Wednesday, 11 July 2012

1987: Stephen Roche

What is the favourite year of your life? What, you don't have one? Surely you must? I'm betting if you ask any sportsman or woman that question, then the chances are that the answer will come that much easier than from the mouths of us mere mortals; Steffi Graf may well say 1988, the year in which she pulled off her Golden Slam; Dennis Taylor would surely reply 1985; Andrew Flintoff 2005; Kelly Holmes 2004. The list goes on and on. But certainly it would be unlikely that if you ever saw Irish cyclist Stephen Roche and asked him to pick his favourite twelve months of his life, that he would answer any differently than 1987.

Roche changed That1980sSportsBlogger's perception of the sport of cycling during July 1987. For me growing up in the 80s, cycling mainly conjured up images of Kevin Keegan on Superstars, and the nearest exposure I got to serious cycling was when I spent an interminable amount of time trying to win the Milk Race on my Spectrum 48K (I never did). Then along came Stephen Roche.

To see the Irishman win the Tour de France became a journey (© The X Factor) for me: from cycling ignoramus to Tour de France obsessive, in the space of just 25 days in 1987. In fact such was my new found love of cycling, and Roche in particular, that whilst on holiday my family would often wonder why I would drift off at about 6pm every day to go and stare at the TV in the hotel bar. The answer I gave them, with a slightly confused tone in my 11-year-old voice, was that I was obviously checking on the progress of Stephen Roche in the Tour. What other reason could there have been?

Before the Tour de France, there was the small matter of the Giro d'Italia. In winning the 2433 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 in this race. During the stage from Lido di Jesolo to Sappada, Roche blatantly ignored the Carrera Jeans-Vagabond team orders and broke away early, thus wrestling the pink jersey from defending champion Roberto Visentini. It was a decisive 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, a man used for the sole purpose of protecting the leader), and Robert Millar and Australian Phil Anderson, Roche was able to survive the pivotal Marmolada climb (a day known as the "Marmolada Massacre").

A few days later Roberto Visentini would fall and retire from the race and with this protection in place, Roche was able to hold his lead. When he claimed his second individual stage win on the 22nd and final leg of the tour (Aosta to Saint-Vincent), Roche had won the Giro, beating Millar by 3 minutes 40 seconds. 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, the Irishman did not sound particularly confident of repeating his Giro triumph: "I'm still shattered after that (the Giro). I can't be too confident about this Tour." Hardly the words of someone heavily tipped to win a very open Tour: 5-time winner Bernard Hinault had retired; 1983 and 1984 champion Laurent Fignon was recovering from a couple of injury hit years; defending champion Greg LeMond was out injured due to a freak turkey hunting accident involving a shotgun and his brother-in-law.

The road stage in Berlin saw Roche move to ninth overall, sitting 28 seconds behind the first ever Pole to hold the yellow jersey in the Tour, Lech Piasecki. When Roche's Carrera Jeans-Vagabond team won the Berlin team time trial, Roche moved from ninth to third and sat just 19 seconds behind Piasecki.

Stage five finished in Strasbourg, as the Tour finally entered France. Roche had slipped down the field, in 24th place, 5 minutes and 41 secs behind race leader Erich Maechler. Roche was still the same gap behind Maechler after the 8th stage between Troyes and Epinay-sous-Sénart. He wasn't completely cut adrift, though, but it was obvious that Roche needed a big stage soon.

Thank goodness then for the 10th stage time trial between Saumur and Futuroscope. Roche won the 54 mile stage, finishing 42 seconds ahead of new Tour leader Charly Mottet. Just as importantly, Roche moved up to sixth position, and had cut the deficit between himself and first place to 3 minutes 23 secs. The Giro winner was now handily placed, as the mountain stages were beginning to draw ever closer.

Stage 13, a gruelling 137-mile mountainous struggle between Bayonne and Pau. Roche still sat 3 minutes 23 secs behind Mottet, but interestingly was now sounding a little more like he had his 'game-head' on. Roche sent out a warning to his rivals: "Tomorrow is the big day. I did not waste my energy. I am saving something for when it really matters".

Fortunately his actions spoke just as loudly as his words, as Roche surged his way to tenth place through more Pyrenees climbs between Pau and Luz Ardiden, and in the process slashed 1 minute 57 secs off of Mottet's lead. Roche was now only 1 minute 26 secs away from claiming the maillot jaune. "I just did my best but these mountains are so hard and specialist climbers are in super form." Roche's best was arguably yet to come.

It wouldn't be all plain sailing for Roche, however. Mottet gained 1 minute 07 secs on him during stage 15, Roche being trapped before the pack sprinted for the line. A superb fourth place in the Blagnac-Millau/Le Cade stage highlighted Roche's bouncebackability, at a time when we hadn't even heard that expression, and he had reeled Mottet back to within 1 minute 26 secs (Frenchman Jean-François Bernard separating the duo, 15 seconds ahead of Roche).

It was very much as you are, after the 149-mile Millau-Avignon leg, with the three front runners all recording the same time. Bernard would claim the lead for the first time in the Tour, winning the individual time trial between Carpentras and Mont Ventoux (the scene of Tommy Simpson's tragic death in 1967). Roche's fifth placed finish elevated him to second place overall, as Mottet lost over a minute to Roche and nearly four minutes to Bernard. Roche was now 2 minutes 34 secs behind Bernard, with seven stages and over 750 miles left to cover.

Stephen Roche would finally take possession of the yellow jersey after stage 19, finishing second in the Valréas-Villard de Lans leg. Admittedly he was greatly aided by Bernard's puncture suffered after 62 miles of the 115 miles, but as Roche put it: "When Bernard punctured, we all took our chance", proving that a great sportsman can often need a little luck on their side too. Roche's lead was 41 seconds over Mottet, although Pedro Delgado, who had won the stage, was looming large, just 1 minute 19 secs in arrears.

