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Stephen Roche remembers one special day in 1987

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Tom Fordyce | 07:00 UK time, Tuesday, 26 June 2012

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".

Stephen Roche

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.

Stephen Roche and his team-mates in 1992

"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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks Tom, a fantastic recounting. It was a day a hero was made and many became cycling fans. I was only watching the stage since I'd skiied in La Plagne 5 months previous, with no great interest in the cycling.
    However it fixed a love of the sport for me, listening to the time gaps growing, and fearing the tour would be out of Stephen's grasp. For me Phil's commentary is as vivid as Barry Davies' "where were the Germans".
    Chatting now to my contemporaries and cycling friends, it's incredible how many recall this stage and come back to it. Maybe without satellite, the Channel 4 coverage wasn't so minority!

    Can't wait for the start of the Tour at the weekend, and hopefully with British heroes to cheer, many more will come to the sport as I did in 87.

  • Comment number 2.

    The Liggett commentary is obviously etched into everyones mind from that day, but he and/or his production team were very cheeky indeed in the editing suite. When you compare the live commentary to the later recorded versions that they put out, they advanced the audio by about 5 seconds - thus making it appear that Phil is "all over" the situation as opposed to being somewhat slow to pick up what was happening as the Dubliner emerged from the mist.

    Also, for those of you who have a bit of time (about 45 mins), i urge you to check out the Hugh MacIlvanney interview with Roche (filmed back in 1988) - you will find it all on youtube.

  • Comment number 3.

    ........I've followed the Tour de France for many years and can remember that stage. Not sure but think it was a highlights only broadcast I watched on C4 as I recall. I can't recall it being live. Can remember thinking he'd blown his chance and was amazed when he came into view behind Delgado as there had been no updates on him closing to that extent. Seem to remember the gap being around 11 secs at the finish. Awesome piece of riding and a dramatic television moment!

  • Comment number 4.

    no 2.........thank you for the prompt on the you tube video...........just finished watching it.........and the gap was only 4 secs!

  • Comment number 5.

    I remember this was the year I became hooked on the TDF. Wouldn't happen nowadays would it, with all the communication they have? I think that's a shame.

  • Comment number 6.

    @comment 5

    This isn't true look at De Gendt's attack in the giro, his solo in the TDU. It is possible for these amazing solo efforts to happen. Communication is only half of the battle.

  • Comment number 7.

    @comment 6

    First comment I've ever made on a forum and I'm wrong already ! My point was that he wouldn't be able to come in 'by stealth, unnoticed and ignored by riders and reporters alike.'

  • Comment number 8.

    Wow, fantastic recall of something I remember watching live

    Great man

  • Comment number 9.

    Excellent article. Sometimes I wish I'd been around in the 80s to see the likes of Hinault, Fignon, LeMond, Delgado and must have been a fascinating period.

    Looking forward to the 5 live preview tonight.

  • Comment number 10.

    Great article about something i know nothing about.

    After nipping home for lunches last summer i fell upon the TDF on ITV 4 which happened to finish each stage at around 1pm handily. I loved reading about it but had never actually watched a stage.

    Took Boardman about 3 stages to explain what on earth was going on and it has now become one of the things i've looked forward to all year. Fascinating race but truly difficult to explain to someone in a short space of time!

    Come on Wiggins!!

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 12.

    Amazing comeback, and tactically brilliant.....
    to have the balls to wait until 4 km, big risk...
    classic moments of the 80' a kid I stared goggle
    eyed at the tv in disbelief. Its things like this that
    make me get on my motorbike every year to follow
    the Brits make history..

  • Comment number 13.

    A question for anyone interested:

    This year Cav has lowered expectations of stage wins and attempts at the green jersey by saying his main priority is the Olympics and getting Wiggins on the podium.

    This is all very well but what happens next year?

    How does a team possibly cope with trying to get Cav at the front of the pelton at the end of a stage and get Wiggins safely through all the tougher stages?

    There's no way someone with Cavendish's drive and ego will allow himself to play second fiddle. Has he made a mistake not being number 1 in the team anymore?

  • Comment number 14.

    Many, many thanks for the memories of that incredible stage of the 1987 tour de france. Etched in my memory, as it seems is the case for many people, is the reaction of Mr Liggett, as he spots the lone rider; almost in a split second his emotions go from initial shock when he suspects that lone rider to be Stephen Roche, to utter amazement, to sheer joy....

