main profession but now he's thankful that he started preparing for the end six years ago. He's invested in bike shops in London and Ireland, invested in a food franchise in London as well. His friend who runs the latter business has even promised him a job, whether it's in the kitchen or in management, in the very unlikely event everything else goes tits up.
"Some top athletes who made decent money and decide not to work because they can afford not to go crazy after a while because you're just so driven all the time. You need to have goals, you need to have things on your mind. For me, I just know that I need to be busy, I need to be travelling, I need to go left, right, do this and do that and think about three months ahead, not just about tomorrow."
What there is time for now, amidst all the continued energy and drive, are moments of stillness that offer reflection on a long and great career as well as how the times have changed.
"I'm lucky I went through my career and my time," he reckons. "I wanted to be a pro cyclist, I never wanted to be the richest guy in my town or whatever. I wanted to race my bicycle for as long as I could."
Roche sees this as possibly a dying ideology. Riders now are getting a lot of money thrown at them at a very young age. By 25, they may have made more than an older rider has in their 15-year career.
"But what do you do next?" Roche asks of being in that situation.
"There are so many sports out there that are more fun than cycling or more socially engaging. You choose cycling because you want to be a cyclist because you like cycling for whatever reason.
"How are these kids gonna react in five, six years when they're 28 or 30, do they still want to be a cyclist? Or say, 'okay, I've made enough, I'm happy enough, it's time to do something else.'"
But maybe that's the right way to think, Roche admits. Maybe, cyclists don't need to be professional for 15 years. After 10 years in the current peloton, which is much more of an intense experience now than it used to be, the current youngsters could be fed up with the whole circus.
"It requires a lot more than when I started," Roche says. "I used to write my training in a scrapbook and at the end of the week we'd have a phone call and I'd say on Monday I did two hours and 150 heart rate and this and that, and you'd read it out to your coach. Now, every day you have to upload everything. There's just so much extra involved today in cycling."
So is he glad he had his time when he did? Or would he prefer to be just breaking through in 2021?
"It's difficult to say because when I started there were other problems. It was pre-Puerto. There were other problems and I was getting my ass whupped every weekend with people cheating.
"Every generation every couple of years faces certain type of problems. Maybe in 10 years' time it will be even worse because it'll be something else, it'll be more technology, more data, more anything. Look how many guys have monitors for sleep now. I've been to races with bad sleep and it didn't affect my performances, now the guys, the data tells them they had one hour of not deep sleep and they go crazy. Like, already they've lost the race before it even started. I think sometimes when you have too much data, you also start to think too much.
"But it's about adapting to what's going on [in the situation or the time you find yourself in] and not just saying it's good or it's bad. It's just that's the way it is."
Just like in his riding, Roche is a consistently excellent interviewee. You can ask any question you want and he will focus in on you, eyes drilling down into your soul, articulating exactly what he wants to say on the subject you've posed. He bristles with the toughness that has got him to where he is but on the flipside is also possibly the best-dressed man to ever ride a bike - he is very precise with his wardrobe and has a kindness baked into his face that reveals the human behind the machine that has furiously turned the pedals for the past two decades.
As for his departure from DSM, it's just "pure business". In 2022, Roche did not fit into his team's business plan. The departure of Tom Dumoulin, the latest top GC rider for whom Roche would provide essential experience and support, has left DSM rudderless at times, with no talismanic figure to throw their weight behind. Left instead to target stage wins and smaller prizes, and with Roche growing older every year, eventually, the Irishman was surplus to requirement.
I was disappointed, and I'm right to be disappointed," Roche explains. "But I'm not angry with the team. I understand this is pure business."
At the outset of the announcement of his retirement, Roche said that in some ways he regards himself as the biggest loser, which is quite a crushing sentiment, not just for those who think fondly of Roche but also for the rest of us who couldn't even dream of achieving what he has.
"I think maybe it's an internal frustration where throughout my career I was renowned for being consistent and that was my strongest point, but sometimes consistency is not rewarded.
"You see riders who go shit for a couple of years and then they come in, win five races, and they're superstars. Then they disappear again for a couple of years, and then they come back again.
"I had a lot of top 10s in my career in some of the biggest races, but I also feel that I had very few wins. But it was also my choice because I almost only rode WorldTour races, or very few non-WorldTour races."
If he'd spent more time in Argentina, Slovakia or Turkey, Roche argues, he'd have more wins, but Roche says his strategy throughout his career was to be with the "big fish" all of the time, which means he retires as a rider with the prestige most would only dream of possessing, with only one caveat.
"My disappointment is I never won a stage in the Tour de France and I was so close so many times."
Despite saying his bank manager would have been happier had he maybe followed a different path where he tried to cross the finish line first outside of cycling's heartlands, Roche appears content, both with what he's done so far and where he's going.
As he heads out and onto the dark streets of London, he passes Jonas Vingegaard and his young family, the Dane's partner scrambling to contain their belligerent infant daughter from the mass of bodies making their way back and forth as the live show outside the green room rumbles on.
Two riders at opposite ends of their journey, a visual representation of the revolving door of the professional peloton. One talent enters, another exits. Although the eyes of the cycling world may drift, Roche's story is only part-written.
Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab and I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.
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