Cycling history: Stephen Roche – legacy of 1987
For many cycling fans, the 1987 season is one that can never be forgotten. It was the year Stephen Roche achieved the amazing triple crown: Giro, Tour, world championships! With this extract from Giles Belbin’s new book, we look back at the Irishman’s endeavours from 30 years ago…
Photos: Graham Watson
While researching his new book, Chasing the rainbow, Giles Belbin talked with Roche about his record-making 1987 season.
– By Giles Belbin
It is May 2016 and Stephen Roche and I are sat side-by-side at a desk in his offices on the first floor of a hotel in Palmanova, Majorca. We are watching a recording of the men’s 1987 world championship road race on my laptop
On screen Roche, proudly wearing the emerald green jersey of Ireland, has just crossed the line with his hands in air and a huge grin on his face. Amid the pandemonium that comes after the finish of a major bike race, Roche’s team-mate Sean Kelly comes alongside and the two embrace. Then, through the melee, a man wearing a green cap with “Ireland” emblazoned on the top appears. He pats Kelly on the back before grabbing Roche and planting a kiss on his cheek.
“Who’s that?” I ask.
Roche smiles. “That’s Herman.”
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This month marks 30 years since that race in Villach, Austria when Roche entered cycling history. Not only was he the first and, to date, only Irish rider to win professional cycling’s rainbow jersey, but – perhaps more memorably – he became just the second man to claim its holy trinity.
In 1974 Eddy Merckx had won the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the worlds. Then, 13 years later, the man from Dublin had matched it and won his own triple crown.
“Merckx now wasn’t a bad rider was he?” Roche had asked mischievously after the race.
Roche’s 1987 season had started full of uncertainty. After finishing third at the Tour in 1985 he had signed for the Italian team, Carrera, as a Grand Tour contender and a possible future Tour winner. He was on good money but dogged by a chronic knee injury his 1986 season was a disaster. During the off-season Roche was told the returns on the team’s investment in him weren’t good enough and that they wanted to renegotiate his contract.
“I said: ‘Whoa, whoa, here guys, no,’” Roche says. “‘When you get married it’s for better or for worse. So you’ve seen the worse hopefully, the best is to come. If I’d won everything this year would you have said, Stephen here’s a bonus, we haven’t paid you enough? I don’t think so. So I propose that you leave me alone until April. If by Easter I’ve got no results then I agree we can discuss and renegotiate my contract.’
“[I was] not at all thinking what was going to come.”
A year to remember: it’s been 30 years since the season that Stephen Roche put his name amongst the greats of cycling by winning the triple crown.
Thanks to the efforts of the German specialist Dr Müller-Wohlfahrt, Roche got his knee sorted and as the 1987 season approached he felt good, out-performing his team-mates in pre-season training. In February he went to the Tour of Valencia and won.
“That took some weight off my shoulders,” Roche reflects.
“Contractually I knew I was going to be okay… I could say I’d given payback.”
But he hadn’t even started. At the Giro he spent a tumultuous three weeks famously stirring the anger of his team-mates, managers, Italian press, the tifosi and just about everyone else by challenging the race lead of his team leader and defending champion Roberto Visenti.
Faced with a barrage of abuse and an Italian media asking when he was going to leave the race, Roche stuck it out and emerged metaphorically battered and bruised but in pink as the winner of the Giro.
Then he headed to France and went head to head with Spain’s Pedro Delgado, setting up an overall win in Paris with a race-saving ride to La Plagne that would enter Tour legend.
Roche collapsed on the finish line. Oxygen had to be given.
Four days later he stood in yellow in Paris.
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Today Roche looks back on those two races with a sense of wonder.
“[At the Giro] if you were to describe that scenario to me now and asked me how I would react, I would say that I’d be on the first plane home. But there I was. I spent 16 days being escorted back to my room every night, bodyguard on the door, my masseur making my food, my mechanic looking after my bike, being escorted down to the start line, at the finish line being escorted back to the hotel. It was amazing you know? And I’m saying, ‘Do what you want, I ain’t going home.’
