Ruthless: Stephen Roche on his path from Rás winner to World Champion
Sixteen French policemen jumped him. He was handcuffed and taken to the local police station. Stephen Roche, Tour de France champion, was under arrest. The kicker was that it played out similarly to his apprehension, almost 20 years earlier, for a prank on French TV show, Surprise sur Prise. But there were no hidden cameras this time.
Roche didn’t know that his prospective partners were criminals, illegally leeching thousands of Euros from a network of Nice shops. Their cover-up was so comprehensive that it took six months for the police to pin them down. The cops wondered whether Roche was in on the whole thing; in fact, he was the one getting fleeced.
As he settled down for the night in his cell, the officers told him he couldn’t have a pillow or a blanket. “The amazing thing is, I rolled up my jacket and shoes as a pillow,” Roche recalls. “I get down, I do sit-ups, press-ups, stretching. I slept and the next morning, I did the same and waited for them to collect me. What I was doing in my prison cell seems a bit clichéd, but I was adamant I wasn’t going to break.”
The police interrogated Roche for ten hours before releasing him the next day. “That was really hard. I was saying ‘I’m not gonna break down, I know I’ve done nothing wrong. If I start getting down, they’ll get me.’ And they weren’t gonna get me. The only way of surviving was to keep strong. It affected me emotionally for a while, because you realise how close you got.”
This is typical Roche: he has got into several fraught scenarios in his time, but managed to find a way out, usually in the nick of time. This arrest was the police doing him a favour: if they had waited and let him officially sign over money to these rogues, he’d have been legally implicated and the consequences could have been far worse.
In his cycling career, Roche had perfected the art of what he practised in that Nice prison cell: staying strong on the surface while dying on the inside. Take his celebrated 1987 Tour de France win. While his come-from-behind charge on La Plagne lives long in the memory—an exception when his body dramatically betrayed the effort—the stage to Villard-de-Lans two days before, where he first took the yellow jersey, was arguably more important. Roche used his smooth pedalling and motionless body to disguise his distress. “I was suffering, but you couldn’t see it,” he says.
On the final climb of the Côte de Chalimont, he was in front with PDM leader Pedro Delgado, the two strongest from a break of champions that unseated incumbent yellow jersey Jean-François Bernard.
“Going up the climb, I was level with Delgado. Screwed,” Roche says. “Hanging on the bottom bracket because if I sit on his wheel, he might think he has me, then just go and leave me. I’m dying a thousand deaths. But I’m there, hanging,” as the photo on the left shows. “He wouldn’t attack me if he thought I was going okay. Once we got over the top, it was too late. That was the day Delgado reckons he lost the Tour. Because he could have got rid of Roche.”
Success in professional cycling comes down to disguising true intentions. Roche was a ruthless opportunist: the blue-eyed boy with the angelic smile and a fox’s wile. “It is a hard sport and to get where we have, we have all been two-faced, you know, knives in the back,” he said prophetically in an interview with Cycling Weekly before his controversial 1987 Giro win. “If you do not use other riders or a given situation to your advantage, they or it will use you.”
Thirty years on, at the Mallorca hotel where his cycling holiday business is based, the knives are away in the cutlery drawers and there is only one face on show: that of mister nice guy.
In a Q&A for his guests before dinner, he makes every client feel welcome, rattling off anecdotes in a Franco-Irish brogue moulded by 35 years of living away from his birthplace. Spending time with people comes naturally to him; often at races, he would be the last to leave, happily chatting to media and fans.
Roche reckons his charisma comes from his father, Larry. Growing up on a council estate in the Dublin suburbs, he would accompany his dad on his early morning milk round. Stephen went on to work as an apprentice maintenance fitter in a north Dublin dairy plant. Long hours, often getting covered in milk and grime from machines, would be followed by weekends spent racing in the UK, returning to work at the crack of dawn on Monday morning having had little sleep.
The adolescent Roche was gifted—and sure of himself. Before the Q&A, he plays a video of his career highlights. An early sequence shows Roche leading the 1979 Rás. The cameraman asks him: “Who are you worried about in this group?” Roche looks into the lens and shouts over the wind: “No one!”
Yet he only had a vague idea about becoming a pro; racing the 1980 Olympics in Moscow was a more concrete ambition. “Sean Kelly was a pro, but he came from Carrick-on-Suir. He’d have nails for breakfast. I’m a Dubliner from the city. How am I gonna compete with all these guys?”
