Autobiographies released in the middle of sporting careers are often dubious endeavours. How can one evaluate a life when it is still in the throes of being lived? However, Inside the Peloton is an exception. It is a fiercely honest book, which tells the life of a cyclist desperate for success in the present, not a grizzled old pro looking back on a career of success, or, a bitter old pro looking back on a career of failure. It tells the story of a man who is skirting the environs of being a great sportsman and for that I commend its release.
Nicolas Roche is the son of one of Ireland’s greatest ever sportsmen – 1987 Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Road Race World Championship winner Stephen Roche. His son’s book would be missing a central part if it ignored this father-son dynamic and it does not disappoint as the 27-year-old lays bare memories of his illustrious father’s acme – including an audience with the Pope, with Nico’s dirty nappy in his mom’s handbag. Throughout the book Nicolas refers to his dad’s advice and it is fascinating to gain an insight into the difficulty Roche Jr has in taking this advice.
Having grown up in France, Nicolas could have ridden as an Irishman or a Frenchman. He reveals that early on in his career he was pressured into declaring for France in order to improve his marketing potential with French sponsors. Throughout, however, Roche nails his green colours to the mast and is proud of being a Dubliner.
The book’s insights into Nicolas’ personal life are very candid as he discusses his parents’ marriage difficulties and his brother Florian’s battle with leukaemia.
The Ag2r rider is a man that makes exacting demands of himself; so much so that when his brother Florian gets sick he internalises his stress, resulting in ulcers forming in his stomach. But he goes on to say that when he is on the bike he doesn’t feel stress and he can block it out. Stress only surfaces for him when he is off the bike in his day-to-day living: it gives one the impression that he is happiest in the saddle and feels most at home there.
Nicolas’ various Grand Tour diaries from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana punctuate the book. The Vuelta 2008 is especially interesting to read back as it was the turning point of his career. His 13th-place overall changed how the cycling fraternity viewed him; he was no longer just a domestique – now he was an overall contender.
There is also a humour to the book, which adds another dimension to Roche Jr’s story. Like when he describes getting a special kit designed to ride as Irish national champion in Le Tour de France 2009: “Being a national champion is, for a professional, like going on the cycling equivalent of Pimp My Ride. Soon I would also have my bike re-sprayed in the Irish colours and would get a new team helmet, glasses and anything else you could think of.”
Roche’s asthma, which he has suffered from since he was 19-years-old, is also discussed. While doping in cycling is a backdrop to the book – unlike Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride (1990), where doping is the central theme – the information of testing for asthma, so as to prove a cyclist really has the problem and is not doping, is a gem of information – both about Roche and the regularity of doping controls.
The giants of cycling at present are the Schleck brothers, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans. Roche is not at their level yet, and he knows it. So, when he admits this and discusses how he tries to stick with them in the high mountain stages, we realise he is confiding in the reader - letting us in on his personal demons; his personal battles; his personal fears. How much he can stick to those leading stars, and how much damage he can he do to them on the high mountains of the Alps and the Pyrenees in the future, will determine how Roche’s career is remembered.
The ugly head of doping is an ever-present bête noire in cycling. Inside the Peloton touches upon the issue without letting it dominate the book. It is refreshing to see that Roche’s attitude is that failed dope tests should lead to immediate bans. He also feels that bans should be extended from two to four years. But he does not dwell on the issue and avoids long debates on the topic, which are available in so many other cycling sources.
His 2011 Tour de France diary shows life in the middle of the peloton. All media coverage and debate during Le Tour de France is focused on the battles for the yellow, green and polka dot jerseys. Roche outlines the battles for survival; the mental battles to get across the line; and a life looking at the top guys and trying to emulate their majesty.
Roche’s lack of form in Le Tour 2011 is laid bare as he repeatedly describes how he has nothing in his legs and feels empty on stages, or, un Tour sans – meaning a Tour without any power: his honesty is refreshing in an era of public relations sanitization.
The turns of phrase are clear and vivid and Roche pulls no punches: “Sometimes I wish I could just beam them [his brothers] into my body à la Star Trek, to let them feel the suffering and pain that professional cycling brings. The lactic acid burning your legs as your heart rate stays at a constant 185bpm, the salty sweat dripping into your eyes as you gulp for air in the intense heat, and the aches and pains as you strain every muscle just to keep your bike moving forward.”
Inside the Peloton reveals Roche’s character immensely clearly. It serves not only as a great book - it also serves as a great marketing tool. Anyone who reads it won’t be able to want anything but the best for him. And, they’ll be sure to read his Tour de France 2012 diary.