Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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MAJOR WINS

Tour de France (1987) , 3 Stages

Giro d'Italia (1987), 2 Stages

World Cycling Championships (Gold, 1987; Bronze, 1983)

Super Prestige Pernod International (1987)

Tour de Romandie (1983, 1984, 1987)

Critérium International (1985)

Paris-Nice (1981)

STEPHEN ROCHE

CYCLIST

It was way past midnight and Stephen Roche was still lying on his back, covered in grease and milk, trying to find the damned leak. Such, he philosophised, is the lot of a maintenance fitter. It was a general breakdown at the Merville Dairy in Finglas, Co. Dublin, where he worked. It took until 3am for someone to work it out. As the dairy creaked to life again and the employees began to file out, Stephen’s boss, Ramor Craigie approached. ‘Ahm, will we see you at 9am, Stephen?’ he asked, a little hesitantly. ‘Of course’, replied Stephen, ‘but I have to cycle my fifty miles between now and then’. And such was the young man’s dedication that he did. Some months later, Stephen asked the Craigies if he could have six months leave in order to go to France to prepare for the Moscow Olympics. They gave him the six months and £500 to get started.

Born in 1959, Ireland’s most successful cyclist to date was the son of Laurence Roche, an electrician’s son who worked variously as a London bus driver, a Chadwick’s lorry driver and a Hughes’ Dairy milkman.[i] Stephen’s mother Christina Sampson grew up on the banks of the Grand Canal in Portabello, close to the Bretzel Bakery.[ii]

Stephen recalls how his grandfather Hugh Sampson, a general dealer, made small figurines which he sold outside Croke Park, Lansdowne Road and Glenmalure Park before the big matches. ‘I used to go along every now and then and sell them with him, but we never really got to see the matches.’

Both his parents and all four of his grandparents rode bicycles. In fact, Laurence conducted his courtship of Christina on a bicycle. ‘They used to go dancing and hostelling and exploring the countryside together on bikes’, says Stephen. They married in 1957 and six children followed. Stephen was their second child.

His first ride was ‘an old blue bike which I got when I was four years old.’ Shortly after this, the Roches moved Ranelagh to Dundrum. Educated in Dundrum and Milltown, Stephen spent many a Sunday of his teenage years helping his father deliver milk so that he might raise some money for bike parts. In 1976, he became an apprentice machinist, first with Hughes Dairy and later with the Craigie brothers in Finglas.

In 1973, he joined the Orwell Wheelers Cycling Club in Dundrum. Coached by Noel O'Neill, he soon emerged as one of Ireland’s leading amateurs, winning the Rás Tailteann in 1979 on a Raleigh 753 he purchased from Joe Daly Cycles. He was chosen to represent Ireland at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Stephen took his selection very seriously and decided his best form of training would be to master the French countryside. When he bade his family and work colleagues adieu, few realised the 21-year-old was effectively leaving Ireland for good. ‘People said I'd get as far as the Eiffel Tower, go once round it, and come home again’, he laughs.

‘I left for France in 1980 so I’ve now been living there for 30 years’, he says, a hint of Gallic in his accent. In his first year, he joined the ACBB Boulogne-Billancourt amateur team in Paris. However, his preparations for the Olympics went skew-whiff when he picked up a knee injury shortly after winning the amateur Paris-Roubaix.

Stephen may have been dismayed that he only managed 45th place in the ensuing Olympics, but he rallied famously and used his inimitable pedalling style to win 19 races in a row upon his return to France. Peugeot were impressed and, in 1981, he turned professional and joined their cycling team. He soon had ten professional victories under his belt, including the Tour of Corsica and the Paris–Nice "Race to the Sun".[iii] By the close of 1983, he’d added the Tour de Romandie and the Grand Prix de Wallonie to his collection, as well as a bronze medal for Ireland at the world cycling championship at Alterheim in Zurich.

