It’s a sunny Monday morning in Dublin and I’m sitting in the foyer of Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge. Next door is the RDS, where Lance Armstrong held his International Cancer Conference back in 2009. I’m here this morning to interview one of the men who preceded Armstrong on the Tour de France’s roll of honour: Stephen Roche. The Dubliner is back home to plug his new autobiography, Born to Ride (Yellow Jersey Press), and I’ve been squeezed in for a twenty-minute interview in between TV and radio appearances.
The key to a good interview, I’ve always been told, is preparation. Know who you’re interviewing, know what you want to talk to them about and, biff bang bosh, half the job is done. I’ve spent the weekend reading Born to Ride – as well as re-reading The Agony and the Ecstasy and My Road to Victory – and reckon I know what I want to talk to Roche about this morning.
One thing I hadn’t really planned talking to Roche about was his travails with his knee. In a crash during a Six Day race in December 1985 Roche crushed the cartilage in his knee. Most of his 1986 season – his first year with Carrera – was wiped out as doctors struggled to diagnose the problem and treat it properly. Then the injury flared up again in 1987, following a crash in a critérium in Cork prior to the World Championships. All of Roche’s 1988 season was wiped out. Instead of showing off his rainbow jersey and defending his crown in the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, Roche spent most of the year trying to sort his knee out. He never regained the form that carried him through that magical season of 1987, when one man’s exploits on a bike gripped the land, gave cheer to a nation that was slowly dragging itself out of recession and beginning to sow the seeds of the Celtic Tiger economy.
But Roche’s knee is where this interview begins. Two days before I was due to meet Roche I managed to wreck my own knee, nearly dislocating the patella and leaving my knee looking like a bruised and swollen grapefruit. A very sore bruised and swollen grapefruit. It had been tempting to cancel the interview with Roche rather than endure the hassle of getting to Ballsbridge with a knee that really needed rest. But the two days I spent nursing my knee had made me particularly empathetic toward Roche. And kind of curious about his knee problems. So we began with knees and how a German doctor with a surfeit of names finally sorted the problem out for Roche.
“It was very, very frustrating, going to all these different doctors and no one really being able to identify the problem. You’d go to one doctor and he’d ask you ‘how long have you been in pain now?’ ‘Two weeks.’ ‘Well, give it another week.’ And you’d go back to him a week later and he’d look at you again and say ‘well, it’s not as bad as it was last week. Give it another week.’ And there you are, your bread and butter is riding your bike and you can’t ride your bike. You’ve been off for two, three, four weeks now and you’re saying to him, ‘one more week is detrimental to my career. I have to get back on my bike.’ And he’d come back with another week of rest.
“Then you’d meet these other doctors. ‘Ah yes, I’ll fix that for you.’ All they want to do is open you up so they can see if there’s something in there. They have an idea but they’re just not sure. But, because these are specialists, you kind of have to have confidence in them.”
That, more or less, sums up Roche’s experience throughout the 1986 season, when his knee first started bothering him: bounced from one doctor to the next, with periods of rest and operations in between. When the knee flared up again toward the end of 1987 Roche was expecting more of the same. Until one day, while in Stuttgart for business, he was introduced to a German sport’s specialist, Dr Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, whose client list included the likes of Boris Becker, Yannick Noah, Ivan Lendl and Franz Beckenbauer.
“I met Müller-Wohlfahrt by accident, and I was quite sure I was wasting my time after already meeting everyone else, all the biggest doctors in Belgium, France, Spain. Everyone was telling me he was a great guy, but really, what’s he going to tell me that I don’t already know? I met him at a football match, half-time or full-time I don’t remember. We talked and he invited me to go to his office in Munich the following morning. I was in Germany on business and had to go to Munich anyway, to sort out a problem with my passport, so I agreed.
“When I got to his office the next morning he had himself, his chiropractor, his physio and a masseur all waiting. After all the other doctors, I was so determined I wasn’t going to open my mouth, to tell them what the problem was. And so I just kept quiet as each one of them came along and examined me, from my big toe to my ears. Then they all congregated in the corner and compared notes. Müller-Wohlfahrt came back to me and gave his diagnosis: this is why you have pain, we think the pain is stemming from this, the whole thing. It was like an x-ray of what had happened to me and I hadn’t told them a thing. It was all good. ‘Well that’s all well and fine, but how’s the knee treated?’ ‘Well, you have to stay ten days here. In ten days you can find some improvement.’ And I said ‘no, sorry, I’m only gone from home for two days, I can’t stay here for ten days.’
“And he comes back, ‘you’ve already said you’ve been to the rest of the world and they couldn’t cure you. In ten days’ time if you see no difference here you can go away and tell the world that Müller-Wohlfahrt hasn’t cured you. But I want my chance.’ That sounded very impressive, he was putting his neck on the line, his arguments sounded good. So I was okay with it and I stayed with him for the ten days. And after treatment every day for those ten days I could feel a difference. My knee wasn’t better, but I could feel a difference. And I understood what I was doing. That was the real difference between Müller-Wohlfahrt and the others: he understood the mechanics of it all, which is very important.