“That for me was a huge achievement. To then come out of it and go to the Tour… the stage to La Plagne where I buried myself… I didn’t know where Delgado was… I buried myself to the finish – ride, ride, ride. I got out of the saddle, dropped Denis [Roux, who was following], go round the corner and Delgado’s [right] there.
“If team radios had been there that day, and if my DS had told me I was at 30 seconds, I would probably have backed off because I knew I could probably win by one minute in the time trial. Because I didn’t know where he was I just buried myself.
“Could you imagine if I’d lost the Tour by a second because I didn’t do what I did?
“History was made… definitely radios have changed a lot in my opinion.”
In winning the Giro and Tour in the same year Roche had joined an elite list: Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault; each one a genuine legend of the sport. But of them only Merckx had gone on to win the worlds as well.
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The Giro of 1987 may have ended in triumph for Roche but it was a tumultuous time.
Ireland’s team for the 1987 worlds was five strong with Roche joined by Sean Kelly, Paul Kimmage, Martin Earley and Alan McCormack. The team bonded during the post-Tour Kellogg’s criterium series in Ireland, taking on British professionals who had refused a request to work together to help Roche win in Dublin.
“We started off with the bit between our teeth to make sure we were going to win [after that],” says Roche smiling at the memory.
Roche won in Dublin, Kelly in Wexford and Cork.
“We were so motivated. After the races we didn’t go to the restaurant but had fish and chips and beer, sat in the corridor of the hotel. For me that was a very important part of building for the worlds.”
The team arrived in Austria two days before the race. It was thought the circuit wouldn’t suit Roche and he went expecting to ride for Kelly but Roche was surprised by its severity.
“Only then, for the first time was I thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe…’,” he says.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a pure sprinters race but then Sean wasn’t a pure sprinter. He was the kind of guy who could get over this circuit. So for me it was a circuit that suited both of us – definitely Sean, definitely me.”
The day of the race dawned wet and cold. After breakfast Roche took a phone call from a friend in Paris.
“He used to ring me up before any big occasion. He was one of the first to say to me, ‘Stephen you know if you win today you will equal Eddy Merckx and win the triple.’
“It was the first time I thought about it. You know, the number 13 was very prominent for me in everything I did in my career. So I’m on the phone in the reception of this old style hotel. There are no electronic key fobs, just big, old keys on keyrings. My friend is saying to me: ‘You know Merckx is the only one who has done the triple before … Don’t throw your chances away, today can be your day.’
“So I say, ‘Yeah, yeah okay, listen Angelo I’ll call you afterwards.’
“I put the phone down and realised I had something in my hand. I looked down and found I was holding the key to number 13.”
As the final lap of the 276km race approached a group of 12 had gone away. Roche and Kelly bridged across on the first climb of the final lap. “When we got across we went straight to the front and Marc Madiot got dropped,” says Roche. “We were 13 in the break!”
Roche rode at the front the whole way up the first climb and then round to the second climb on the far side of the circuit. “I tried attacking on the final climb thinking that if I get away Sean gets a handy ride behind me, and if I stay away I stay away, if not, whatever…
“They caught me very quickly and I went right to the back and rested a bit so I could ride for Sean in the final three or four kilometres. As I went to the back an attack went away. I thought, ‘Well what do I do now? I need to chase this down.’ So I tore past the others and up to the back of the group. I looked around and there was nobody there.
“I was sort of half happy and half not happy because there I was in this group and there were four or five of us there but how was Sean going to win if the guys behind didn’t ride because they knew they would be bringing Sean across?
“I was in a group with Rolf Sørensen, Teun van Vliet and Rolf Gölz, those three alone were much faster than me in a sprint. I hadn’t done all that to finish third or fourth.”
* * * * *
I open up the laptop and call up the video of the final kilometres, asking Roche to talk me through what happened next.
“So I’m waiting… waiting… waiting. You can see we are all watching each other. I’m thinking, ‘Shit,’ hoping that it’s going to come back for Sean. I keep looking back thinking I’m just going to hang in here.”
Then follows an insight into what flashed through an elite cyclist’s mind in the final moments of a close race.