    1987 was a special year for Stephen Roche and to this day we are all very, very proud of him!

    Fast forward to 2012 and I cannot see anybody beating Bradley Wiggins in this years TDF - come on Brad!!!!!

  • Comment number 15.

    @ 13 Cav wont be playing second fiddle to Wiggins next year the team will have more balance. This year with the course as it is and the proximity to the Olympics its clear that Cav's focus is elsewhere whilst Wiggins will probably never find a course more suited to his style and sky have loaded their deck accordingly. I would expect next year Geraint Thomas to come back into the team and offer sprinting support to Cav giving him more opportunities in the flat stages

    One thing I will say about future attempts on the Yellow and Green at the same time - whilst it may be difficult by virtue of wearing/aspiring to the green jersey you always have to be at the front of the peloton even on the flattest of stages because if you get stuck behind an accident the other favourites will make there teams work to put distance between you. So it may not be ideal for either rider for the team to challenge on both fronts for the green jersey contender its often a case that the work to keep the peloton under control is being done anyway and its just finding a formula for the end of the stage that poses a problem.

  • Comment number 16.

    Magic moment! A classic sporting memory. I, like so many others got into road cycling thanks to C4 evening highlights and Phil Liggetts voice coming over in total shock & disbelief. Brilliant.
    As for this year well....Surely it will be Bradley's year. Cav won't go on past the time trial from Arc et Senans to Besancon (9th July) which will give him about 3 - 4 weeks to recover for the Olympics. This will leave the Sky train with just one leader to get to the top of each mountain stage. The two time trials plus the prologue are the right distance for Bradley so here's hoping. No Contador and no Andy Schlek means that things are all coming into place. Franck Schlek may have something to say about it and Cadel won't give up his title easily but if Bradley can repeat his time trial in the Dauphine and nearly pass take two minutes out of Cadel then here's to Paris.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 18.

    Yes, one of the best bits of Tour riding since Merckx's exploits and second only in excitement to Lemond's final stage time trial ride when he had to make up a 50 second gap on Fignon. Reading this article brought back lots of memories, I find it hard to realize that this was 25 years ago.

  • Comment number 19.

    Nice article. There were some classic tours in the mid to late eighties. Can't help pointing out however that neither picture is actually from the 1987 tour. Both are from the early nineties around the end of Roche's career.

  • Comment number 20.

    just something else to add about the '87 tour. whilst roche is rightly portrayed as a valiant winner i think it is very wrong to remember this race as a two-way fight between him and delgado. for me at least the strongest rider in this race finished third - jean-francois bernard. holding more than a two minute lead following his demolition of the field in the ventoux TT (which included a tactical bike change from low profile TT machine to climbing bike), he was "done over" the very next day through bad luck (an ill timed puncture) and a multi-way ambush by the other teams - all in costing him 4 minutes 16 at the finish - he finished third overall at just 2m13s....

    also, regarding comms in races - as you can see from roche's own story - he had all the information on time splits he needed going up la plagne, so no different than today. this was true for delgado too, who was just unable to re-raise his pace over the last 4k.

  • Comment number 21.

    Team Telekom (subsequently HTC-Highroad) were the last to achieve the Green/Yellow double (Zabel + Riis/Ullrich) in 96 & 97; though Zabel had to win relatively few stages to achieve this. Clearly Team Sky have the best chance yet of emulating this, but with the priority on Wiggins.
    Cav appears to have dropped some weight which will help him in the hills and will mean he scores more consistently across all stages (as per the Dutch Ster ZLM race), but without necessarily picking up ALL the stage wins. Last year he was also competing in the intermediate sprints to pick up points; given he is competitive even without a lead-out, I think he'll have a fair crack at green regardless.
    However HaveAClue rightly points to the work that Shitsou, Knees, Porte et al will be asked to do at the front of the peleton each day, since no-one else will want to help Sky.

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 23.

    I've never been a cyclist and never will be but I do remember watching Roach in the TDF that year. It was incredible and I've watched every year since. My father in law knew Stephen Roach in Ireland and would tell all these tales of him as a young kid beating all comers in Irish races.
    Now I'm lucky enough to live on one of the more popular Pyrenees stages and the Tour is coming through our village again this year !

