In 1987, Stephen Roche had the year to end all years. By winning the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and world championships in the same season, he did what only one man – the legendary Eddy Merckx – had done before. It’s a feat that, 25 years on, hasn’t been repeated. In his first autobiography, he uses the seminal season as a springboard to describing his life and career.
Wasting no time with his formative years, we’re still in chapter one when Roche begins his apprenticeship with Athletic Club de Boulogne-Billancourt (ACBB). With the likes of Robert Millar and Paul Sherwen passing through its doors prior to Roche, the club was something of a finishing school for English-speaking pros. While the experience would be akin to being thrown in at the deep end for many, Roche displayed the tenacity and adaptability that would define his career, settling in immediately, embracing the culture, soaking up the language and gobbling up race wins.
While most people focus on his famous year in 1987, it’s often forgotten just how precocious a cyclist Roche was early on in his career. He won his first stage race, the Tour of Corsica, in his first month as a pro in 1981. His win at Paris-Nice later the same year is still the one and only time a neo-pro has won there.
Yet for all the talent he displayed as a cyclist, it was his ‘take no prisoners’ approach to rivals, team-mates and management that showed he had the stomach for a fight and marked a talented rider from a Grand Tour-winning one. Particularly with management, if he wasn’t happy with the way he perceived he was being treated, he wasn’t one to let his frustrations build inside him. He calls a spade a spade, and it was this straight talking that got him into hot water with managers such as his boss at Peugeot, Maurice de Muer.
This rock-hard exterior would come in handy during the 1987 Giro d’Italia, when he beat his team-mate, the Italian Roberto Visentini, on the stage to Sappada. The event had monumental ramifications, but somehow Roche battled Visentini and a partisan, hostile tifosi to claim overall victory in Milan. But following further glory at the Tour and the worlds in Villach, Austria, his career went into reverse after a debilitating knee injury continued to cause problems.
Born to Ride proves to be an entertaining read, if not quite as revelatory or enlightening as we’d hoped. There’s plenty here for newcomers to the Roche story, but those already familiar with the events of 1987 – the bulk of the story here – might leave disappointed.
That’s not to say there’s nothing new. The final chapters, where Roche reveals his life after retirement – the struggles for employment, finding his place in the world, the breakdown of his marriage – are by far the most interesting. He discusses his work with the UCI in depth and, as already revealed on BikeRadar, has plenty of views on the state of modern cycling.
Doping allegations get more attention than we’d bargained for, and make for a satisfying finale to an interesting story.