“Going into the final corner, with van Vliet and Gölz, I knew I could beat them. I knew there was a lot of friction between van Vliet and Gölz. I know those two are fighting each other… you can see them watching each other. If I attacked I knew that they wouldn’t come straight away because Gölz knew that if he came around with van Vliet [on his wheel] that early he’s not going to win and vice versa.
“I knew I could gain a bit of time on those guys but I had to get Guido Winterberg off my wheel. If I went on the right, into the wind, he would follow me but if I went to the left, while it was tight to the barriers, if I managed to get through he might just back off and I might get five or 10 metres or something and that would be it. That was my plan.
“The amazing thing about cycling and bike racing is those things go through your head in seconds. It has to come naturally. The guys today, because of radios, don’t really have to develop that instinct whereas when I came around the final corner straightaway my brain was working,” Roche says.
So Roche went left, just squeezing through in time. A split second later and he would have clipped the barrier and his season would have finished very differently. “It was very tight,” agrees Roche.
“Even looking at it now you’ve got to say, ‘Well Stephen it was a bit dodgy going through that gap by the barriers. Dangerous even.’
“But the brain does wonders and that was it. I was using my knowledge of the surroundings, my knowledge of the peloton and my knowledge of the relationships between riders.”
Roche’s efforts as a cyclist brought him plenty of notoriety in Ireland…
In the road race world championships, Roche had clear road ahead. Behind the chase group had caught the remnants of his small breakaway and the pursuit was in full swing. Roche just buried his head and, with the final 100 metres of road gently rising, held on to take the title.
Kelly finished fifth with arms aloft and went straight up to his team-mate to celebrate.
As we watch I say to Roche how genuine Kelly’s reactions seem.
“That was spontaneous,” nods Roche. “That wasn’t staged for a photograph. That was, ‘Ah he’s won!’ He was happy for me. We don’t see many images like that. There are two images that stand out in my mind from my career. One is that image of Sean and the other is when I beat Delgado in the final time trial in Dijon at the Tour in 1987. We went to a television show together. He was already on the set when I arrived and he stood up, came over and threw his arms around me and said, ‘Well done Stephen.’ The TV presenter says, ‘But Pedro, this guy has just taken your yellow jersey and you’re giving him a hug?’ ‘Yes, but we’ve spent 4,000 kilometres fighting each other. We’ve 100 kilometres left tomorrow into Paris… it’s been a great fight.’
“That’s a bloody good reaction.
“It’s about fighting each other and at the end the best man wins, or being happy for someone who has put in a great performance. Pedro Delgado recognised it and Sean recognised it.”
And then Herman comes into shot. Roche explains: “Herman was Belgian but in many ways he was more Irish. Sean lived with Herman and his wife Elise for years. Every year at the worlds, Elise would sit down and sew our race numbers onto our jerseys. It was a ritual. Every world championships. They cooked all the food and everything for us. They were a great family. Herman was a very important man in Sean’s career.”
It’s time to wrap up. It’s been 30 years since Roche won his triple crown and in that time only two riders have managed to win the Giro and Tour in the same year, Spain’s Miquel Indurain (1992, 1993) and the late Marco Pantani (1998). Indurain came close to matching Merckx and Roche, coming second in the worlds after his 1993 Giro/Tour double, but that was nearly 25 years ago now.
In today’s world, where cyclists specialise and target their races even more than they did in the 1980s, surely the triple will never be repeated. Roche doesn’t necessarily agree.
“It’s not that the calibre of riders aren’t there or are not capable of doing it,” Roche argues.
“There are a couple of factors. If you win a Giro or a Tour then you are a stage race rider. If you then get a flat world championships there is little chance of you winning it unless you are a guy like Bernard Hinault or Laurent Fignon who also has a very good sprint… But if there was a world championships [course] that was hard enough then it is possible to do it.
“In a way I was lucky to win the worlds that I won, the way that I won it. But I went after it. I didn’t wait for the race to come to me. I took the race on and went and won it.”
– By Giles Belbin
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Chasing the rainbow, the story of road cycling’s world championships, by Giles Belbin is available now, published by Aurum Press.