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‘That looks like Stephen Roche!’: classic cycling commentary gems

29 Jun 2021

As the Tour de France gets into full swing, Felix Lowe gets all nostalgic over classic commentary from past races

Words: Felix Lowe Photography: Graham Watson

It’s funny how your mind plays tricks on you. When I think back to Stephen Roche’s legendary comeback on the climb to La Plagne at the 1987 Tour de France, I always think of the Irishman emerging through the mist behind the man in yellow, Pedro Delgado.

But there was no mist. I know this now because, feeling wistful and in need of a socially distanced pick-me-up, I sought out that stage on YouTube. And you know what? It was sunny. The only fuzz came from the VCR recording.

Still, it reminded me of one of my favourite bits of commentary: Phil Liggett’s now immortal lines, ‘And just who is that rider coming up behind? That looks like Roche! That looks like Stephen Roche! It’s Stephen Roche who has come over the line – he almost caught Pedro Delgado. I don’t believe it.’ Glorious. Not simply for the incredulous accumulation of Stephen Roche’s name.

Another classic from those halcyon days of Liggett and Paul Sherwen in the Channel 4 highlights hotseat came a year later, when Delgado attacked on the climb to Luz Ardiden. ‘Now Delgado goes!’ cries Phil. ‘And look at that! Pedro Delgado has sprouted wings!’

This was a day after Robert Millar took a wrong turn on the final bend, prompting Liggett to shout, ‘Somebody’s gone off course! All of a sudden Massimo Ghirotto is winning the Tour de France. I’ve never seen that in my life!

Judging from the archives, there were loads of things that Phil had never seen in his life. For instance, when Lance Armstrong rode across a field to avoid Joseba Beloki’s spill on the descent to Gap in 2003, he exclaims, ‘Oh! Beloki has gone down and Armstrong has taken to the grass. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life!

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It must be a commentator’s tic because at 2019’s Amstel Gold Rob Hatch was at it too: ‘Look at Van der Poel going from behind. Van der Poel on the left-hand side. Mathieu Van der Poel’s going to do it. MATHIEU VAN DER POEL! This is incredible! I’ve never, ever seen anything like this in my life.’

From one Dutchman’s stonking win to another having a stinker. Who can forget Hatch’s reaction when the penny (and much more) finally dropped during the 2017 Giro when the race leader got caught short on Stage 16? ‘Oh, here we go… What’s happened here? Bike change? Real problems. And he’s changing his jersey… Tom Dumoulin… oh no… oh no, no… dear, oh dear… Problems.’

Sticking with Eurosport, Carlton Kirby has managed his own brand of fevered incredulity. The best example of a #kirbygasm must come from his Alan Partridge-inspired Tour of Turkey climax after Iljo Keisse crashed on the final bend but just held the chasing peloton at bay.

‘Come on Keisse, for goodness sake! You’ve got to pray for this, surely! It’s going to be a huge heartbreak. Keisse’s gonna get caught. Oh! He takes it! JOY FOR CYCLING FANS GLOBALLY! What an effort that was! I absolutely loved that.’

Nothing, however, tops Phil and Paul’s accompaniment to the 1989 Tour. During lockdown, I found the musical montage that Channel 4 put together ahead of the decisive final time-trial to Paris.

First, we see Laurent Fignon portentously suffering in the Alpine TT as Liggett says, ‘The pendulum swings again in the direction of the American Greg LeMond.’ Then we’re on Alpe d’Huez, where LeMond is suffering as Fignon attacks.

‘The way Greg’s climbing here, he has really blown,’ says Sherwen. ‘And LeMond certainly now is out of yellow tonight,’ Phil says. But with the stirring Pete Shelley soundtrack in the background, a dogged LeMond assures the camera that, ‘This race is not over – believe me.’

Try telling that to Phil. For as the Frenchman wins the next day in Villard-de-Lans, Liggett exclaims, ‘The crowd are standing up here as they applaud Laurent Fignon. Because he knows that, today, he has won the Tour de France – I’m sure of that.’

The thing is, there was still another day to go. And we all now know the dramatic twist in the tale…

‘Fignon is bouncing off the barriers here. He’s lost the Tour de France! The crowd has realised it… Laurent Fignon has lost the Tour de France right on the line. Eight seconds. Can you believe it?’

No Phil, that really was something none of us had ever seen in our lives.