For professional cycling, suffering, or souffrance, is the nature of the game. Ultimately, part of the appeal of the sport is the visceral connection to be had between competitor and observer, as the latter sees the former overcome (or submit to) the suffering, often against backdrops of stunning natural beauty or breathtaking difficulty.
Le grimpeur was reminded recently that this year is the 20-year anniversary of one of the most exciting years of pro racing, 1987, when Stephen Roche won the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and the World Championship all in one season – a truly Merckxian feat.
While each race included plenty of suffering (the Giro passing into legend with the politics involved), the Tour de France that year added its own particular brand, and Roche was right at the centre.
The parcours added an extra 200 or so kilometres from the year before, with the 4,331 divided into a record twenty-five stages. But, even by the Tour’s own standards, the mountain stages were particularly vicious for 1987. In total, there were six cat.2 climbs, ten cat.1, and a leg and mind-numbing nine hors categorie ascents. This compares to six, nine, and six climbs, respectively, for this year’s Tour.
The swing through the Alps was the most daunting. The time-trial stage up Mt. Ventoux was followed by four big mountain days without a rest day, including four cols on stages 19 and 20 (finishing at Alpe d’Huez), then three hors categorie climbs – the Galibier, the Madeleine, then up to La Plagne – on stage 21, and the final gruelling addition of stage 22: four climbs (one cat.2, three cat.1) to be followed by the Joux-Plane before the descent into Morzine.
As observers said at the time, it was one for the climbers. Outside of the GC contenders, the field for 1987 was packed with some of the best grimpeurs of the pre-EPO era: Luis Herrera (who had won the Vuelta that year), Andy Hampsten, and Robert Millar (second in the Giro and winner of the KOM there). Others, such as Fabio Parra, Claude Criquielion, and newcomer Raul Alcala, were also expected to shine.
It was indeed the Colombian climbers who ran rampant in the mountains, having survived the start in distant West Germany and the long, mostly flat twelve stages to get to their beloved mountains. Colombia and two full teams, Cafe de Colombia led by Herrera, and Ryalcao-Postobon headed up by old pal Pablo Wilches (for more on Colombia’s legacy, see ‘On the wings of a prayer’).
It was the best year for the Colombians overall, with Cafe de Colombia putting four riders into the top twenty and securing second place in the team rankings. Herrera himself was fifth and Parra was sixth. Wilches’ team fared much less well, with seven of nine riders abandoning – including Wilches himself, shattered after placing tenth in the Mt. Ventoux climb and sitting in seventh overall.
Herrera took the mailleur grimpeur competition (winning, amongst the prize money, his weight in coffee beans – the year before it was chocolate), his second title after victory in 1995. Cruelly, he was denied a stage win. In the first stage in the Pyrenees, Erik Breukink snatched the win by 13″ with Herrera in fourth. On the four-climb stage to Luz-Ardiden, the rouleur Dag-Otto Lauritzen from Hampsten’s 7-Eleven team jumped away with 100 kilometres still to go and just held off Herrera on the final climb to the line by 7″, with Hampsten in third 53″ down.
On the Ventoux, a victory from clearly the best climber in the race seemed certain. The French leader of the Toshiba/La Vie Claire team, Jean-Francois ‘Jeff’ Bernard, rode outside himself, however, embracing all manner of suffering, a picture of pain as he pushed his big chain ring over the final metres, to win the stage – and the yellow jersey – by 1’39”.
On Alpe d’Huez, the Spaniards and the Colombians rode the climb “as though they were swarming up the rigging”, in the delightful phrase of Geoffrey Nicholson. Herrera was unable to catch two early escapees, stage winner Frederico Echave and teammate Anselmo Fuerte. But he caught Fignon and put Delgado in difficulty as the later tried to follow his wheel. In the end, Herrera took others with him to the finish, including teammate Martin Ramirez, who was to suffer in his own way two days later (see picture below).
By stage 22 Herrera was flagging. Part of the reason was that the GC competition for the overall was particularly close and hard-fought in 1987, and Herrera’s ambitions were caught in the middle.
The wide-open Tour
It was an unusual year for the Tour, a year of transition. Bernard Hinault had made good on his promise to retire in 1986, and Greg LeMond was out due to his shooting accident. Urs Zimmerman, third in 1986, was the only podium finisher from the year before to return, and he was riding for Roche. Frenchman Ronan Pensec was also a non-starter, but Hampsten and Criquielion, 4th and 5th in 1986 were back. Both Pedro Delgado and former winner Laurent Fignon had abandoned in 1986, but were surely dangerous – with Fignon having ridden into third in the Vuelta (which until 1995 was held prior to the Giro and the Tour in late April, early May).
And a closely fought affair it turned out to be, with eight riders wearing the maillot jaune and it changing shoulders nine times throughout the race, another record.
