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A Worlds Tale: Stephen Roche, Villach, Austria, 1987

The record books only tell you so much. They tell you that Stephen Roche won the World Championship road race in 1987. They may even tell you it was the crowning glory in a year which had already seen him win the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. What the record books don't tell you is how he won the race. How he and Sean Kelly and Martin Earley and Paul Kimmage - l'Equipe had punningly dubbed them the nouvelle Éire - formed what was probably the strongest Irish team ever to take the line at a World Championships.

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The Agony And The Ecstasy - Stephen Roche Put yourself back there. Sunday, September 6th, 1987. Villach, Austria. Ten-thirty in the morning. It's pouring rain. A hundred and seventy-nine cyclists are about to embark on the first of twenty-three laps of a twelve kilometre circuit. Seven hours racing lie ahead of them. They're wearing shorts and gloves and hats bearing the names and logos of their trade-team sponsors. But look beneath their rain-capes and they're wearing their national team jerseys. At the end of the day, one of those cyclists will get to swap his national team jersey for the Rainbow Jersey and be declared the new champion du monde.

If it wasn't for the rain making them all don their rain-capes, you'd spot four green jerseys huddled in there somewhere. Sean Kelly. Stephen Roche. Martin Earley. Paul Kimmage. The latter two are ‘just' domestiques but Kelly and Roche are stars of the peloton. Traditionally, two successful riders from the same country should be rivals, and not get on. Coppi and Bartali. Anquetil and Poulidor. Merckx and Maertens. Moser and Saronni. Hinault and Fignon. But there's no point in even pretending that Kelly and Roche don't get along: "People shouldn't say that I have won this race and Sean has won that. They should look at our careers and say that between us we have won every race on the continent worth winning."

Not quite every race, but acceptable hyperbole, all things considered. However, of the few races which have eluded them, one really stands out. The World Championship road race. Neither has been able to do better than bronze, Kelly losing to Giuseppe Saronni and Greg LeMond at Goodwood, England, in '82 ("That day I rode stupidly. I chased everything that moved and used up most of my energy before I got near the finish. I was young and green and felt the weight of the [Irish] green jersey.") and Roche losing to LeMond and Adri Van Der Poel in Altenrheim, Switzerland, in '83. Up untl that day in Austria, the closest an Irishman has ever come to the Rainbow Jersey was twenty-five years earlier, 1962, when Shay Elliott finished second to his St Raphaël team-mate Jean Stablinski.

Less than a fortnight before this rain-sodden Sunday in Austria, the four Irish riders had been back in Ireland. As part of their preparation for Villach they were riding a series of three Kellogg's-sponsored city centre critériums. Essentially they were just exhibition races, a chance for Irish fans to see their four heroes in the flesh and British fans to see them on TV. Apart from the four Irish riders and Allan Peiper, the rest of the field was made up of forty or so British riders. And the British riders weren't willing to offer any favours to the local heroes. The three races became a battle of wills between the two old enemies.

"There was a meeting of the riders before the Dublin race. Sean proposed that, as I had just won the Tour de France and this was my first race back in my home town since the Tour, an agreement should be reached whereby I would win. In a similar situation on the continent, there would not have been any need to ask."

The British riders were having none of it though. Paul Sherwen - then riding for Raleigh on the British circuit, but who had seven years on the continent behind him - weighed in, arguing that it was only right that Roche should win. But even he wasn't being listened to. Kimmage got pissed off with the way things were going: "I walked out of the room before a solution had been reached. I had never liked the English pros, big-headed sods who thought that having a pro licence made them professional. I despised them for their pettiness. They were not fit to polish Roche's shoes and here they were, laying down the law. Pathetic."

Eventually the British riders decided that if Roche really wanted the victory, he'd have to pay for it. A thousand pounds. But, come the race, it didn't seem like the British pros were gifting the race to anyone. Though Roche did win. And when the British riders met to carve-up the Wexford race, they excluded the Irish riders from the meeting. Which was their big mistake. Because riding some of the way down from Dublin to Wexford, the Irish riders decided they were going to have to give their rivals an etiquette lesson. They discussed tactics and how to get Kelly to the end of the race in contention for victory and let him take it from there. Which is more or less how it played out, Kelly comfortably taking the win and the British riders getting even more stroppy than they'd been in Dublin.

"After that there was war. The English riders were furious. We were painted as the Irish mafia ripping off the poor British pros. They claimed that it had been agreed that one of their riders would win in Wexford. They said they had let me win in Dublin. We did not accept that there had been any agreement for Wexford since they had not discussed the race with us beforehand. Neither did we accept that they let me win in Dublin."

