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Love Letter to the Tour de France: Stephen Roche Relives the Glory and the Heartbreak

By Matt Stephens and Frantiska Blazkova

It’s impossible to love road cycling and its history without stumbling upon the decorated name of Stephen Roche. Matt Stephens comes face to face with the Irish legend. Catching up with Stephen in his home in Antibes, France, they relived the intense emotional relationship the former pro still has with the Tour.

We can think of the Tour de France, due to its history, importance and overall mythical status, as the beating heart of road cycling. And that’s exactly what we are focusing on this year with our “What’s Your Tour de…?” initiative for fans and cycling enthusiasts. And if anyone has had the honour of listening to this particular heartbeat up close, it’s Stephen Roche. As Matt, whose life has been intertwined with cycling for decades, himself admitted, Stephen was one of the people who inspired him to pursue a career in bike riding.

Stephen Roche
It’s impossible to love road cycling and its history without stumbling upon the decorated name of Stephen Roche. © Profimedia

A former professional road-racing cyclist with no need for a lengthy introduction, Roche was active between 1977 and 1993 and left an indelible mark on the sport. He started cycling around the age of 13 and first became aware of the Tour when another great Irish rider, Sean Kelly, started making headlines.

Seeing him leading out Eddie Merckx, Stephen “became aware that there’s cycling outside Ireland” and that he could be a part of it too. His first actual interaction with the Tour, though, was in 1983, when literally standing on the starting line. Stephen still remembers the intensity and importance of the race as a newbie: “Before, I was riding over climbs, now I was riding over Cols with the best of them.”

From the 1983 Tour also came one humbling and teaching experience, as Stephen shared with Matt. When faced with a mountain stage featuring Alpe d’Huez, Col du Glandon and Col du Galibier, he found himself among the crème de la crème of road cycling. Despite running into a few bonking issues, he overheard on the motorbike radio that the famed Sean Kelly was 11 or 12 minutes behind him, which gave him a bit of pride – but that overconfidence ultimately turned into a lesson.

On Alpe d’Huez, Stephen completely lost his legs. When the much more experienced Kelly caught up to him (and ultimately beat him to the finish by 20 minutes), he even taunted the exhausted compatriot: “Come on, Rochie!” From that experience, he later learned to know himself and his abilities better, and to dig deeper and actually touch his “sub-zero” to bounce off it.

Stephen Roche and Jeannie Longo
Stephen Roche and Jeannie Longo at the 1987 Tour. © Profimedia

In his early career, Stephen enjoyed a number of impressive wins – but then came the fated year of 1987, which is already in road cycling’s history books. In that sole year, Stephen managed to score “The Triple Crown”, meaning winning the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the World Road Race Championships. Only two people in history have achieved that feat so far: Stephen Roche and the great Eddie Merckx.

His Tour win was especially full of drama, as he recalls, since he only narrowly took over his main rival Pedro Delgado on the penultimate stage in the French Alps – an almost superhuman effort that actually put him in a hospital overnight. However, he recovered enough to race the next day and keep the yellow jersey into Paris. What he remembers most from that day is how cool and focused he was despite the turmoil and adrenaline.

For more incredible facts from an even more incredible life and career, tune into this very special episode. You will find out who made Stephen realise how significant his 1987 Tour win was and made him understand the incredible context of his victory. You’ll also hear how and when he became aware of the Tour in Ireland in the late ‘70s, what the 1983 Tour welcome package for competing riders looked like, and more.