‘If someone described the scenario to me now I’d be out of there,” Stephen Roche says as he takes off his shirt. Naked from the waist up, Roche begins to detail the ordeal he endured when winning cycling’s triple crown of the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the UCI Road World Championships in the space of a few brutal months in 1987. Roche is already an hour late for his own party and the launch of a revealing book that celebrates the 25th anniversary of that iconic achievement, but he is bruised on the inside.
Earlier in the day he buried his mentor, Claude Escalon, the old Frenchman who had given Roche, a young Dubliner, his chance to make a living in the hard and often crooked world of professional cycling.
Roche is grieving and in the mood for serious talk. There is no shyness in the 52-year-old as he strips off and changes out of his funeral clothes. But instead of joining everyone waiting expectantly for him at the launch, Roche talks for more than an hour about the summer that changed his life and the allegations that trailed him in later years.
Despite the magnitude of his feat, matched only by the great Eddy Merckx, who won the triple crown in 1974, shadows stretch across Roche’s story. The charge of doping and apparent proof of his use of erythropoietin (EPO), a synthetic blood booster, in the fading days of his career, haunts Roche. Yet, initially, he is consumed by the bitter rivalry that marked his victory in the first race of his extraordinary treble.
“Today I wouldn’t have been able to stand what happened to me in the Giro,” Roche says, referring to how he had been threatened and vilified by irate Italian fans of his teammate Roberto Visentini. Roche took the race leader’s pink jersey from Visentini when, disobeying team orders, he broke away in a dramatic example of his individuality. “For the rest of the Giro I had people spitting rice and wine in my face, and Visentini plotting revenge.
Not giving in
“Back in 1987 I said: ‘Do what you want. I ain’t going home.’ That’s a tough statement and maybe it comes from this hard streak in me. I wasn’t giving in.”
Only one member of Roche’s team supported him. Eddy Schepers, who had ridden with Merckx, was the Belgian domestique who remained loyal to Roche. “Eddy took a great risk for me,” Roche says of Schepers’s support while he and Visentini battled on a mountain stage. “Eddy could have gone, no problem. It caused a big stir at the time.
“I took hold of Visentini’s handlebars and made it clear that if he tried anything that dangerous he’d be going over the side with me. I always remember these helicopter shots they took of us. It must have looked ridiculous – two teammates fighting each other.
“But the most dangerous moment was when the fork of my bike broke and we were going down fast. I knew something was wrong. But if I’d shouted ‘Roberto, I think my bike’s broken’ he would have just attacked me. I’d seen a lot of bad crashes, but I couldn’t panic. I realise now how close I came to a terrible accident.”
His Tour de France victory is remembered most for his epic battle against Pedro Delgado on the gruelling stage to La Plagne.
“I suffered a lot,” Roche says. “I saw the opportunity on Madeleine and pushed myself to an extreme that I wouldn’t have done today. In 1987 I didn’t have any race radio to rely on. I was good on the tactical and psychological side and I just went for it. If I’d had the kind of info they get on the tour today, I might have eased off when I was just 30 seconds down on Delgado. But because I thought the gap was so much bigger I kept grinding on.
“I was in survival mode. I didn’t even register what I’d done. It was the journalists who knew. They were so shocked because they all thought Delgado had won the tour. It was only when someone shouted ‘Roche is coming … Roche is coming’ that they suddenly turned to see me. They had to rewrite their stories.”
After passing out soon after he crossed the line, Roche entered tour folklore. “About 45 minutes later when they took the oxygen mask off this French TV crew came to me and said: ‘Stephen, can you reassure the fans that everything’s OK with you?’ I said, in French: ‘Yes, everything’s OK – but I’m not ready for a woman tonight.’ It was just my sense of humour after the suffering.
“That’s why the tour means the most to me. People who are really into cycling talk about the world championship the most, because it completed the triple crown. But for me it’s the tour because it was beamed into millions of homes for three weeks.”
Roche pauses when reminded that his landmark is now shrouded by the fact that, in 2000, an Italian judicial investigation concluded that a sample of his blood contained EPO. It came from 1993 – his last year in the peloton while riding for Carrera.
