Stephen Roche remembers one special day in 1987
I am one question into my conversation with Stephen Roche when the twinkling eyes and the easy charisma and the little half-smile all get to work.
"Starting off an interview like that you're going to be told where to go. Could you not just say it was a long time ago?"
The question concerned the 25 years that have passed since his holy trinity of triumphs in the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and World Championship. The answer, because it is Roche, sets the tone for the hour ahead: charming, convivial and with a little hint of steel just below the surface.
I have come to talk of that famous triptych, matched in history only by Eddy Merckx, of audiences with the Pope and President Mitterrand, of Wiggins and Lance and the dark doping allegations at the end of his own career that Roche, with typical lyricism, will later refer to as "the old potholes of the past".
Roche's battle with Pedro Delgado in 1987 was an epic. Photo: AFP
Because Roche speaks at about the same pace he used to time-trial, it would take a month of blogs to faithfully record all the tales. His new autobiography, Born To Ride, does all of that with characteristic elan.
But if the Tour was the greatest triumph in his annus mirabilis of 1987, then stage 21, from Bourg-d'Oisans to La Plagne, was his defining hour - a whirlwind of drama, high chance and extraordinary bravery that remains one of the great iconic displays his sport has seen.
"All through my career I've done some incredible things," he says. "But this is one day when I look back and think, Stephen, how did you manage to keep your cool?"
Almost 1,000km longer than this year's race, the 1987 Tour was an epic - 25 stages, eight different men in yellow, time-trials that lasted 87km or ended up Mont Ventoux.
For a master strategist like Roche, it became a thing of obsession.
"I loved the tactics. There was always something incredibly natural about it to me, always wondering what was going on and why it was happening. When you're in there fine-tuning your bike, your plans, analysing your opponents, their weak points... I have fire burning inside me with all this stuff, and I feel I'm taking it all in, I've got to get one up on everyone else.
"That kind of adrenaline... you couldn't touch me before a stage. It was like touching an electrical wire. Boom! I would blow.
"It was all in my head - the gears, the tactics, the cornering, my opponents, everything building up inside. It's an amazing feeling to have. It's all winding, winding, winding up inside you, waiting to explode."
A blistering time-trial performance into Futuroscope and dogged solo pursuit on Stage 19 ("I rode my eyeballs out") meant that, with less than a week to go, the race would come down to two men: Roche, and Spanish hero Pedro Delgado.
"He was a real climber, much better than me in the mountains, but I knew I could beat him in the final time-trial in Dijon," remembers Roche.
"I calculated that with me on a bad day and Delgado on a good day, I could put a minute into him in Dijon. So it meant that whatever happened through the Alps, from the Ventoux to Morzine, I had to be within 60 seconds."
At the end of Stage 20 into L'Alpe d'Huez, Delgado held yellow by 25 seconds. The next morning, with the climbs of the Galibier, Telegraphe and Madeleine all lying in wait, Roche knew the decisive day was upon him.
"It was brutal. In the early part of the stage there were a lot of falls. The Colombians kept riding hard. We were saying, 'Back off guys, people are falling...' but they kept riding, riding, and we kept holding on, holding on.
"I said to (Charly) Mottet and Delgado, we have to drop them on the descent of Galibier, or else they'll kill us on the climbs. So we tore down the descent. The Colombians weren't there any more and Delgado was isolated from his team-mates.
"I thought, this is my chance here. There's a group 40 seconds ahead - if I go now, Delgado will have to wait for his team-mates. If I can get a gap of two or three minutes on the Madeleine before he can get organised, I can win the stage and I can win the race.
"So off I went, and at the foot of the Madeleine I found that no-one could ride with me. I rode the whole thing myself and down the other side.
"But Delgado had now regrouped. He chased and chased, and caught me a few kilometres before the start of the climb into La Plagne.
"I tried putting myself in his shoes. What would he do? I thought he would attack. Then my own shoes. If I go after him, he'll go again and again and again, and I'll never make it to the top.
"So my plan came together: let him go, stay within distance and try to recuperate. My thing was, if I went with him, I wouldn't make it. So let him go and let him think he's made it, hold the gap, and with 4km to go just give it everything. Hopefully he will come back to me and I can somehow hold him to 35 seconds and keep my minute."
If it was a brave move, it was also recklessly optimistic. What if Delgado just kept going? What if Roche, when he tried to accelerate, found he had nothing left?
"He got to 30 seconds, then 40 seconds, then 50. I'm trying to keep my tempo. Then I notice that, as I get into my rhythm, that the gap is going up by five seconds at a time rather than 10, then two, then one.
"I think, it's working! I stabilise the gap at one minute 25. I think, maybe he's shot his bolt. Maybe I can hold him here.
"Him in his own brain, he's thinking one min 25 up, add the 25 this morning, that's 1.50 overall, should be enough for the time trial. I'm telling myself that's what he's thinking. So if I can accelerate at 4km, at 3km, he may think he's okay. There'll be confusion."
Confusion there was. With the only two television cameras on stage leader Laurent Fignon and the perspiring Delgado, Roche was closing in by stealth, unnoticed and ignored by riders and reporters alike.
"I had done a recce beforehand. I knew the final 4km. I knew it wasn't too difficult - it was rolling. I should be able to sustain a big effort over 4km.
"So I give it everything I have. I found resources. I need to claw back at least 45 seconds, but I can't see where he is - the crowds, the zig-zag roads. I've no race radio. Any information my own car might have had from the race director I won't hear because of the noise.
"I feel myself working through my gears. There's a burning in my legs, but it's not a killing burn. It's hurting all right, but I can cope with this burn for 4km. The fire is lit inside. I'm riding almost to explosion, but if I explode I will drop.
"Five hundred metres to go, the road opens out, and I put - crunch! - the chain on the big ring. It was like going from first gear to fifth in a car. For a moment I locked up, stalled. Then it picked up again and I got the chain turning over, waggh waggh, faster and faster, and then on the final corner, there was Delgado."
Roche, in his own poetic words, "buried myself to the line". The ensuing pandemonium is best captured in that famous piece of television commentary from Phil Liggett, like everyone else caught completely unaware by Roche's heroics.
"Just who is that rider coming up behind - because that looks like Roche! That looks like Stephen Roche... it's Stephen Roche, has come over the line! He almost caught Pedro Delgado, I don't believe it!"
Surrounded by journalists and photographers, Roche collapsed on to his crossbar and on to the ground.
"The doctor puts the oxygen mask on me straight away. 'Stephen, move your legs in...' and I can't move my legs. I can move nothing. He's trying to put a survival blanket on me, and I can't move my arms."
For 10 minutes Roche's only method of communicating with the medical team was by blinking his eyes. When, eventually, he regained movement in the back of an ambulance, his first words to the frantic reporters asking for reassurance would become cycling legend: "Everything's okay, mais pas de femme ce soir."
True to his calculations, Roche would recover to beat Delgado by exactly 61 seconds in that Dijon time-trial, giving him the yellow jersey by 40 seconds as he rode into Paris and up the Champs-Elysees.
A few days later, after those audiences with Pope John Paul II and President Mitterand, 500,000 people would turn out on the streets of Dublin to welcome the native son home.
Half his lifetime has passed since that warm July day. But as I sit opposite him, watching the animation and adrenaline, the exploits and the impact of Roche's most famous day in the saddle feel as alive as they did a quarter of a century ago.
Stephen Roche's Born To Ride is out now. You can hear more from Tom's interview with him on Blood, Sweat and Gears, 5 live Sport's Tour de France 2012 preview show on Tuesday 26 June from 20:30 BST.