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Those Were The Days

CyclingNews has a number of standard-issue pieces it runs, and the Stephen Roche interview running today is a prime example. I'd planned to ignore it: Roche's comments during the Tour were a bit bland, and this "Grandpa tell us again about the time you won the 1987 Tour" format doesn't usually contain anything new. But I got sucked in regardless, and now I think it's worthy of a little discussion along the lines of, holy flipping sheit! Sure, the 40 second win was the closest ever, but consider some of the other dimensions of the 1987 Tour:

  • The time trials: a 6km prologue; a 40km team time trial; an 87km ITT (not a typo) around Futuroscope; a 37km time trial up Mont Ventoux (still not a typo); and a penultimate ITT of 38km in case we hadn't already determined who could race against the clock. Left on the cutting room floor was the planned 200km team time trial up Alpe d'Huez. Like I said, holy flipping sheit.
  • Not to be outdone, the altimetri is pretty off the charts too. The parcours included a hat trick of finishes atop Luz Ardiden, Mont Ventoux and Alpe d'Huez, arguably the three signature climbs of the Pyrenees, Provence and Alps. Also, they put off any serious climbing until stage 14, which meant seven mountain stages over nine days.
  • The race consisted of a holy-flippin'-sheit-inducing 25 stages plus a prologue, from July 1 to 26. This included doubling up the TTT and a circuit race on day 2 (held over limited terrain in pre-Glasnost West Berlin) and dividing day 4's 200km into two events. There were two rest days: one on day 3 to escape the Iron Curtain and another one 16 stages later between the Pyrenees and Mont Ventoux.
  • What made the race was of course the racing. It was essentially a close, three-way battle between Roche, Pedro Delgado and Jean-Francois (Jeff) Bernard, the La Vie Claire protege and LeMond successor. You know about Delgado's narrow loss; Bernard finished third at a mere 2.13 back with stage wins in the last two time trials. The Maillot Jaune rotated among them four times in the final 10 days. All good stuff. Then there was the drama.

After more than two weeks of light sparring among the contenders, Bernard's win on Mt. Ventoux was a shock, but Roche and Delgado both knew he'd dug awfully deep, so the next day the contenders made sure Bernard was isolated before Delgado and Roche jumped away, seizing the stage and yellow (respectively). Delgado then took over the lead on Alpe d'Huez. Next came the Queen Stage:

"That day was crucial," he explained. "I had a go at Delgado from 100 km out. I nearly then lost it all on La Plagne after I was caught, but then came back again on the final few kilometres. Tactically it was a big move.

"Earlier on I saw that Delgado was isolated from his team-mates on the climb of the Galibier, so I thought, 'now is the time to try something'. I gave it a go, but unfortunately Delgado got his team-mates together again then after the climb. I ended up doing the Col de Madeline on my own and then being caught in a small group just before the foot of La Plagne.

"I knew my only chance was not to go with Delgado when he attacked me on that final climb. The idea was to let him go, give him a bit of space and then give it everything with four or five kilometres remaining and come back to him. He wouldn't be getting time checks so close to the line and so he wouldn't be able to react, he wouldn't think I was coming back.

"That was my plan and that proved to be the right decision because he basically kept his pace but I increased mine, and came back to within four seconds of him by the finish line. That was essentially the day Delgado lost the Tour."

Delgado has essentially acknowledged as much, and things got even worse when Roche stole some further seconds back in the final descent the next day, leaving Pedro only 21 seconds clear. By the Dijon time trial the drama was over: Roche predictably took back 61 seconds and won the Tour.

The human scale of the race is striking. The daring attacks and the subsequent suffering look nothing like the conservative racing we gripe about nowadays. Of course, Bernard went all out on the Ventoux and paid; while Roche went all out to La Plagne and got away with it. In the era before massive doping, guys presumably rode with little assurance from their doctor/pharmacist/mafioso that they would be able to get out of bed the next day. I won't go so far as to declare this "clean riding" but the ups and downs of this Tour look a lot different from the more recent pelotons speeding up each mountain in unison, for whatever reason.

Like I said... holy flippin sheit!!