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Stephan Roche—The Irish LeMond

By Owen Mulholland

Dirty Feet: Early days of the Tour de France

Les Woodland's book Dirty Feet: How the great unwashed created the Tour de France is available as an audiobook here. For the print and Kindle eBook versions, just click on the Amazon link on the right.

Editors note: The late Owen Mulholland was the first American journalist accredited to the Tour de France. He covered the Tour as Americans made the transition from the objects of taunts by the superior European racers to world-beaters who have won eleven Tours de France (eight of which later resulted in disqualifications).

It was a remarkable, neck-snapping change and Owen's writing conveys the excitement all Americans felt when it was happening. Here's his story of the 1987 Tour de France. Here are the 1987 Tour results, stage by stage.

For the second consecutive year an English speaker has won the greatest race in the world, The Tour de France. Irishman Stephan Roche has a lot in common with his predecessor, American Greg LeMond. Both Greg and Stephan are 27, both had illustrious amateur careers followed by a long struggle up the professional ladder, both are open and warm, almost to a fault, and both have families with two children.

Of course, they’re hardly twins either. Most notably, Stephan married Lydia, a French lady, and slipped easily into the Gallic lifestyle. Greg is clearly a visitor abroad. Racewise, Greg is so strong he can let the speed and hills level his adversaries, while Roche utilizes every advantage available.

For the 1987 Tour Roche knew he could win only if he used his brains as much as his legs. He was tired from a season already too long. He’d had wins every month since February. Except for Eddy Schepers, the loyalty of his mostly Italian team was in doubt. The extra heavy dose of mountains on the Tour itinerary also worried him. If he was at all vulnerable that would be the place.
The race got off to a novel start. The site, West Berlin, emphasized once again the international character of the Tour. It was three days later on West German territory that the great Tour handicap was established. Unlike most of the last 20 years, the 1987 edition started with no obvious favorite, no Hinault who could intimidate 200 riders with a scowl and a flex of his quadriceps. It was impossible for any one team to police the huge field of 207 entrants. That’s what allowed an innocent looking group to coalesce and gain nearly ten minutes before having that advantage halved. Roche himself had had to do much of the chasing, even though his own teammate, Erich Maechler was headed for the yellow jersey.

The problem was that Charly Mottet was also in the break and was on Stephan’s short list of danger men. While Stephan strung himself out, Laurent Fignon sat on his wheel laughing. Mottet and Fignon are Système U teammates. You could hardly blame them for gloating a bit at the success of their squeeze play.

Roche was even more unhappy about Maechler being in yellow. “Maechler and the rest of the team will be wrecked after defending the jersey for a few days. then when I really need them they’ll be wiped.” The sweet Dublin boy with the sparkling blue eyes  had terse words for his so-called teammates. “Eddy Schepers is the only one I can count on. Bontempi only thinks of the sprints. Peterson you never see. Perini and Ghirotto, they’re okay, except when it starts getting hard. They’re not courageous enough to fight. Cassani always has a fever or a sore throat. Zimmerman rides his own race. It’s really a pretty small team! I’m caught between two bridges. I can’t lose too much time, but I don’t dare take the jersey too early. If I had a better team then it wouldn’t bother me to take the jersey today, tomorrow, or yesterday!”

While Roche worried about how to pull back Mottet’s four-minute lead, other opportunists were only too glad to take advantage of the Irishman’s bind - none more than 7-Eleven, the still very young, mostly all-American team now riding only its second Tour. Their ace trouble maker was Raul Alcala, the Mexican from Monterrey tipped by Bernard Hinault as a possible Tour winner. Roche was even more worried about Alcala’s teammate Andy Hampsten, so Raul was free to infiltrate breaks. On the sixth stage, the first in France, Raul got away at  kilometer 20 (of 1690 and had himself a mountain climbing festival, at the end of which he not only got second on the the stage, but took over the chicken pox jersey (white with red spots) designating the best climber.

Stephan Roche

Stephan Roche crosses the finish line in stage 8

The first serious call in this high stakes game of bicycle poker went out on stage ten where the race turned south from Brittany towards the Pyrenees. With so many mountains on the Tour menu, the course designers had felt obliged to give the rouleurs a chance to get an ace in advance. This chance was an 87.5 kilometer time trial, the longest in 30 years.

