Stephen Roche, Irish professional road racing cyclist, wins the World Professional Road Race Championship on September 6, 1987. In a 13-year professional career, he peaks in 1987, becoming the second of only two cyclists to win the Triple Crown of Cycling with victories in the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia general classification, and the World Professional Road Race Championship, with the first being Eddy Merckx. His rise coincides with that of fellow Irishman Sean Kelly.
Although one of the finest cyclists of his generation and admired for his pedalling style, Roche struggles with knee injuries and never contends in the Grand Tours post-1987. He has 58 professional career wins. All of these wins still stand, despite Roche having been accused by an Italian judge of taking erythropoietin (EPO) in the later part of his career.
Roche is born in Dundrum, County Dublin, on November 28, 1959. 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, he joins the Athletic Club de Boulogne-Billancourt amateur team in Paris to prepare for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Soon after his arrival he wins the amateur Paris–Roubaix on the track at Roubaix. However, a knee injury caused by a poorly fitted shoe plate leads to a disappointing 45th place finish in Moscow. However, on return to France, August to October sees him win 19 races. That leads to a contract with the Peugeot professional cycling team for 1981.
Roche scores his first professional victory in 1981 by beating Bernard Hinault in the Tour of Corsica. In total, his debut year yields ten victories. In 1982 his best performance is second in the Amstel Gold Race, but his rise continues in 1983 with victories in the Tour de Romandie, Grand Prix de Wallonie, Étoile des Espoirs and Paris–Bourges. In 1984, riding for La Redoute following contractual wrangles with Peugeot, he repeats his Tour de Romandie win, and wins Nice-Alassio and Subida a Arrate. He finishes 25th in that year’s Tour de France.
In 1985, Roche wins the Critérium International and the Tour Midi-Pyrénées. In the Tour de France he wins Stage 18 to the Col d’Aubisque and finishes on the podium in third position, 4 minutes and 29 seconds behind winner Bernard Hinault. In 1986 at a six-day event with UK professional Tony Doyle at Paris-Bercy, he crashes at speed and damages his right knee. This destroys his 1986 season with little to show other than second in a stage of the Giro d’Italia. He finishes 48th in the 1986 Tour de France.
In 1987, Roche has a tremendous season. In the spring, he wins 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. In the Giro d’Italia, he takes three stage wins en route to overall victory and becomes the first Giro victor from outside Continental Europe. He goes into the 1987 Tour de France as the favorite. On stage 21, crossing the Galibier and Madeleine and finishing at La Plagne, he attacks early but is caught on the last climb. His nearest rival, Pedro Delgado, then attacks. Despite being almost one-and-a-half minutes behind midway up the last climb, he pulls the deficit back to 4 seconds. He then collapses and loses consciousness and is given oxygen.
The yellow jersey, worn by the leader of the general classification, changes hands several times with Charly Mottet, Roche, Jean-François Bernard and Delgado all wearing it before Roche uses the final 35 km time trial to overturn a half-minute gap and win the Tour by 40 seconds, which is at the time the second-narrowest margin. He becomes only the fifth cyclist in history to win the Tour and the Giro in the same year. He is also the only Irishman to win the Tour de France. Irish Taoiseach Charles Haughey joins Roche on the podium on the Champs-Élysées.
With victory at the World Professional Road Race Championship on September 6, 1987, in Villach, Austria, Roche becomes only the second to win the Triple Crown of Cycling. He arrives with insufficient training although he works during the 23-lap, 278 km undulating terrain for his teammate Sean Kelly and escapes in the race-winning break only while covering for his countryman. With Moreno Argentin in the following group, Kelly does not chase and as the break slows and jostling for position begins for a sprint, Roche attacked 500 m from the finish and crosses the line with metres to spare.
Victory in the season-long Super Prestige Pernod International competition is assured. Roche is given the Freedom of the City of Dublin in late September 1987. Several days later the 1987 edition of the Nissan Classic begins and he rides strongly to finish second behind Kelly.
The 1988 season begins badly with a recurrence of the knee injury and Roche begins a gradual decline, retiring at the end of an anonymous 1993 which yields a single win, in the post-Tour de France criterium at Château-Chinon.