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Ride like... Stephen Roche

7 Nov 2017

We look at what made Ireland's most successful cyclist ever just so special

In September, Chris Froome elevated himself to true legend status by following up his Tour de France win with victory at the Vuelta a España.

Froome's success made him one of a select few riders to have won two Grand Tours in the same season, so we thought we’d look back at one of the former greats of the sport who has achieved a similar double.

In fact, Irishman Stephen Roche went one better in 1987, when he not only won the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, but also became UCI World Road Race Champion, making him only the second rider ever to take cycling’s ‘Triple Crown’ after Eddy Merckx – a feat that no one since has repeated.

Roche started his rise to greatness in 1979, when he became the youngest rider ever to win the Ràs, Ireland’s biggest stage race, and went on to take a total of 58 race victories.

Let’s look at what made the softly spoken Dubliner such a fearsome competitor on the bike…

Fact file

Name: Stephen Roche
Date of birth: 28 November 1959
Nationality: Irish
Rider type: All-rounder
Professional teams: 1981-83 Peugeot-Esso-Michelin; 1984-85 La Redoute; 1986-87 Carrera-Inoxpran; 1988-89
Fagor-MBK; 1990 Histor-Sigma; 1991 Tonton Tapis-GB; 1992-93 Carrera Jeans-Vagabond
Palmarès: Tour de France overall winner 1987, four stage wins; Giro d’Italia overall winner 1987, two stage wins; UCI World Road Race Champion 1987; Criterium International overall winner 1985, 1991; Paris-Nice overall winner 1981; Tour de Romandie overall winner 1983, 1984, 1987; Tour of the Basque Country overall winner 1989

Use your head

What? It wasn’t just sheer physical strength that took Roche to 58 wins in his career, he was also an intelligent rider. This was never more apparent than at the 1987 Tour, on the decisive stage 21, a mountain epic over the Galibier, Télégraphe and Madeleine.

Main rival Pedro Delgado had dropped Roche on the climbs, building up a big lead that looked fatal for Roche’s ambitions. But by the time Delgado crossed the line, Roche had made his recovery to finish just four seconds behind.

How? Wary of Delgado’s superior climbing ability, Roche had attacked early to give himself a time cushion, but Delgado was able to come back and in turn drop Roche.

This forced Roche to think on his feet. ‘My plan came together: let him go, stay within distance and recuperate. If I went with him, I wouldn’t make it. So let him go, hold the gap, and with 4km to go, give it everything.’

With only two TV cameras following the race, Roche’s recovery came as a surprise to everyone, not least commentator Phil Liggett, who famously exclaimed, ‘Just who is that rider coming up behind? That looks like Stephen Roche... It's Stephen Roche! Stephen Roche has almost caught Pedro Delgado! I don’t believe it!’

Believe in yourself

What? Roche’s victory at the 1987 Giro d’Italia was taken in controversial circumstances, having started the race
in the role of domestique in support of defending champion Roberto Visentini.

Going into stage 15, a tough day in the Dolomites with three major climbs, Visentini was race leader, but ignoring team orders, mountain specialist Roche went on the attack, stealing the iconic Maglia Rosa for himself and holding on to it in the face of constant attacks for the rest of the race.

How? Although Roche could be accused of not being a team player, his attack was justified by the form book, having already won the Tour de Romandie.

Visentini’s time-trialling prowess saw him take the early race lead, but Roche knew he would shine in the big mountains.

His victory shows that self-belief is one of the most important elements to becoming a true champion – or even achieving more modest goals, such as smashing a personal best on a time trial, or finishing a sportive inside a target time.

The key is knowing what you are capable of and setting your mind to achieving it.

Enjoy yourself

What? A crash in 1986 at a six-day track event left Roche with a serious knee injury. Although he managed to finish 48th at that year’s Tour de France, he described the race as like ‘entering a dark tunnel of pain’.

He came back to enjoy his miracle season the following year but persistent problems meant that by the early 1990s, he was unable to produce enough power to ride competitively at the highest level, but it was his love of cycling that kept him going until his retirement in 1993.

How? Despite his injuries, Roche had no desire to opt for early retirement.

Making his final appearance at the Tour in 1993, the once great champion rode in support of Spanish team leader Claudio Chiappucci, describing his participation as ‘just for fun’, which after all is always the most important reason to ride a bike, whether you are a Triple Crown winner or just a Sunday club rider.

Don’t give up

What? Riding for an Italian team and attacking his Italian team-mate in Italy’s biggest race made Roche deeply unpopular with the home fans, but he wasn’t going to let that get to him.

‘Today I wouldn’t have been able to stand what happened to me in the Giro,’ he later said. ‘For the rest of the Giro I had people spitting rice and wine in my face, and Visentini plotting revenge.

‘Back in 87, I said, “Do what you want. I ain’t going home.” That’s a tough statement and maybe it comes from this hard streak in me. I wasn’t giving in.’

How? We all face adversity at times on the bike, even if it’s more likely to be in the form of bad weather than irate Italian fans.

When the going gets tough, focus on your goal and remember that the low points don’t last forever. When you cross the finish line, the sense of achievement is what will endure.

Use your rivals

What? The early 1980s was a golden era for Irish cycling, with not just one but two of the greatest ever talents in the sport emerging from the nation.

Sean Kelly had been around for a few years before Roche arrived on the scene, but Roche’s incredible debut season in 1981 spurred Kelly on to raise his own game.

Despite coming from very different backgrounds and being very different styles of rider, the pair share the mutual respect and admiration of great champions.

How? Riding solo can be fun, but riding with other cyclists is one of the best ways to motivate yourself to push harder to achieve your goals.

If you are competing against rivals, you’ll be spurred on by the desire to finish ahead of them. Riding with friends, you’ll be driven by the desire not to let them down.

You’ll also be able to provide each other with encouragement when the going gets hard.

Keep your sense of humour

What? Following that monumental effort to chase down Pedro Delgado on the climb to La Plagne, Roche was a spent force, momentarily losing consciousness and requiring medics to give him oxygen.

As he was stretchered into the back of an ambulance, he was asked if he was OK. ‘Oui,’ he replied, ‘mais pas de femme tout de suite.’ (‘Yes, but I am not ready for a woman just yet.’)

How? Pithy one-liners may be beyond most of us at the end of a hard ride, but seeing the funny side of suffering really can help.

‘Laughter is the best medicine’ may be an old saying, but it's actually backed up by scientific research which has shown that laughter helps to release hormones that dull pain and create a sense of well-being.

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