But of course the biggest scalp in international cycling is the Tour de France. Stephen came 13th on his first attempt in 1983. Two years later, he created considerable murmurs of excitement in Ireland as he mounted the podium having come third. It was all to play for in 1986 but then Stephen crashed his bicycle at high speed during a six-day event at Paris-Bercy and bashed his right knee. He had a go at the Tour de France anyway but likened in to ‘entering a dark tunnel of pain’ as he squeaked home in 48th place, over an hour and a half behind the winner.

But 1987 was to be Stephen Roche’s finest year as he secured an extraordinary litany of victories to become the world’s undisputed No. 1 cyclist. [check order of events]. It began when he became the first person from outside mainland Europe to win the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia.[iv]

Then he fulfilled his childhood dream and won the Tour de France. ‘I felt I'd already had a great season so I didn’t mind if I didn’t win and that made me more relaxed going into it’. It was no straight run. At one point in the race, his exertions caused him to collapse and he passed out cold. Given oxygen and revived, he was asked if he was okay. He rather brilliantly replied: ‘Oui, mais pas de femme toute de suite’ (‘Yes, but I am not ready for a woman yet’).

When he won the contest, the Irish Taoiseach Charlie Haughey seized the opportunity to join him on the podium of the Champs-Élysées. Upon his return to Dublin, the city centre came to a standstill as more than 250,000 people paraded through the streets bedecked with Irish flags chanting his name.

And then, six weeks later, he pedalled home to win the World Championships in Austria. He remains one of only two cyclists to have achieved this Triple Crown, the other being the Belgian great Eddy Merckx in 1974.

For the twelve months after his victory in the Tour de France, Stephen was regularly to be seen, sporting the various pink, yellow and rainbow jerseys. He became the first sportsman to win Dublin’s Freedom of the City.

However, plagued by ongoing back problems, he began to drift out of the Grand Tour cycling scene. His knee was still aching from his 1986 crash, an injury that was exacerbated when he banged it into his handlebars during the 1989 Tour de France. His back pains also led to a gradual loss of power in his left leg.

In the 1993 Tour de France, Stephen Roche came home 13th. After thirteen years, with 58 professional wins to his name, he decided to call it a day.

Five years later, he moved from his home in the village of Sagy, near Paris, to the south of France where he lives today and runs the Roche Marina Hotel in Antibes. ‘I was always into buildings’, he says. ‘So I built a hotel. We started from scratch, renovated the whole place.’ Stephen runs the show and works day and night to keep things flowing. You sense that he operates at top speed all day long. You can almost hear the wheels spinning inside him. His voice even quickens just talking about it. ‘I love a challenge’, he agrees. ‘When I competed, I loved the challenge. I work better when I have something to go to. I’m probably obsessed by it but I don’t have any problem sleeping. I can go on four hours sleep. But once I sit down and stop, I close my eyes and I’m gone.’

‘I do still try to find time to cycle whenever I can and I run a bit, an hour here, an hour there, to keep me in training. I ran the New York marathon in 2008’. He’s also had a crack at riding pretty much every type of bike that is going. He was fine on a penny fathering and he’s stayed afloat on circus bikes, which have crossbars and wheels and springs and saddles shooting out in all the wrong directions. ‘The only one I didn’t got any mileage out of was a one wheeler, a unicycle, but I once met Patrick Dempsey, the actor, and he got up and rode one no problem. It’s all a question of balance’.

In 2009, Stephen’s son Nicolas won the Irish National Road Race Championships and competed in his first Tour de France. Nicholas’s cousin Daniel Martin is also one of Ireland’s leading cyclists and was Ireland’s 2008 road champion.

FOOTNOTES

[i] Stephen’s grandfather Edward Roche was an electrician at the ESB base on St John’s Road.

[ii] The Sampsons lived at 7 Lennox Street. No. 6 Lennox Street was the home of John McCann, a playwright and Lord Mayor of Dublin.

[iii] The Paris–Nice "Race to the Sun" was the race which Seán Kelly made his own from 1982-88.

[iv] The event was not without controversy as Stephen contravened team orders to defeat his teammate, the Italian veteran Roberto Visentini, an event which did not ender him to Italy’s cycling fans, the tifosi.


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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.