July 22nd, 1987. A day I will never forget. It was the 21st stage of the Tour de France, and I sat on our living room in suburban England watching an event unfold on the television that forever changed my life.
Changed my life.
What words those are, and how often they are bandied about without substance, without the full realisation of the weight inherent in their letters.
But this did. It was seismic. To my 15 year old self, sports obsessed and wanting, forever it seemed, to be a professional athlete at anything, this was massive.
In my bones I knew – this was it. This was the single greatest thing I had ever seen. An Irishman and a Spaniard and bicycles on a mountain in France.
A whole history of pedals being pushed, mammoth killometers, a man dying on a volcano called Ventoux, a Cannibal, a Badger, another Frenchman who carried a comb in his pocket so that his hair was perfect for the finish line salutes and the impossible cool of an Italian superhero. And now this.
I was mesmerized.
The fog had descended on La Plagne’s slopes, making all but the action at the start and at the very the end invisible. All we knew, all Phil Liggett told us, was that Stephen Roche was losing the Tour to Pedro Delgado, not by seconds but by minutes.
At the start of the day, Delgado had Yellow and a 25 second lead over Roche, but Roche, the better rider against the clock, knew if he held on to the Spaniard this day, he would beat him in the coming time trial and take the win.
But by half way up La Plagne all was awry. Delgado had attacked at the foot and put a minute thirty into the Irishman. With no tv coverage no one knew what was happening.
I slumped off the sofa. This couldn’t be happening. In just three short weeks, Roche had become an idol to me. I read up on his Giro d’Italia win earlier in the year, where he battled not only the course and the other leaders, but also his own team and the entire Italian tifosi.
In an impossible sport here was an impossible hero, a man who fought through showers of saliva and red wine, pushes and shoves and the rabid taunts of thousands to emerge victorious. It was the stuff of dreams because it truly was dream-like, and I fell in love with the bikes, the kits, the daft hats, the mountains and the proximity of the crowds.
And here, on La Plagne, the hero of the piece was succumbing to fatigue, to pain, to suffering. All surely was lost.
The image on the screen showed the finish line, only the last 400 metres visible. Delgado rolled over, visibly toiling from the effort. He’d won the Tour, Liggett said as much. But then another figure emerged from the fog. Millions squinted at their screens.
And Liggett took charge of his immortal moment, uttering words those who heard them will never forget.
“Just who is that rider coming up behind – because that looks like Roche! That looks like Stephen Roche… it’s Stephen Roche, has come over the line! He almost caught Pedro Delgado, I don’t believe it!”
Roche finished just 14 seconds down on Delgado, collapsed in a heap and was rushed to hospital. A legend was born, and the race was eventually won. The affable Roche then went on to win the World Championships the same year, claiming a remarkable Triple Crown that had only ever been achieved by the great Eddie Merckx.
I got my first road bike within days. I started racing and harboured serious dreams of turning pro. And with this new found desire to ride a bike, I also began to get deeper into the history of the sport, and there, beneath the shiny veneer of the jerseys and the romantic names like Campagnolo and Colnago, Roger De Vlaeminck and Octave Lapize, I discovered a strain of illicit drug use that ran like a rich, dirty vein through the sport, to the point where it seemed to be more or less an accepted component.
It tainted everyone, from the early pioneers to the greatest rider of all time. I read of death by heat exhaustion brought on by a cocktail of dope and booze and of ex-riders developing amphetamine psychosis, and of others continuing to abuse the drugs they took as riders once they retired.
Delving into the books on cycling, I found some discreet comments that suggested the race organisers and cycling officialdom bore a deal of responsibility for the problems, but it seemed, generally, no one dared speak out.
I learnt the word ‘omerta’ and read of riders taking ‘special’ bottles from their team cars towards the end of the races.
Then came the early 90s. Young, fit men died in their sleep after taking a new drug called EPO that facilitated the intake of oxygen into the blood but that also thickened it when at rest, causing the heart to stop.
