Casting an eye over Roche Jr’s tales from the peloton
To be honest, I’d never given a whole lot of time to learning about Stephen Roche or even his compatriot Sean Kelly, largely because their stars shone in an era when: a) I had no interest in cycling as a sport and; b) they would probably have fallen victim to nearly all of my boyish, pre-enlightenment, Thatcher-era, BBC-informed prejudices about our near neighbours. Oh, yes, here we go: 8th child of piss-poor devoutly religious family who live in a one-bedroom council flat in Ballymun is given grandpappy’s 1927 tourer and rides to greatness in a heart-warming Rags-to-Roubaix tale.
It’s probably no surprise, then, that I posted a tweet last year displaying a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the (then) forthcoming Nicolas Roche biography, Inside the Peloton. The memoirs of the 2009 Irish National Champion certainly didn’t sound like a sure-fire “beg, borrow or steal a copy” read to me. Yeah, yeah, so his old man won the Tour, but I wouldn’t be rushing out to buy an Axel Merckx book any time soon either, would I?
Thankfully, my views of the world and the events which shape it are slightly different to those which I held when I was 14 and, like you, I know that for a glorious period in the 1980s, 2 Irish cyclists swept nearly all before them. GC wins in two Vueltas d’Espana, a Giro d’Italia and a Tour de France, plus a World Championship, umpteen Maillots Verts and a bundle of Classics are just some of the stats which comprise the Roche/Kelly palmares. They also briefly hogged the top 2 placings in the world rankings. Oh, and the Irish football team dumped England out of the 1988 European Football Championships too. It is in this Ireland, with those very earliest glimpses of what would become known as the Celtic Tiger, that the roots of Nicolas Roche are firmly planted. Yes, yes, and in France too. Nico’s memoir – ghost written by Irish journalist Gerard Cromwell – is therefore more Tony Doyle than Roddy Doyle.
Nico doesn’t take the usual approach of endlessly detailing his earliest races and we find him in the colours of a Cofidis stagiaire fairly quickly. What the reader gets then is a view of what it’s like being a pro racer rather than what it’s necessarily like being Nicolas Roche, and that’s not a criticism. Whilst drawing from his various diaries which appeared in the Irish press, including the infamous John Gadret incident from the 2010 Tour, it’s no Clarkson-esque collection of Things-What-I-Wrote-Earlier and Nico’s race diaries are interspersed with tales of training, of injury and recovery and some snippets into Roche family life. He touches on his parents’ separation and divorce and his youngest brother’s (ultimately successful) battle with leukaemia without getting too maudlin or sentimental.
On the one hand the diaries are great in revealing a stage race from the rider’s perspective and Nico sheds some interesting angles on incidents that will be familiar to many cycling fans: Mark Cavendish’s spat with Heinrich Haussler in the 2010 Tour de Suisse, for example; the day that HTC’s George Hincapie was denied the yellow jersey in the 2009 Tour (not just Garmin’s fault, people!) or Fabian Cancellara’s patron-age to neutralise Stage 2 of the 2010 Tour after a crash had split the race with his team mates the Schleck brothers firmly on the wrong side of that split. They also shed a fair bit of light on race tactics for the uninitiated. If, however, you’re reading them daily in a newspaper then they capture the immediacy of his post-stage views but on the other hand, a reasonably informed reader will already know more about specific stages or incidents than the diaries can describe so there’s a little feeling of “and…?”. But, I guess that’s both the boon and the bugbear of a diary so maybe I’m being just a little churlish here.
The expectation that might be felt by being the son of one of the English-speaking world’s most famous – and successful – cyclists should be reasonably high, you might think, but this rarely comes across in Nico’s writing. It’s clear from the outset that he’s his own man although Stephen himself writes in the final chapter that he has deliberately maintained an I’m-here-if-you-need-me rather than “competitive dad” approach to his eldest son’s career. Apart from some early barbed comments from Cofidis directeur Eric Boyer (“you’re only here because of your father”), it’s really only in this latter chapter that Nico acknowledges any pressure from being Stephen Roche’s son.
Most readers will be reassured that Nico doesn’t shirk from speaking out against one of cycling’s biggest blights: those infamous Ag2r brown shorts. He’s also reasonably frank – albeit briefly – about doping too although there might be some sniggers amongst those who harbour suspicions about his father’s alleged use of EPO during the early 1990s. At the same time, he doesn’t lose sleep about racing clean against those who might be less so, but does acknowledge that if he did, he’d “probably crack up”. If you’re looking for Rough Ride: Reprise, though, look away now.
Revisiting my earlier – unfounded – pre-publication cynicism, Inside the Peloton reminds the reader without apology that at the time of writing and at 27 years old, Nico “only” had 5 pro victories to his name. The word “disappointment” features in this book almost as often as the number 2 appears in Andy Schleck’s palmares. Even dad Stephen is perhaps a little restrained (realistic?) about his son’s potential, suggesting that a Vuelta victory is more likely than a Tour GC win. However, Bradley Wiggins, in his after word to the book, points towards Cadel Evans as a rider who has excelled comparatively late in his career and speaks both glowingly and confidently about his former team mates prospects. And there lies the conundrum with which I was left: is Nico’s story a tale of a career that actually is unfulfilled or one that has yet to be fulfilled. One wonders whether his subsequent Tour of Beijing stage win might be a springboard to further victories, but only time will tell.
Overall Inside the Peloton provides a decent insight into the perhaps less-glamorous life in the bunch. It’s often more about chasing rather than being at the absolute peak of form, but is no less engaging as a result. Nico’s not (yet?) the superstar his old man became, but he’s now firmly on my list of riders I want to see do well in 2012.
Worth a read.
Tags: Ag2r, book review, Nico Roche, Stephen Roche