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The Power of Three: Stephen Roche profile

Mark Bailey
7 Jul 2017

On the 30th anniversary of his Giro, Tour and World Champs Triple Crown, Stephen Roche talks to Cyclist about his annus mirabilis

Stephen Roche is relaxing on a sofa in a hotel by the Thames, a short walk from the bustle of the London Bike Show.

At the nearby cycling mecca everything is dazzling and new, but on the table in front of Roche lie three faded but elegant relics: the maillot jaune of the Tour de France, the maglia rosa of the Giro d’Italia and the rainbow-striped jersey of the World Road Race Championships.

These are the holy trinity of cycling jerseys, but to Roche they are personal time capsules that evoke the glory, pain, drama and controversy of 1987, the year this humble son of an Irish milkman etched his name into the annals of cycling folklore by winning all three jerseys within the space of 13 weeks.

‘You can thank my daughter Christel for remembering those jerseys,’ he says with a half-smile. ‘I would have forgotten them.’

The 57-year-old’s manner is polite and his conversation playful, but in his analysis of the art of winning there are enough glints of inner steel to remind you that even affable cyclists need to be gladiators too.

The ultimatum

Roche’s historic Triple Crown – something only he and Eddy Merckx (in 1974) have achieved – couldn’t have been predicted.

A knee injury in 1986 meant he spent the year in searing pain and could manage only 48th place at the Tour de France.

‘I started the season with an ultimatum because after finishing third in the Tour in 1985, Carrera signed me on a nice contract.

‘They said, “OK, Stephen, we signed you for a good Tour and you haven’t really competed. We’d like you to consider dropping your contract.”

I said, “When you get married, it’s for better or for worse. We have a contract. Hopefully you’ve seen the worst. Give me until April. If by then I don’t perform I’ll talk. But until then please leave me alone.” I was tense because I knew I had to perform.’

He enjoyed early success, winning the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in February and the Tour de Romandie in May.

But with Roberto Visentini, an Italian icon and the reigning Giro champion, as his teammate at the Giro in May – on a brutal 3,915km course with five summit finishes – he remained uncertain of his status.

‘I had stamina, I was tactically clever and my time-trialling and mountain riding were OK but I was coming back from injury.

‘I was hoping to be a co-leader with Visentini because even if he was leader he hadn’t won anything that year.’

Roche believed in letting the road decide, and knew he needed a strong start. ‘At the prologue I broke a toe strap and didn’t do a great time [finishing ninth], but I won the time-trial down the Poggio.

‘I rode a normal bike with 28-spoke wheels. People were waiting for me to change bikes at the start line, thinking I was bluffing.

‘But the Poggio isn’t like it is today. It was bumpy and full of holes and a low-profile bike would be harder to manage on corners.

‘Everybody thought I was crazy but I beat Urs Freuler, Moreno Argentin and Visentini and got the jersey.’

Facing the mob

The tension between teammates exploded on Stage 15, a 224km mountain stage from Lipo di Jesolo to Sappada, when the Irishman put 6mins 50secs into Visentini.

The Italian tifosi were apoplectic, but Roche says the problems started much earlier.

‘When I had the jersey on my back [from Stage 3 to Stage 12] Roberto didn’t ride one millimetre for me.

‘Every time someone attacked he waited for me to react and then followed me. On one stage I crashed 1.5km outside the flag and Roberto came round me, looked at me and went up the road.’

When Visentini won back the jersey on the 46km Stage 13 time-trial from Rimini to San Marino, Roche realised he had to act.

‘When I got to my hotel room I saw Visentini being interviewed on television. The interviewer was saying, “At least now the situation is clear. Roche will ride for you here and you will ride for Roche at the Tour.”

But Visentini said, “I will not ride at the Tour because I will go on holiday.”’

Determined

Feeling betrayed, Roche was determined to take his chance on Stage 15. ‘I couldn’t attack Visentini because he was a teammate, but I thought, “If a group goes up the road I’ll go with them.”

‘Over the top of a climb, there were three guys in front, but no Carrera rider, so I went to the front and raced down.

‘There were no wing mirrors that day. And we didn’t have a radio, although if I had an earpiece I’d have taken it out. When we got to the bottom our group was about 40 seconds up.

