How Stephen Roche ruled cycling in 1987 – The Guardian (blog)

What is the favourite year of your life? I imagine the answer comes quicker for athletes than for us mere mortals. Steffi Graf may well say 1988, the year she pulled off her Golden Slam; Dennis Taylor would surely pick 1985; Andrew Flintoff would have to go for 2005; and Kelly Holmes would choose 2004. If you asked Irish cyclist Stephen Roche, surely he would say 1987.

Roche changed my perception of the sport of cycling in 1987. When I was growing up in the 1980s, cycling mainly conjured up images of Kevin Keegan on Superstars. The nearest exposure I had to serious cycling was when I spent an interminable amount of time trying to win the Milk Race on my Spectrum 48K. Then along came Roche.

He turned me from a cycling ignoramus to a Tour de France obsessive in the space of just 25 days. I became a regular in front of our portable TV at 6.30pm every night to catch the half-hour highlights on Channel Four – there was no wall-to-wall live coverage back in 1987. Such was my newfound love of cycling, and Roche in particular, that while on holiday in Malta, my family would often wonder why I spent so much time in front of the TV in the hotel bar. I was obviously checking Roche’s progress in the Tour, trying to catch a glimpse of the all-important leaderboard. What other reason could there have been?

My relationship with the sport has never really been the same since. I keep an eye out for news of the Tour and watch some highlights but that holiday romance has been impossible to recreate in subsequent years. First time, first love, oh what feeling is this?

Stephen Roche and Jeannie Longo.



Stephen Roche and Jeannie Longo. Photograph: Action Images

Before the Tour de France, there was the small matter of the Giro d’Italia. In winning the 2,433-mile event, Roche became the first winner of the Giro from outside of mainland Europe, but that wasn’t the only way he bucked the trend. During the stage from Lido di Jesolo to Sappada, Roche blatantly ignored orders from his team and broke away early, wrestling the pink jersey from defending champion Roberto Visentini. It was a decisive and divisive moment.

From this point on, Roche was a marked man as far as his Italian team-mates were concerned. Although, with the support of Eddy Schepers, his domestique, and Robert Millar and Phil Anderson, Roche was able to survive the pivotal Marmolada climb – a day known as the Marmolada Massacre. A few days later Visentini fell and retired from the race, helping Roche to maintain his lead. When he claimed his second individual stage win on the 22nd and final leg of the tour, Roche won the Giro, beating Millar by 3m 40s and becoming the first native English speaker to win Italy’s national tour. Next stop Berlin, for the start of the Tour de France.

Although Roche finished third in the four-mile prologue, just seven seconds behind winner Jelle Nijdam, he did not sound particularly optimistic about repeating his Giro triumph: “I’m still shattered. I can’t be too confident about this Tour.” Hardly the words of someone heavily tipped to win a very open Tour: five-time winner Bernard Hinault had retired; Laurent Fignon, who had been champion in 1983 and 1984, was recovering from a couple of injury-hit years; and Greg LeMond, the reigning champion, was out injured due to a freak turkey-hunting accident involving a shotgun and his brother-in-law.

After the 13th stage, Roche trailed Frenchman Charly Mottet by 3m 23s, but he was beginning to sound confident that he could reel in the leaders in the second half of the race: “I am saving something for when it really matters.” As the race made its way across the south of France, Roche made his way through the field. By the end of stage 18, he had reduced the deficit to 2m 34s. Jean-François Bernard had the yellow jersey but, with seven stages and just over 750m left to cover, Roche was well placed. He took possession of le maillot jaune for the first time after stage 19, the mountainous route from Valréas to Villard-de-Lans, in which he finished second and Bernard suffered a puncture.

Roche’s lead over Mottet was 41s but Pedro Delgado, who had won the stage, was also looming large. Indeed, Delgado gained 1m 44s the very next day and took the yellow jersey from Roche; no sooner had Roche earned the jersey then he had to give it away. “It’s now a three-horse race between me, Pedro Delgado and Jean-Francois Bernard,” said Roche.