Roche and company hardly needed telling of the possibilities. They grabbed it with both legs. Roche won with a modest 40 seconds over Mottet, but after that the gaps yawned: 5’ 9” on Alcala, 6’ 43” on Hampsten, and 9’ 1” on Luis Herrera, the Colombian climbing machine. That put Herrera almost 16 minutes behind on the overall classification. Coppi came back from an even greater deficit in 1952. But was Herrera a Coppi?

More than anyone, Roche and the solid European feared the phantomweight Herrera. When he’s “on” no none in the world can keep close, except for Andy Hampsten. Roche knew he needed time in his bank for the withdrawals Herrera would surely make come the Pyrenees just two days later.

In the meantime, 7-Eleven struck again. Bordeaux is the traditional end to the trek across flat France. As such it is coveted by the sprinters. It is their last day to show their stuff. After Bordeaux, the road goes up! Among the select group of riders with the ability to accelerate away from a high speed group just hundreds of meters from the finish line was Davis Phinney. Americans back home knew all about the irresistible dynamite in his legs, but Europe was supposedly a different matter where established sprinters were on a different plain from anything inexperienced Americans could produce. On the even of the Bordeaux stage, Mike Neel, the so-wily directeur sportif (he'd been one of the very early American pioneers, having ridden as a pro in Europe a decade earlier, even cracking the top ten in the World Road Championship) sat down with Davis for a heart-to-heart chat. Mike explained this was the team's last chance win a stage for a while. Alcala might ride honorably in the mountains, and who knew what Hampsten would do since he'd not shown great form so far, but Mike was sure this famous flat stage into Bordeaux, renowned for generations as the "sprinters' stage", their last chance before setting off into the daunting Pyrenees in the days to come, was made for Davis.

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After looking at the stage profile (flat) and hearing from Mike about its reputation, Davis felt an assurety not corroborated by results so far. He simply told Mike, "You can count on it." The last kilometers in Bordeaux went several times around a circuit, reminding Davis of criteriums back home. Even without a leadout man, Davis had no trouble positioning himself near the front. Coming out of the last turn with a few hundred meters to go, Davis turned on the afterburners. He didn't feel he so much accelerated as the others went backwards past him, and mind you we're talking about the finest sprinters in the world! In terms of Roche and the race for the ultimate winner in Paris, this stage win was a minor matter, but in terms of 7-Eleven being accepted as something more than a "cowboy" team, and Davis being accepted for the superb finisher he was; now there was no argument. 7-Eleven, which had had some accomplishments in the Tour of Italy, a slightly easier grand tour and the Tour de France, now had definitively proved itself.

Stephan Roche

Stephan Roche. Photo credit: Eric Houdas

After all the built up anticipation, the Pyrenees were something of a flop insofar as determining who would win in Paris. It wasn't so much the favorites won the race, but the winnowing effect of climbing those interminable towers for two days had had on supposed pretenders. The Irishman knew he was in great form and very lumpy nature of the course the rest of the way to Paris relieved him of having to rely on his fractured team, so all-in-all, things could have been a lot worse

In Stage fourteen, with its hilltop finish at Luz-Ardiden, Dag-Otto Lauritzen, the Norwegian who lives in France and rides for 7-Eleven, held out by a mere seven seconds to join the very elite group of riders who have won mountain stages of the Tour. Hampsten’s third place finish (behind Herrera) decisively demonstrated 7-Eleven’s big league status. They now occupied 8th, 10th and 11th on G.C. giving them the right to wear green hats as the most well-placed team.

All these names and numbers can be confusing, yet anyone who wishes to really appreciate the Tour de France must cope with, even enjoy, the complexity. The Pyrenees reduced the number of possible winners to six: Charly Mottet, J-F Bernard, Stephan Roche, Pedro Delgado, Luis Herrera and Andy Hampsten.

We had almost forgotten how exciting an open race cold be. Fourteen of the last 26 Tour have been predictable. the questions wasn’t if Anquetil, Merckx or Hinault would win, but how. Each candidate this year had slightly different strengths and weaknesses which the course profile and race pattern would reveal.

In days of old the ride across central France from Pyrenees to Alps (or vice-versa) was generally an orderly affair conducted according to the wishes of the Master. This year there was no master, and although the peloton was full of tired legs there were those who didn’t dare pass up any opportunity.

