Following many years in the 1970s as the event photographer for the Raleigh Dunlop Tour of Ireland, I became friendly with many of the Irish race organisers and riders. In the 1979 season, one of the organisers from the Tour of Ireland— Noel Hammond invited me to his Dublin home. It was here that the winner of that year’s Ras Taileann, Dubliner Stephen Roche showed me a small letter from AC-BB France, signed by Mickey Wiegants. The letter invited him to join the club in the western suburb of Paris; unusually it came direct from the club’s owner/president in the South of France.
He had been invited to join the French club, designated to accept English, speaking riders. The list is enviable and included some riders from my own club, and thus considered a confidant on the possibilities. I asked the 20-year-old Roche some straight questions, regarding home, job, languages and of course girlfriends.
At that time the answers were favourable for living abroad for a while. He was at the end of an apprenticeship as a diesel vehicle fitter. We decided that first he should finish the apprenticeship so he had something to fall back on. Over the coming winter he should take French lessons, then he should pack his handlebars and saddle for a spell in France.
He went to Paris to meet with Claude Escalon, the manager of the AC-BB. Escalon was a hard taskmaster; in training riders were given points, not just for being on the front, but also for related efforts. Roche had an unusual talent as a rider—he simply ‘floated,’ such was his smooth pedalling action. He hardly ever fought the bike. In his first season at AC-BB in 1980 he found success as winner of the amateur Paris-Roubaix. He turned pro for Peugeot—a sponsor of the AC-BB—and won 10 races in the 1981 season, including Paris Nice.
In 1987 Roche achieved an amazing triple, becoming only the second rider in history to win the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the World Championship Road Race in the same season.
The Tour de France was a special landmark moment for myself. Firstly, it started in the centre of Berlin, two years before the wall came down. It was also my 21st Tour, a moment not overlooked by the Tour’s then owner, Jacques Goddet, who made a personal presentation to me. In his speech he talked about how he had been educated in Britain where Cricket and Football were more important than cycling. In his presentation he noted that I was the first to take images of their beautiful sport outside of France. He also noted that the race leader was also an English speaker, and indeed shared the same path.
There were some great moments, but two incidents were the foundations of a fantastic Tour de France victory by Roche. Some would say tactically brilliant, others would say he made his own luck; I wonder if there is a difference.
On the stage to La Plagne, won by Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado was in yellow, and second on GC was Roche, but Roche couldn’t climb as fast a Delgado. Instead of fighting to stay in contact, Roche ‘regrouped’ and set his own pace. On the 15km-long climb, Roche lost 1 minute in the first 5km; if this continued the race for him would be over. Then a strange thing happened, and was realised by Roche, and this is the clever bit. Delgado was of course receiving time checks, via motorcycle as there were no radios in 1987, and had been told that Roche was at 1:40, so the race was his, as Fignon was not a danger. In Roche’s head he had to make a big effort to contain Delgado, so at 5kms he let go with his biggest effort of the Tour.
At this point Delgado would have been at 4kms to go, much too late to receive any more time checks on the whereabouts of Roche. I was at the 1km banner making pictures—it was my chosen place. I made a time check for Stephen; he was 40 seconds down on Delgado. The final 600m of La Plagne is a false flat; Roche caught former teammate Denis Rous and as he passed him Roche threw the chain onto the big ring, and his bike stopped. Rous went back past him, wondering what on earth he was doing. Then Roche got his momentum back and sprinted past Rous for the second time, this time to within sight of the cars
behind Delgado. Minus 5 seconds. Incredible.
The other stage that comes to mind where Roche deployed superb tactics, or simply got lucky was into Morzine-Avoriaz, a stage won by Edouardo Chozas. Delgado—the better climber—had to drop Roche on the climb of the Joux Plane before the descent into Morzine; he didn’t, either because he was tactically unsavvy or because he simply couldn’t. Additionally, Roche knew that Delgado had crashed out of the Tour on the descent of the Joux-Plane in a previous year, breaking his collarbone. So, when it came to the descent, a long and sinuous 16kms, Roche attacked and Delgado faltered. Roche descended so fast that he caught the red Race Director’s advance vehicle that precedes the battle for the Yellow Jersey. That had never happened in the Tour de France before and was quite outrageous—Roche took the Yellow.