A Rough Rde - Paul KimmageAfter the Wexford race, there had been a brief reception, the usual glad-handing of the usual local dignitaries. Afterwards, the four Irish riders returned to White's Hotel, where they were staying. They would have liked a quiet pint in a quiet pub, but that was impossible. They wouldn't have had to put their hands in their pockets all night long, for sure, but it'd have probably taken a day or two for their blood-alcohol levels to return to normal.

Kimmage tells the story of that night in White's: "We ordered fresh fruit salad, sandwiches, tea and coffee and a few drinks to be brought up to the rooms [...] The bedrooms were too small to hold a party [the four were joined by their manager, Frank Quinn, along with his assistant, and Kelly and Roche's two brothers-in-law] so we laid out the trays of food and drink in the corridor outside and sat together on the carpeted floor. It was a great night. We talked and joked and made plans for Cork."

If the Irish Cycling Federation had paid to organise a pre-Worlds bonding session they couldn't have come up with anything to beat those three city centre races. The four Irish riders spent the rest of the year riding for different trade-teams - Kelly was at Kas, Roche was at Carrera, Earley was at Fagor and Kimmage was at RMO - but those three critériums glued them together as an Irish team. The races themselves may have only lasted an hour each and had very little in common with what lay ahead in Villach. But the tussle with British riders really brought the Irish foursome together. Helped them believe that, working together, they could beat all odds, beat all comers.

The series had been sealed in Wexford. Beating the British in Cork secured the whitewash, Kelly again taking the victory. This last victory was even more controversial than the first two. The tactic was for Earley and Kimmage to set a fast tempo throughout the race and bring back breakaways. Roche was to try and get away in the closing laps and, that failing, Kelly was the ace in the hole, to be brought to the line and left to unleash his sprint.

Roche had tried to get away but got brought back, and when Kelly came around him for an early sprint, Roche closed the door on anyone trying to jump on Kelly's wheel. He'd done something similar in Wexford and Malcolm Elliott was sensible enough to back off. But in Cork it was Mark Walsham who was trying to take Kelly's wheel. He rode right into Roche. They both went down. Plenty of others went down behind them.

It could have been a disastrous night. Roche had already lost one season to his knee, injured in a crash at the Paris Six in November 1985. And - although he didn't know it in 1987 - he would lose all of 1988 to the same injury. Luckily this time it was just cuts and bruises. Kelly was even able to joke about it to journalists, telling them: "After giving me a great lead out, Stephen was obviously not too sure that I was going to win for he felt he had to wipe out everybody else."

More than the others, Roche knew how a trial by fire could bind team-mates together. Wasn't that what had happened to him in the Giro d'Italia? He might have preferred not to endure the hassle of those three races but what ultimately mattered was that they fused the foursome together: "We had set out with a very definite aim in mind and we had achieved it. There was the extra satisfaction that one gets from being involved in a united team effort. And the four of us were united. We went to the World Championship road race committed to each other."

Committed to each other. But how committed was each to winning? With Earley and Kimmage, that's easy. They were foot soldiers. They'd have jobs to do during the race, important jobs, but there was no personal ambition.

A Man For All Seasons - Sean Kelly Kelly's commitment was beyond doubt. If Roche was enjoying an annus mirabilis then Kelly was suffering through an annus horribilis. At the beginning of the year Jean de Gribaldy was killed in a car crash. Ten years had passed since le Vicomte had flown into Dublin airport on a private plane and hired a taxi to take him the two-hundred or so kilometres down to Carrick-on-Suir in order to sign Kelly for his Flandria squad, then home to Belgian sprint sensation Freddy Maertens.

When Michel Pollentier lead the exodus from Flandria in '79 to the Splendor squad, Kelly went with him, but still stayed on good terms with de Gri. Kelly stayed three years with Splendor, maturing and bagging stage wins in major and minor tours. Then came '82. De Gri lured Kelly to Sem France-Loir. Reunited, they won Paris-Nice's White Jersey and the Tour de France's Green Jersey. In their five years together Sem would become Skil and then become Kas and Kelly would add another four victories in the Race to the Sun and another two Green Jerseys in the Tour. He'd also blossom as a one-day specialist, five of the Classics falling to him (Milan-San Remo, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Roubaix (twice), Blois-Chaville (Paris-Tours) and the Giro di Lombardia (twice)).

