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Inside The Peloton, by Nicolas Roche


Title: Inside The Peloton: My Life As A Professional Cyclist
Author: Nicolas Roche (with Gerard Cromwell, foreword by Sean Kelly, afterword by Bradley Wiggins)
Publisher: Transworld Ireland
Year: 2011
Pages: 394
Order: Random House
What it is: A collection of Nicolas Roche's Grand Tour newspaper diaries, padded out with extra biographical detail.
Strengths: Fans of Roche will love it.
Weaknesses: It's a pretty bland ride through Roche's life and cycling career.

If cycling were a popularity contest, Nicolas Roche would be a winner. Like his father before him, the man knows how to be the media's friend and a fans' favourite. Through his Grand Tour diary columns in Irish newspapers he hasn't just eclipsed his fellow Irish pros - Philip Deignan (Vuelta a España stage winner, 2009), Daniel Martin (Vuelta a España stage winner 2011) and Matt Brammeier - he has all but nullified their presence in the peloton to the point that casual sports fans in Ireland (and general sports editors in the Irish media ) seem to assume there is just one cyclist flying the flag for Irish cycling.

Cycling of course is not a popularity contest. It is about winning. Roche's wins since turning pro can easily be summarised:

Nicolas Roche's Palmarès 2005-2011
2005-2006, Cofidis; 2007-2008, Crédit Agricole; 2009-todate Ag2r)
Tour de l'Avenir 2006 (stage)
Irish National Championships (ITT) 2007
GP Internacional Paredes Rota dos Móveis 2008 (stage)
Tour du Limousin 2008 (stage)
Irish National Championships (RR) 2009
Tour of Beijing 2011 (stage)

That Tour of Beijing stage win would have been the perfect place to end Inside The Peloton, a high point that might justify (for some) all the excuses that preceded it. But, alas, the book ends before even the 2011 Vuelta a España. How, then, do you squeeze five wins into 394 pages? Well you could write an awful lot about Roche's early childhood, but thankfully that's done and dealt with by page thirty (apart from his parents' divorce, it was mostly happy). By page forty Roche has begun his pro career, the first two years of which whizz past in a couple dozen pages, bringing us up to the 2007 Giro d'Italia and the first instalment of the real meat and two veg of Inside The Peloton: those newspaper diary columns Roche has been producing detailing his Grand Tour experiences.

Those diary columns are, alas, Inside The Peloton's biggest problem. They're not a problem in that you've already read them: chances are, you haven't. Nether the Irish Daily Star (where the columns originally began, in 2007, following the success of similar columns by Mark Scanlon during the 2005 Tour de France) nor the Irish Independent (where the columns have been appearing since 2009) offer what could be described as user-friendly websites. Even with the aid of Google tracking down all the individual columns takes a degree or three of effort. No, the primary problem with the newspaper columns is that, collected in a book, they are stripped of the context of their original form, a point I also had to make about Bradley Wiggin's 2010 Tour diary, On Tour. During a Grand Tour such columns are nice enough little colour pieces, when they sit side by side with actual reporting of the race, but take them in isolation and, well, something's missing.

Another problem with the diaries is that they are written for general sports fans, so everything is explained, such as the way mountains are ranked or time is taken in a team time trial. Fine, I'm used to this at this stage, everybody has to write the Dummy's Guide To Cycling. The problem comes when you collect the individual diaries - the 2007 Giro, the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Tours and the 2010 Vuelta (in all, nearly 220 of the book's 394 pages) - and put them into one book: you get lots of repetition.

The biggest problem though with rider diaries is that there is little or no time for reflection. On the upside, yes, the diaries have a certain sense of immediacy about them, which is what you want of a daily newspaper column. But reading them in book form you can't help but notice all the points you wish Roche would expand upon. You'd think, given that this is a book, there would be time to revisit those points and follow them up, develop them. But there's isn't. Strip out the diaries and the childhood and you've got little more than a hundred pages to play with and these are filled mostly with other races Roche hasn't won, plus, of course, the few victories he does have to his name. The relentless forward progress, detailing this that or the other race, leaves little or no room for pause.

Inside The Peloton does close with some momentary reflection, eight pages in which Roche tries to explain himself:

"I come from a good background, I didn't have to ride my bike to make money. I could have gone to college and got a degree like my sister or I could have got a job somewhere else. But it's what I wanted to do. Maybe my dad had a lot to do with it. I wanted to prove I could do it myself. Maybe I still do."

For me, settling down to read Inside The Peloton, there were two big questions I wanted answered about Nicolas Roche, two issues I hoped Roche would have time to reflect upon and explain. These were:

1) Why is Roche focussing on riding for fifth, sixth or seventh in the Grand Tours when he could be challenging for stage wins, or winning minor tours?; and

2) Why is Roche such a shit time trial rider?

