As his son competes in the Tour de France, Stephen Roche knows that questions will always be raised about his own career
Nicolas Roche doesn’t remember 1987. He’s heard the stories about how he cried when his father won the yellow jersey but in truth he cried his way right around France that summer. In fact his first memories of the tour are some of his father’s last. It was 1993 when Nicolas spent the day sitting next to Carrera manager Davide Boifava in the team car for the 30-mile trip between Bretigny-sur-Orge and Montlhery. From time to time the nine-year-old would take the microphone and cheer on his dad. His words of encouragement filled the local air to the bemusement of the French spectators and the amusement of his father.
Sixteen years on and the roles are reversed. It’s Thursday night in Annecy and Stephen Roche has finally made it to see a shard of his son’s impressive efforts on this year’s tour. Due to television work in London, it’s the first time he has travelled to France but he’s still not sure if he’s achieved the balancing act he’s been aiming for. Stay away and let Nicolas enjoy the moment and there’s the risk of a lack of support. Come over and offer wise words and suddenly he’s the famous face.
“I have to admit it’s been complicated,” he says after a long conversation with his son about the day’s time trial and the rest of the tour. “It’s his glory and his punishment. I prefer him to have the attention. The problem is I am well known here.”
You inquire if people now know him for good or bad reasons but he’s not taking the bait. He refuses to care if others look at him in a negative way, presumes the majority look at him in a positive way and would prefer if people didn’t look at him at all. “Maybe it’s my fault for not putting things to bed when all the controversy started because here we have the best Irish stage rider since ’93 and me, and you are talking about the past. There are guys here part of a generation that’s clean and they’re doing their utmost to make sure the next generation is clean.”
Highly questionable. But what about the last generation? What about Stephen Roche?
The 1980s looked set to be a disaster. The decade was only eight months old and after taking a six-month leave of absence from work to prepare for the Olympics, Stephen Roche decided to quit his job altogether and presumed everything would drop into place. He had no reason to believe otherwise. In Ireland he was untouchable – as a teenager he entertained himself on the Rás Tailteann by waving to crowds on his way to victory. On the continent he was becoming untouchable as well – early in 1980 he won the amateur Paris-Roubaix after being told by his director sportif if he didn’t win, he’d be sent back to Ireland that day.
But a 45th place was all he managed in the Moscow Games and he still remembers sitting beside Barry McGuigan on the bank of a Russian river as the two pondered where they would go from there. Somehow, five years on, McGuigan was a boxing champion of the world and seven years on Roche captured the cycling Triple Crown of Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and World Championships. It all began in Italy with the defiance of team orders.
“In 1987 before going to the Giro I had won a lot of races. So for me, I was joint team leader with (Roberto) Visentini. Shortly into the race, I had the jersey but had no support around and it was weird. Every time I won price money, I shared it with the team. He had so much money himself, I’m not sure he even knew there was prize money. I felt the guys would be behind me because I was always behind them and was generous.
“But he was Italian, the outgoing winner and they knew he could go for three weeks and weren’t sure of me. So he came, got the jersey off me and I was upset the way they did it. The first week of the race, every time I jumped he jumped behind me and that wasn’t teamwork. The final straw for me was when a journalist said that because I’d ridden for him, would he ride for me in the Tour de France? He said that of course I was riding for him but the Tour de France, no. He was going to the beach on holidays. That was it as far as I was concerned.”
La Plagne and Pedro Delgado and that commentary and Charlie Haughey on the Champs Elysees and a homecoming a year before the soccer team headed for Germany all followed. Roche was suddenly the biggest name in Irish sport. During a decade where minority sports here had thrived like never before and never since, he’d surpassed everyone else in terms of both hype and achievement.
“Not that it was easy,” he says. “Like I’ll never forget La Plagne. I knew that day if Delgado attacked on the mountain and I went with him, I wouldn’t last until the top. He came down and I was still riding within myself and waited until 14km to go and gave it everything. Journalists had written me off because they had no time checks. When the speaker announced that Stephen Roche was coming in straight away (after Delgado), no one knew where I had come from. There were suddenly 25 mics in my mouth, we were way up in the mountains and I just collapsed.”
You remind him that while he all but won the tour that day, Laurent Fignon won that famous stage. You also remind him of Fignon’s book, Nous Etions Jeunes et Insouciant (We Were Young and Carefree), in which he admits to having used amphetamines, cocaine and cortisone, said he never regarded it as doping and claimed it was part of the preparation for everyone at the time.
“Looking back, everything we’ve heard makes me think I had my head in the sand. Okay Laurent Fignon and certain guys did different things but sure you never see it. I never partied or drank with him but I was only half surprised because I had guessed certain things he was doing. I think though what he did was a bit unfair because he painted a picture of everyone as the same. He did well, but does that mean everyone who did well did that?”