No sooner had Roche gained the jersey, then he had to hand it straight to Delgado, who gained 1 minute 44 secs the very next day. After 20 stages of the 1987 Tour, Delgado led Roche by 25 seconds, with Bernard 2 minutes 02 secs behind Delgado. As Roche quite rightly noted: "It's now a three-horse race between me, Pedro Delgado and Jean-Francois Bernard." Rather pointedly Roche also stated that "I was quite prepared to lose time to Delgado. Now we will see how he recovers from his efforts because there is worse to come, and I am not finished yet." As stage 21 developed on July 22, it soon became apparent that Roche was a man of his word. 

For then came 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 that he was a cut above the rest. Things were not going Roche's way during the 115 mile Le Bourg-d'Oisans–La Plagne stage through the Alps. Roche gambled on attacking Delgado early, and at first it looked like a wise move, as Roche broke away, leaving Delgado trailing with his team-mates.

But Delgado began to steadily reel in Roche, and gradually built up a stage lead of 1 minute 25 secs. It looked as if Roche's Tour plans lay in tatters but then Roche's infamous chase began, over the last 5km of the climb up La Plagne. His goal was to save a bit back for that final 5km and try and regain a minute back on Delgado's stage lead, something he would ultimately achieve, and then some.

As Roche pounded along, Delgado maintained his steady pace (Roche was well aware that the Tour leader would not be getting any time checks so close to the finishing line). When Delgado crossed the line, the crowd were astonished to see the sight of Roche just four seconds behind. "That was essentially the day Delgado lost the Tour" Roche would say in 2007, although at the time it would have been hard to get anything out of the Irishman.

Faster, higher, stronger, may well be the Olympic motto, but no one ever mentions the bit afterwards - exhaustion, collapse and oxygen mask. Thankfully Roche recovered enough to deliver a famous reply to an enquiry regarding if he was okay: "Oui, mais pas de femme toute de suite" ("yes, but I am not ready for a woman straight away"). Enter 'roche delgado la plagne 87' into Google and you'll get 112,000 results back, and what better way in this modern era to indicate just how legendary that stage was?

Roche at the finishing line after 2629 miles

The Dijon time trial (stage 24) was where Roche would hopefully make his move on Delgado, but of course Roche's exertions in La Plagne had taken their toll, and before Dijon were two more stages, totalling 256 miles. The first 140 miles from La Plagne to Morzine involved the last of the mountainous part of the Tour, and amazingly Roche managed to shave 18 seconds off of Delgado's lead. Delgado still led by 21 seconds, but with Dijon to come Roche was understandably confident: "I'm in a great position with the Dijon time trial to come." His plan was working out perfectly, and after Roche and Delgado both recorded the same time between St Julien en Genevois and Dijon, Roche's time to deliver was near.

The 24 mile Dijon leg was, in Roche's words, a chance to gain at least a minute on Delgado. The opportunity was taken with both hands (or feet) by Roche, as he finished the trial in second place, crucially 61 seconds ahead of his Spanish rival. Roche would take a 40 second lead into the final stage finishing in Paris, and barring a major accident, he was surely to be crowned the Tour champion of 1987.

Fortunately Roche stayed clear of trouble, and finished the 119 mile leg in 29th place, recording the same time as Delgado. Roche's winning margin of 40 seconds was at the time the second smallest margin of victory (it is now the fifth), which was extremely fitting in a Tour that offered so much drama, and eight different owners of the yellow jersey. Happily, Roche would wear the jersey come the end of the race, and the press went to town.

'Roche is yer man for glory' exclaimed the headline in the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror opting for 'KING OF THE ROAD'. Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey didn't miss out on the chance of joining the bandwagon, greeting Roche after the conclusion in Paris. Predictions of millionaire status, due to a tug-of-war between Roche's Carrera team and Fagor, sponsorship deals from Italian jean manufacturers, and an estimated quarter of a million people lining the streets of Dublin on his return, just added to the general fervour that surrounded Roche's Tour victory. 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.

The World road race championship in Villach in Austria in September 1987, was the final piece of Roche's Triple Crown. The 173 mile race was contested over 23 laps of a challenging course. Many felt Roche's team-mate Sean Kelly would claim the title, thus the pressure was certainly not on the double tour winner.

However, when Kelly was left in the pack with a few kilometres to go, Roche sniffed a chance of glory, and the frantic 500 metre dash for the line would add even more glory to Roche's 1987. As Roche crossed the line with a few metres and one second to spare over Italian Moreno Argentin, the man from Dublin had joined the great Eddy Merckx in winning the Triple Crown of cycling.

I'm not even sure I would have known what the word annus meant, until the Queen suffered her horribilis one in 1992. So if anyone had asked me to translate annus mirabilis before then, I may well have taken a guess that it was an expression used to describe Felicity Kendal's rear. But is it possible for anyone to have experienced such a tremendous year as Roche in 1987?

The kind of time that he must often look back on with a feeling of great pride and nostalgia. And who could blame him? Because if I was Stephen Roche, I think I would recall some of the events of 1987 at least ten times every hour, during every day of my life. Only two people have ever won cycling's Triple Crown, and that for me makes Stephen Roche's achievements in 1987 that much more remarkable.


  1. The La Plagne finish produced one of the greatest peices of TV commentary ever.
    "...and just who is that rider coming up behind, because that looks like Roche!. That looks like Steven Roche!! IT'S STEVEN ROCHE COME OVER THE LINE..."

    Evertime I hear it, the hairs stand on the back of my neck.

  2. Wonderful story and personality. Thank you!