Irishman Stephen Roche distilled a career’s worth of big wins into one season, winning the Giro, Tour and World Championships in 1987.
Roche took the first part of his Grand Tour double in Italy, amid scenes which walked a fine line between drama, farce and comedy.
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The Giro organisers showed they had both a sense of humour and a flagrant disregard for health and safety when planning the opening weekend, which consisted of a 4km prologue, a 31km road stage finishing on a hill, and an 8km downhill time trial from the Poggio into San Remo.
On a sporting level, the 1987 Giro was straightforward. Roche took the pink jersey early, after his Carrera team won the stage three team time trial, and defended his lead for 10 stages. He suffered an off day in the long time trial to San Marino after crashing two days previously, ceding the lead to bouffant-haired team-mate Roberto Visentini. Then he took the lead back in the mountains, and confirmed his victory by taking the final time trial.
But his win scandalised Italy. When Roche took the lead back from Visentini at Sappada, he’d openly attacked him. On one side, there were those who felt Visentini — an Italian leader in an Italian team in an Italian race — had been betrayed. And on the other there was Roche’s Belgian team-mate Eddy Schepers, who was possibly the only man in Italy to take the Irishman’s side. Roche spent the last week of the race having food lobbed at him on the climbs by fans, while Visentini tried to knock him off his bike in between posing for miserable-looking photos in the tabloids while he moaned about how unfair it all was.
However, no matter how upset Italy was by Roche’s apparent betrayal, the home rider had lost 10 minutes by the time he pulled out of the race on the penultimate day, and had never looked as though he could have won. As for the Tour, it was held on possibly the toughest course in the modern era.
An interminable opening 10 days were followed by an 87.5km time trial, two very hard days in the Pyrenees, an incursion into the Massif Central, followed almost immediately by a time trial up Mont Ventoux, and four days in the Alps.
Mind over matter
Roche was probably only the third strongest rider in the field, but he outwitted his two main rivals, Jean-François Bernard and Pedro Delgado.
Toshiba rider Bernard, the lantern-jawed heir apparent to Bernard Hinault, had trounced everybody in the Ventoux time trial and looked set to take the yellow jersey all the way to Paris. But Roche got wind of a plan by Bernard’s rival French team, Système-U, to put him in trouble the next day. Système-U attacked, the hapless Bernard punctured, and Roche and Delgado put four minutes into him.
Roche then had to deal with Delgado. The Spaniard took yellow at Alpe d’Huez. Then Roche was dropped at La Plagne before an amazing fightback left him within sight of Delgado by the finish. He squeezed a few more seconds out of a demoralised Delgado on the final mountain descent of the race into Morzine, then beat him easily in the final time trial.
GRAND TOUR CLINCHERS – 4 KEY STAGES
1) 1987 Giro d’Italia Stage 15, Lido di Jesolo-Sappada
Stephen Roche’s team-mate, Italy’s Roberto Visentini, is in the pink jersey, but Roche attacks him. The Irish rider is then chased by his own team, but manages to hang on up the finishing climb to Sappada, where Visentini loses three minutes. Roche takes the lead by five seconds from Tony Rominger.
2) 1987 Tour de France stage 21, Bourg d’Oisans-La Plagne
Roche is a minute down on Pedro Delgado with 5km to ride. He’d attacked earlier but Delgado had chased him down and countered. Roche galvanises himself for a final surge at the top of the climb and closes to within a handful of seconds of the Spaniard.
3) 1987 Tour de France stage 22, La Plagne-Morzine
Roche is 39 seconds behind Delgado overall, and attacks on the descent of the Col de Joux-Plane, the final climb of the day. He gains 18 seconds on his rival.
4) 1987 Tour de France stage 24, Dijon-Dijon
Roche is second in the final time trial of the Tour, but puts a minute into Delgado, to finally win the Tour by 40 seconds.
From the archives: Stage 21, Bourg d’Oisans to La Plagne, 185km. The Tour came alive on this stage with Stephen Roche and Pedro Delgado heading for greatness as they plunged deeper than ever before into their reserves in a battle worthy of any in the days of Anquetil and Poulidor.
Desperate to hold Delgado to that 25 seconds lead, Roche, after his earlier 50-kilometre break had ended in failure, fought back in his pursuit of Delgado like a man possessed.
He stunned the crowd at the finish when, after being 1-5 behind the attacking Delgado two-thirds up the 15-kilometre mountain, he lunged across the line only five amazing seconds behind him.
Then, drama. Roche lurched off his bike. Race followers parted to allow doctors through and Roche was laid out on the ground and given oxygen.
Roche was picked up, wrapped in foil, and placed in an ambulance. His eyes closed. Had he done too much? The doctors gave him oxygen for 15 minutes. Then Roche sat up, and said, “I’m OK, don’t worry” and gave the thumbs-up sign.
Delgado rode the perfect race to defend his overall lead. He had attacked Roche to reach the final mountain behind the two leaders, Laurent Fignon and Anselmo Fuerte. For a while it looked as if Delgado would catch them.
Then past Delgado in the fast lane lunged Fabio Parra. In a moment Delgado had changed gear and began clawing Parra back. Parra left him again. Delgado came back again. It was unbelievable. But the robot-like progress of the Colombian continued and Delgado slipped back for good.
Up front, Fignon and Fuerte switched and weaved into the final few hundred metres before Fignon jumped clear to win the stage. Fuerte was second, with Parra third at 38 seconds, Delgado fourth at 56 seconds, and Roche fifth at 1-01.