“Müller-Wohlfahrt maintained that in my first crash I had crushed my cartilage and, when they operated, they shaved a little too much off it. What made that worse was that I was off my bike for two months and so I lost muscle around my knee. The patella went over to one side. Unfortunately, that was the side that was shaven and, as too much had been taken off, when I was riding it was bone against bone. So Müller-Wohlfahrt had to help me bring the muscle up again, in order to pull the patella across. But how do I build the muscle up again when I’ve got pain?
“Well he used to inject this glycerine – a sort of temporary cartilage – which enabled me to do weight training. I’d get in at seven o’clock in the morning, every morning. Müller-Wohlfahrt would have put a bandage on my knee the night before and in the morning he’d take the bandage off and have a look at my knee, and then say ok, this is what we’re doing today and he’d organise a physio, the chiropractor and the masseur, everyone, and set out what had to be done that day. I’d do the whole thing and then we’d meet up again at six or seven o’clock in the evening. Then he’d have another look at my knee, put a fresh bandage on with liniment to keep the knee warm, and then we’d start again the next morning at seven o’clock.
“There were ten days of that, then back home, then back to him for a week and so on for six months. And then I started back on my bike, for thirty minutes – thirty minutes, ha! I’m the world champion! – and things began to improve.
“We struck up a great rapport and I had a lot of confidence in Müller-Wohlfahrt. Every time I’d go back to him I felt that my pain was his pain. He was so interested in what was going on inside my knee, he gave me so much confidence in what he was doing, he’d tell me what he was doing and why he was doing it. Doctors, when I meet them today, they all say ‘well, you couldn’t have done it without an operation.’ But Müller-Wohlfahrt did.”
That, more or less, was the end of the problem. Roche’s knee recovered and he began to get back to what looked like winning form. But then the compensatory injuries caused by living with a messed up knee began to manifest themselves.
“During the two years before I met Müller-Wohlfahrt, when I was on the bike, because of the knee, I was riding sideways. And as a result of that I had two slipped discs in my back. I could have had them operated on, but there was no guarantee of success and that would have been another six weeks or two months off the bike, which wouldn’t have been good for me. Or I could make do with it. As Müller-Wohlfahrt said, it was big enough to hurt but it was too small to operate. So, between us, we decided we wouldn’t operate, we’d just try to maintain the pain. And that involved a lot of stretching. During the big Tours, Müller-Wohlfahrt would come see me on the race, he’d come and do a treatment and it basically consisted of a lot of stretching.”
Having talked about the cure I wanted to go back and consider the cause of the problem: what had at first seemed like an innocuous crash during a Six Day race in Paris toward the end of 1985. I say innocuous, in that any crash where you can get back on your bike and ride on doesn’t look too bad. Roche thinks it was a lot more spectacular than that though:
“The crash itself was huge. It was incredible. Daniel Gisiger had eight stitches in his head. Two or three guys didn’t get back on their bikes. We were doing sixty odd k an hour coming off the last corner. It was very impressive. I slid the full length of the back straight.”
Ireland isn’t exactly renowned for its track stars. We do have some history; there’s Teddy Hale‘s exploits in America’s Grand Tour and Shay Elliott‘s early years, when he set some track records. But what we really lack is infrastructure. Ireland’s vélodrome is a tarmacadamed track in Eamonn Ceannt Stadium, a small park up the road from where I grew up, in Crumlin. We’ve never had the budget to blow buying baubles and bangles at the Olympics every four years and so track racing is alien to us. And, back in the eighties, fixie chic hadn’t yet taken hold, it wasn’t considered cool to be zipping through town on a single gear bike. (Hell, before Kelly and Roche came along, it wasn’t exactly considered cool to be riding through town, period.) So what was a kid from Dundrum doing riding the track in Paris in the first place?
“I started getting involved in track because my directeur sportif, Raphaël Géminiani, wanted me to attack the Hour record.”
Géminiani was Roche’s directeur sportif at La Redoute in 1985, so this would have been the year after Francesco Moser had finally cracked Eddy Merckx’s 1972 Hour ride, over the course of five days in Mexico stuffing more than seventeen hundred metres onto Merckx’s record and pushing the distance out to 51.151 kilometres. Merckx’s 1972 record had been thought to be untouchable before Moser came along. Now it was Moser’s that was thought to be untouchable. Géminiani, though, well he reckoned Roche could take Moser. And Gém should know about these things: he was Jacques Anquetil’s directeur sportif back in 1967 when Maître Jacques had beaten Roger Rivière’s distance but then failed to get the record ratified by the UCI in a contretemps over drug testing.
“There’s no point in doing the Hour Record if you don’t have track experience. And the only way of getting track experience is to ride the track. So, I thought, hey, it’s good, a road rider like me with a bit of a name gets good money on the track.”
