Wednesday, June 11, 2008

John Pierce: Revisiting Roche's Triple Crown

I was there.

Following many years in the 1970s as the event photographer for the Raleigh Dunlop Tour of Ireland, I became friendly with many of the Irish race organisers and riders. In the 1979 season, one of the organisers from the Tour of Ireland— Noel Hammond invited me to his Dublin home. It was here that the winner of that year’s Ras Taileann, Dubliner Stephen Roche showed me a small letter from AC-BB France, signed by Mickey Wiegants. The letter invited him to join the club in the western suburb of Paris; unusually it came direct from the club’s owner/president in the South of France.

He had been invited to join the French club, designated to accept English, speaking riders. The list is enviable and included some riders from my own club, and thus considered a confidant on the possibilities. I asked the 20-year-old Roche some straight questions, regarding home, job, languages and of course girlfriends.

At that time the answers were favourable for living abroad for a while. He was at the end of an apprenticeship as a diesel vehicle fitter. We decided that first he should finish the apprenticeship so he had something to fall back on. Over the coming winter he should take French lessons, then he should pack his handlebars and saddle for a spell in France.

He went to Paris to meet with Claude Escalon, the manager of the AC-BB. Escalon was a hard taskmaster; in training riders were given points, not just for being on the front, but also for related efforts. Roche had an unusual talent as a rider—he simply ‘floated,’ such was his smooth pedalling action. He hardly ever fought the bike. In his first season at AC-BB in 1980 he found success as winner of the amateur Paris-Roubaix. He turned pro for Peugeot—a sponsor of the AC-BB—and won 10 races in the 1981 season, including Paris Nice.

In 1987 Roche achieved an amazing triple, becoming only the second rider in history to win the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the World Championship Road Race in the same season.

The Tour de France was a special landmark moment for myself. Firstly, it started in the centre of Berlin, two years before the wall came down. It was also my 21st Tour, a moment not overlooked by the Tour’s then owner, Jacques Goddet, who made a personal presentation to me. In his speech he talked about how he had been educated in Britain where Cricket and Football were more important than cycling. In his presentation he noted that I was the first to take images of their beautiful sport outside of France. He also noted that the race leader was also an English speaker, and indeed shared the same path.

There were some great moments, but two incidents were the foundations of a fantastic Tour de France victory by Roche. Some would say tactically brilliant, others would say he made his own luck; I wonder if there is a difference.

On the stage to La Plagne, won by Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado was in yellow, and second on GC was Roche, but Roche couldn’t climb as fast a Delgado. Instead of fighting to stay in contact, Roche ‘regrouped’ and set his own pace. On the 15km-long climb, Roche lost 1 minute in the first 5km; if this continued the race for him would be over. Then a strange thing happened, and was realised by Roche, and this is the clever bit. Delgado was of course receiving time checks, via motorcycle as there were no radios in 1987, and had been told that Roche was at 1:40, so the race was his, as Fignon was not a danger. In Roche’s head he had to make a big effort to contain Delgado, so at 5kms he let go with his biggest effort of the Tour.

At this point Delgado would have been at 4kms to go, much too late to receive any more time checks on the whereabouts of Roche. I was at the 1km banner making pictures—it was my chosen place. I made a time check for Stephen; he was 40 seconds down on Delgado. The final 600m of La Plagne is a false flat; Roche caught former teammate Denis Rous and as he passed him Roche threw the chain onto the big ring, and his bike stopped. Rous went back past him, wondering what on earth he was doing. Then Roche got his momentum back and sprinted past Rous for the second time, this time to within sight of the cars
behind Delgado. Minus 5 seconds. Incredible.

The other stage that comes to mind where Roche deployed superb tactics, or simply got lucky was into Morzine-Avoriaz, a stage won by Edouardo Chozas. Delgado—the better climber—had to drop Roche on the climb of the Joux Plane before the descent into Morzine; he didn’t, either because he was tactically unsavvy or because he simply couldn’t. Additionally, Roche knew that Delgado had crashed out of the Tour on the descent of the Joux-Plane in a previous year, breaking his collarbone. So, when it came to the descent, a long and sinuous 16kms, Roche attacked and Delgado faltered. Roche descended so fast that he caught the red Race Director’s advance vehicle that precedes the battle for the Yellow Jersey. That had never happened in the Tour de France before and was quite outrageous—Roche took the Yellow.

Roche was a huge natural talent, but to win the Giro d’Italia he was assisted by Careera teammate Eddy Schepers and also to a great extent by his former AC-BB and Peugeot teammate and friend Robert Millar, who in Italy won the mountains classification. Schepers was again there for him in France, as was Sean Kelly. Kelly would later sacrifice his own chances in the World Championships at Villach, when in the last kilometers Roche streaked away to victory, robbing either Kelly or Moreno Argentin of victory. It would be prudent to note that these performances were achieved when the performance booster EPO did not exist.

John Pierce
Covered 41 editions Tour de France


Anonymous said...

No amphetamines?

Old Fonzie said...

Roche was a great rider, a consummate athlete. These are traits that cannot be obtained from a pill or potion.

There is no drug that will give you beautiful pedaling style and a relaxed manner on the bike. Dope does not give you the discipline to train properly. Nothing like dope would have given him the wisdom to let Delgado go and think he's got it sewn up. It's a classic tortoise and hare story.

There's a fallacy among the pessimists that drugs can make one a great athlete. They might help, but it's as simplistic as to believe that Viagra will help an overweight balding guy with bad hygiene pick up chicks at a singles bar.

Anonymous said...

Dope can't turn a mule into a race horse but can make an ASS really fast.

Anonymous said...

simple methods to elevate hcrit levels, such as blod transfusions, were well known from the early/mid 80s

with that being said, there's no reason to believe that Roche was on anything that the competetion was not

Anonymous said...

well, even before ww2 the cyclists ate bull testicles for testosterone. i don't know if it makes a difference if epo existed or not.
still, a great post

Anonymous said...

Nice article, thanks.
Met Roche when i was a kid, he signed an autograph for me and gave me words of encouragement...nice guy.
Hope his son Nicolas gets a spot in this years tour.

Unknown said...

What's with the bad words about doping. It's not the point of the story and we all know the history and the times. Great story! Oldfonzie said it right.

Richmond Roadie said...

Roche was beautiful on the bike and the 87 Tour was probably the best I've followed! Carrera had a great Tour, If I remember right didn't Eric Machler and Acacio Da Silva also wear Yellow? Guido Bontempi had a good Tour as well.

Roche's Giro battle with Visentini was simply terrific!

Thanks for the post!

Dan said...

Still got the Battaglin hanging in the cellar that Roche inspired me to track down and relaunch my cycling career. Still going 22 years later