How Stephen Roche finished in the pink in the Giro d’Italia
Stephen Roche recalls the 1987 rivalry with Roberto Visentini that almost tore his team apart
It is said that time heals everything, but Roberto Visentini might question that sentiment. Twenty seven years ago Ireland’s Stephen Roche went head to head with him in the Giro d’Italia, wresting the race leader’s jersey from his then team-mate and incurring the wrath of Visentini, their Carrera team and the Italian fans.
Roche was spat at, punched and endured days of abuse from the roadside spectators but battled on and took the final win. As for Visentini, he crashed out of the race on the final weekend, his wrist fractured and his morale destroyed. Roche thought things had settled somewhat in the years since, but the Italian never forgot. It appears he didn’t forgive either.
“Two years ago Carrera had a 25th anniversary for me and the whole ’87 team was there, along with all the riders who rode with Carrera during their 14 year career,” Roche told The Irish Times. “Visentini was obviously invited; he was the only one who was notably missing.
“I spoke him in one or two races I saw him in in 1987 and 1988, and I thought it [their feud] was all forgotten about. But when he was not there at the Carrera reception, I asked a journalist if there was any news from him. He said to me, ‘I spoke to him on the phone yesterday. Well, actually I had to hold the phone about a metre away from my ear because of all the screaming. He was shouting, ‘how can you expect me to go to a meeting like this after all they have done to me?’ So obviously he hasn’t buried the hatchet.”
The Roche-Visentini clash was one of the most vivid examples of what happens when team-mates go head to head against each other in one of cycling’s top events. It followed an episode 10months earlier when the 1985 Tour de France champion Bernard Hinault essentially reneged on a promise made to support his younger La Vie Claire team-mate Greg LeMond in the French race.
Rather than helping LeMond to victory as payback for the American’s support 12 months earlier, Hinault went on the attack, grabbed the yellow jersey and began a civil war. LeMond eventually won out.
The situation with the Carrera team in 1987 had parallels, but was also a little different. Roche was enjoying the best year of his career. Visentini hadn’t done as much in the months before, but wanted to lead as the defending champion.
Both were ferociously ambitious and, as the race unfolded, their duel would provide the compelling drama of that Giro d’Italia. Years later the race is still remembered as one of the standout editions.
“Starting off, Visentini beat me in the prologue,” says Roche. “Then we did a time trial down the Poggio, which I won and leapfrogged him on GC. Carrera then won the team time trial and because I was the highest placed rider on my team, I took over in the pink jersey.
“I thought that made me team leader, but Visentini got the jersey back off me 10 days later in the San Marino time trial. I had crashed two days before. There was a major sprint finish, a whole pile of us came down, and I was hit from behind . . . someone came from behind me and really put his handlebars into my butt . . . I had a very big hematoma on my cheek, which made it very painful to pedal.”
In addition to the physical bruising, Roche admits he also cracked mentally before the start of the solo test. He normally drew back from others on the day of time trials, giving himself space to concentrate his thoughts beforehand.
However Visentini badgered him, repeatedly asking him questions about the course, the wind direction, the correct gearing and other issues. He even sat down with Roche when the latter was trying to eat, firing more questions at him.
If it was a ploy to destabilise him, it worked. “My preparation was usually about me getting into my bubble. But from him asking me stupid questions and me feeling obliged to answer, my bubble was deflated,” says Roche. “There was a multitude of things. I had a crash two days earlier, I had a bit of a sore leg, then I had the stress of him breathing down my neck as well. All of that made it a day when I had nothing in my legs.”
Roche was only 12th in the time trial, while Visentini dominated it and took over the race lead by over two minutes. Most thought the race for pink had been decided, with Roche expected by his team to back the Italian. He saw it another way.
‘Very honest of him’
“Visentini said on television that he was settling himself into the leader’s place and also that of the Carrera team. At the same time he said that there would be no payback for Roche because he wasn’t going to the Tour to help me. In ways that was very honest of him to say, but at the same time why would I be expected to ride 100 percent for the team?”
Roche sat down with team-mate Eddy Schepers and together they decided that there was a lot of racing left. They pinpointed the mountain stage to Sappada as one where Visentini could be caught unawares; Roche says now his decision to go on the attack there was not a calculated one, but at the time many saw his move as his clear ambition to win the race.
“By getting into a break I was actually defending the jersey so Carrera didn’t have to ride behind, so it was a good move,” he argues. “What happened was I went down the descent a bit too fast, and nobody could follow me. I wasn’t attacking as such, I didn’t realise it was going to do as much damage as I did.”
Once clear, Roche bridged up to the break. His Italian team manager Davide Boifava drove up alongside him and demanded to know what he was doing; the Irish man replied that in being in the day’s escape move, that he was essentially defending the jersey for the Carrera team.
“He told me then to back off, because they said that behind there were bodies everywhere, there were bodies hanging from the trees, on the ground, in ones and twos. That I had split the race in smithereens. I said, ‘that’s grand, that’s not a problem.’ He said, ‘it is a problem, because Visentini is riding behind you in a small group.’”
Roche told his team manager that Visentini and the team should stop chasing; that in playing the Roche card, Carrera would force the other teams to conduct the pursuit and thus give it an armchair ride to the finish.
Things turned more serious then. “He said, ‘you have to stop.’ I said, ‘tell Visentini to stop and I will stop. If he doesn’t stop, tell him to keep something under the pedals because he is going to need it.’”
The Italian fans and TV viewers were then faced with the highly unusual – some might say farcical – view of a rider being chased by his own team. Roche was eventually caught, but Visentini cracked and slipped backwards on the final climb.
Roche was suffering greatly due to the effort he had put in, but dug deep and managed to limit his losses. At the finish he took the pink jersey by five seconds; had he not done so, he is convinced the team would have immediately sent him home.
It nearly did so anyway. A furious Visentini went on Italian television and lambasted Roche, saying that “people” would be leaving the race.
Roche was told by his team not to speak to the press and when he rode in the Maglia Rosa the following day, was spat at and hit by fans.
He continued to defend the race lead and, over time, the mood changed. He says the spectators realised that for all his talk, Visentini was unable to get any time back on Roche. It became clear that the strongest rider was in the lead, and by the end of the race he was applauded as a worthy winner.
Analysing it almost three decades later, he recognises the three-week race transformed him as a person. It showed him he had mental reserves he was previously unaware of. “If you had told me beforehand about the scenario and how tough things would be, I would say that I would be going home. Because I could never imagine it being so hard. I didn’t imagine that I would be able to stick that sort of pressure.
“The fans were trying to kill me and the press were really hitting me hard, initially anyway. Then in my own team it was very difficult also as my team-mates were still a little bit on Visentini’s side.”
He went on to win the Tour de France and the world road race championships the same year, joining Eddy Merckx as the only rider to take the treble in one season. He’s clear that winning the Giro d’Italia helped him in those events.
“I had to go very, very deep that day to Sappada and, afterwards, my attitude towards the public was, ‘say what you want, I am not going home.’ I had an attitude which was very, very strong . . . probably a side to my character that I didn’t know I had. It just came through.”
Twenty seven years later, the memories and the emotions they evoke still live within Roche. It’s the same for Visentini, but for very different reasons.