In 1987, Stephen Roche had an impressive Spring of racing – he won the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, won the Tour de Romandie for the third time; finished fourth (with a stage win) in Paris-Nice; and he finished second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. What followed, though, would go down in the history books as one of the greatest seasons in cycling history…
In the Giro d’Italia, Roche took three stage wins (including a team win with Carrera Jeans-Vagabond in the team time trial) en route to overall victory and he became the first cyclist from outside mainland Europe to win the Giro.
Despite his stage wins, the race is remembered for the stage from Lido di Jesolo to Sappada, where Roche, contravening team orders, made an early solo break and despite being caught late in the race, had the strength to go with the counter-attack 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 Eddy Schepers, although Roche recruited Panasonic riders and old 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 favourite 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 87.5 km (54.4 mile) 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. On crossing the stage finish line, Roche collapsed and lost consciousness. He was revived by the emergency services at the finish line, given oxygen and taken to hospital for observation. Looking none the worse for his ordeal and exertion, Roche appeared the next morning, ready to continue racing, saying he was, “Fine. A bit tired, but that’s normal.”
The yellow jersey changed hands several times with Charly Mottet, Roche, Jean François Bernard and Delgado all wearing it before Roche used the final 35 km (22 mile) time trial to overturn a half-minute gap and win the Tour by 40 seconds. Roche became only the fifth cyclist in history to win the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same year. Roche is the only Irishman to win in over 100 editions of the Tour.
Later that year, Roche arrived at the World Road Race Championship in Villach in Austria, with the aim of working for his team-mate and one-day-specialist, Sean Kelly. While covering for his countryman, Roche escaped the peloton with what was to become the race-winning break – and with Moreno Argentin in the following group, Kelly did not chase. Then, as the break slowed and jostling for sprint position began, Roche attacked with 500 m (1,600 ft) to go and crossed the line with metres to spare.
With his World Road Race victory, Stephen Roche became one of only two cyclists to ever win the Triple Crown of Cycling, winning the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and World Road Race Championship in the same year.