Under the guidance of De Gribaldy it almost seemed Kelly could win any single-day race he turned his mind to. But whenever it came to the Worlds Kelly was on his own. Of all the races that eluded him - the Ronde van Vlaanderen makes that list - the Worlds was the one race he surely should have won ("The World Championship road race was always difficult because Ireland never had a team with the numbers to compete against the really strong countries. But it is not a good reason for not winning the World Championship as Greg LeMond won twice and never had a team.").

De Gri's death was just the start of Kelly's troubles in 1987. He won Paris-Nice for a sixth time ("After winning the first three or four and setting a new record for wins in the race, I never much cared whether I won it or not.") but that was to be the highlight of his season. Saddle-sores forced him out of the Vuelta a España just three days out of Madrid and while wearing the maillot amarillo and looking set for his first Grand Tour victory. And in that year's Tour he crashed, tearing ligaments in his shoulder, and was reduced to tears as he was forced to abandon. He was still number one on the FICP rankings, where he'd been since Hein Verbruggen introduced them four years earlier but he desperately needed a victory. And the victory he most wanted was the Worlds. There was no doubting Kelly's commitment.

My Road To Victory - Stephen Roche But what of Roche's commitment? That's complex. Just five weeks earlier he'd won the Tour. Most people said he didn't have a snowball's chance in hell in Austria. Sure, you could double the Tour and the Worlds. Speicher and Bobet had both done it. But only one man had ever won the Giro, the Tour and the Worlds in one season: Eddy Merckx. And Stephen Roche was no Eddy Merckx. Whenever a journalist asked, Roche said he was going to Austria to serve Kelly.

"It could be said that I went to Villach lacking personal ambition and that would be true. I began to revise my opinion slightly when we first went round the circuit on the Thursday, four days before the race. All of the talk of it being a flat circuit and one which suited the sprinters was off the mark. It was a circuit for strong men, essentially like Sean and [Moreno] Argentin, but I knew that I would go OK on such a circuit."

The weather played to Roche's favour too: "I have always been able to ride well in the rain. It is not that I like rain, it is simply that I don't mind it while others positively hate it. Neither Sean nor I was too disappointed to find that the rain fell in buckets as the World Championship road race went on its way."

We can fast-forward through most of the race. You all know how these things go. Exploratory breaks. A war of attrition. Things only start to get serious in the closing klicks. The rain has eased off, the rain capes have been shed. The Irish team has done its share of the work to keep the race together and wear other riders out. Five laps out things begin to get serious, the pace going up and the breaks becoming more frequent. Seventy or so riders still make up the peloton as it enters the last lap. And then things get really serious.

"On the long hill at the start of the lap I went as hard as I could go. Sean was on my wheel. I wanted to put the other sprinters under pressure but I could not believe it when I looked behind at the top of the hill and saw that there were only ten or eleven guys still with me. I did push the speed up but I had no idea that it was fast enough to get rid of about sixty riders. Getting the field of potential winners down to twelve suited Sean and me well."

Roche's move may have shed potential challengers like Eric Vanderaerden and Guido Bontempi, but it hasn't disposed of Argentin. A sprint finish would surely be between Argentin and Kelly. Everybody else has but one choice: break away. Kelly and Roche are now taking turns covering the breaks. Two klicks out Teun Van Vliet attacks. Roche goes after the Dutchman. Rolf Golz goes with him. Brian Sorensen and Guido Winterberg make it five in front and eight behind.

And the eight stay behind. Seven of them are looking to Kelly to react. "If I made the effort to close the gap and Argentin beat me in the sprint, which was a possibility, then the race would have been a disaster. Stephen was my own team-mate. I told the others I was not chasing. It was up to them." Argentin, the reigning World Champion, is sure that Kelly is bluffing. "Well it's your gold medal going down the drain," he tells the Irishman. Kelly doesn't rise to the Italian's bait.

Up front, Roche realises he has a problem: "As a sprinter I do not compare with Golz or Van Vliet and I knew that if I was in a sprint with these four riders for the Rainbow Jersey I was likely to get fourth or fifth with only an outside possibility of bronze." Bronze. Who wants that? You're not even the first loser. Even at losing you lost. "After the year that I had enjoyed, a bronze medal at the World Championship was not worth winning and it was obvious that I had to attack."

If they ever film Roche's story, this is where it'd go to flashback. Roche's life would flash before his eyes. Or maybe just his cycling life. Or probably just two races. Two editions of one race. Liège-Bastogne-Liège. 1985 and 1987.