‘Our team car came up and the directeur sportif said, “What are you doing? You annihilated everybody, there are some people hanging out of trees. Please stop!” I said, “Great, that means we can win the Giro.”

‘I put my foot down and rode like I was possessed. I ended up finishing a few seconds off the lead group but it was enough to get the pink jersey.’

Chaos ensued. When Roche stood on the podium that day, Visentini yelled, ‘You’re going home!’ Fans booed and whistled.

‘It shows how thin the line is. If I’d taken five seconds longer history could have been different.

Carrera might have said, “Go home.” But they couldn’t do it because Visentini was well down in the GC [3min 12sec] and I was the race leader.’

The next day Roche faced the mob. Fans were waving banners that read ‘Roche bastardo’. ‘Some were waving big chunks of meat dripping in blood. It was intimidating. And I was in pink so I was recognisable.’

During the stage he recruited the help of Panasonic rider Robert Millar and his own Carrera teammate Eddy Schepers.

‘Robert and Eddy sat either side of me to keep people back because they were punching at me. The ugliest thing was that fans would put rice in their mouth and drink wine and then spit on me. It was terrible.’

Roche clung on to the pink jersey for the rest of the race but the ordeal shook him. ‘I was eating alone in my room, getting my mechanic to make sure my bike wasn’t sabotaged, asking my masseur to make sure nobody put anything in my food.

‘Dealing with the press and my teammates was hard but I was determined to get through it.’

To this day Visentini calls the events ‘unspeakable’. Roche says, ‘When I speak to people one to one they understand my side, but some Italians will never believe it.’

Power of the mind

With less than three weeks between the end of the Giro and the start of the Tour de France on 1st July, a double seemed impossible, especially given that the 1987 Tour involved a massive 4,231km of riding across 25 stages (by comparison, the 2017 Tour is 3,516km).

‘I realised I was better off being 100% mentally fit and 80% physically fit than the other way around, so I took time off. In bad days in the mountains, it’s the mental side that brings you through.’

Roche’s victory at the Tour was as much about psychology as physiology. He selected key days to make a winning impact.

‘If I did an also-ran prologue people would say the Giro was a one-off. So I wanted to do a good prologue to show I was back. I finished third.

‘We won the team time-trial and I won the 87km time-trial into Futuroscope too. I also targeted the first mountain stage.

‘I knew Pedro Delgado was the main man and I knew I could beat him by a minute in the final 38km time-trial in Dijon. My aim was to stay within one minute of him by that day.’

The pivotal day came on Stage 21, an epic 185km route taking in the Galibier, Telegraphe and Madeleine before finishing on the climb to La Plagne.

Wearing yellow, Spaniard Delgado attacked Roche, opening an 80-second gap on the final climb.

Everyone assumed Roche’s race was over, but with mist shrouding the mountain and TV cameras failing to keep up with events, Roche had secretly battled back to within a few seconds, as immortalised by Phil Liggett’s excited commentary in the closing moments: ‘That looks like Stephen Roche! It’s Stephen Roche!’

‘When he attacked I was thinking, “If I go with him he’ll break me,” so I took time to recover and let him think he was winning.

‘When he got 80 seconds ahead I thought I’d better lift the pace, then I gave it everything with 4km to go. When I came around the final corner I didn’t know where he was. When I saw the red car I got confused.

‘I finished four seconds down. If race radios had existed that wouldn’t have happened because if I’d heard I’d got to 30 seconds behind I’d have backed off.

‘I might have lost the Tour by a few seconds. But because I didn’t know where he was I buried myself and people still talk about that day 30 years on.’

Despite needing oxygen afterwards, Roche attacked even harder the next day. ‘On the final climb on Joux Plane I descended so fast I put 18 seconds into Delgado. But it was a mental attack.

‘The previous day he saw me getting taken away in an ambulance. To see me putting time into him again would make him think, “How can I beat him?” I knew he wouldn’t sleep before the time-trial.’

Roche went on to secure his Tour triumph with a second-place finish in the 38km time-trial in Dijon, beating Delgado – as he had predicted – by 61 seconds.

‘The biggest moment was the return to Dublin on the Monday. I got asked to go to a civic reception but all the cycling fans were still in France so I thought I’d look stupid getting off the plane and nobody being there.