Stephen Roche is congratulated for winning stage 10.



Stephen Roche is congratulated for winning stage 10. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Wednesday July 22 was the day that would define Roche at the 1987 Tour: the moment when the Giro winner raised his cycling to a new level and proved he was a cut above the rest. Things were not going Roche’s way during the 115-mile stage through the Alps from Le Bourg-d’Oisans to La Plagne. He gambled on attacking Delgado early, which looked like a wise move, but Delgado steadily reeled him in and gradually built up a stage lead of 1m 25s. Roche’s plans seemed to be in tatters but then his infamous chase began.

As Roche pounded along, Delgado maintained his steady pace. When the Spaniard crossed the line, the crowd were astonished to see the sight of Roche just four seconds behind. The footage remains as dramatic as ever and Phil Liggett’s commentary is simply legendary: “Just who is that rider coming up behind – because that looks like Roche! That looks like Stephen Roche. It’s Stephen Roche, has come over the line! He almost caught Pedro Delgado, I don’t believe it!”

The Olympic motto, “Faster, higher, stronger,” sums up what it means to be the best, but what comes afterwards – exhaustion, collapse and oxygen mask – is not so glamorous. When asked whether he was OK after his furious comeback, thankfully Roche had recovered enough to deliver his famous reply: “Oui, mais pas de femme toute de suite” (“Yes, but I am not ready for a woman straight away”). “That was essentially the day Delgado lost the Tour,” reflected Roche in later years.

Delgado still led by 21s after stage 22 out of 25, but Roche was understandably confident, saying: “I’m in a great position with the Dijon time-trial to come.” His plan was working out perfectly and, after Roche and Delgado recorded the same time between Saint-Julien-en-Genevois and Dijon in stage 23, it was Roche’s time to deliver.

The 24-mile time-trial in Dijon was, in Roche’s words, a chance to gain at least a minute on Delgado. He took his opportunity, finishing in second place and 61 seconds in front of his rival. Roche had secured a 40-second lead before the final stage. Barring a major accident on the road from the Parisian suburbs to the Champs-Élysées, he was going to be crowned 1987 Tour de France champion. Roche stayed clear of trouble, recording the same time as Delgado on the 119-mile ride into the city centre, to win the Tour by 40 seconds, the second smallest margin of victory at the time, which was fitting for a race that offered so much drama, with eight different owners of the yellow jersey.

The press went to town. “Roche is yer man for glory,” exclaimed the headline in the Express. The Mirror opted for “King of the road”. Ireland’s prime minister, Charles Haughey, didn’t miss his chance to join the bandwagon, greeting Roche in Paris. “This is a once-in-a-life time experience,” said Roche. “Even our prime minister came over to watch it.”

Predictions of millionaire status, sponsorship deals from Italian jean manufacturers and an estimated crowd of 250,000 people lining the streets of Dublin to welcome him back to Ireland added to the fervour. But there was no rest for Roche, as the day after his reception in Dublin he was off to Eindhoven to race yet again, in preparation for the forthcoming World Championships in Austria.

The World Road Race Championship in Villach in September was the final piece of his Triple Crown. The 173-mile race was contested over 23 laps of a challenging course. Roche’s team-mate Sean Kelly was favourite to claim the title but, when Kelly was left in the pack with a few kilometres to go, Roche sniffed a chance of glory and made a frantic dash. When Roche crossed the line a few metres and one second in front of Italian Moreno Argentin, he joined the great Eddy Merckx in winning the Triple Crown of cycling.

I always look back fondly on the 1987 Tour de France, a race that gave me another sport to fall in love with. You always remember your first time. Roche must also reminisce often about 1987. Only two people have ever won cycling’s Triple Crown, which makes his achievements all the more remarkable. If I were him, I would recall the events of 1987 during every waking hour of my life.

This article appeared first on That 1980s Sports Blog
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