What's Cool In Road Cycling

Pez Interviews: Stephen Roche – Part 2

Last week we hooked up with the great Stephen Roche – winner of the unofficial ‘Triple Crown’ of cycling – for the star of an open and revealing chit chat. In part 2 we talk Classics, his grappling 1987 Giro win, a wee bit o’ Irish cycling, and the always amusing Pez Speed Round.

Classic Near Misses
Pez: You were infamous for having one great year (’81, ’83, ’85, ’87) followed by one that wasn’t so good …… did you ever just think: “Oh no, an even numbered year, I’ll sit this one out!”

Stephen Roche: (Laughing) No, you don’t really think of things like that. You always just think the next year will be better, but things happen, injuries and so on. You never start a season thinking it’ll be a bad one, you just do everything you can to make sure you do well. Unfortunately, if something goes wrong early on, you’re chasing your tail the whole season.

With A Little Help From My Friends: NOT Stephen’s theme song for his ’87 Giro win, as most of his team rode for the previous winner Visentini and against Roche.

Pez: You won just about every major stage race – Tour, Giro, Romandie, Paris-Nice, Dauphine Liberй, Criterium International – but missed out on the Classics. Why was that?

Stephen Roche: Well, when you ride the Tours, it’s hard to put a focus on the Classics. Liege and Fleche Wallone were the two Classics I always raced to win – they suited me programme-wise and physically. I placed well in both of them, and at the Amstel Gold race.

I was often in the front group, I reached the podium at Liege and Amstel. Nearly won Liege in 1987, when I got caught by Moreno Argentin on the line. The only ‘Classic’ I won was the World Championships!

I was always in the shake-up in the Classics, but never won one, probably because I didn’t have a good sprint … got close one year at the Tour of Lombardy, and in Milan-San Remo I got caught on the descent of the Poggio – I was away with Charly Mottet, and that was the year Sean Kelly won.

Moser caught me, and Kelly counter-attacked ……….. and, of course, everyone just sat there waiting and Kelly got away.

So I was always present, but without a sprint finish ……….. to me Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy were the best Classics of them all, and I never won either one. At Liege in1987, I was probably the strongest guy on the road with Claude Criquelion, but I just didn’t quite make it.

Helping Hands
Pez: You and Kelly helped each other out on occasion, and you also got help (famously in the 1987 Giro) from Robert Millar. You seemed to make alliances pretty easily.

Stephen Roche: Basically, everyone has their own interests. Millar gave me a dig-out in the Giro, but I gave him a hand, too.

Nobody’s going to help you out in a race if you’re the last guy on the GC … and God helps those who help themselves! When Millar helped me, he was helping himself. Millar gave me a hand because he couldn’t win himself, and the stages he won … well, I couldn’t win those myself.

In Lombardy, I helped Kelly because I couldn’t win that race myself, so it was never something done in vain. If you’re in a situation where you can’t win, the thing is to help one of your friends.

And when you have these conversations you can be sure that the person sitting opposite you will be thinking: “Well, if I can count on you for this finish, you can do the same with me for your event.”

But it doesn’t happen all the time, you know …… I’d have to be beside the guy I was helping at the finish before I could talk to him! So you both have to be in the right place at the finish, for example, to help ……. And it’s all based on your word, there’s no contract or obligation. If you’re two friends in a group of five or six and they’re all out to beat you, they’ll form their own alliances.

You’re going to get used to working with the same people all the time, and I’d know which guys I could count on in the finish. Likewise, other guys would know they could count on me.

The 1987 World Championships – the 3rd jewel in his Triple Crown.

1987 And All That
Pez: So, everyone knows the story – the Tour, Giro, Worlds ‘Triple Crown’ in 1987. How did it go so well?

Stephen Roche: I had a good winter because I was coming off a bad 1986 through injury, so I was trying to get my act together. The season started well from the gun, you know.

I won the Tour of Valencia in February, then I was flying in Paris-Nice, but got beaten by Sean (Kelly) again ……… more bad luck! I got a puncture on the final descent. Actually, I probably lost two or three Paris-Nice to Sean because he was better at sprinting than me.

I went well in the Classics, second at Liege, and then went on and won the Tour of Romandie, and then on to the Giro. It was a year when everything went right for me – (I had) the support of a strong team, had a good foundation behind me, I was very, very ambitious and I was in really good form all year.

Pez: I just remember reading the stories about that Giro, and seeing the pictures, and I guess it must have been an incredible experience, good and bad?

Stephen Roche: Sure, if someone had given me that scenario: ‘Stephen, everyone will be hating you and you’ll have things going on with your team-mates’, I’d have just said I’d pack my case and go home.

Whereas, what I actually went through showed another side of me. After that, there was NO WAY whatsoever that I was going home.

They could have done and said whatever they wanted to me. There was just no way I was going home or that I was going to lose that Giro … the courage I had then comes through in different events in my career that I won and lost.

On the outside, it was all smiles, but inside there was hurt, ambition, a fire was burning and I wanted to win.

Pez:Visentini had already won the Giro before, so if he wanted to do it again, he should have proved it on the road ……….

Stephen Roche: Well, Visentini had won the Giro in 1986, and coming back to the race, he just automatically thought he was going to win again.