Back then the Winter Six Day circuit was still a part of the old critérium circuit, races you rode at the invitation of the organisers and which enabled you to pad out your bank account with the appearance fees.
“Riding the track was two things for me. One thing was that I did a full season, from the first race of the year to the last. Once the last race was over it was time for a rest. But I always felt that stopping after the Giro di Lombardy wasn’t good for me, physically. So the first week after Lombardy there was a Six Day on and I’d ride that. Resting also made my winter long and I’d always put on weight over the winter. By riding the track I shortened the winter.”
Six Day racing over the years has changed a lot. Compared with the glory days of Madison Square Garden – the days of Teddy Hale and Bobby Walthour – by Roche’s era the track had been tamed. But it was still a pretty hard way to earn a crust. And it was still a helluva spectacle.
“We were on the track from seven in the evening ’til two or three in the morning. The vélodrome would be full of smoke and the smell of hamburgers … at the end of the night you felt like you’d eaten ten hot dogs! Those Sixes were amazing and I used to love them. The atmosphere was absolutely unbelievable, really unbelievable.
“Tony Doyle was one of the ring leaders of the Six Day mafia then – the Blue Train – and I rode with him, so I was privileged in a way as well. I was a good rider, supple, sustained pressure all the time. It was a good team, Doyle and me. He had the experience. I was really good at taking the laps. I could pedal very easily, that’s why I adapted so easy to the track. On the track pedalling fast is an asset.”
(At that comment we share a bitchy laugh over who it was who invented high-cadence cycling, whether it was Bradley Wiggins today or Lance Armstrong a decade ago. I’m crediting Armstrong, Roche is crediting Wiggins.)
The Hour ride, of course, never came about. It would have been a nice addition to Roche’s palmarès, looked pretty up there alongside the maglia rosa, the maillot jaune and the arc en ciel, but hey, what’s the point in being greedy about these things? Some riders would give their left leg to win just one of those races in the whole of their career. Roche knocked off all three in one season. Annoying and all as his problems with the knee were, what you don’t normally get from Roche is regrets over the races he might have won had he not had the knee problems. So there’s no regrets over never getting to take a shot at the Hour.
In the years since the Kelly-Roche era ended, Irish cycling has bounced and bumped along. How does Roche feel that the authorities – the Irish cycling federation – coped with managing the legacy of what he and Sean Kelly did for the sport in Ireland?
“Definitely they coped with it. But they didn’t actually manage it. They coped with it in that every invitation to go away to foreign events, they coped with those very, very well. They managed it wrongly because they didn’t prepare for what was to come after it. They were too busy trying to cope with the international trips that the sudden international interest that other countries had in Irish cyclists had brought about. Nobody had any time left over to actually put in place an infrastructure for the next generation. With a result we found ourselves in a situation whereby after myself and Kelly, Martin Earley, Kimmage and my brother Laurence had gone, there was nothing left.”
In the years since, the success of Irish cycling on the Continent has largely been down to individuals. Mark Scanlon, Philip Deignan, Nicolas Roche, Dan Martin, Matt Brammeier, they’ve not really been products of the Irish cycling federation, they’ve pushed themselves to the top.
“I know. It just goes to show the stupidity that is in the country when you see these riders coming from nothing, with very little help, and seeing where they get to. If there was a national academy, some kind of help …”
How does Roche feel about Sean Kelly’s An Post set-up in Belgium? Rather than a national cycling academy, is a privatised one the best way forward?
“It’s a step in the right direction. Sean has a hard time doing what he’s doing. Things could have been made a lot easier for him, I think. I don’t know the whole structure of Sean’s outfit, but yes, it’s a step in the right direction.
“I think that even staying more locally before getting to that step would help. I think the young riders could be handled a lot better. The kids could have more professional people looking after them rather than depending on parents to bring along the kids every Sunday. It’s an awful lot to ask, it’s an incredible task for parents to be looking after your kids on a Sunday morning when you are home in bed.”
Coaching is another area in which Roche thinks there’s room for improvement:
“There’s guys out there who have all the passion but don’t have the technical side of it. The technical side of it is very interesting for kids today and it’s important that they have people to inform them about that. But we haven’t got that here. We’ve only got people who have read books and have gone down the road themselves.”
So what’s the way forward, what should Cycling Ireland do to today to build for tomorrow? Roche is blunt in what the first step should be:
“Clean the office first. That’s a beautiful office but it’s badly maintained. The first thing you see when you go into Cycling Ireland’s headquarters is the state of the office. You don’t have to ask yourself any questions about the state of the federation when you see that.”
Cycling Ireland’s headquarters on Dublin’s North Circular Road are one lasting and visible legacy of Roche’s own era, when he and Kelly turned us, even if only briefly, into a cycling nation. Those headquarters carry the name of that era: Kelly-Roche House.