“There’s nothing you can do,” he says. “People can say what they want. But EPO wasn’t around in 1987. We’re talking about the end of my career with these allegations. Why would I go down the road of EPO when there was no pressure on me any more? I had no ambition to win. I just wanted to ride my bike. It doesn’t make sense that I would start doping then.”
David Walsh, Roche’s first bio-grapher, published the findings that seemed to indicate clear guilt. “David found all these code names, which he said pointed to my name. But that’s not proof I took EPO. David damaged me a lot. He damaged me for life.”
Roche’s rather uncertain defence is that the blood samples were also used for university research.
“Yes,” he says, nodding. “When the case came out I rang Giovanni Grazzi our doctor at Carrera – and asked: ‘What’s going on?’
“He explained that we’d had monthly blood tests where they would test us for simple things – like the level of iron in our system – and once that had been done the samples were used for research. The blood was contaminated and that’s why the graphics were so inconsistent.
“How can I defend myself? I can’t give any proof. It’s the same with the fact that there was other stuff around in 1987. How can I prove now that I was clean? They didn’t store urine and blood samples from those days. The most important thing is that I’m at ease with my conscience.”
Wounded by Walsh and his former teammate and friend Paul Kimmage, the Irish writer who has campaigned for years against doping, Roche insists on his innocence.
Head in the sand
“When Paul wrote his book [Rough Ride – An Insider’s Account of Life on a Drug-riddled Tour] I came out of it well. Paul was my roommate and had known me for years. He didn’t say anything bad about me in the book. But what made me despise him then was that he was asked on TV: ‘What about Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche taking stuff?’ Paul said: ‘I can’t answer that.’
“I reacted fiercely, but what I regret now was my naivety then. I had my head in the sand about doping.”
Can he understand why so many people are now utterly cynical about the excuses peddled by cyclists found with drugs in their system – from contaminated blood to, in the more recent case of Alberto Contador, contaminated meat?
“Others have been found with positive proof. With me there are just uneven charts and guesswork with code names. Personally, I’d say that in my day 10% of the peloton were doing it and 90% were suspected of doing it. In the late 1990s it was at its worst. We had 90% doping and 10% suspected of it. Today I hope it’s gone back to the first – if not better.”
Roche is outspoken when considering the prospects of Bradley Wiggins in this year’s tour. “He can definitely win it, but it will have to be this year. Contador is back next year and he’s a strong time triallist and has more zip than Wiggins in the mountains. [Andy] Schleck has zip too, but he loses 10 minutes in the time trials. If Wiggins wins, I don’t think it will be a bad thing. But it’ll also maybe not be such a good thing for the sport because he has a bit of a showbiz attitude.
“Look at last year’s Tour de France presentation. A journalist was building him up and Bradley said: ‘You’ve said it all – I’ve got nothing left to say.’ Pop stars do that, not an educated cyclist.
“It’s okay giving off this image of being a rock star, but you’ve got to respect people. He speaks French, but he didn’t try speaking one word of French. He shut the journalist up and made him look stupid.”
I point out that, in my experience, Wiggins has always been an open and expansive interviewee, but that this year he has been especially driven in his training.
“You can be focused, but there’s always time to be decent to everyone. But hats off to Team Sky and Dave Brailsford. He said he wanted a British winner in five years. He could have two in the next three. I really like Chris Froome [who finished second, ahead of Wiggins in last year’s Tour of Spain and has been doing well in this year’s Tour de France]. That showed Froome’s potential. Wiggins is a sure bet. But Froome can prove it again this year. As long as he stays the really good, genuine guy he is now, I think it would be great for the tour if he could win it one day.”
Roche believes his 27-year-old son, Nicolas, has the ability to “become a top-five finisher in the Tour de France and top three in the Tour of Spain. I think he can do something special. But I’m hard on him. I tell him that nothing but a top-three placing matters. No one cares if you finish 16th on a Tour of Spain stage.”
That hardness underlined Roche’s triple crown 25 years ago and it has resulted in his divorce from Nicolas’s mother, Lydia.
Does he regret his selfishness? “No,” Roche says quietly. “There was selfishness and, yes, my wife made great sacrifices. I sometimes have a face-to-face with myself and ask what I would do differently if I had to do it all over again. And there’s nothing I would really change. The way I did it made me who I am.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012
Stephen Roche’s Born to Ride is published by Yellow Jersey Press