To some, his suburban background and pedalling souplesse conferred a veneer of softness. Before he left for Paris and the renowned ACBB amateur club, his mentor Peter Crinnion told him: “‘Stephen, people think you’re going to France, and the only tour you’ll ever do is around the Eiffel Tower. So, prove them wrong and don’t come home until September. Do the season no matter what happens.’ Those words rang in my ear on a number of occasions when things got very tough for me and made me choose between staying or quitting.”
Within a year, he had impressed enough to join Peugeot. Roche recalls driving down to the first training camp on the French coast with team-mate Robert Millar. Unwilling to pay the tollbooth fare, the cash-strapped pair got off the motorway at the last emergency exit, Millar snipped the padlock with cutters and they drove on toll-free.
Roche was a revelation, winning the Tour of Corsica and Paris-Nice in his first months as a pro. Yet he still locked horns with the team’s disciplinarian director, Maurice De Muer. A raging barney unfolded over the dinner table before Flèche Wallonne, stemming from the master’s displeasure at his apprentice’s short break before Paris-Roubaix. De Muer laid into him for a lack of respect; Roche replied that he should dress him down in private, not in front of his team-mates. There was a stunned silence in the room.
The result? “We got along well after that. Because I stood up to him. I wasn’t wrong, I wasn’t right, but at the same time, he was playing me ’cos I was a kid, you know? Putting me down in front of everybody. I didn’t like that, I didn’t need it.”
Brushes with authority were regular in Roche’s career: he also clashed with Roland Berland at Peugeot, both Raphaël Géminiani at La Redoute and Davide Boifava at Carrera—though mutual respect endured—and Roger De Vlaeminck at Tonton Tapis. On the surface, he appears a difficult man to work with.
“I’m not always right, but I have an opinion, and I say what I feel. I’m not saying it always did me good—I‘m sure on more than one occasion, it did me more bad—but that’s the way it was,” he says.
Roche was never shy to fight his own corner on the bike either. When a young Greg LeMond was pushing to get into a lineout in the 1982 Tour de l’Avenir, Roche put his hand on the American’s handlebars and quipped: “I know people in the IRA.” LeMond backed off.
Because of his dream start, some observers came to expect top performances from the young Irishman in every race. “Even myself too,” he says. “I was only 21. It played with my head, though at the time you wouldn’t realise it… Here I am, saying to people, so what, Bernard Hinault’s got two arms and two legs like I have, so why couldn’t I beat him?
“I was a dreamer, yeah. But if you don’t dream about something, you have no chance. And why not dream big?”
Yet he never dreamed of winning the sport’s biggest prize. “For me, the Tour de France and the tour of my back garden was the same. It was an event I was participating in, I was putting a number on my back and I was gonna try and win it. Maybe in ’85, I realised that I could win the Tour,” he says, referring to his third place overall finish and stage win on the Aubisque.
Roche matched tactical astuteness with consistent climbing crafted during his early years. His most important lesson in the art came at the 1983 Tour de France in a break with Robert Millar.
“That day, it suddenly clicked with me. Millar would try to keep a tempo, he’d lose a bit of ground but keep his rhythm, then not panic and ride back. That was the way I rode after that. He was the kind of guy who could sprint and change rhythm. I couldn’t do that. I would arrive at the foot of a hill and try and stay with the first guys.”
He left Peugeot for La Redoute in an acrimonious split that winter following a contractual dispute with directeur sportif Roland Berland. “Berland was sleazy all right,” he recalls. “I kind of get on with him now it’s all over. But he had a potential Team Sky there: Anderson, Duclos-Lassalle, Bernaudeau, myself, Peiper, Yates: a fabulous team. And we all left. Because he wasn’t straight.”
Peugeot subsequently took Roche to court and the affair was still raging when he joined Italian team Carrera in 1986; the Irishman eventually won the case: “I wouldn’t give up because it’s my dignity, you know?” But that season, Roche was a shadow of his former self, battling with knee problems caused by a crash at the Paris Six Day. Even he couldn’t have dreamed of what happened next.
Roche’s remarkable Triple Crown year of ’87 proved to be his pinnacle. His results nosedived as knee problems flared up and he was passed around and prodded by various doctors like a pin cushion. It was the darkest time of his career. “It was bad in ’86, but I was nobody then. Whereas ’88, I’m world champion—and I can’t perform. If I have any regrets, that’s one of them… I couldn’t lose the weight, I couldn’t train.”
An adept mechanic with cars as well as bikes, Roche kept busy by restoring an MGB GT during his lay-off. Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt helped to nurse him back to racing fitness, with regular injections to help his crushed cartilage. But Roche was never quite the same again.
Reunited with Boifava at Carrera, his last hurrah was a solo stage win into La Bourboule at the 1992 Tour de France. He retired at the end of the following year, no longer happy to tackle dangerous descents and elbows-out bunch sprints.
