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True Grit: 25 years since Stephen Roche won the Tour de France

“…and just who is that rider coming up behind, because that looks like Stephen Roche. That looks like STEPHEN ROCHE! IT’S STEPHEN ROCHE COME OVER THE LINE.” Phil Liggett, commentator July 29th, 1987.

 

IT WAS the year of Johnny Logan, Hold Me Now and the Eurovision Song Contest… but the soundtrack of the summer belonged to pro-cyclist Stephen Roche. The Dubliner’s Tour de France battle with Pedro Delgado bedded into the Irish consciousness for the month of July and the epic finish of Stage 21 at La Plagne burned into the memory.

It was Roche and the commentary of Phil Liggett framed the moment the Irish rider won the Tour. Earlier that balmy July afternoon, his 50-kilometer break ended in failure and the Carrera rider should have been consigned to the ashes of a mountain that burns riders out, only for Roche to reignite.

He crossed the line in fifth, crucially finishing just four seconds behind race leader Delgado, having earlier been down more than a minute-and-a-half. The effort left Roche in need of oxygen but he recovered to squeeze a few more seconds out of the Spaniard on the last mountain descent into Morzine (Stage 22); then easily beat him in the final time trial.

Despite winning the Giro d’Italia a month earlier, Roche was not considered among the favourites to win the Tour de France. He was rated behind French rider Jean Francois Bernard, the heir apparent to Bernard Hinault, Pedro Delgado, and Sean Kelly.

But Kelly’s tour unravelled when he broke his collarbone on Stage 12 and Irish eyes turned to Roche.

His efforts opened them wide.

Former professional cyclist and acclaimed journalist Richard Moore (In Search of Robert Millar and Slaying the Badger) says that Roche’s victory came after a Tour that had a difficulty rating much higher than previous years.

Gone was the great Bernard Hinault, so too Gred LeMond, who was injured in a hunting accident and with no one to boss the peloton, riders scrapped it out for precious seconds and swopped stage wins.

“The absence of Hinault and Lemond greatly benefitted Roche’s run to the title,” says Moore. “But you could say it was even harder without them, because Hinault always kept things relatively controlled. With him gone there was no control, it was a bit of a free-for-all. It was a hard race to ride and a hard race to win but that’s where Roche’s tactical strengths came to the fore.”

Roche turned professional in 1981 and finished third in the 1985 Tour de France, but the jump to the top of the podium was a huge undertaking that played-out cat-and-mouse-like around the mountains and valleys of France: It was Roche the stylist, imperious in the discipline of time trials, against Delgado, the durable climber.

“Roche was a very elegant cyclist,” says Moore. “He had a smooth pedalling style; a bit of a stylist, seated far back on the saddle. Delgado was more of a classic climber. He was punchier and able to accelerate in the mountains. Roche would ride at a far steadier tempo and as his time trialing prowess showed, he could tap out a really nice rhythm in a way Delgado couldn’t.

“But the key was Roche’s consistency. In the time-trials he gained on Delgado but the important thing was he didn’t lose too much time in the mountains because Delgado was a brilliant climber – that was his main strength.”

Moore says that Roche was able to keep him pegged was really the key to him winning.

“The finish at La Plagna was symbolic of the effort Roche was making in the mountains. He dug very deep to keep the time-gap manageable and it was these efforts that won him the Tour. On stages like that, you don’t win it, but you can lose it. Roche was consistent and when he was losing time to Delgado he was able to limit his losses by digging very deep and moving beyond his limits almost.”

The steely resolve which epitomised Roche’s efforts had already been demonstrated that season when the Dubliner rode to victory in the Giro against the will of a nation.

Roche was scandalised in Italy for riding against team mate and home favourite Roberto Visentini and in an extreme reaction, spectators turned on the Irish rider, who sought protection in the mountains from Scottish rider Robert Millar and his loyal Belgian domestique Eddy Schepers.

“Roche was quite good at doing deals with people as he done in the Giro with Robert Millar. You can have help from people in flat stages but when you are in the mountains, it’s one man against another, so I don’t think his victory owed to the help he received, the ’87 Tour de France was his own victory. It was the fulfilment of his talent.

“When he turned professional in 1981, he won the Paris-Nice ahead of Bernard Hinault. That showed the talent that was there but what held him back was injuries. He did suffer a lot, but ‘87 showed what he was capable of when injury free.

“Sadly, he was only able to fulfil his potential that one year.”

Respected Irish cycling author Graham Healy (Shay Elliott, The Life and Death of Ireland’s First Yellow Jersey) said the biggest surprise of the 1987 Tour de France was that the Irishman who took victory was Roche, and not Kelly.

“Kelly was spoken about as a potential winner going into the race,” says Healy. “He had nearly won the Tour of Spain that year, but early on in the Tour, he crashed and broke his collarbone. You don’t expect to see Sean Kelly shedding tears by the side of the road, but he was devastated.

“Roche’s career was more sporadic. He showed great potential during his first season in 1981, but he would go through years of having injuries and sickness. It was hit and miss. But coming into ‘87 he had racked up a few wins. He won a stage of Paris-Nice, he nearly won Bastogne-Liège, and then as it came into the summer, he won the Giro d’Italia.

“It was phenomenal, a very open race because LeMond had been shot in a hunting accident and five-time winner Bernard Hinault had retired. There was no clear favourite, the yellow jersey swapped hands a lot and for it to come down to the second last day, that made it.”

That, and the drama at La Plagne…

“Laurent Fignon won the stage,” says Healy. “And it appeared as though Roche could be losing the tour because he just looked to be going further and further behind. He wouldn’t have known what the time differences were and everyone was surprised that he only came in a few seconds behind Delgado at the top of the climb.

“But he was a very smart rider. He recognised he was a faster on descents than Delgado and he accumulated small gains there. He only won by 40-seconds in the end, but did so because he identified the areas where Delgado was weak and maximised those opportunities. On top of that he was a far superior time triallist than Delgado.

Healy says that:  “Roche’s hardness was sometimes underestimated but he showed some real defiance earlier in the Giro d’Italia when he was be punched at and spat at by Italien supporters’. It was pretty extreme and a weaker person might have pulled out, but he didn’t.”

Roche’s ‘keep-on-keeping-on’ style brought him even greater riches in 1987 when he won the World Championships, held in Austria. In doing so, the Dubliner became only the second rider after Eddie Merckx to win the Triple Crown consisting of Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and World Championships, in the one year.

“Roche actually travelled to Austria with the intention of helping Kelly win the race,” says Healy. “But in the final kilometres he realised that he (Kelly) couldn’t win and he had to take the opportunity. Roche got a jump on the inside, Kelly’s group caught up with him and as Roche crosses the line he punches the air and you can see Kelly doing the same.

“In a funny moment afterwards, somebody said to Roche that the win put him equal with Merckx, and Roche replied that there was a fourth race and Eddie Merckx had never actually won the Rás (The eight day Irish stage race)

Merckx is indisputably the best cyclist ever and nobody has done it since. There’s a question mark as to whether anyone can do it again.”

 

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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