“I have the Roche-Kelly House, or the Kelly-Roche House or whatever you call it, in my heart. It was a major helping hand to the federation, to any federation, and I think it’s not been respected as it should be. If any young kids are looking for a licence and they go into Kelly-Roche House and they look at the state of the place, and the state of the equipment which people don’t maintain, they won’t be encouraged to stay.
“Maybe it’s not an issue. But at the same time I think you have an image. When people go into a place where it’s derelict simply because it’s not being looked after – not because its old but simply because people aren’t taking the time to clean it, or dust it, or Hoover it –you can kind of imagine what the rest of the structure is like.”
Over the twenty-five years since Stephen Roche added the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and the World Championships to his palmarès I don’t know how many times I’ve seen, read, or heard the man being interviewed and have to pull up an anecdote or two from those three races. It’s easily in the hundreds, probably into the thousands. And this is on top of Roche having told the story of those races not just in his current autobiography, Born to Ride, but also in The Agony and the Ecstasy and My Road to Victory. Having fought so hard to win those three races it seems that, today, Roche can’t escape them.
Even with all that’s already been said and written about them there are dozens of questions I could put to Roche about those races. We could talk about that feeling of pleasure he said he had that day on the road to Sappada, the pleasure at simply being able to do what he was doing after all the trouble with his knee. We could talk about the excesses of the 1987 Tour: twenty-six days of racing, including a couple of days with split stages. We could talk about the preparation for the World Championships, those three Irish critériums which banded the Irish team together. But the race I really want to talk to Roche about is the one that opened his professional career: Paris-Nice.
For a lot of old fashioned cycling fans the road season doesn’t really begin until the peloton sets out from the southern suburbs of Paris and begins winding and wending its way down to the Côte d’Azur. Anything before Paris-Nice, it doesn’t really count. And, for eight years in the 1980s, Paris-Nice was at the heart of the Irish cycling season. The perfect hors d’oeuvre to another season of success and glory.
The race dates back to 1933, the brainchild of the newspaper publisher Albert Lejeune who owned papers in both cities (the Paris-based Le Petit Journal and the Nice-based Le Petit Niçois) and decided to link them by way of a bike race. Like the original Tour de France, Lejeune’s race was loosely based on Six Day racing, even down to its first name: Six Jours de la Route. Lejeune – like L’Auto/L’Éuipe's Jacques Goddet – ran into a few problems when the second World War ended. In Lejeune’s case those problems were particularly serious and he was executed for his actions during the Occupation.
Ce Soir resurrected the race in 1946, as part of their campaign to win the rights to organise the first post-War Tour de France. When they failed to win the Tour they dropped the race to the sun. Then, in 1951, the Mayor of Nice decided it was time for another try. A bike race leaving a wet and wintry Paris and arriving in the sun of the Côte d’Azur was just the thing to attract the crowds to an area that had yet to become a haven for the rich and the famous. And to run the race Nice’s Mayor picked Jean Leulliot, a journalist with Route et Piste.
One day, when the English-speaking cycling world broadens its horizons beyond its current Tour-centric focus, someone is going to properly tell the story of the Leulliot family and their contribution to cycling’s history. For Irish fans, part of that tale will be Leulliot’s role in Shay Elliott‘s story, the invite he extended to the Route de France, and his role in getting Elliott a ride with the ACBB. The other part of that story will be the last Paris-Nice he organised, barely a year before his death. 1981. The beginning of the Irish annexation of the race to the sun.
So much for the history lesson. Races can thrive on their history, but without good racing they won’t survive. For some people, Paris-Nice doesn’t rate too high: it’s not competitive enough, they say. For sure, they’ll acknowledge, it’s more important that the Ruta del Sol or the Etoile de Bessèges or the Tour Méditerranéen. But, really, it’s just another of the pre-season leg looseners, a training races. Nothing much to write home about. How, I wondered, did Roche rate Paris-Nice?
“For me Paris-Nice was always a major part of the season because you’d always find guys there who’d you’d be up against in the Tour and the other top races of the year. You very, very rarely got an unknown rider winning Paris-Nice. That race was always an indication of how your season was going to go.
“Even today, with the Tour Down Under and all these other races, in everyone’s mind the season still starts in Paris-Nice. That’s the first major rendezvous. At first I was nervous about it being taken over by ASO a few years back but now that they have the organisation of it I’m more calm: people feel they have to perform there. Anyone looking for a wild-card to the Tour feels they have to perform first of all at Paris-Nice. You have to put on a good show there, ASO are very sensitive to that.
“Paris-Nice is no longer a training race. Everyone goes from the line now. Years ago – in my day – you could do the first hundred kilometres nice and leisurely and then the final would be very, very hard. But in Paris-Nice today, it’s all very competitive.”
And, beyond the cycling calendar, how does Roche personally feel about la course au soleil?
“If Sean hadn’t been around I would have won maybe another four Paris-Nices. Sean beat me a lot of times because of his sprinting ability; he always caught everybody in the final sprint and got the time bonuses. But, between us, we won it eight times between us.
“The nice thing about Paris-Nice is the Col d’Éze. We made that our climb, our time trial, for eight or nine years.”
