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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

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It’s not a big secret that I am a big fan of The Bike Show.  I occasionally listen to other cycling podcasts, and have yet to find one which is as consistently entertaining and enlightening as the Bike Show.  Even if you haven’t been involved in the Bike Show directly, I think it must be obvious from the continuing excellence of the show that Jack is constantly striving to take his listeners to places they might not have gone left to themselves, and alway pushing himself to maintain and exceed his already high standards.  It is sort of superfluous for me to publicise the Bike Show, as I’m sure that most regular readers of this blog also subscribe to the show, but if you’re not, you should!

The latest edition is one of my favourites, and ties in with my last post about my neighbour’s Claud Butler, as she mentions that her first ‘proper’ racing bike was a CB.  An interview with the amazing and inspiring Eileen Sheridan, the first British female professional cyclist, who, like Reg Harris, was a star of the 40s and 50s, which period is widely accepted to be the Golden Age of Cycling.

Eileen Sheridan: The Mighty Atom | The Bike Show – a cycling radio show and podcast from Resonance FM.

There’s a school of thought, with which I broadly agree, that insists that a bike ride is not really a ‘proper’ bike ride unless at least one night has been spent in a ditch or somewhere else equally unsuitable, such as a bus shelter.  Jack Thurston, the presenter, writer & producer of the excellent Bike Show podcast, is a man that thinks that any bike ride could be enhanced by a night in the right ditch, but not just any ditch. Jack, whilst being a hard and hardy rider, will not needlessly inflict discomfort upon himself or any companion.  He views the riding of a bicycle as the literal pursuit of hedonism, albeit ameliorated by some passing and minor inconveniences.

Jack’s approach is reflected in ‘Lost Lanes’, which is a collection of 36 rides in southern England.  Most are day-rides, none require the intervention of a motor-vehicle to transport rider & bike to the start and, as the author says, all of ‘the rides can be ridden on any bike that’s in good mechanical order’, i.e. they are rides that anyone, not only ‘proper’ cyclists, could do, if they desired.  All the rides pass by excellent pubs, cafes & restaurant, which are noted in the text.

These are rides for the pleasure of being in the countryside (mostly – one ride is entirely within urban east London), because Jack believes, and I agree with him, ‘of all the modes of travel, only the bicycle combines freedom and speed with total immersion in the surroundings’.

The format of the book is that the actual routes are downloaded (either as turn-by-turn route sheets or as GPX files suitable for use with GPS route-finders) from elsewhere, and the book is descriptions of the routes in lyrical prose, which includes topographical and historical details, and pencil-drawing outline of the route that could be transferred reasonably easily to a map and illustrating photographs.  The photographs are superb. My girlfriend’s reaction to the book was that ‘it makes England look like France’.  I think she meant beautiful and warm.  She also said the book made her want to get on her bike and go do one of the rides.

Jack has written a Tour de Horizon as part of the introduction, as well as a section on lanes and another on wild camping, which I rather like.  It really is a literal panorama – Jack describes the country we will be riding in from ‘the shingle spit of Dungeness’ to ‘Suffolk’s cluster of stunning medieval towns and villages’ and on to ‘the gently rolling landscape of the upper Thames Valley’.  He briefly covers the geology, topography and demography of the whole area, which I found admirable.

At the back of the book, he has included some suggestions for organised rides, and includes the Dunwich Dynamo, which most London cyclists are probably familiar with, and one which I have never heard of ever, the Foulness Island Bike Ride, but which I very much want to attend, having read Jack’s description of it.

I haven’t ridden outside of the M25 quite as much as Jack has, but I have ridden fairly extensively in the south east, but there was plenty in this book to inspire a jaded old hack such as myself. Like Anna, flicking through the book made me want to get on my bike and ride somewhere new.  I am looking forward to an opportunity to ride ‘The Fifth Continent’, a loop in Kent from Ashford to Rye and along to Dungeness.

Being an east Londoner, I have had to make do, for the moment, with Ride No. 28, the Eastern Excursion, which passes from Hackney to North Greenwich and south across to Charlton and back to Hackney.  I can report that the route card and the GPX file work well, and the fact that I took 3 hours to do a 2 hour ride is entirely down to my own dawdling and inability to look at the route sheet at the correct points.

If you listen to the Bike Show, and enjoy it (which I am sure all readers do), then you should buy this book.  Not least because it would only be polite to show your appreciation of Jack’s efforts, which have hitherto cost you nothing, but also because this is an excellent book from which everyone can learn something.  If you are planning to buy the book, please consider buying it directly from the Bike Show web-site, rather than somewhere else – Jack will get more money if you do.