Roche was a huge natural talent, but to win the Giro d’Italia he was assisted by Careera teammate Eddy Schepers and also to a great extent by his former AC-BB and Peugeot teammate and friend Robert Millar, who in Italy won the mountains classification. Schepers was again there for him in France, as was Sean Kelly. Kelly would later sacrifice his own chances in the World Championships at Villach, when in the last kilometers Roche streaked away to victory, robbing either Kelly or Moreno Argentin of victory. It would be prudent to note that these performances were achieved when the performance booster EPO did not exist.
Covered 41 editions Tour de France
In the ongoing and rather melodramatic death match between the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO) and the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the two organizations took steps this week further ratcheting up the conflict. Recently, the ASO made an overture to the UCI to return the Tour de France to the UCI’s sanctioning if, in return, the UCI would drop its threat to engage disciplinary proceedings against all riders and teams that participated in Paris-Nice. Smart move. While that seems a reasonable quid pro quo, the UCI declined the offer. The ASO, needing a sanctioning body for the Tour de France (one must have rules … especially in France) turned to the French Cycling Federation (FFC).
If this is beginning to seem more Tom and Jerry than Israel and Palestine to you, that’s okay, the situation is as ridiculous as it seems. Easily the greatest failing in judgment belongs to the UCI. What Pat McQuaid and the rest of the UCI staff have lost sight of is that there would be no need for the UCI without the races that make up its calendar. Had bike races such as the Tour de France (and for that matter, the ASO’s other events including Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege) not been founded, there would be no need for the UCI. The UCI gets to exist because there are bike races. This is not a chicken or egg issue.
In legal proceedings, this relationship is referred to as sine qua non: “Without which it could not be.” It is fair to wonder what bicycle racing would be had Liege-Bastogne-Liege not been first run in 1892. Another 8 years would pass before the UCI was founded in Paris.
Okay, so the ASO turned to the FFC to sanction the 2008 Tour de France. It seems unthinkable that the Tour won’t be run under the guidance of the UCI, but there it is. Weirder yet is that the UCI has called the ASO’s actions “deeply regrettable.”
In the annals of passive-aggressive memos, this deserves to go down as a doozy. One does not regret the actions of another. One regrets one’s own actions. For anyone to consider an action on the part of another as regrettable what they are suggesting is that the other party will come to regret their actions. That is a classic passive-aggressive challenge. We expect this sort of language to be used in mafia movies: You can just hear Marlon Brando saying, “I find your actions deeply regrettable.”
The UCI’s response to this “deeply regrettable” act was to assert that teams and racers that participate in the Tour will face as yet-to-be-determined disciplinary measures.
The UCI’s threat is utterly absurd. It issued the same threat before an important, though not monumental race when it threatened the teams and riders that raced Paris-Nice. In theory, it was possible to skip Paris-Nice without any great consequence to a rider’s season. The Tour is another matter. Riders and teams plan their whole season around the Tour. Under ordinary circumstance the only things that will keep a rider from the Tour are injury and non-selection. And now the UCI thinks that the threat that was utterly ineffective for Paris-Nice will somehow generate the fear of God when used against the Tour.
Bill Cosby had a routine about the high jump and his inability to clear 6’ 0”—his height. One day he decided, “If I can’t jump my height, why can’t I jump one inch more than my height?” This is precisely the absurd line of reasoning the UCI is using, which is why it’s okay to laugh in response to the UCI’s threat—it’s as hollow as a gymnasium, not to mention hilarious.
Simply put, if you were a PRO, what do you think would be more harmful to your career, the UCI or not showing up to the Tour?
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International
Each day Alberto Contador wears the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia he proves his mettle as a Grand Tour rider. Contador is putting on an impressive display of talent and determination (Andreas Kloden’s disappointment at being unseated as the team’s leader notwithstanding) after arriving at the Giro in something other than peak form. It’s a rare rider who can ride into better shape as a grand tour progresses.
To say Contador will arrive in Milan to take his second Grant Tour would be putting the pack before the breakaway, but his chances do look good. Contador’s transfer to Astana to follow Johan Bruyneel raised eyebrows or didn’t, depending on your outlook on the refugee of Operacion Puerto. Bruyneel retained the services of Rasmus Damsgaard and since doing so there hasn’t been a single whisper about the team’s, uh, cleanliness. No accusations, no positive tests, no non-starters, just a string of wins in every stage race they have entered this season save the Tour de Georgia.
