Grand Tour Legend Stephen Roche on Life After Racing, The Dominance of Team Sky, and the World Championships ‘in a desert’

The 15th anniversary of the Cycle Show in Birmingham was the biggest yet, with over 300 of the UK’s brightest and best cycling shops, clothing designers, equipment manufacturers, coaching programmes and purveyors of energy bars, gels, powders and drinks converging on the NEC for what was essentially a three-day festival of the bike.  ITV’s Ned Boulting held court on the Protect Your Bubble stage throughout the weekend, interviewing Grand Tour legend Stephen Roche on Sunday afternoon.  Roche’s interview proved to be warm, witty and entertaining, and offered insights into the Tour legend’s thoughts on the current state of World Tour racing, the up coming World Championships in Doha, and his son’s move from Team Sky.

Ned Boulting introduced the two-time Grand Tour winner to the stage during the afternoon session on the final day of the three-day event.  Roche, who won the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the World Road Race Championships in the same year, now runs successful cycle camps in Majorca, which have become increasingly popular with Brits following Bradley Wiggins’ winning performances at the Tour de France and London Olympic Games.

For the former pro, the bike is clearly still a hugely important part of his life.  “If I don’t ride my bike it’s like a pressure cooker…it builds up, then I ride my bike and it goes down again” explained Roche.  “When I was young I learned to enjoy cycling, and then I was lucky enough to become a professional.  Now I’m back enjoying it again.  I participate now – I don’t compete”.

Asked whether retiring his racing wheels to “re-join the human race” had been a difficult process, Roche was keen to stress that they key to feeling content in that decision is to change the way you think about your relationship with the bike.  “Lots of guys have difficulty turning that corner.  But it’s impossible to stay at that level, you shouldn’t keep thinking ‘it wasn’t like this before’…”  Roche was quick to accept that retirement would have an effect on the way he rode.  “I had 9% body fat then, now I have a lot more!  The age is there, and I’m a granddad too…you should be happy cycling, and not keep the past in the present.”

Whilst Stephen can now ‘participate’; it is his son Nicolas who does the competing.  For the past two years, the younger Roche has been an important member of Team Sky, riding in support of Chris Froome.  Prior to that, Nicolas was a member of Tinkoff-Saxo, working as a domestique for Alberto Contador.  Roche was brought into Team Sky “with the potential to win small stage races, take stage wins, and be a good team mate to Chris Froome” explained Stephen.  Nicolas was identified as a key rider to get into breakaways, and was a huge asset to Sky due to his exceptional race craft.

Two years on however, and Nico has made the decision to leave Sky for the BMC Racing Team, once again working alongside his friend Richie Porte.  Both Porte and Nico Roche are riders with excellent palmarès and potential, however with Chris Froome so dominant on the road at present, the only way for talented riders of their calibre to fulfil that potential is to move away from Team Sky.  Ned Boulting, questioning Stephen Roche on his son’s future, conceded “Sky target the Tour de France” and the pair agreed that, with the current crop of riders led by Froome, there’s little opportunity for a “Plan B” to flourish on the Grand Tours.  Sky, it seems, may find themselves as victims of their own success as riders like Roche and Porte move on to pastures new.  Once Froome loses that dominance, Stephen Roche is concerned that there’s “no one there to take up that role”.

Asked whether situations like that at Sky are a result of the modern pressures upon the sport, Roche agreed.  “Racing is totally different now.  There are totally different commercial interests…we have Race Radio and power meters, which can make the race a bit boring.  In my era, nobody jumped up and down for third place.  Now everyone’s racing for a top ten finish.  A top ten placing in the Tour could mean a good contract, more money…”  On the subject of power meters and other in-race technology, Boulting enquired as to what Roche would change to bring back the sense of excitement associated with his own era of racing.  “Abolish car to rider contact, have rider to car contact only. Race Radio damages the spectacle.  We have riders too concerned with power meters, detailed data and calculations.  We do need to move with technology – don’t just throw it out – but make it better.  Otherwise we have riders, tactically not knowing what to do by themselves”.

In the current pro peloton, Roche is impressed with a number of young riders coming up through the ranks.  “A Grand Tour rider survives the time trials, the climbs, the wind, the rain, the crashes…one good thing to come out of the Tour de France are the skilled young riders – Quintana, Bardet, Yates, Alaphillipe…”  His son’s former team mate, Contador, also impresses.  “He is a great asset to cycling.  He is tactically good, he doesn’t wait until the last climb, he throws down the gauntlet.  We need riders like this”.

In view of the upcoming World Championships, Roche was asked which recent World Road Race Champion has impressed him the most.  “Certainly Sagan, but it would have to be Thor Hushovd.  He was 90 kilos, so he had to get points ahead of the other sprinters, going away on mountains for the intermediate sprint points.  He was a great sprinter, an intelligent rider.  A nice guy, with tactical sense”.  As for the upcoming World Championships in Doha, Roche didn’t fancy the course much!  “It’s totally flat.  In a desert”.  So who does he back to win?  “A sprinter.  But I’d like to see Tom Boonen win, he could climb off his bike and say he stopped on a high note, but it will be very difficult for him.  The wind could blow sand across the road.  It’s a sprinters day”.

Roche prefers the 2018 course, when the World Championship comes to Austria.  “It’s a very hard circuit” he explained, and could possibly see the rainbow jersey conferred upon a Tour contender once again.  “People are wishing for it to happen”.  On the subject of jerseys, Ned Boulting asked which was the most prestigious in the cycling world – the World Champion’s rainbows or the maillot jaune?  Peter Sagan, taking both the yellow and green jerseys at this year’s Tour de France  – whilst simultaneously being the World Champion and entitled to wear the associated rainbow jersey – famously quipped “If I lose yellow, I have green.  If I lose green, I have rainbow”.  Roche, debating the merits of each, revealed one of his greatest career regrets.  “I regret not being able to wear my rainbow jersey much due to my knee injury”.  Like Roche, Sagan hasn’t been seen in the stripes too often, although this has been due to the number of points and leader’s jerseys he has accumulated in his World Championship year.  “If I were him, I’d have been frustrated to have to wear the green jersey (at the Tour de France).  You only get one chance to wear rainbow”.

Before it was time for Roche to go, Ned Boulting asked if the audience had anything they’d like to ask the Tour legend – “it’s not every day that you have Stephen Roche answering your questions!”  After answering a number of questions from the floor, Roche was asked “what’s your least favourite mountain?”  Spinning the answer in a more positive light, Roche replied “there wasn’t one I didn’t like – but some didn’t particularly like me!”  Relaying the story of his first ever attempt at Alpe d’Huez on the Tour when he was a new face in the peloton at 23, Roche told the Cycle Show “I forgot to eat.  It was lights out at the foot of the Alpe!”  The mountain may have had other ideas, but the 23-year-old Roche wouldn’t have dreamed of giving up.  He rode on, finishing almost twenty minutes down on the bunch, but crossing the line none the less.  “Alpe d’Huez is an incredible climb…it has to be treated with respect”.

It’s a story which sums up Roche’s entire interview – peppered with humour, humility and honesty, whilst showing the reverence with which he held – and still holds – the sport he loves.  A story of the bike, of the road, and above all, of humanity – le Tour in microcosm.  And with that, Stephen Roche leaves the stage, to greet fans clutching pens and programmes, autograph ready.  Almost thirty years on from his golden 1987, Stephen Roche is still a charismatic champion with the ability to inspire, one of the greats, and a fantastic ambassador for the sport.  Chapeau Mr Roche, and also to the Cycle Show – same time next year?

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