I mentioned elsewhere that I first started following cycling after watching the 1987 Tour de France on Channel 4. Stephen Roche was the hero, and winner, of that Tour, and went on to cap a season equalled only by Merckx with a victory in the World Championships, as well as the Giro d'Italia. Along with Robert Millar, Stephen Roche did as much as anyone to inspire me to follow and participate in cycle sport.
Roche was, is, one of the pre-eminent figures in the English-speaking world. After the apotheosis of 1987, his career petered out somewhat, although he was still good enough to win one or two really big races before retiring. After retirement, he moved into the commentary box at Eurosport, forming a sublime double-act with David Duffield, with this passage, describing Pantani's epic ride over the Galibier in 1998, surely the pinnacle of their time together.
I found Stephen Roche's commentary on the racing illuminating. He described what was happening tactically, and surmised why, and also suggested, when nothing was happening, what the contenders ought to be doing. Having been a rider who liked to attack and shake things up, he was always critical of teams who appeared to be settling for a place on the podium.
He seems an engaging character, and, on the two occasions that I have met him, took the time to say hello and do more than just pass the time of day, even making more or less indiscreet remarks about a leading rider when I bumped into him in a petrol station outside Bourg d'Oisans, about 4 hours before the Tour was due to come through.
However, after all he has gained from the sport, and its supporters, people like me, he owes us more than the tripe that he is peddling regarding cycling's past. In an interview with Jack Thurston on The Bike Show last year, he equivocated, avoided and shamelessly evaded Jack's probing about doping in his era. Once again, quoted in Cycling News yesterday, he is up to the same thing, once again wishing to avoid difficult questions about doping. He even has the gall to suggest that it is only journalists that are interested in cycling's murky past.
It is impossible, in my view, and the view of a lot of ex-fans of cycling, for us to believe in the sport unless all those people still present in it, still making a living from our enthusiasm, who were present when all that dark stuff happened, stop lying by omission and come clean. I don't wish to see Stephen Roche brought down, but it's important that he, as one the leading figures in anglophone cycling, answers some questions, and participates in the cleansing of cycling's Augean Stables. He wants to remain a leader in the sport, wants to continue to enjoy the reflected glory of his sucesses. That's fine, but let him speak of what he knows.
Here's a couple of reasons why it's important that Stephen Roche speaks out:
- Stephen Roche rode on the Carrera team alongside Marco Pantani, who has been proven beyond most people's reasonable doubt to have been doping systematically throughout his career, and is arguably the highest profile victim of doping in cycling's history (for a full account of Pantani's life, career, and terrible descent into madness and death, see Matt Rendell's The Death of Marco Pantani). The association with Pantani continued after Roche retired, with Stephen acting as cheerleader in chief during Pantani's Giro / Tour double year. Stephen Roche is a clever, perceptive man, and I would find it extraordinary if he wasn't aware that a new 'preparation' was being used in the early 90s, on his own team, of which he used to be a leader.
- Stephen Roche was the winner of the one of the last Tours which we can confidently identify as being before EPO. Lemond, Fignon, Roche and Delgado, whilst still playing team rôles, were nothing like as infuential after 1991 as they had been. This wasn't a gradual descent into obscurity, a slow submersion by the incoming tide of age, this was more akin to a passage from light into shadow. Did none of them discuss with anyone why this might be? Fignon is fairly clear in his autobiography that he knew what was going on, but had no interest in participating in the new arrangements. Robert Millar has obliquely made similar intimations. There is fairly clear evidence that Stephen Roche's blood values were manipulated as part of an early attempt to systematise the use of EPO. Is he seriously suggesting that he knew nothing at all about this?
The sport of cycling will not change unless it learns from the past. It cannot learn from the past if the witnesses stay silent.