If it had all gone to team orders he’d have won it again …

… what hurt me was that everyone seemed to be riding for Visentini. On one stage, I had the pink jersey and I crashed with 1.1 kilometres to go – 100 metres from the red flag – with the Pink jersey on my back. I looked up and Visentini was sprinting away from me. That kinda sickened me, you know?

When Visentini had the pink jersey there was no way that I was going to ride against him or the team, but when I took the jersey back from him, I just didn’t put the brakes on going down a hill, and I rode away from everyone like that.

When at le Tour: Stephen’s a model guest when it comes to enjoying Tour hospitality.

Pez: Eddy Schepers is always mentioned as the one guy on Carerra who helped you in that Giro ……. do you still keep in touch?

Stephen Roche: Of course. I see Eddy once or twice a year. A couple of years in a row we went to the World Championships together. We rented a company car and went to be Freds … (laughing) …standing by the side of the road in all the gear, you know!

Or he comes out to my cycling camps in Majorca. He’s a great guy. And with my son, Nicolas, now racing, Eddy goes along to watch him when he’s riding in Belgium.

Pez: What do you think of Sean Kelly putting his name to the new Irish Continental team?

Stephen Roche: I think it’s great. We’ve both done our bit to help out. I helped Mark Scanlon get a pro contract, and also a place in the Marseilles (amateur) team.

I’ve always believed there’s an awful lot of talent in Ireland, but unfortunately, the Irish Sports Council haven’t realised. I think cycling has suffered because of the international drugs problem. In Ireland, high up (in authority) it’s thought to be a cycling problem, but it’s a sports problem, and a societal problem.

So they’ve not been giving out grant money to young sportsmen who want to become cyclists. I think that’s very unfair.

But now, with Sean helping out … hopefully, that’ll give things a boost. And, I got an invitation just a short time ago to back to Ireland to be a guest for the launch of another new team, Team Murphy & Gunn. That’s got to help as well. It’s great to see people getting involved and companies taking an interest because this is a fabulous sport, a brilliant sport.

When kids are getting on bikes, they’re not thinking about drugs, they just want to get out and have a bit of fun.

[We had a bit of a chat about the Turin Winter Olympics where a couple of cross-country skiers had served 5-day suspensions for elevated haemocrit levels and were straight back into competition – something that left Stephen more than a little incredulous.]

Pez: How are things going with your cycling camps?

Stephen Roche: Really well. We’re running camps every week right through to the middle of May. We get between 70 and 90 people each week, from all over the world – USA, Canada, UK, Ireland, France – and it’s our twelfth year doing it. We were among the first doing this sort of thing and we’re still there!

It appeals to cyclists because of the atmosphere that’s out there, the chance to meet people. We’re very competitive price-wise, and it’s not just for people who want to train like professional cyclists – it’s for everyone.

We have four to six levels every day, from complete beginners right up to elite, so everyone can find a level they’re comfortable with.

Pez Speed Round
Pez: OK, I have to subject you to the Pez Speed Round! Are you Irish or French now?
Stephen Roche: 50% French and 100% Irish! That’s what I tell myself! But I’m very much Irish.

Pez: Who is going to do the business at the Tour de France this year?
Stephen Roche: I think Ivan Basso. He’s tremendously strong and has a great team. He’s tactically strong. I don’t believe Ullrich will do it … he’s a tremendous talent, but I don’t think he has the tactical expertise around him.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ullrich and his team riding on the front all the time, with Basso or Valverde coming along and picking up first place at the end of the day.

Pez: Can anyone win two Grand Tours nowadays?
Stephen Roche: I think so, yeah. There’s a lack of self-esteem for some riders, saying: ‘Oh, we can’t do two Tours.’ If you’re going to get paid for working a 35 hour week or a 40 hour week, which would you take? If you’re paid for a 35 hour week, why do 40 hours.

People make them believe that they’re too tired, but it’s definitely possible. I rode 20 years ago, but it’s not different. Bikes are lighter, training is more scientific, equipment is better.

Pez: Best race to watch in 2006?
Stephen Roche: Hopefully the Tour AND the Giro! But if Ullrich doesn’t ride the Giro, maybe that one will be better – I think he’ll try and dominate the Tour by riding on the front all the time. The Giro should be better.

Pez: One more exciting name for the present?
Stephen Roche: Valverde is the man ……… I think he’s tremendous. You could be a bit sceptical because sometimes Spanish riders don’t do so well abroad, but the guy won a stage at the Tour, stage at Paris-Nice, second in the World Championships, so he’s definitely my choice.

Pez: Champagne or Guiness?
Stephen Roche: Red Bull! I love a glass of champagne, too.

Pez: Food?
Stephen Roche: Italian

Pez: Music?
Stephen Roche: I love U2, not just because they’re Irish but because of their attitude and their lyrics. Very down-to-earth, intelligent group. I’m a bit tied into them because they had a big hit called ‘With or without you’ and French TV did a 3-minute promo for the Tour de France with myself in it and that song was the soundtrack.

Pez: Books?
Stephen Roche: Not much of a reader, but now I’m reading more, especially books on Irish history. I’ve just finished a book on Michael Collins.

And that wrapped up our conversation with the man that holds a record not even Eddy Merckx managed – winner of the Tour de France, Giro d’ Italia, World Championship and Nissan Classic (of Ireland) in the same season.

• Read The Stephen Roche Interview Part 1

A huge thanks to Stephen for speaking to Pez, and don’t forget to check out www.stephenroche.com for more info on his cycling camps.

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