Stephen Roche (born 28 November 1959 in Dundrum near Dublin) is a retired professional road racing cyclist. In a 13-year professional career, he peaked in 1987, becoming only the second cyclist to win the Triple Crown of victories in the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia stage races, plus the World road race championship. Roche’s rise coincided with that of fellow Irishman Sean Kelly although the two were never team-mates.
Although one of the finest cyclists of his generation and admired for his pedalling style, he struggled with knee injuries and never contended in the Grand Tours post-1987.
He had 58 professional wins.
On completion of his apprenticeship as a machinist in a Dublin dairy and following a successful amateur career in Ireland with the “Orwell Wheelers” club coached by Noel O’Neill of Dundrum (including a win in the Rás Tailteann in 1979), Roche joined the ACBB Boulogne-Billancourt amateur team in Paris to prepare for the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow. Soon after his arrival Roche won the amateur Paris-Roubaix, escaping with Dirk Demol and sprinting to victory on the track at Roubaix. Roche was told by his directeur sportif that if he did not win he ‘would be sent home to Ireland that day.
Although he also finished on the podium at the early-season Paris-Eze, a knee injury caused by a poorly fitted shoe plate led to a disappointing ride in Moscow, where he finished 45th. However, on return to France, August to October saw Roche win 19 races. That led to a contract with the Peugeot professional cycling team for 1981.
Early professional career:
Roche scored his first professional victory by beating Bernard Hinault in the Tour of Corsica. Less than a month later he won Paris-Nice despite illness following the descent from Mont Ventoux and finished his debut season with victories in the Tour de Corse, Circuit d’Indre-et-Loire and Etoile des Espoirs races with a second place behind Hinault in the Grand Prix des Nations. In total, his debut yielded 10 victories.
In 1982 his best performance was second in the Amstel Gold Race behind Jan Raas, but his rise continued in 1983 with victories in the Tour de Romandie, Grand Prix de Wallonie, Etoile des Espoirs and Paris-Bourges. In the 1983 Tour de France, Roche finished 13th and he finished the 1983 season with a bronze medal in the world cycling championship at Alterheim in Zurich.
In 1984, riding for La Redoute following contractual wrangles with Peugeot (the settlement of which led Roche to sport Peugeot shorts for two years before winning a court action against Vélo Club de Paris Peugeot)) he repeated his Tour de Romandie win, won Nice-Alassio, Subida a Arrate and was second in Paris-Nice. He finished 25th in that year’s Tour de France.
In 1985, Roche won the Critérium International, the Tour de Midi-Pyrénées and came second in Paris-Nice and third in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In the 1985 Tour de France Roche won stage 18 to the Aubisque and finished on the podium in 3rd position, 4 minutes and 29 seconds behind winner Bernard Hinault.
Chronic knee injury:
In 1986 at a six-day event with UK professional Tony Doyle at Paris-Bercy, Roche crashed at speed and damaged his right knee. This destroyed his 1986 season at new team Carrera with little to show other than second in a stage of the Giro. Roche finished the 1986 Tour de France 48th, 1h 32m behind Greg LeMond, a Tour that Roche described as like “entering a dark tunnel” of pain.
The injury and associated back problems recurred throughout his career (in the 1989 Tour Roche retired after banging the problem knee on his handlebars) and surgical intervention did no good until he met Dr. Muller-Wohlfahrt in Munich.
By the end of his career Roche was unable to compete at his best because of back problem resulting in a loss of power in the left leg. In retirement he described riding the 1993 Tour de France “just for fun”. He finished 13th, riding for Claudio Chiappucci).
1987 Triple Crown:
In 1987, Roche had a tremendous season. In the spring, he won the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, taking a third victory in the Tour de Romandie and fourth place plus a stage win in Paris-Nice. He also finished second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the closest he got to winning a professional ‘Monument’ Classic. He blamed it on tactical naiveté and “riding like an amateur”.
In the Giro d’Italia, Roche took three stage wins (including a team win with Carrera in the team time trial) en route to overall victory and became the first Giro victor from outside mainland Europe. Roche’s stage wins that year in the Giro were stage 1b, the 8km time trial downhill on the Poggio into Sanremo and stage 22, a 32km individual time trial into St. Vincent. Despite his stage wins, the race is remembered for the stage from Lido di Jesolo to Sappada, where Roche, contravening team orders, broke away alone early and despite being caught late in the race, had the strength to go with the counterattack and take the pink jersey from his team-mate Roberto Visentini, who had been previously leading the classification. His behaviour in the stage gained him the tifosi’s hatred. It was said the only member of his team that Roche could rely on not to ride against him was his domestique Eddy Schepers, although Roche recruited Panasonic riders and ACBB team-mates Robert Millar and Australian Phil Anderson to protect him with Schepers on the Marmolada climb (a day known as the “Marmolada Massacre”).
Roche finished the Giro exhausted but favorite for the Tour de France. Following Bernard Hinault’s retirement, Laurent Fignon’s choppy form and with Greg LeMond injured following an accidental shooting while hunting, the 1987 Tour was open. It was also one of the most mountainous since the war, with 25 stages. Roche won the 87.5km individual time trial stage 10 to Futuroscope and came second on stage 19.