The Col they call d’Éze is one of the things I personally love about Paris-Nice. Between 1981 and 1989 the final Sunday afternoon time trial up that wee hill outside Nice was won by either Roche (1981/85/87/89) or Kelly (1982/83/84/86/88). In 1984 Kelly beat Roche to the top of the climb by just one second. The following year Roche came back and beat Kelly by the same margin. L’Équipe took to calling the final afternoon’s time trial the Irish championships.
1987 was the last of the Irish head-to-heads on the Col d’Éze. Roche had started the day in the leader’s white jersey but, in the morning split stage, he punctured on the Col de Vence and Kelly’s Kas team didn’t falter in their pace-setting at the front of the peloton and Kelly stole the jersey from Roche’s shoulders. Having lost the race Roche bounced back with victory in the afternoon on the Col d’Éze: small comfort for missing out on the final white jersey.
1989 was the last of the Irish victories. Kelly had simply abdicated his crown and switched to Tirreno-Adriatico – Paris-Nice’s nouveau riche twin sister – as part of his preparation for Milan-Sanremo. Roche, with Dr Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt having worked magic on his knee, won the Col d’Éze time trial for his fourth and Ireland’s last time. He lost the overall to Miguel Induráin by just thirteen seconds. The nouvelle Éire was over and a new era could begin at Paris-Nice. A year later Jean-François Bernard, himself coming back from a knee operation, finally reclaimed the little hill outside of Nice for the French and the Col d’Éze was no longer an Irish mountain.
In memory of those nine years, could we maybe petition the Mayor of Nice to raise an Irish flag on the summit of the Éze? Roche laughs:
“I don’t know about that! Just about. Maybe. The used to call it the Promenade des Irlandais for a long time. Myself and Sean won it for eight or nine years but the other extraordinary thing was third place in the time trial was always thirty or forty seconds back. Jean-François Bernard finished third or fourth a few of the times. Nearly always, the other riders were twenty to thirty seconds back. Each time Sean and I rode it was just a handful of seconds between us. One year Kelly beat me by a second, then I beat him by a second, and Jean-François Bernard was a minute back.”
How does Roche feel now that the Col d’Éze is back in Paris-Nice?
“Having Paris-Roubaix without the tranche d’Arneberg, it’s no longer Paris-Roubaix. Having the Tour de France without the Alpe d’Huez, you can accept it once, every two years or so, but that’s all. Paris-Nice without the Col d’Éze … it’s not the same. Just not the same. They added it a few years there as a race around it, but for me it didn’t do a lot for the race.”
Roche’s appreciation of the Col d’Éze isn’t just a sentimental attachment to a little bit of France that will forever Ireland be:
“There’s a lot of races out there that have good roads, good circuits. But the thing about Paris-Nice was they had the final time trial up the Col d’Éze. There has to be a difference between races. Paris-Nice stood out from other races by having the mountain time trial at the end. The Dauphiné, say, is hard because it has a lot of mountain climbs, but Paris-Nice always had Col d’Éze for a finale. And you’d get a lot of people on the Col. It was a great spectator event.
“The last day of any big race is always going to be a bit of a promenade. Even though it hurts, even though the riders aren’t exactly taking it easy, there’s rarely any major attacks on the last day, although Contador did win Paris-Nice there a few years ago after doing a great ride on the final stage. But in general that final stage, without the time trial, it just wasn’t great, not from a spectator’s point of view.”
Last-day attacks bring us back to something that happened in 1981. With a final split stage – a ride up the Tanneron followed by the Col d’Éze time trial – Roche’s Peugeot squad went on the attack in the morning, when others might have expected them to be keeping their powder dry for the time trial in the afternoon.
“The morning sprint stage was up and around the Tanneron. We went from the line because I wasn’t sure we could win. I’d taken the leader’s white jersey the night before into Mandelieu. The next afternoon was the time trial and I wasn’t sure I could beat Adri van der Poel in the time trial. So we had a plan to attack right from the start in the morning and try and get away. And we got away. And we maintained a gap right through the morning stage. It was very, very fast and very hard. And that made the race very spectacular that year.”
We seem to be working backwards through the story here, because what I wanted to ask Roche about next was what had happened before Mandelieu. Paris-Nice in 1981 ran from Wednesday to Wednesday, with the big stage – taking in Mount Ventoux – occurring on the Sunday. On the Saturday Roche had taken the white jersey from his team-mate, Michel Laurent, when he got into a break that stayed away. But the next day one of his companions from that break, Adri van der Poel, lifted the white jersey off Roche’s shoulders by virtue of mid-stage bonifications on the Ventoux. (Being Spring, the race swung off the climb at Chalet Reynard and headed down to Miramas, rather than going all the way up to the weather station.)
Peugeot responded by plotting an attack for the Tuesday, which ended with a descent off the Tanneron down into Mandelieu. In his earlier autobiography, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Roche records the motivation speech his directeur sportif, Maurice de Muer, had offered him: “You can kill yourself on the descent so long as you take back the white jersey.” Was that really the type of guy De Muer was?