Chief conniver was Cyrille Guimard, the Système U director. From 1976 to 1984 he’s had seven Tour winners in his teams. Hinault had left Guimard’s team and humiliated him in the last two years. Guimard was desperate to restore his own and French prestige. There would be no truce in central France.

If Mottet was vulnerable on the climbs, then his lead must be enhanced on the flat. Roche described what happened on the way to Blagnac (near Toulouse). “We were in line, but not going that fast. Then Van der Poel (teammate of Delgado) pulled out of the line a few men in front of me. The Colombian and Look riders on his wheel pulled out too and the front group stated going away. I didn’t panic. Normally a gap like that will close. but it didn’t, so I went after them myself. But I couldn’t get across. My team was too far behind - they’re always too fucking far behind!” And so it was that Stephan dropped over a minute on monsieurs Mottet, Herrera, Alcala, Hampsten and Delgado. Sweet and neat, no?

The very next day to Millau ended in a nasty seven kilometer climb where Roche took back what he’d lost to Mottet the day before. Even more remarkable was the ride by Alcala. Once again he was econd, denied a stage win because of an earlier solo break, but he’d more than held his own with all the heavies on the climb. He and Hampsten were now sixth and seventh overall with Lauritzen still in eleventh. more that most teams, 7-eleven seemed set for the Alps which gradually came into view on the following flat stage to Avignon.

There would be no easing into the mountains. The first stage was to be a solo time trial up the dreaded “Geant de Provence”. Mt. Ventoux, 36.5 kilometers of ever-steepening slope. It was on the treeless rock-strewn upper stretches that Tom Simpson died in 1967 and Merckx had to be given oxygen in 1970. Since 1972 the Tour had avoided the Ventoux, fearful of more catastrophic consequences.

This year the temperature was mercifully  mild and no one completely exploded. In fact, the only explosion was by Jean-François Bernard. He must have had an overnight inoculation of Hinault juice. Relegating the likes of Herrera to 1’39” down, and Roche to 2’19” was sensational stuff. It was enough to put “Jeff” (as he was called) into the yellow jersey by a very handy 2’34” on Roche. Mottet dropped to third, 13” behind Stephan.

It was in the house of 7-Eleven that the seismic shocks were most clearly felt. Mike Neel, one of the team directors, was at a lost for an explanation. “Maybe they relaxed too much on the rest day (the day before). Maybe it was something they ate.” Nothing could really account for the lowly places that day of Hampsten in 25th and Alcala in 71st. Lauritzen, suffering from am the re-inflammation of an old leg injury scraped in at 152nd, eighth from lat. Only Alcala was able to ever recover.

Roche had just one thought, “Attack!” “I don’t dare let Jeff get comfortable and confident in yellow,” Roche avowed. “A couple of days like that with all of France behind him and he’ll be untouchable.”

Nor was Stephan the only one thinking along these lines. Guimard and Mottet planned a heist of their own. Mottet had a quiet word with Roche the following morning. No one had to explain “situation ethics” to the Irishman. He was all ears. “Listen,” Charly said, “today we climb into my home region, the Vercors. The feed station is in a tiny town, Leoncel. the road comes down off one hill, squeezes across a narrow bridge in the village, and starts climbing immediately. We all (i.e. Système U) are taking extra food from the start so we can skip the feed and attack out of the town. If Jeff is just a tiny little way back he’ll be held up by the riders slowing for the food musettes. Who know, but it’s worth a try.” Roche smiled, filled his pockets with more food, and went looking for Eddy Schepers.

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The plan was a good one, so good the bike gods decided to help. 200 meters from the summit of the Tourniol (the col before Leoncel), Jeff flatted. He got a wheel from a teammate and was back in the bunch in seconds. But on these winding, narrow roads the bunch was over a quarter-mile long. They all came together like a squeezed accordion at the feed zone, so together that many, including Bernard, had to put a foot on the ground. It was a full minute before the mob cleared and word of the big attack filtered back.

Jeff looked around. He was alone, that is, not a teammate in sight. For various reasons many of the Look boys (Bernd’s team) were in sick bay at the very back of the peloton. All three of the good Look riders were in the break, so Paul Koechli, the director sportif, had to blast up to the escape train to ask Steve Bauer, Dominique Garde and Heinz Imboden to drop back. Bauer was a little bitter. After two weeks of illness he was starting to feel like his real self and even entertained ideas of a stage win.