On the next stage, crossing the Galibier and Madeleine and finishing at La Plagne, Roche attacked early, was away for several hours but was caught on the last climb. His nearest rival Pedro Delgado then attacked. Despite being almost 1 and a half minutes in arrears midway up the last climb, Roche pulled the deficit back to 4 seconds. Roche collapsed and lost consciousness and was given oxygen. When asked when revived if he was okay, he replied “Oui, mais pas de femme toute de suite” (“yes, but I am not ready for a woman straight away”).
The yellow jersey changed hands several times with Charly Mottet, Roche, Jean François Bernard and Delgado all wearing it before Roche used the final 35km time trial to overturn a half-minute gap and win the Tour by 40 seconds, which was at the time the second narrowest margin (in 1968 Jan Janssen had beaten Herman van Springel by 38 seconds; two years after Roche’s victory, Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon by 8 seconds). Roche became only the fifth cyclist in history to win the Tour and the Giro in the same year. He was also the only Irishman to win the Tour de France, Irish premier Charles Haughey joining Roche on the podium on the Champs-Élysées.
Later that year, with victory at the World road race championship in Villach in Austria, Roche became only the second to win the Triple Crown of Cycling. Roche arrived with insufficient training although he worked during the 23-lap, 278km undulating terrain for his team-mate Seán Kelly and escaped in the race winning break only while covering for his countryman. With Moreno Argentin in the following group, Kelly did not chase and as the break slowed and jostling for position began for a sprint, Roche attacked 500m from the finish and crossed the line with metres to spare.
Victory in the season-long Super Prestige Pernod International competition was assured.
Roche was given the freedom of Dublin in late September 1987. Several days later the 1987 edition of the Nissan Classic began and Roche rode strongly to finish second behind Kelly.
At the close of 1987, Roche moved to Fagor MBK, bringing English riders Sean Yates and Malcolm Elliot, 1984 Tour de France King of the Mountains winner Robert Millar and domestique Eddy Schepers. The team was criticised as containing too many English speakers.
The 1988 season began badly with a recurrence of the knee injury and Roche began a gradual decline. In 1989 he again took second in Paris-Nice (making four second places) and the Setmana Catalana. Roche finished the 1989 Giro d’Italia ninth behind Laurent Fignon. During the 1989 Tour de France, Roche withdrew due to his knee.
There were problems with his team in and he changed again. In 1990, racing for Histor Sigma, he won the Four Days of Dunkirk and 1991 riding for Roger De Vlaeminck’s TonTon Tapis brought victories in the Setmana Catalana and Critérium International. In the 1991 Tour de France, Roche missed the start for his team’s Team time trial and was forced to withdraw due to missing the time cut.
In the Grand Tours, he was ninth in the 1989 Giro, and won a stage of the 1992 Tour de France in appalling conditions into La Bourboule (again racing for Carrera but now in support of Claudio Chiappucci) and en route to a final ninth place. Riding the last edition of the Nissan Classic Tour of Ireland, Roche was in many breaks but finished fifth. A year later, he was again ninth in the 1993 Giro d’Italia and 13th in the 1993 Tour de France.
Roche retired at the end of an anonymous 1993 which yielded a single win, in the post-Tour de France criterium at Chateau Chinon.
In May 1990, Paul Kimmage a former professional, Fagor team mate of Roche and a fellow Dubliner published an account of life in the peloton. His book Rough Ride exposed drug use apparently endemic in the peloton but spoke in fawning terms about Roche. Publication resulted in a threat of litigation from Roche.
It was reported in the Rome newspaper, La Repubblica, in January 2000 that Francesco Conconi, a professor at the University of Ferrara involved with administering EPO to riders on the Carrera team with which Roche had some of his best years, had provided riders including Roche with EPO. Roche denied the allegations. This was further reported in the Irish Times several days later, Roche again denying EPO. In March 2000 the Italian judge Franca Oliva published a report detailing the investigation into sports doctors including Conconi. This official judicial investigation unequivocally found that Roche was administered EPO in 1993, his last year in the peloton. Files part of the investigation allegedly detail a number of aliases for Roche including Rocchi, Rossi, Rocca, Roncati, Righi and Rossini. In 2004 Judge Oliva alleged that Roche had taken EPO during 1993 but due to the statute of limitations, neither Roche nor his team-mates at Carrera would be prosecuted.
Roche lives in Antibes on the Cote d’Azur where he owns the Roche Marina Hotel. Roche remained involved in the sport by founding cycling camps Vélo Évasion in Majorca, by taking part in race organisation (la Sisteron, le Tour Méditeranéen,le Tour de Cure) and working as a commentator on cycling events for Eurosport.
He has four children with his former wife Lydia; the couple divorced in 2004. One son, Nicolas Roche, is now a professional with AG2R, and is the 2009 Irish National Road Race Champion.
Stephens brother Lawrence Roche was also a professional cyclist who completed his only Tour de France in 1991. They were team-mates on the Ton Ton Tapis team.
Roche’s nephew Daniel Martin is also a professional cyclist and was the 2008 Irish National Road Race Champion.
Roche completed the 2008 ING New York Marathon in a time of 4:21:09.