The latter first. Stephen Roche - Roche's father - makes this point in the closing pages of Inside The Peloton:

"[Nicolas] has incredible power. He has the ability to pedal and push a big gear, so I always say he will definitely climb some day because, on the climbs, you need to be able to do both. It's the same in a time trial, so it has to be his brain or his preparation that's letting him down at the minute. Some day, if he gets it all right, he will be able to climb and time trial."

The problem with Roche's head is worth looking at. Here is from the 2007 Giro and the stage 13 time trial, 12.6 km from Biella to Santuario di Oropa:

"I was in two minds today whether to ride the mountain time trial hard or use it as an easier day. In the end, I didn't have much choice. We arrived too late to reconnoitre the course and I even had to rush to get ready to make my start time. I was fuming! Normally, we arrive at the stage starts too early. I usually like time trials and, although I wasn't going to win or anything, I wanted to see what sort of time I could post. During the stage, I found myself distracted and, while I rode hard, I didn't ride fast, and a stronger rider could have unleashed a lot of power on the flatter part at the bottom."

At the 2009 Tour, on the 42.5 km time trial around Lake Annecy, Roche again tells us he has the choice to soft pedal or ride hard. Roche chose the latter:

"I wanted to test myself over the distance and see exactly how far off the top guys I would be after three weeks of racing. It's very important for me to work on my time trialling if I'm to make the next step up to be a big stage-race contender."

Skip forward to the 2010 Tour de Suisse:

"I wanted to ride the prologue and time trial flat out, because I need to concentrate on my time trialling. I knew I had to take the opportunity to try to learn from each time trial and improve."

Now race forward to the 2011 Vuelta, the 46km time trial at Penafiel. Analysing afterwards how come he'd put in a poor ride, his father reminded him that:

"I don't have a time trial bike at home and therefore don't get time to train on it and get used to churning the bigger gears in the more aerodynamic position. The team agreed that it's an elementary mistake for someone at my level not to be able to train on a time trial bike."

Here we should note that, according to Roche himself, he is his own biggest critic. But when it comes to his poor time trial performances what are we actually getting? A problem with his team and some bullshit from him about being "not a bad time triallist. I was Irish national champion [in 2007]."

So much for Roche's time trialling, what of his ambition? Sean Kelly - Roche's godfather (back before Roche Snr and Kelly had a fall out, when the Tour came to visit Ireland in 1998 and Roche Snr tried to hog the stage, the two were good friends) - notes in his foreword to Inside The Peloton that Roche:

"has the potential to be a very strong one-day Classic rider but at the moment he is focussed on preparing for the Tour de France. We haven't seen the best of him yet. There is still a lot of potential left in Nicolas Roche."

Roche himself, in the closing pages of the Inside The Peloton, notes:

"I'm at the stage now where the next two or three years are the most important of my career, and I want to give myself every chance I can to make the most of it. If that means moving to Italy or Switzerland to train and race, then it has to be done."

Of his single-minded focus on Grand Tour top tens, Roche time and again makes the point that he is trying to see how far he can go in the challenge for the overall race:

"People say I could be a green jersey contender if I concentrated on that, but going for the green jersey would mean having to go for every sprint, every day, and forgetting about the overall. It could be something I'd like to do in a few years, if I see that I'm not a realistic overall contender. Also, I think I could challenge for the mountains jersey in the future, if one day I decided to go for it. I may not be a super-climber, but I am capable of being in four or five breakaways in a week if necessary, and taking points on the minor climbs."

Roche also notes, time and again, that options for stage wins are always available to him late in a tour should he see that his GC position isn't worth fighting for. How much history has proved him right, so far, on that score, is for you to decide. (Roche himself suggests that his failure to produce something late in a Grand Tour when his GC options have evaporated is down to the difficulty of a rider like him being allowed away in a break.)

At one point in Inside The Peloton, at the end of the 2007 Giro d'Italia, his first Grand Tour, Roche suggests that "maybe I can develop into a top lead-out man one day." For those familiar with Bradley Wiggins this will be a familiar observation, one Wiggins made about himself in his autobiography, In Pursuit Of Glory. Appropriately enough, Inside The Peloton ends with an afterword from Wiggins: the Briton is a late developer who holds out hope for thirty-somethings who dreams of Grand Tour success. At the rate Roche is progressing, that's just about when he should come good in the Grand Tours, if he's ever going to come good.

I have noted before that one of the big problems with reading books about the current cycling scene is that, the closer the authors are to the scene, the more guarded they are in what they say. The more anodyne the books they write are. This has always been a problem with such books. It was a problem David Walsh faced when he was ghosting the autobiography of Roche's father, The Agony And The Ecstasy, and Roche Snr's book about the 1987 Giro-Tour-Worlds treble, My Road To Victory. It's a problem which, generally speaking, only a handful of ghost-writers manage to get their subjects to overcome.

Inside The Peloton does not count in that handful. It is a rather bland affair that doesn't really live up to its title and take the reader inside the peloton. It does, though, offer plenty of excuses for Roche's lack of success. Reading those excuses, I did begin to wonder if maybe the book should have actually been called Excuse: Me.