It was a pleasure and a privilege to catch a few words with Stephen Roche at the London Bike Show this year. The ever-affable former World Champion, Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winner was there to promote his cycling tour company as well as being interviewed at the Riders lounge. Despite being so busy he always seems to find the time to chat to all and sundry in his relaxed and easy-going style.
This is an important year for Stephen as he is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his famous triple crown in 1987 of the Giro, Tour and World’s victories. Only he and Eddy Merckx have achieved that feat. He will be marking it by replicating one of the stages he won on that year’s Tour over two days from Bourg d’Oisans to La Plagne which takes in the iconic Alpe d’Huez. He famously collapsed at the end of that stage but hopes that the gentler pace will suit him better this time round. However, he hopes that his old rival, Pedro Delgado, will be joining him.
Stephen reminisced about his early days as a cyclist, telling the audience here how he arrived in France regretting that he’d never paid attention to his French teacher. Armed with one word, “Bonjour”, he spent his first night sleeping rough as he had no idea where to go.
Driven by the low expectations of his compatriots back home, he was determined to prove himself. Despite being described as “a soft city boy from Dublin” and comments from some that the only Tour he was ever going to finish was one of the Eiffel Tower, Stephen soon caught the attention of the professional cycling world although he was once mistaken as Robert Millar’s driver.
By the age of 21 he was the youngest ever rider to win Paris Nice, somewhat of a favourite for Irishmen, it seems, given Sean Kelly’s domination of the event. While 1981 was a great year, the following one was a disaster, but he came back in ’83 to finish 12th in the Tour. Of course, his peak was his famous triple crown in 1987.
He explained how that was a dream year when everything went right, including the weather. Stephen preferred the wet and cold to the heat and he was saved on numerous occasions, not least on the day of the World Championships when the temperature plummeted and the heavens opened. “The Gods were looking down on me.”
He says that he decided to give up on his racing career when he became cautious on the descents and began to worry about his physical safety. It’s no coincidence that he had a young family by this point and he wanted to devote time to his children.
His daughter Christel now helps to run the cycling tour business which, along with charity work and public appearances keeps him incredibly busy. “I’m working on finding a way of getting eight day weeks and 36 hour days” to fit it all in, he says. And he tries to get out on the bike as much as he can: “I get very narky if I don’t ride my bike. It’s my down time, no phone calls or emails. It’s a good way of finding solutions to problems – your brain relaxes. It’s an important part of daily life.”
He tries to be at his cycling tour base in Mallorca as much as he can and goes out for rides with 80% of his clients. They cater for just about all abilities with four separate groups, each one shepherded by road captains at the front and back. No one gets dropped and they all wait for one another at the top of the climbs. “We try to make it a good, friendly experience. It’s very international and everyone interacts…Cyclists just talk, Italians with their hands, the Irish at the bar, all understand each other.”
Stephen left us with a bit of nutritional advice: “I always had a couple of slices of my Mum’s Christmas cake in the back pocket! It’s my equivalent to a gel bar.” He also claims to have inherited that rock steady posture on the bike from her. And there was a little bit of counsel offered to the modern generation of pro riders too. “Sagan – he’s great for cycling. He makes it look fun. It’s important for cyclists to conduct themselves well so kids can look up to their icons.”
Ride Velo hope to catch up with Stephen in a few weeks time in Mallorca where we’ll be exploring some of the beautiful rides available there. We’ll be reporting back on that soon so watch this space.