‘But when we pulled up there were banners and crowds everywhere. People jumped the barriers. I felt like Paul McCartney.’

World beater

Roche admits that the completion of his Triple Crown wasn’t part of a grand plan.

The 23-lap, 276km course for the World Championships in Villach, Austria, that September was designed to favour sprinters, and Roche’s preparations were relaxed.

He can remember eating fish and chips and drinking beer at a hotel in Wexford after one of the pre-race criteriums in Ireland.

‘I went to the Worlds to ride for Sean Kelly. Only when we arrived and I saw the circuit did I think I could win.

‘But it was 30°C and I thought it would kill me. Fortunately on race morning it was 8°C and lashing with rain so I thought the gods were with me.’

The final moments of the race remain clear in his mind: ‘With a lap and a half to go there was a break. I went to the front, but I thought I’d better back off or I wouldn’t be able to ride for Sean in the sprint.

‘As I got to the back Rolf Sørensen and Teun van Vliet attacked and nobody went after them. I went up a gear but nobody followed me.

‘This was it. I knew sprinters like Rolf Golz, Van Vliet and Sørensen would beat me. I’d come to help Sean and had ridden hard so I didn’t want to go home in fifth place.

‘It’s amazing how quickly you react – your mind works faster than a Google search. The wind was coming from the right so I had to get over to the left so nobody could come off my wheels.

‘When I went, the others all looked at each other and I was gone. There was a slight incline in the last few metres but I held on.

To fly the Irish flag was very special. We had a five-man team versus 13 from countries like Belgium and Holland.’ 

Making history

Roche seems bewildered that people still want to know about what happened 30 years ago.

But sometimes you have to see events through other people’s eyes to fully comprehend them.

‘I did a sponsorship event at the Tour and the entertainment manager introduced the ex-pros as “Olympic champions” or “Tour stage winners”.

‘For me he said, “In the history of the Tour de France there have been 52 winners.” All their faces appeared on the big screen behind him.

‘Then he said, “Of those 52, seven have also won the Giro in the same year.” Most of the faces disappeared. “And of those seven, only two have won the Giro, Tour and World Champs in the same year.

‘One of them is Eddy Merckx and the other is… Stephen Roche.” That’s when you realise, this is an achievement.’

Who's next?

Roche on the chances of anyone repeating his Triple Crown feat

Only Stephen Roche (1987) and Eddy Merckx (1974) have won the Tour, Giro and World Road Race Championships in the same year.

With the 2018 World Road Race being held around mountainous Innsbruck, some pundits predict next year could be a potential treble target for the big beasts of the general classification.

‘The next time it could be done is 2018 with the Worlds being in Innsbruck on a difficult circuit,’ agrees Roche.

‘But today the riders are very strong and very weak at the same time. They are strong physically but health-wise they are on the edge.

‘The Tour is normally warm but the Giro has a mix of cold and very cold weather.

‘When you have just 4% body fat and hit the Marmolada or the Pordoi and there’s snow and you’re soaking wet and freezing cold you have to be special to get through that.

‘Contador and Nibali could but Wiggins and Froome couldn’t get through the weather. It’s not because they’re not good enough, it’s because all the latest science means they’re told to ride with so little body fat.

‘Even if they get through, it can leave its mark for later in the year.’

Stephen Roche on... 

…Winning: ‘I didn’t look at the course of the Giro before the race because it wasn’t in my mind to win the Giro.

‘But I contradict myself a bit because I always rode to win, and never just to do my best. I think I felt like that at every single race.’ 

…Resilience: ‘If you sat me down and described the scenario at the 1987 Giro and asked, “What would you do if this arose?” I would say, “I’d be on the first plane home.”

‘But my attitude during the race was: do what you want, say what you want, I’m not going home.’ 

…Mind games: ‘After the Tour stage in La Plagne I had to get oxygen. A reporter said, “Can you reassure your fans you are OK?”

So I said, “Yes, I am OK but I am not ready for a woman yet.” It was off the cuff but it was tactical too. I didn’t want people to know I was suffering.’ 

…Ireland: 'The best thing about winning the Tour was that it was the first time the Irish Times carried a colour front page.

‘In those days the news was all about bombings, killings, Northern Ireland and the economy so it was nice to provide this optimism for the Irish people.’