Then those who survived worked out you needed to take blood thinners to stop dying, so they did that. Then they discovered masking agents made from all sorts of mad things, and they added them to their bulging medicine cabinets.
This stuff made amphetamines and steroids look like kids play, like toffees.
‘Don’t want to dope? Then you’re an idiot, get out of the sport.’ That was the logic of the day.
In the early 90s a man called Hein Verbruggen had taken over the presidency of the UCI, and he wanted to reinvigorate the sport, to drag it from the 60s into the modern age, and he needed a star system and a star to do that.
Then along came one Lance Armstrong. It was a match made in heaven, and we all know the story that unfolded.
Along came scandals from time to time, cars found loaded with dope, riders jacked to the eyeballs who somehow got caught, waste bins found outside Tour hotels with the kind of empty medicine boxes in them that you’d only expect to find in Lourdes in high season.
Still the sport scrabbled around in the gutter. Still, nothing was done in any real sense by the world cycling authority to amend a situation that was clearly in contravention of the stated rules of said authority.
In 2005, Verbuggen stepped down and in his place came Pat McQuaid, an Irishman who had been a decent pro, one who had competed in South Africa during Apartheid under a false name, a man whose connections spread far and wide.
Despite rumblings from some in the press and from a bare fistful of ex-pro riders, such as Paul Kimmage in his book Rough Ride, still the doping raged on. Aspersions were cast towards those calling for change and some of those brought in to fight doping by the UCI left, exasperated that their efforts seemed thwarted at every turn.
Yet McQuaid managed to win a second term. And now he wants a third.
But the cycling fans are fighting back, they have finally coalesced into a cohesive force and are finding their voice, and then some. Just this last Saturday the clubs of Cycling Ireland came together at an Extraordinary General Meeting and defeated McQuaid’s bid to receive the backing from Cycling Ireland to bid for a third term at the helm of the UCI.
He professed to not being bothered though, as he claims the Swiss federation will support him, but it seems that too may fail under a challenge.
His time may finally be up. The vast majority of cycling supporters seem to want change and, in the light of recent events, McQuaid’s integrity looks to be crumbling.
All of which brings me back to Stephen Roche. The man who got me into the sport.
What you learn as a cycling fan is not to look too hard. Like all varnish, that which covers cycling is easily cracked. Ex-pros, and current ones too, tend to mind their own business and keep very quiet – unless they are shouting in derision at a whistleblower, of course.
Kimmage, an ex-teammate of Roche, suggested the Triple Crown winner doped in his career. Journalist David Walsh made similar accusations.
Roche denied all. Just last week, speaking of Kimmage and his book that came out in 1990, he said this:
“I thought, at the time, well you’re spitting in the soup but in hindsight I said, what he did was brave, and if someone had listened to him back in 1990 maybe the 20 year struggle with doping in cycling could have only been a 10-year struggle.”
But just a few days later, before Cycling Ireland’s member clubs met to vote, Roche came out in support of Pat McQuaid, publicly calling for the clubs to endorse him.
“Pat and the UCI have done great things for our sport despite all the problems that cycling has had to deal with in the past 10 years,” said Roche.
“No other sport has had as much negative publicity as cycling and I’m sure that many a ‘strong President’ would have jumped ship and left the cleaning up to someone else.
“Pat has been a strong leader and has succeeded in not just tackling the everyday issues – the exceptional issues in cycling, but he has also been responsible for the huge development worldwide of our sport.
“I sincerely believe that Cycling Ireland should nominate Pat for the UCI Presidency because he has the passion, ability and conviction to continue to grow and develop our sport and also continue to tackle all other issues with honesty and determination.”
It is difficult to understand exactly why Roche came out and said this, expressing thoughts that are directly opposed to the thinking of the majority of cycling fans. It has the ring of the Old Boys Club and the old school tie, and underlying it is at best a naivety of the situation that our sport is in, and that it has been brought to by those in charge.
Which is it, Stephen? In support of Kimmage, or Mcquaid? Real change and a serious commitment to anti-doping, or more of the same?
Sometimes, you realise, it is better to leave your heroes behind.