  • Comment number 24.

    Amazing ride and amazing coverage. I do not think that any commentator is better or more informed than Phil Liggett. Why on earth don't the BBC buy the coverage? The theme tune alone is the sound of summer.

  • Comment number 25.

    Phil Liggett has been in cycling since I can remember. First category rider, organiser of the milk race when that was around and then into commentating on TV. Does tend to miss things a little bit but his knowledge (and that of David Duffield) or cycling and cyclists is "quite good."

  • Comment number 26.

    Truly one of the "100 Great Sporting Moments" (remember that?) - indeed IIRC it was featured on said programme once. I was a keen cyclist in the mid-1980s and watched the TDF without fail every year. Roche's extreme effort to the point of collapse awed me then and still gives me goosebumps now. High drama indeed and reading about the judgment call that SR made whilst on the climb makes it even more impressive. Awesome stuff and thanks Ben for bringing it to life again.

  • Comment number 27.

    @wirral18: As someone born and bred to road cycling, having lived close to the Flemish border all my life, I can assure you that it's eminently possible to have both a top sprinter and a candidate for the yellow jersey in your time. The rewards for the team that successfully pulls it off are immense (probably close to half the total earnings of all participating teams) if they manage tow win five or six stages and manage to bring home both the green and yellow jersey. So the riders will be motivated to the crankshaft, so to speak.

  • Comment number 28.

    Team instead of time, of course.

  • Comment number 29.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 30.

    Legendary. A great article.

    As for le tour this year. I think sky will occupy the top 5 positions with Wiggins on top.
    Wiggo, Rodgers and Froome are immense this year and would be worthy of leading any protour team.

    I can't wait for it to start!!!!

  • Comment number 31.

    'a whirlwind of drama, high chance and extraordinary bravery that remains one of the great iconic displays his sport has seen.'

    I'd go further and say ANY sport has ever seen. Absolutely epic - I can even remember watching it in my bedroom!

  • Comment number 32.

    We did something getting close to this in 2011, twice in my opinion.
    Stage 18 from Pinerolo to the top of the Galibier.
    Andy Schleck put all the pressure on Evans, and Voeckler. Cadel and Tommy rode there own tempo and pulled a 4'00 gap back to just over 2'00.
    Also De Gendt's ride up the Stelvio in the 2012 Giro was comparable in measuring efforts to keep/gain time, he damn nearly won it as well.

    Cav's wont go for the Green Jersey at the tour, he has said this himself. He will ride the first 2 weeks for stage wins, then make his decision about staying on.

    I'm far too young to remember these great times, but i've watched this stage many times and it still gives me a great feeling to see the effort, then to go and finish the Triple, just awsome!!

  • Comment number 33.

    Excellent article Tom - although I'm devastated that you won't be covering monkey tennis. How about Inner City Sumo?

    Oh, and Evans to retain the Jersey - sorry Wiggo.

  • Comment number 34.

    This has been my inspiration for many years now. Fantastic effort by Roche.

  • Comment number 35.

    I was there that day, on the final hairpin. We weren't there to watch Le Tour we were just on a family holiday and heard there was something happening down the road. I stood for hours watching what seemed like chaos culminating in some blokes going passed on bikes. I have been hooked ever since. It was ages before I actually found out what happened.

  • Comment number 36.

    This is a really powerful and beautifully-written article. It really brought back memories. Arguably Ireland's greatest sportsman?

  • Comment number 37.

    Still gives me goose-bumps remembering that stage. Phil Liggett almost wetting his pants when he realised that it was Roche just behind Degado as he crossed the line. "That...looks like Stephen Roche. IT's STEPHEN ROCHE!"


  • Comment number 38.

    Great piece Tom on a great moment in sport. You have becoming essential reading ever since you and Mr Dirs at RWC 2007. Keep up the great work.

  • Comment number 39.

    36. Arguably Ireland's greatest sportsman?
    He was Irelands second greatest cyclist. That honour would have to go to Sean Kelly. While he never wont the TDF he was ranked number one in the world for 6 years and won nearly 200 professional races.
    However this article is about Stephen Roche. A great day in a great year for Roche and one that will never be forgotten. An unprecedented era for Irish cycling when you consider Martin Earley's stage win in the 1989 TDF was barely worth a mention. Very good article Tom.


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