Roche became a contender only later in the race, after the Mt. Ventoux stage, where he’d ridden a fifth place finish. Clearly his legs had recovered from the Giro – if that had not already been clear from his win in the long time trial on stage 10. He benefited also from some rivalry between French riders Charly Mottet, on Systeme U (Fignon’s team), and Bernard. Mottet had worn the maillot jaune for five days straight until Bernard had claimed it on the Ventoux.
With stage 19 going through his home ground, Mottet let Roche in on a little secret – his team were loading up with supplies and were planning to attack in the feed zone before the final climb. Roche took note and the plan worked to perfection. Systeme U attacked, with the peloton held up by a narrow bridge before the climb. Bernard also punctured just before the feed zone (“Bernard est victime d’une crevaison à un très mauvais moment,” it was said) adding to his woes. By the finish in Villard de Lans, he had lost over 4 minutes, and slipped to fourth on the GC, 1’39” behind a triumphant Roche.
It was probably not quite how Mottet saw it playing out. And more concerning for both Mottet, now in second overall, and Roche was that it was Delgado who won the stage and was now in third place. Their fears were well founded as Delgado stormed up Alpe ‘d’Huez the next day to take the yellow jersey, putting over a minute into Roche and two in Mottet. By the end of the day it was Delgado over Roche by 25″ with Mottet adrift at 2’12” in fourth and Bernard hanging in for third at 2’02”.
“Getting to Paris is one thing,” a sanguine Roche was reported saying. “Getting there in yellow is something else.”
But on the three-climb monster stage to La Plagne, Roche’s tactical sensibilities paid off and gave observers one of the most memorable Tour stage finishes.
“I knew I couldn’t hold Delgado when he went,” Roche said of the Spanish rider’s attack on the final climb. “I told myself, ‘Be calm. Stay steady. Wait for the five-kilometre sign, the give it everything.'”
With ten kilometres to go, though, Delgado had over 2 minutes advantage, too much for Roche to close down in the remainder of the Tour. But Delgado was flagging, just as Roche put his plan into action. The former was over the line (behind a triumphant Fignon, ahead of Fuerte and Parra), weaving across the road, but there was a rider just behind him.
“And just who is that rider coming up behind? Because that looks like Roche. That looks like Stephen Roche!” shouted commentator Phil Liggett, in one of his most memorable phrases. “I don’t believe it.”
Roche said that in the final kilometre, with the crowds, he was unsure how far ahead Delgado was, and when he kicked up into his big chain ring, he had no idea that he was only seconds behind.
And it was the final surge that took its toll. Roche collapsed once over the line, shaken and dizzy, pale and unable to stand without support. He was eventually given oxygen by emergency staff. But it seemed like he had saved his chance at the Tour, with Delgado now only 39 seconds ahead.
“Stephen Roche has just produced an epic like I have never in my life seen,” Liggett said in his commentary.
Even faithful domestique Eddy Schepers, who had stuck by him in the Giro, was impressed by Roche’s ability to go the extra distance.
“I told myself, ‘I he can suffer like this then so can I’,” he was reported saying. “I swore to him then and there, ‘Stephen, tomorrow I will be with you on the Joux-Plane.'”
But Roche was not even sure that he was up to it, having given everything on the climb to La Plagne.
“I was determined that my suffering wouldn’t be for nothing,” he said in an interview. “But I really wasn’t sure that I could do it.”
Schepers was true to his work, however, shepherding Roche into Morzine over the five climbs of the day, and actually leading Roche on the final descent at a pace that Delgado could not follow, gaining another precious 18 seconds (Schepers ended up placing seventh on the tough stage).
Although Jeff Bernard had some measure of revenge by winning the final time trial, Roche easily closed Delgado’s gap, distancing him in the stage by over a minute – more than the 30 seconds he expected he could make up – and placed second. Delgado disgarded his PDM team headband in the starting gate, but he could not hold Roche back. (Interestingly, a young Miguel Indurain, in the first Tour he finished, placed 6th on the stage.) The Tour victory was decided.
The suffering was epic, the exploits memorable. In Paris, Roche took victory by only 40 seconds over Delgado, the closest margin since 1968 – a record that would only last, of course, for two years until 1989. And, according to Nicholson, the ‘staid’ Irish Times ran a colour picture for the first time ever on its cover, of Roche in yellow.
But there was a final twist to Roche’s exploit on stage 21 at La Plagne. A French TV reporter asked Roche if he was okay, as he was being put in the ambulance.
“Oui,” he apparently replied. “Mais pas de femme tout de suite.”
Roche told a different version later, telling an interviewer on English television that it was dancing he was not ready for, rather than a woman.
But the interviewer would not let Roche off with the sanitized answer, recalling that there was a different version doing to rounds.
“Yes,” said Roche, with his cheeky smile and blue eyes shining. “That’s what it was.”
Part 2: pas souffrance, coming soon…
Note: all images in this entry are excerpted from Graham Watson, The Tour de France and its heroes, a beautiful book with stunning pictures and iconic images from an exciting era, or other contemporaneous sources.