The remaining 13 up front sped on while behind Bauer did the majority of the chasing. For 50 kilometers the gap hung at just over a minute. Steve did an epic ride to keep it so close. On the final climb the string snapped. Roche and Delgado leaped ahead, sans Mottet, while behind Jeff had to do almost all of the chasing, even if 25 men were on his wheel. Such are the merciless ways ofthis sport.

Not recovered from the Ventoux, fatigued by the long pursuit, and demoralized by his untimely puncture and limited team support, Jean-François Bernard lost his precious jersey in the last 25 kilometers. 4’13” down on Roche at the finish line, he sank to fourth on G.C., 1’39” behind yet another new maillot jaune, Stephan Roche.

Still, three days of mountains remained. Hampsten’s slide on the Ventoux left five favorites, all under a blanket of just over five minutes. Who could maintain this tempo? This was superhuman.

All were together at the bottom of the last climb of the following stage, the 21 hairpins of L’Alpe d’Huez. Sixteen kilometers at an average gradient of 8.4%! Herrera attacked the moment he felt the drag of gravity and Delgado went right with him.

Roche made no attempt to follow. At that pace he knew he’d blow up. Lucho and Perico forged ahead, each dropping the other occasionally. The madly cheering crowds left only a narrow gap for them, yet so intense was the fight that neither remembered hearing a thing. In the end, Herrera won the battle, but Delgado won the war.

Perico was in yellow and Spain cried with joy and relief. You had to go back a generation to find another Spaniard in the maillot jaune. Still, Delgado had no illusions. His 25” on Roche was far from safe.

Other notes on L’Alpe d’Huez: Alcala slipped back up to seventh on G.C. and Fignon showed a bit of his 1984 form by taking sixth place on the stage. He powered up this brutal climb in 42 x 19. Try that after five hours of intense effort. Of course the other problem is that there is n o hill as steep and long as L’Alpe d’Huez in the U.S.!

Three Alpine stages and three different leaders. Surely someone had to crack at this pace. The riders certainly deserved a break on the next stage over three climbs, but they never took it. Right from the start the Colombians were jamming and even before the first official climb began, the Galibier, the field was torn into three sections.

Two of the experienced hands in the rear group took charge. Ludo Peeters and Gerrie Knetemann issued orders. “Let those crazies up front race if they want to. Our job is to survive. We’ll climb gently and go fast on the flats. No one attacks and no one gets dropped. Divided we’ll never make the time limit cutoff. Together we will.” And that’s how 87 riders made it safely to the finish by just four minutes!

Once over the Galibier, Roche made a surprise attack on the flat leading to the col de la Madeleine. It was no accident that two of his companions from the Fagor team. Roche will be going to Fagor next year and will have a big say in who stays and who goes. Obviously, Jean-René Bernaudeau and Pedro Muñoz want to stay.

Bernard chased alone to within ten seconds, but couldn’t close that last 200-yard bit. By the time he eased up he was pretty fried. the Delgado-led chase group slowly pulled the Roche group back, scooping up Bernard along the way.
Could Roche hold out until the end? He’d gone for the knockout punch, a la Hinault, but Stephan is still not on that level. no one intimidated. Delgado and the Système Us sucked him up with just 30 kilometers to go. 18.5 of those kilometers were all uphill to the finish at La Plagne.

Ireland, Spain, Colombia, and of course France, watched this match live on TV. Delgado had to be the favorite. He hadn’t put out like the others. When Pedro attacked after five kilometers of the climb Roche made no effort to follow. The Spaniard just flew away.

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Was this the end? Was Roche so cooked he couldn’t respond. Stephan remembered later, “I knew I could never hold Delgado when he went. I told myself, ‘Be calm. Stay steady. Wait for the five kilometer sign. Then give it everything.’”

The gap grew steadily even though Roche was hardly poking along. Indeed, the mighty Herrera couldn’t hold him. Nor could Bernard or Mottet. Yet the Spaiard’s lead yawned to 2’ 20”. Keep that and he had the race.

The reports showed Stephan was coming back:2’, 1’45”, 1’10” and at five kilometers, 55”. After that things go confused. Fignon won the stage, three years after his previous victory to La Plagne. He’d attacked well before the climb began and been let go. He was too far down on G.C. to be a threat. However, his was a sentimental win and naturally got TV time. That left the second motorcycle mounted camera focused on Delgado.