After 1987 Roche’s tours were non-events. In 1988 he was injured. In 1989 he was forced to abandon. In 1990 he came in a lowly 44th. In 1991 he was disqualified after missing the start of a time trial. But after years in the wilderness, he returned to the team that had helped him to his Triple Crown and life would never again be the same.
Do you regret rejoining Carrera in 1992, you ask?
“How do you mean now?” he retorts, puzzled by what he sees as an accusation rather than a question.
They were doping and you got involved in the scandal, you tell him.
“No,” he maintains. “I say never look back. Never regret any of it. I’d go back to Carrera tomorrow. Everyone has read about the generalised doping in teams in the ’90s but it was nothing like that at all. I had a great time there and when I go to Italy many of them are still my second family. Of course there were certain members brought into scandals. I was brought in to one, I won’t say unfairly, but because of association with the team and there’s been a big cloud left over that has never been cleared up.
“Then you have magistrates saying we couldn’t find out things, so they just gave their opinion. How damaging is that to an athlete? Do they care? For the guys that weren’t involved, they were concluding we can’t find anything but we’ll just throw out names. I can tell you nobody ever asked me to go as a witness or talk or testify in that Italian case. If I was going to be embroiled in all of this, you’d think that someone would come along and ask my opinion.”
Long after Roche’s retirement in 1993 it emerged what had been going on during his last two seasons. Francesco Conconi, a world leader in sports science, had been asked and paid by the IOC to devise a urine test for EPO. He claimed he was testing 23 informed amateur athletes but when Bologna police raided his laboratory at the University of Ferrara they found the “EPO file”. Instead of 23 amateurs they found 22 top-class professionals who were also paying, six of whom rode for Carrera where Conconi’s associate Giovanni Grazzi was team doctor, and the odd one out was Conconi himself who took EPO before coming second in a veterans’ race.
“Conconi? I met him once when I first went to the Carrera team. As for Doctor Grazzi, he was the team doctor at Carrera and I had dealings with him. I’d give my blood to him a couple of times a year. He was only at certain races and he’d take the blood then. It was sent back to Ferrara where they’d go through the blood counts and we’d be told if we were low on iron, vitamins, zinc or whatever. Then we’d go to our own doctor with that. That was my dealing with Doctor Grazzi.
“And when the problem came up about all the blood tests, I went to Dr Grazzi and asked why my name was being brought up and the answer I got was that institute was using our blood for experimentation after it was analysed. Why didn’t I sue them over it? Well you never think it was going to get as big as it got. Then books came out and I consulted with a British barrister and he said it would cost so much. I was told it would clear my name but there was no guarantee I would get my money back. When I see how much guys got from writing stupid books and stuff, I think maybe I should have sued and not let all this get out of hand.”
Judge Franca Oliva in Italy has no doubt you were guilty, you tell him. He couldn’t pass sentence though on anyone because Carrera stalled the trial.
“It’s human nature to put people down. Maybe jealousy too. I’d say to the judge to look at his facts. Where’s the proof? For me it’s in the past and I accept people just want to bring me down, having dedicated my whole life to it. It’s very easy for people to go to libraries and do these types of investigations but most of them have never got up on a bike. Do they know what the body can do when you train every morning and when you cycle 40,000 kilometres a year?”
What about the codenames, you ask? Rocchi, Rocca, Roncati, Righi and Rossini were all said by Judge Oliva to be you in the “EPO file”, and all with an “S” for “Si” beside them relating to usage of the drug? On top of the all that, those names had a haematocrit level (red blood cell count) that would now get you banned for EPO.
“Where was that though? Was my name on it? How can people say it is mine? Nobody can. It’s all hearsay. But ask me a question and I’ll answer it. I won’t hide. You can talk to other athletes and they won’t tell you one hundredth of what I’m telling you, they hide. Why would I hide? I have no reason. I’ll answer anything.”
And with that he continues to knock away questions with vehement denials.
Stephen Roche’s life has moved along since the investigation into Carrera concluded. Lately his children have been demonstrating the battling abilities that made him what some would say is the greatest Irish sportsman of them all. In February 2008 his eight-year-old son Florian received a bone marrow transplant from his 10-year old brother Alexis after being diagnosed with leukaemia and with things going well, he hopes Florian will return to school in September. Before then his 25-year-old son Nicolas will have completed a Tour de France that nearly resulted in a stage win and promises much going forward.
But regardless of his children’s future, Stephen Roche knows there is parts in his past which will always be questioned. And while he may have risen within his sport as part of the last generation, there will always be questions asking if he ever rose above it.
26 July 2009