I recently spent an enjoyable hour in a flapping tent at the Hay on Wye Book Festival listening to three middle aged men talk about bikes. Robert Penn (“It’s All About The Bike”) chaired the discussion with Will Fotheringham (“Merkx: Half Man Half Bike”, “Put Me Back On My Bike”,” Roule Britannia” etc.) and Triple Crown winner from 1987 Stephen Roche (“Born To Ride”). The auditorium was packed, mainly with middle aged men.
For my money, I could have listened to Roche for a few more hours. Fotheringham’s encyclopedic cycling knowledge was interesting, but Roche’s reminiscences on the minutiae of cycling were more my cup of tea. Roche could never have been described as a “hard man” of the 80’ pro scene like fellow countryman Sean Kelly. His tactical astuteness, however, comes through his autobiography in spades. In ’87 it all came together: the careful gear selections, route reconnaissance’s, mid-stage deal making combined with an ability to actually improve in stage races to bag the feted Triple Crown. Only Merckx before him won the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the World Championships in the same season and nobody’s done it since.
Roche’s headline successes came with (or at times in spite of if you read the shenanigans of the ’87 Giro) the Italian Carerra team. Carerra were one of cycling’s super teams, up there with Molteni, Brooklyn, La Vie Clair, Banesto and possibly (depending on how 2012 goes) Sky. You’d expect an Italian team to look good on the road, but these guys on their Batagglin/Campagnolo bikes really stood out. This was the era before carbon, clipless pedals and integrated lever shifting yet Carerra’s bikes looked so lithe. The chrome forks and spokes, narrow Colombus steel tubing and skinny anodised rims look elegantly dated against today’s pumped-up, slippery carbon machines. These bikes marked the end of an era. Fitting in a way since the ’87 Tour at 4231kms and 26 days was the last of the epic tours. In contrast, the 2012 edition will see “just” 20 days of racing over 3000km.
Roche gave some interesting insights during the talk. For example, his hatred of a dirty bike. He expected his bike to be spotless for every ride; even grime in that hard-to-reach area between the bottom bracket and the chain ring was unacceptable. He talked of being forced to ride Le Coq Sportif shoes with “unforgiving plastic soles” on arrival with ACBB in Paris (a well organised “feeder” team for Peugeot). This aggravated a knee problem which combined with a fall on the indoor track in ‘86 was to dog him during his later professional years – effectively neutralising his ’88 season. Kit spotters will have noticed that Roche is always pictured wearing leather Vittoria shoes. Roche would probably choose to forget the denim-look lycra shorts (Carerra are a jeans label) worn at the end of his career: further proof that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
The conversation rumbled on and I was struck by the clarity with which Roche remembered events. It wasn’t just that these were fresh in his mind from writing his autobiography; it was as if he was telling you about last Sunday’s ride, yet this was 25 years later. In the decisive stage of the ’87 tour, crossing Galibier, Madeleine and finishing at La Plagne, he’d broken early, to be reeled back. He described key moments on the infamous ascent of La Plagne, how he’d “half wheeled” Spanish climbing expert and yellow jersey wearer Pedro Delgado on the lower slopes to give the impression of strength. Then, once Delgado was away, choosing the exact moment Roche described to chase, with a super human effort, to limit his losses to Delgado. The lack of race radios, the rudimentary motorcycle held chalk boards showing the time gap all playing to his favour.
I always thought Roche was also one of the more stylish riders of the era along with Robert Millar, Luis Herrera, Malcolm Elliott and Laurent Fignon. A mixed bag I know, but these were riders with style and panache. During the question and answer session, I got my chance to ask him who he thought was the most stylish rider in the peleton. I was surprised by his answer. For him, style was about winning and being able to mask your pain; less about how you looked. He thought for a while and said
“I know he’s got the Mod thing goin’ on, but Brad Wiggins is able to not let other riders know he’s hurting.”
Fotheringham then suggested Fabian Cencellara who always looks the part, particularly in the Leopard Trek strip. Roche scoffed immediately,
“the man rides with a mirror on his bike to look at himself! All those silly attacks at the world championships! What was he thinking?”
In his novel “Swimmer”, Bill Broady observers someone “swimming out of their skin” to break a record. The swimmer in question felt it was the other way around: “I had to swim back into my skin” she counters. Roche must have felt something similar as the race doctors administered oxygen and wrapped him in a foil survival blanket at the summit of La Plagne. If the physical hurdles were obvious, the psychological ones were perhaps less so.
It’s worth remembering that during the ’87 Giro, Roche’s own team mate, Roberto Visentini rode against him and formed alliances with many Italian riders on opposing teams. Having your own team mate ride against you isn’t unique (think Hinault and Lemond or more recently Armstrong and Contador) but it’s certainly difficult. During the book signing I asked Roche whether it bugged him that everyone went on about the Tour win rather than his Giro win. “Not really, it’s what they want to hear about” he replied phlegmatically. “Born to Ride” redresses the balance.