Pedro was visibly coming apart, his body bobbing more and more. We knew Roche was closing, but there wasn’t a hint as to how much. Finally, at one kilometer, we got a check on the gap - 33”!Up around the last corner Pedro came, weaving across the road, his body bouncing to every labored pedal stroke. Painful to see, painful to be. Suddenly, a roar from around the corner. Roche is in the big chainring, out of the saddle and sprinting. He just missed catching Pedro by 4”. His chance at the yellow jersey is saved.

Roche crosses the line and falls from his bike. Patricke Valcke, his soigneur, gently lays him on the ground and covers his inert form with his own jacket. Patrick yells for the medics who quickly put Roche on a stretcher, slap and oxygen mask on him, and whisk him off in an ambulance.

At home in Dublin, Stephan’s mother stares at the TV in disbelief. A rising tide of impotent hysteria grips her. She believes her son is dying. The next scene in the ambulance would have reassured her.
Doctor: “I see color coming back into your face. Your heartbeat is dropping. You’re going to be okay.”
Roche (removing the oxygen mask): “But no women right away, okay?” Stephan talks the ambulance driver into going straight to the hotel. Soon he is lounging in the tub when his friend and best teammate, Eddy Schepers, walks in. Eddy was behind today, way behind.

Eddy looks down on Stephan and for the first time heard of his leader’s finish line drama. Eddy almost cried. “What I saw before me was an innocent boy who needed my protection. I thought how poor I was to be so far behind today when he needed me. I told myself, ‘If he can suffer like this, so can I.’ I swore to him, then and there, ‘Stephan, tomorrow on the Joux-Plane, I will be with you.’”
And with him he was. The Joux-Plane, the last of six(!) climbs on this last day in the Alps, was the obvious showdown spot. From bottom to top Eddy kept the pressure on, Stephan glued to his wheel and Delgado unable to go faster. Eddy had fulfilled his promise.

Over the top Jeff led Eddy, Pedro and Stephan. Just before the first bend of the descent Roche came around the other three to be first into the turn. Bernard was shocked and didn’t catch Roche’s wheel. The succeeding turns came in rapid succession. Bernard and Schepers made a nice rolling roadblock for Delgado. By the time Pedro got past the he was 50 yards back. Forgetting his fear of this descent (where he broke a collarbone in 1983), he chased as hard as possible. But it still wasn’t enough. The gap was eight seconds at the bottom.

4.5 kilometers to go now, flat and uphill. The gap was eight seconds at the bottom, and by the time he reaches the finish line in Morzine, he has carved out 22 seconds from Delgado’s already slim lead. Pedro is in yellow, but with the Dijon time trial coming up in two days the logical winner will be Roche.
Stephan doesn’t disappoint. He leads the valiant Spaniard by an ever increasing gap which culminates in a stage win good enough to go into the overall lead by 40 seconds.

7-Eleven got a pleasant jolt from Raul’s time trial. Third at the intermediate time checks, he just slipped to fifth at the finish. A Tour rider must get stronger with abuse and Raul obviously has what it takes.

Nor was the 7-Eleven party over. Jeff Pierce slipped into a break with just two laps of the Champs Élysée to go. A number of Dutch riders in it were getting crafty, and slow, so while they looked at each other Jeff took off. The others weren’t too worried. But while they fooled around, Jeff put his head down. Between Jeff’s very hot pace and the “after-you” behavior behind, Pierce started to look like he’s make it.

Then Canada’s Steve Bauer broke from the chasing ranks and started to reduce the gap in a hurry. Across the open expanse of the Place de la Concorde Pierce looked over his shoulder. Fear filled his heart as his head urged his les to , “Go! Go! Go!” The is just 400 yards from the last corner. An eternity. Bauer was getting close, sooooo close, and then whoosh, Jeff was there, his hands in the air, and poor Steve was left with another memory similar to the Olympic final.
Tour founder Henri Desgrange had a favorite saying, “Head and legs”. It was his shorthand for what a Tour rider must have. Jeff Pierce may not have been the strongest guy on the Champs Élysée, and Stephan Roche may n ot have been the strongest rider in the race, but each man exemplified a winning application of the Desgrange formula. It was a race for complete riders, and we race observers will probably have a long wait before we see a more perfect example of the founder’s wisdom in action.