“He was very good at strategy. That was what he said, yes, of course, but he would have said it in such a way that it was structured. The point was I could try and get away on the climb, but it was going to be difficult getting away from Van der Poel going up the Tanneron, because it’s hard but not that long. We’d already seen how Van der Poel had climbed on the Ventoux. It was going to be touch and go if I could get away from him on the climb of the Tanneron.
“So the idea was we’d try but if the worst came to the worst and we couldn’t get away, then going over the top of the climb my team-mates Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and Phil Anderson would lead me out over the summit and we’d go down the other side really fast.
“It was a very dangerous descent. It was dry but very bumpy, rough tarmac, shiny tarmac, bits of gravel. Van der Poel got a fright at one corner. He came around and passed between a pole and the road. The Tanneron, it’s a very technical, dangerous descent. There are technical descents you can go down without having to risk your life. But the Tanneron is exceptionally dangerous. That was the first time I went down it so maybe that’s why I went down so well!”
Jokingly I asked had Roche learned his descending skills coming down off the Blue Light up above Stepaside, south of where he grew up in Dundrum. He laughs at the suggestion:
“I wouldn’t put myself down as an excellent descender. I had to learn fast though. Earlier in the week in that Paris-Nice, on the Ventoux stage, I was distanced going up and had to get back on coming down the far side. There were two centimetres of snow on the road coming down. I went back to Maurice de Muer and asked for my jumper because it was freezing cold and he told me ‘get back onto the group in the front and I’ll give you your jersey.’ That was motivation! I caught the group in front, but I went down that hill in two centimetres of snow. That was one lesson in descending.
“As a rider I didn’t give too much attention to my descending, but looking back on my career now, I had some incredible descending experiences. You could talk about the Tanneron that day, you could talk about the Joux Plan in the Tour of ’87, one or two stages of the Tour of Italy. There were days of my career that were absolute magic for me descending. But I never thought I was a good descender. I just pulled out all the stops on certain days.”
With the clock ticking on and our allotted time almost up I wanted to turn to how Roche feels the achievements of 1987 – of the whole Kelly-Roche era – are today remembered in Ireland.
“It’s not a question that I ask myself really. Yes, it’s nice to be remembered. It’s nice to be appreciated, to be talked about. The one thing I would say – which is by no means the public’s fault – but I’ve just come from being interviewed on TV3 about the book. The interview lasted fifteen minutes. We spent thirteen minutes talking about doping.
“The questions have been answered in every direction, in length and breadth. There’s nothing else that I can say. Sometimes you feel like telling these interviewers to just talk about something else. Journalists these days, they feel their interview will not be complete unless they ask a question about doping. If they come off air and they haven’t asked the question they perceive that their editor or director will say ‘well, you didn’t ask about doping.’ We have to move on in life and be grateful that cycling has done the utmost to clean the sport up, and clean other sports up indirectly. It’s very unfortunate that people relate the sport to doping.”
Roche here has, of course, got his retaliation in first, pre-empted questions I’d planned on asking. He presses the pointlessness of this line of questioning:
“You could spend an hour talking to me about doping and everything else. What you want to hear is an admission, a ‘yes I did.’ At the same time as I’m going to be saying to you that ‘no I didn’t,’ you’ll be saying to yourself, ‘I’m sure he did.’ You’ll try another angle. But even if I get down on my knees and tell you please, please believe me, you’ll always have a doubt at the back of your mind saying ‘well, how come he didn’t do it when so many others did?’ All I’m saying now is what’s the point in asking the question? You’re going to get the answer you don’t want to hear.”
An admission, I tell Roche, is not really what I’m looking for. I’m not expecting him to do a Fausto Coppi on me and say that yes, he doped. But he is right when he says that, no matter how many times he denies doping, there’ll always be a doubt at the back of my mind, at the back of many people’s minds, there’ll always be the question of how he managed to do it clean when so many others didn’t.
“The thing that’s incredible in a way is that the doping thing that concerned myself was in the latter part of my career, when I did nothing as regards results. At that stage I wasn’t in it for results, I was in it to help Claudio Chiapucci and finish off my career nicely. That unfortunately has been associated with 1987.”
EPO hadn’t arrived in the pro peloton in 1987. The main doping that was around then concerned cortisone, testosterone, hormone rebalancing, maybe a bit of blood doping. As for what was revealed by the University of Ferrara’s files well, if it’s true that Roche’s Carrera squad were the test subjects Professor Francesco Conconi was using when he was supposed to be looking for an EPO test for the IOC, you need to ask yourself when Conconi got that gig from the IOC. According to Sandro Donati, it didn’t happen until after 1992. So Roche here is right: the doping allegations in Italy do only concern the latter year or two of his career. They don’t directly relate what was going on in 1987.