Roche doesn’t like living in the past; for instance, he doesn’t even know where his world championship medal is located. “I never look back, you know.” Even now? “No. I achieved amazing things, you’ve got to say ‘it’s part of me.’ You can reflect sometimes on your own, you know—out on the bike for a ride, or looking into the sea, having a peaceful moment, and say ‘well, that was nice.’
“I wonder how what I did is perceived by the old generation, or even by the new generation? I think one big thing that I’d probably avoid discussing with myself is all these opinions that have been generated about the ’80s and ’90s— about the doping and cheating and everything else. I kind of black out all of that, because I know how I achieved my success. And it’s sad sometimes that people perceive what we all did in the ’80s. They associate everything with cheating. Sometimes it frustrates me when I see things on Twitter.
“I say, nothing has ever, ever been proven about me, as regards doping. Nothing.”
We move onto Doctor Francesco Conconi. At the University of Ferrara, 23 amateur athletes were supposed to be acting as subjects in his medical study to find a test for EPO; instead, it was coincidentally discovered by Italian police that the 23 had been Conconi and 22 professional cyclists…
Roche was linked to the documents—similar aliases were used in the file, including Roncati, Rocchi, Rossi, Rocca— alongside blood tests. In the subsequent trial against Conconi and his two subordinates, magistrate Franca Oliva felt the telltale fluctuations indicated EPO use.
After a drawn-out legal process, Oliva formally acquitted them in 2004, with the offences outside the statue of limitations, yet deemed the trio “morally guilty” of the pro-motion of doping in sport.
Roche claims he never had an official phone call or question about it. Now, he is in a grey area: innocence is the legal verdict, yet he cannot shake off guilt by association. “If you don’t fight it at the time, there’s no point in fighting it,” he says. “You’re only going to create more headlines and there’s no way you can prove anything 25 years on.”
He puts some blame at the door of sensationalist journalism but adds: “I always felt there’s no such thing as a bad journalist really—even Paul Kimmage,” making sudden piercing eye contact.
How are things with Kimmage, his long-time friend and team-mate? “I haven’t been in touch with him for years. ’Cos he avoids me. I personally apologised to him in 1998.” Roche launches into a monologue, the bottom line of which is: “Paul, stop telling parents ‘don’t put your kids in cycling.’ Please. Tell them it’s riddled with drugs if you want, but tell ‘em how fabulous our sport is. How can you tell people that after what your family have gotten from cycling?
“But he’s a great journalist. And I do regret shooting my mouth off about him in the early ’90s. But he perceives this whole doping thing.”
So the scene wasn’t like Kimmage portrayed in Rough Ride? “Well, I didn’t see it that way when I read the book. But I had my head in the sand as well. Paul was riding at the back of the group with riders that are grovelling in the dust, he sees more of what was going on than some of us in front. So I knew certain things were going on.”
When he left cycling at the end of 1993, Roche was one of the last Tour winners who didn’t make enough money to spend the rest of his life in financial comfort. He tore through professions: a rally driver, a Eurosport commentator, a marketing man for a cheese company, a Skoda driver on the Tour de France. The one constant has been his Mallorcan cycling business.
Even now, his days are crammed with activities. Spending time with him is like being with Hurricane Stephen: he tries to give time to everyone, talks rapidly and takes three phone calls during our two-hour chat. He approaches business as he did cycling: take no prisoners. But now, Roche wonders whether he can ease off the throttle. “Can I change? I keep saying I’ll change this, then something else comes up and I find myself in a situation where I’m putting out fires.”
The last dozen years have been peppered with difficulties. His brush with jail pales into comparison compared to his 2004 divorce with his first wife Lydia, his son Florian’s successful fight against leukaemia and his second wife Sophie’s recovery from cancer. As he said during dinner the previous night: “The good days are never far from the bad ones.”
It would be natural for Roche to be more self-pitying, but he is an optimist. “This is one of my downsides. Sometimes my biggest asset was changing negative situations into positive ones. It doesn’t always work out to your advantage. But I’ll always look on the bright side. Life is made up of obstacles, and obstacles make life more interesting.”
Read: Pedro Delgado – Spanish steps and the 1988 Tour de France
We catch up on the phone a couple of weeks later to check facts, and I have one more curiosity to satisfy. Often, Roche grafts at cycling shows around Europe to promote his hotel business. Unsurprisingly, many punters are completely unaware of his achievements. What does he say when they ask if he was any good at cycling?
“I go ‘I won a few races.’ If they don’t recognise me, it’s not a problem. I’m just the son of a milkman, you know?”
This is an edited extract of an article that was originally published in Rouleur 67
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