In the '85 race, Roche, Argentin and Claude Criquielion profited when press motorcycles impeded the race on the climb of the Côte de la Redoute and they stole a lead on the favourites. In the final klick, the trio had a lead of barely a hundred and fifty metres over the chase group of Kelly, Laurent Fignon and Phil Anderson. But that was enough for Argentin to out-sprint his companions. Roche rolled home third.

Two years later Roche and Criquielion were leading in the run into Liège. Argentin was chasing behind them, less than a minute back. "I was in another world. I was so scared of coming second. I so wanted to win that I completely forgot what was going on behind. I was one of the cleverest racers, I think, but this one completely backfired on me. I could only think of Criquielion. I knew I had to be on his wheel for the sprint, otherwise he would win. It was like a tape recorder in my head saying ‘you have to risk losing if you want to win.'"

Roche blamed his Carrera directeur sportif, Davide Boifava, for planting that tape-loop in his head. Before the race, they had been discussing tactics, and why Roche seemed to lose so many races despite working so hard. Paris-Nice topped that list. It was Roche who started the Irish annexation of la course au soleil, when he won it as a neophyte in 1981. Since then he'd twice finished second to Kelly, and though fourth in '87, he should have won but for an attack from Kelly's Kas team when Roche, then wearing the leader's White Jersey, punctured on the Col de Vence.

Too often, Boifava told him, he'd been doing too much work in the race, that he should have left it to others to make the pace: "Boifava advised me to be cuter, not to do so much work, and ultimately, I had to be prepared to lose in order to win. In other words, if my breakway companions were not contributing I was to stop working as well. If that meant that some pursuit group behind caught up, that was OK. There was a fair amount of sense in what Boifava was saying."

That April Sunday in la doyenne, Criq must have been thinking something similar, that he'd have to be on Roche's wheel for the sprint, otherwise he wouldn't win. Whatever was going through his head, the two got slower and slower the closer they got to the finish line. They looked more like track riders playing cat and mouse, practically doing track stands as they each tried to force the other to lead out the sprint. So slow were they going that Criq's wife, standing in the crowd and listening to the race commentary on radio, tried to shout out to her husband to warn him that Argentin was closing on them. Fast. It made no difference. Even if she could be heard over the crowd, Roche and Criq were too focussed on each other to notice.

"Boifava's advice was going through my mind: be prepared to lose to win. Into the last kilometre and I was refusing to ride at the front, Criquielion was also trying to save his energy. It was silly as the two of us rode through the last kilometre, not doing much more than fifteen miles an hour. As I moved wide of Criquielion to make my sprint I felt pretty strong and went past him easily. Victory was going to be mine. But just then Argentin came flying past me and won. I could not believe it. I knew he was not far behind but never considered that be might actually rejoin us."

Over the next few months, winning the Giro and the Tour, Roche would shed many tears of joy. But that day, after Argentin had again beaten him in Liège-Bastogne-Liège - after Roche had lost Liège-Bastogne-Liège - Roche cried: "Defeat knocked me out. It disturbed me. I lost my head and could not accept second place. [...] I cried at the end of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the only time in my career that I cried after losing."

Snap the story back to Austria. Less than five months since Roche had thrown away la doyenne. Five hundred metres from the line. Roche riding fourth in a line of five riders at the front. Behind, but not closing the gap, eight riders. Including Argentin. And Kelly. Waiting for someone to blink.

Roche blinked. He went past Sorensen, past Van Vliet, past Golz. Winterberg saw the move as it happened but couldn't respond. Sorensen, Van Vliet and Golz hesitated just that moment too long, not wanting to be the one to chase. Roche was clear. Behind them, Argentin, seeing the gold medal going down the drain, finally responded. Too late. He had to settle for silver.

As Roche crossed the line, hands in the air, champion du monde, behind him Kelly threw his own hands above his head. The stats say Kelly finished fifth. The smile on his face was as if he'd won himself. In a way he had. And sure anyway, didn't he have years enough ahead of him to win the race for himself?

* * * * *

Most of the above is culled from The Agony And The Ecstasy - Stephen Roche's World Of Cyclng, Stephen Roche's autobiography, ghosted by David Walsh. Other bits come from My Road To Victory, by Stephen Roche (again ghosted by David Walsh); Sean Kelly - A Man For All Seasons, by Sean Kelly and David Walsh; and Paul Kimmage's A Rough Ride.