The ‘did he or didn’t he’ question surrounding Roche has always been of less interest to me than his overall attitude to doping, and I try and explain this to him. Roche was one of those offended by the picture of the pro peloton painted by Paul Kimmage’s A Rough Ride. Right up to the eve of the Tour’s Irish grand départ in 1998 – the Festina Tour – Roche was critical of what Kimmage was saying, denouncing his compatriot for what he was saying was going on in the professional peloton. Did he believe at that stage that Kimmage was simply wrong?
“It wasn’t that I didn’t believe it, it was that I didn’t believe it was as general as Paul was making it out to be. Okay, you think there’s some amphetamines, because you see what’s going on in some of the critériums. You think maybe because someone talked to you about steroids or testosterone that they’re being used. Well you think things, you think you know things, you’re hearing things, but you don’t know what to believe. You don’t know what’s really going in.
“It simply wasn’t a question I asked myself. It was something I always refused to get involved in. Many guys will say, in latter years, ‘well you can’t beat those guys because they’re taking something, there’s no point in going to the race.’ I always believed in a level playing ground. I wasn’t worried by guys getting erratic results. It wasn’t an issue for me.”
No one ever tried to encourage you to take cortisone, testosterone, whatever?
“No. You encourage guys hanging at the back of the bunch to take something in order to try and hang into the bunch. I was at the other end of the field. I was up there winning. Why would anyone come along and encourage me to take something extra when I was already winning?”
I try to explain why I disagree with the premise of that question, citing Bernard Hinault’s defence of hormone rebalancing, preparing to roll out Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens, Sean Kelly, Laurent Fignon and others as examples of born winners who doped. But Roche is by now animated and wants an answer to his question:
“Answer my question first of all. Normally you go to somebody who’s second place and say ‘I’ll give you something to make you win.’ If a guy’s winning, why ask him to risk his health and reputation when he’s already winning races?”
Because, I suggest, a lot of people don’t believe that doping is putting your health in danger, because a lot of people believe the doping controls can be circumvented. I also point out the role doping plays in training, in preparing for races, as acknowledged by many of the riders who have confessed their own doping.
“That was in the philosophy in the nineties. The doping that was around in the latter years was basically to enable you to train harder, to get better results. That was the theory.”
One of the difficulties of discussing doping with Roche is that he is defending on two fronts at the same time and slips quickly between the two. He is both defending his own reputation and also the reputation of our sport. So his response to the use of doping as a training aide shifts into an acknowledgement that there was a problem but that that is now being dealt with:
“That’s something that’s been developed on in all sports. Out of competition tests have been introduced because they realised that many athletes were doping outside of races. That’s only come about in recent years because it wasn’t something that was understood correctly. The problem was that, in the late eighties and early nineties, when the tests were going on for the amphetamines everybody had moved on to something else. Nobody realised how bad the situation was getting. It wasn’t an amphetamine problem, it was a cortisone problem.”
Some people obviously did realise there was a problem, but at this point the conversation could turn circular and Roche’s prophecy of spending an hour discussing the topic and getting nowhere would come through. He’s already denied using cortisone, testosterone, hormone rebalancing, he’s already given the expected answer to the predictable question. Is there a point in pressing him on his use of cortisone when getting through his problems with his knee? It’s something acknowledged in Born to Ride, but really, is there a point is asking the question at this stage? Am I going to get the answer I want to hear?
But there was one final doping question I wanted to ask Roche. Back in the 1987 Tour Guido Bontempi, Roche’s Carrera team-mate, popped a positive for testosterone. It’s not an issue mentioned in either of Roche’s autobiographies. And as Jeff Connor points out in his two books about ANC’s 1987 Tour – Wide-Eyed and Legless and Field of Fire (both Mainstream Publishing) – the actual reporting of the case at the time was pretty low-key, the story being buried down the bottom of an inside page in those papers that did carry it. How, I wanted to know, did Roche himself feel when the problem came so close to home?
“In those days you didn’t know what was going on in the room next door. And you didn’t care. There was no big king of doping in those days. I didn’t know what people were doing in their corner and they didn’t know what I was doing in my corner of the building. It wasn’t something you spoke about. I’m taking my vitamins, they’re taking their vitamins or whatever they’re taking.
“There was, in the early days, word that some riders were taking testosterone to build themselves up for long Tours. When Bontempi tested positive, it wasn’t something that shocked you. It didn’t matter. That was how important the offence was in those days. For me, as far as I remember, I didn’t lose any sleep over it, but of course it was a black tag hanging over the team. But isn’t it good that there was testing done for testosterone in those days?”
To me, that just about sums up my understanding of Roche’s attitude to doping. It wasn’t his problem. With, of course, the grand irony that today, it is his problem. As every interviewer raising the topic demonstrates.
From doping we moved to a hopefully less controversial area: the next generation. Nicolas Roche. Will, I ask, he ever listen to advice over time-trialling? Roche is immediately on the defensive:
“Why do you ask that question?”