The message Astana has been sending is that by being not just competitive, but consistently the most competitive team in stage races during the 2008 season (as evidenced by their victories thus far), they deserve to race the Tour de France.
Someone might want to phone Johan Bruyneel.
The Amaury Sport Organization’s problem with Astana seems to be as much about Bruyneel as it does the previous management of Astana. While Mssrs. Prudhomme and company haven’t said as much, their concern about Lance Armstrong—and by extension his methods and his team—hasn’t abated. If anything, Contador’s win last year was all the confirmation they needed that Bruyneel’s team must be up to something other than fair play.
Their ongoing suspicion of Astana—whether warranted or not—makes a tragic statement about ASO’s regard for team-retained longitudinal testing programs. It’s unlikely they know something about the possible fallibility of these programs that the rest of the world doesn’t, so if they are, in fact, suspicious of the programs themselves then we are entering a new era marked more by cynicism than proactive science.
Trust is a human contract that the PRO peloton has killed more convincingly than Nietzsche’s announcement that God is dead. ASO wants its race to be won by a rider utterly beyond suspicion, though how that can be accomplished is a matter that could be debated until the start of the ’09 Tour. One thing is certain: They don’t trust anyone riding in azure and yellow.
It’s clear that Astana’s riders and management believe that by demonstrating the team’s competitive worthiness that they will have earned the right to race the Tour de France. Leipheimer has illustrated the team’s naivete by saying, “We deserve to be in the Tour de France.” For those who aren’t clear on the concept (Leipheimer included), the Tour de France is a private company and rather like a restaurant, they have elected to retain the right to choose whom they will serve. Think of it as a ‘no shoes, no shirt’ clause for the doping set.
Should Alberto Contador arrive in Milan the color of a flamingo, many people will believe that Astana’s performances justify an invitation for the Tour. To ASO, the exact opposite will be true: Without having more thoroughly cleared up suspicions and concerns before winning yet another grand tour, ASO will believe its actions to be completely just. Moreover, winning the Giro despite the team’s lack of preparation will be proof positive to the Tour de France that Astana must be doing something shady.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International
The most predictable emotion a cyclist possesses is one rooted in the rider’s work ethic. Born of respect, both for self and for the dedication that the training requires, it is a full-body yes. At its root are qualities every cyclist wishes to exhibit: bravery and valiance, the desire to turn advantageous every circumstance, to find usefulness in oneself and ultimately, an ingredient we expect to find in all champions—a high self-opinion.
It can lead to mistakes inconsequential as the unprotected front wheel and as colossal as the past-threshold pull at the front. It can also result in silly displays such as the rider who feigns the easy ride on the hill because he’s too hammered to sustain the lead pace. Surely the most forgivable failing of pride is the work ethic that leads to the successful breakaway but not the win. Despite being beaten at the line by the lesser rider, there is victory in showing the peloton that they couldn’t catch the breakaway. So what if you’re beaten by one rider, there was success enough in out-riding the entire peloton. After all, what is the alternative, do less than your best? And should you not ride with all that you have, how can you call yourself a racer? At some level, tactics aside, as a racer you are meant to ride with all that you have. Sure, races are won with smarts as much as brawn, but no amount of tactical savvy can overcome the indictment that comes with knowing you didn’t ride with all your might.
With it comes confidence and with confidence comes drama. The rider who can be intimidated has none, but the rider who has done the training, knows his ability and is ready for the challenge will attack in places both expected and unexpected.
Think of the unlikely moves that have come from riders whose confidence was informed by their fitness and pride. When Sean Kelly attacked descending the Poggio at the 1992 Milan-San Remo to catch Moreno Argentin at the red kite, the move initially seemed as futile as shooting rubber bands at a bear. But he caught Argentin and in the catch you realized he knew something we didn’t. And that’s what racing is all about. That win was a statement to the world that he still had the ability to humble the best.
Races may be won or lost on might, but that isn’t what drives a rider to race. The need to race is born in emotion. It comes from a passion to tell the world of our drive, to prove that we worked without fail, that we trained with the insistence of a forced march, that we learned something of ourselves, something we want the world to know.
Photo courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International