Nicolas Roche can’t really remember learning how to cycle. He has some vague memories of being at his grandfather’s holiday home near Bordeaux in France, his grandfather tying a rope to his bike, pulling him to get him to stay up.
Other than that, cycling was a part of his life for as long as he can remember. It’s no surprise really, considering Nicolas is the son of famed Irish cyclist Stephen Roche, that Nicolas would go on to achieve considerable success as a professional cyclist himself.
Nicolas grew up in France, moved back to Ireland for some of his teenage years before returning to France again. He is now based in Monaco but visits Ireland regularly.
In his childhood and teenage years, Nicolas took part in many sports, from athletics to rugby and soccer. It’s interesting though that in these younger years, Nicolas didn’t see cycling as a competitive sport, but as a form of escapism, and functionally, as a mode of transport.
“Cycling was always in the background, but never really my main focus,” Nicolas tells Irish Country Living. “I saw cycling more as a means of transportation to go from A to B and not depending on my parents.
“For me, cycling from a young age has meant escaping and freedom. There are days when I’m absolutely shattered, I’ve had a hard day and I just need to go for that hour on the bike to just let my mind go free.”
Nicolas was 11 when his family moved to Dublin. It was during this time he first started cycling competitively. He came second in his first underage race and went on to join Orwell Wheelers Cycling Club in Dundrum, the same club his father had been in.
The wheel has come full circle on this of late, as Nicolas recently teamed with Pinergy to announce their sponsorship of the club.
Still, cycling was not his main focus yet. For his first few years living in Ireland - which he describes as a very positive experience – Nicolas attended a French school. He then spent one year in Blackrock College, a renowned rugby school in south Dublin.
Quickly, Nicolas was bitten by the rugby bug and began to love the sport. However, he then ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Which – although he didn’t quite know it at the time – would mark the end of his short-lived rugby career and signal the beginning of a long cycling career.
“Unfortunately, I did my cruciate ligament just the month before going back to France,” Nicolas recalls. “Rugby wasn’t quite as big in France as it is today. Also I was too young to get an operation on my knee, so recovery was just cycling.
“As I spent more time on the bike I became a lot better at it. When I was in Ireland I was doing five days a week of rugby and two days a week of cycling.
“When I started doing seven days a week of cycling, obviously I progressed dramatically. Getting more confident and liking the sport even more. I never did any other sports since then because I was always conscious that I had a bad knee.”
Over the next couple of years Nicolas got more and more into cycling. By the time he was finished school, he knew he wanted to be a professional cyclist. Surmising, one might think that, of course, Nicolas’s father would actively encourage this, but Stephen wanted him to focus on his studies first.
“My parents’ priority was my education, and that was one of the biggest arguments I had with my dad, when I told him that once I had my Leaving Cert I wasn’t going to go to university, I was going to take a year off and try to turn professional,” Nicolas explains.
“We made a deal then that I was going to take one year off, but I wasn’t going to be inactive. I worked in my dad’s hotel at the time. For him it was important that I wasn’t a professional cyclist yet. So there was no way I was only going to be a cyclist. I was working towards being a professional cyclist, so I needed to study or work.”
Stephen helped Nicolas out, facilitating his training and races in his work schedule.
“My dad was saying I was too young, he wanted me to do a two or three year course and then go for it, because that was the trend at the time. But I felt that I could turn pro at the end of that year, so I kind of said, ‘No, no, I can make it. Give me a year and let’s do it.’ It was a bit of a risky move, but I backed myself up and made it. Six months later I was pro.”
Looking back I should have said openly, ‘I’m going through a tough divorce and my brother is in bed, he could be dead next month.’ At the time I hid everything away.
Nicolas retired from professional cycling in October 2021. He says there have been ups and downs in the first six months of retirement.
“I am happy in my new life, but it has its challenges. It’s a tough world when you’re cycling and you’re in your own little bubble, but also there are days when I still get the bit of a feeling that I want to go and race.”
Looking back on his career, Nicolas marks 2013 and 2015 as highlights. He got his first top five finish in a Grand Tour in 2013 and he won stages of Grand Tour races in both 2013 and 2015. Although a lot of his life was spent in France, Nicolas represented Ireland in cycling, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
On the bike, 2018 was not such a good year for Nicolas. He was going through a divorce and his brother was battling cancer. Although at the time many put his performances down to his age.
“I was just hungry to prove that I was just going through a rough time,” Nicolas says. “I wasn’t talking about it or trying to find excuses, which probably looking back I should have said openly, ‘I’m going through a tough divorce and my brother is in bed, he could be dead next month.’ At the time I hid everything away. I struggled and I didn’t get the results that I should have.
“2019, I was back at a pretty decent level and wore the red jersey in the Vuelta a España again. I was kind of saying, ‘I’m back.’ “Unfortunately, four days later I crashed and broke my knee and the adventure was over. But at least it was a statement saying, ‘In 2018 this is what happened.’ It wasn’t that I was getting old and it was time for me to stop.”
In his retirement from cycling, Nicolas took on another challenge – one you may have seen on your TV screens – Dancing with the Stars.
Nicolas was asked just as he retired last October to take part in the programme. All he enquired about were the dates, as he was hoping it wouldn’t clash with some commentary work he had lined up, and said yes almost immediately.
Although, he is adamant he couldn’t dance then.
“I was never a dancer. Never, ever, ever. I couldn’t get two steps right and I didn’t get two steps right for a long time. But thanks to my dance partner Karen Byrne’s patience and her good work, we managed to get a fun, decent level where I could actually enjoy dancing and the last few shows.”
Nicolas came sixth overall. He is extremely positive, saying it challenged him in many ways.
“In terms of personality, yes, I am very extroverted and I can be very confident, but in what I do! I can talk forever about cycling, I can analyse cycling and be very confident in what I do. But outside cycling I can be quite the opposite. I can be very shy and I don’t talk much, I listen.
“Whereas there I had to beat all that and actually challenge myself as a person to bring the security I have in cycling into the dancing world. It’s brought me a lot that I’ll be able to reuse in my post-career.”
Back to basics
Discussing cycling in general, Nicolas feels it can be a form of exercise and recreation for almost everybody. He shares an anecdote about cycling up a hill, with a man on an electronic-bike in front of him. Near the top he caught up with the man on the e-bike, who shared with him how it has changed his life.
The e-bike has allowed him to cycle new routes he wouldn’t have been able to tackle before.
“Now with the e-bike, he takes his book, takes his sandwich and goes up into the mountains,” Nicolas says. “Instead of going for a drive, he goes for a cycle.
He was obviously not physically capable to push on his own. With the e-bike, you can push, but just at your own level. You don’t have to go fully assisted.”
This brought Nicolas back to what cycling is about for him at a grassroots level.
“That really stayed in my mind, because at the time there was talk about riders using assisted bikes while racing. There were all these scans at races. So I saw it as, ‘E-bike, no, no, no.’
“Chatting with this guy really opened up my mind and made me understand that I was so much in the racing bubble, that I had forgotten about the rest. He brought me back to reality. Initially cycling is about going from A to B, enjoying life, going outside and getting a breath of fresh air”.
Just as it was for a young Nicolas in the beginning.