I try and explain that, in my opinion, time trialling is Roche Jnr’s key weakness and that it seems he simply won’t listen to any comments about it.
By now I’m wondering who’s interviewing whom. I explain to Roche my own history, my review of his son’s autobiography and the response that produced. Roche is still looking defensive, so I turn the subject back to himself and his own time trialling, asking was it natural or learned. The tap gets turned back on:
“It was something that I listened to people about. I was naturally good but then I tailored myself by listening to others. Jacques Anquetil met me at the end of a time trial in Dijon, in ’83 when I had lost to Laurent Fignon, he told me I’d lost the race before I’d started it. I’d spoken to my wife’s grandmother at the start. I explained to Jacques, ‘that’s my wife’s grandmother.’ ‘Stephen, it doesn’t matter. Your grandmother’s there at the end of the race. When you’re preparing for a race like that you see nobody. No one.’”
Can Nicolas learn that?
“I don’t know. It’s not for the want of me telling him about it. I don’t think today Nicolas realises – and I say this in the book and I’ve said it to him – I don’t think he really realises the importance of getting into a bubble before a time trial. He thinks I’m talking a different language when I tell him what it’s like getting into a bubble. I’ve told him there’s certain pages in the book that I hope he reads it himself. Rather than me telling him, he can read it himself.
“Vincent Lavenu [Nicolas's AG2R directeur sportif] was a team-mate of mine and Lavenu can tell Nicolas in front on me how good his dad was at time-trialling, how he never left anything to chance, it was always the best gear, the best wheels, the right wheels, the right gear, everything was done minutely. You’d imagine that Lavenu would turn to me, ‘Stephen, tell him.’ But …
“There are certain things that I get on to him about which he doesn’t react to, but I think there are seconds and minutes in what I can help him with. I think that what Nicolas maybe needs is someone who can bring him up there, someone who can work with him on daily basis. Someone like Bjarne Riis or Johan Bruyneel. Someone he can look up to. Someone he can be afraid of. When I tell Nicolas about time-trialling he listens but he doesn’t seem to react much. When Vincent Lavenu tells him he doesn’t listen to him because, well, what has Lavenu done with his life? But if it was Bjarne Riis or Johan Bruyneel standing over Nicolas telling him this is the way you do it …
“I think also there’s certain things that Bruyneel or Riis would do that Lavenu won’t do and Nicolas doesn’t want to ask him for that. Spending three hours sitting in the bus before his off time, that’s wrong. I say to him you do your recce in the morning, you plug it into your brain how you’re going to go, what you’re going to do, what gear you’re going to ride, how you’re going to ride. Then you sit in the bus for three hours before you ride, and your six other team-mates come in one at a time, giving their opinion of the race. How can you not be receptive to what they’re saying? These guys are coming in, ‘Gee the start is crazy … the head wind … that first corner …’ And straight away you’re going to ask yourself questions, ‘Gee, that first corner, I thought it was fast. I’d better be careful.’
“You cannot just blank yourself out. The only way you can blank yourself out is to put yourself in a different area. Which is either in the back of the bus away from everybody or you get a hotel room next door to where the bus is and you stay there and come down at the last minute. You talk to nobody. That, I can promise you, would take seconds off Nicolas’s time.
“I strongly believe that Nicolas can do better time trials. You saw it there in the Tour of Switzerland prologue. He had the third best time at the halfway point and then lost thirty seconds in the last third. That’s enormous. It was a great time but it’s enormous to lose so much time. How can he lose that much time? Is it lack of power? What’s he lacking? I think it’s the preparation.”
The clock at this stage in the interview has well and truly run down. Nearly an hour after our twenty-minute interview began Roche needs to be off to his next appointment. Time for one final question. Something that would, I hoped, just about sum up Roche’s attitude throughout Born to Ride. So I ask him: if you could go back to 1987 and change one day … would you look back in Liège?
“That question doesn’t even have to be asked, you know what the answer is!”
And there’s the surprise. The answer I wasn’t expecting. Throughout Born to Ride Roche comes across as a guy who believes that all the good stuff and all the bad stuff have added up to where he is today. He’s happy with what he is and where he is today, so there’s no room to regret the past. There’s no point in trying to change the past. The knee, the problems with Sean Kelly and Paul Kimmage, the marriage, all the rest, they all happened, no amount of regrets is going to make them un-happen. But that one day in Liège, well I guess Roche will always regret that:
“Jokingly, I would change it, yes. My stupid attitude in Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1987 lost me a major Classic, a race which I never won. I probably deserved to win it a couple of times, I was often in the shake up and never won. But that year I could have won.
“But, you know, maybe if I had won it I’d have fallen off across the finish and had a heart-attack. Jokingly, regrets, yes, I regret Liège. But really, you can’t have regrets. The obstacles are there to get over. But if I could go back and change something … I’d change the last five k’s of Liège.”
Born to Ride, by Stephen Roche (with Peter Cossins) is published by Yellow Jersey Press (2012, 272 pages).