STEPHEN ROCHE CHANGED MY LIFE

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I’d always enjoyed cycling. Most kids do. The freedom and speed, messing about with mates, getting away from The Olds.

But there was a moment in my life when the chemistry changed forever. When the route of my life was lit up in a sea of ‘likes’ and ‘enjoys’ into one of love, passion and determination.

With thanks to superb photographer Camille McMillan. @camillemcmillan

 

I’d always enjoyed cycling. Most kids do. The freedom and speed, messing about with mates, getting away from The Olds.

But there was a moment in my life when the chemistry changed forever. When the route of my life was lit up in a sea of ‘likes’ and ‘enjoys’ into one of love, passion and determination.

Channel 4 started showing the Tour De France on TV in the mid-Eighties. In 1986 I was thirteen. I watched much of the duel between Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault with a degree of curiosity and a great deal of confusion. I loved the scenery, the scale of it all, the drama. But I didn’t really get it.

That year I had already started riding my first road bike, a cheap 24" Peugeot Tourmalet racer that was far too big for me then, and would still be now.

Nick Hussey from Vulpine, aged 13

Author, aged 13, big skating t-shirt, tiny shorts that chaffed, silly dog, giant bike. Stop that. Stop that laughing, you bastards. I was young.

I was even entering local evening time trials on the circuit that many East Midlands Regional Champs were held on. It was just messing about really. Destined to be another fad.

Then the Giro D’Italia of 1987 went nuts. An Irish guy I’d never heard of called Stephen Roche was with a funny-looking Scottish guy called Robert Millar. They were on their own against a bitter and vengeful Italian nation. Cycling Weekly and Winning Magazine told tales or extraordinary daring and courage. Things were starting to go off in my head. Little bursts inside the bit of my brain that made me me.

Stephen Roche and Robert Millar, Giro 87

Roche won, against the odds, and started the ’87 Tour De France, which I now eagerly looked forward to, rather than happened upon like last year.
I watched a great race unfold, and made an effort to take in the tactics and endless exotic names.

Then something happened.

A moment that literally brings tears to my eyes as I write this (no really, I had to stop a sec. I never realised it was SUCH a lucid, powerful memory). Because it is such such an epiphany, such an extraordinary example of humanity and a moment that chimed with something deep inside me.

I was a child discovering who and what I was, and this was the clearest moment of realisation I had yet experienced. It must have been. I still hold it close, and I’m still obsessed by it.

…Stephen Roche collapsed at the summit of La Plagne.

Stephen Roche, recovering on La Plagne

CLICK TO PLAY INCREDIBLE VIDEO FROM STAGE

This was the big mountain stage. they’d already gone over the Galibier and Madelaine. Delgado was the better climber and had already put 90 seconds into Roche mid way up. Roche was rightly written off. You don’t come back from that. That is how it goes in cycling.

The TV coverage of all the GC riders was sporadic. All you could see was the finish. Fignon won the stage with panache and typical attaching verve. Then Delgado comes through.

He’s surely smashed his greatest rival and the better time triallist, Roche. But for how many minutes? I prepared to watch the clock, sinking. I became distracted from Roche, my hopes gone. I had grown very fond of Charly Mottet (still my favourite rider) and hoped he would do well.

But then a great stage became extraordinary. Roche was within sight of Delgado, and had closed the gap to within seconds of Delgado. If you’ve ever raced, or ridden up a mountain at full gas, against a rider who’s more able than yourself, you’ll know that to hang on takes immense willpower and pain tolerance. But to COME BACK is not possible. Its just not possible.

He collapsed in massive oxygen debt, and likely paralysing pain, doctors, police and TV crews crowding round.

It had dawned on Liggett what he had achieved, as soon as he saw him cross the finish line. The psychological will to do that is immense. It is almost with stupid disregard to personal safety. You have to go beyond pain and what is normal for the mind and body to bear. What was going through his mind? Was he even thinking anything? Was it sheer panic, bravery, stupidity, willpower, insanity?

There are stories of POWs about to be shot who could scale 20 foot barbed wire fences. Of air crash victims who’d survive for weeks in Amazonian jungles, riddled with maggots. Of climbers…You know the stories…I think Roche had somehow tapped into that most base survival instinct we all (is it only some of us?) have. Losing was something he could not cope with, in a way most of us will never be able to grasp.

This was what set my passion on fire. It was foreign to me, but I wanted to taste that willpower. I was a soft, sensitive, mewling schoolboy with excuses ready packed for every occasion.

I wanted to be tough. I wanted to be determined. I wanted to feel pain and use it, not fear it. This man, this performance was everything I was not, but wanted to be. And somehow he made it real enough for me to understand that it was mine if I wanted it.

I still remember the feeling afterwards. My mind was racing, literally and metaphorically. Soon afterwards, I dived into bike racing and training with obsession. I never was very good. But I’ve always been able to push myself. I’ve even collapsed on top of a mountain, in my own private race with myself. Though the result was infinitely less glamourous and far scarier…That’s a story I’ll tell when I’m ready.

In writing this I realise that that moment has coloured my life in many ways. Not just an intense and lasting love of cycling in all forms, but the realisation that anything is possible if you have the willpower to do what is necessary to achieve it.

I was a lazy, quiet little boy before I saw Roche do the incredible. Afterwards I absorbed and applied my greatest lesson:

To succeed you must have the willpower to overcome yourself.

Footnote:
I met Roche in Richmond Park in 2009. I just stood nearby as fellow riders introduced themselves. I’ve always been embarrassed to compliment Stars. I wanted to tell him about what his riding had done for me, and to ask about the mad descent-only prologue of the ’87 Giro. He still had that languid pedaling style. I just rode behind him and thought about that mountain one July and grinned.

Stephen Roche wins the 1987 Tour De France

 

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