The first accounts I ever read of Stephen Roche’s win at the ’87 Giro d’Italia painted him as a champion unjustly marginalized by his team, a stallion who triumphed despite an effort to cage him. Bill McGann’s account of the ’87 Giro, I think, corrects what has been a misperception regarding the first win by an English-speaking rider at Italy’s national tour. The quote, “History is written by the victors”, often credited to Winston Churchill, seems to resonate with Roche’s victory. It seems a noble quote until you understand that Macchiavelli wrote it nearly 500 years before Churchill came to power. Here is the tale of Roche’s mutiny, properly told.—Padraig
Before the 1987 Giro started it was thought that this edition was going to be a battle between Roberto Visentini and Giambattista Baronchelli. This Giro was in fact contested by Visentini, the 1986 Giro champion, and Stephen Roche, both members of Boifava’s Carrera team. It is strange that such a vicious intra-team rivalry was allowed to occur just after the 1985–1986 La Vie Claire bloodletting between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault that made those Tours de France such soap operas.
Roche had suffered his ups and downs. In 1981, not long after winning Paris–Nice, a blood disorder stalled his career. As he was starting to hit his stride, he crashed in the 1985 Paris Six-Day, badly injuring his knee. His 1986 was forgettable (probably not to the people paying his salary), prompting him to have knee surgery. The repaired Stephen Roche was a new man. In early 1987 he showed good form with firsts in the Tours of Valencia and Romandie and seconds in Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Critérium International.
Visentini was the returning Giro champion but had attained no notable successes that spring. Writer Beppe Conti observed that the two riders were much alike, terrific in time trials and on the climbs and both difficult to manage. Roche in particular didn’t get along with his directors and he didn’t get along with Visentini. Visentini reciprocated the Irishman’s dislike.
The official line from the team was that Carrera had two leaders and that team support would go to the rider most worthy of help. As far as Visentini was concerned, the team had only one leader and that was Roberto. Roche was resentful of what he saw as a loaded deck of cards. He was supposed to be available to support Visentini, but during that spring, Visentini had never turned a pedal to help Roche. Roche felt this arrangement was unfair because he was riding wonderfully well, bringing in high-value wins and placings for Carrera while Visentini so far had nothing to show for the season.
Visentini argued that Roche was focusing on the Tour and that he would be happy to help Roche win in France in July. But…Visentini had already booked a July vacation and Roche knew it. Roche had no plans to sacrifice his own chances to help a man who refused to reciprocate. Furthermore, Visentini hated riding the Tour.
The air was poisonous even before the race began. Visentini let it be known that if necessary to win the Giro, he would attack Roche. Now let’s be fair. Visentini was the reigning Giro champion returning to defend his title and fully expected to have a unified team help him. He certainly had every right to that expectation. The failing was Carrera’s in creating this dilemma.
Roche was almost completely isolated on the team, having his dedicated Belgian friend and gregario Eddy Schepers and mechanic Patrick Valcke as his only trustworthy support.
Visentini drew the first blood by winning the 4-kilometer prologue in San Remo. The next day Erik Breukink won the 31-kilometer half-stage, a ride from San Remo up to San Romolo, beating the pack by 19 seconds. Breukink was now in pink. That afternoon Roche won the 8-kilometer downhill San Remo time trial, beating Breukink by 6 seconds and Visentini by 7. Breukink remained the leader with a 14-second lead over Roche.
The Giro headed south via the Ligurian coast. At Lido di Camaiore, the Carrera team showed that they had the most horsepower when they won the 43-kilometer team time trial, beating second-place Del Tongo by 54 seconds. Baronchelli crashed near the end of the event, finishing well after his team, putting him out of contention.
After stage three the General Classification stood thus:
1. Stephen Roche
2. Roberto Visentini @ 15 seconds
3. Davide Cassani @ 52 seconds
4. Erik Breukink @ 53 seconds
The race continued its southward march with Roche in the lead. According to Roche, rather than acting as a loyal teammate, Visentini just rode on Roche’s wheel, highlighting the adversarial relationship. In the rush to Montalcino in Tuscany, the Irishman was able to pad his lead a little, to 32 seconds.
By stage nine, the race had reached its southernmost point, Bari, and still it was Roche in the lead with Visentini at 32 seconds. Scottish climbing ace Robert Millar, riding for Panasonic, with Breukink and Phil Anderson for teammates, had been first over the majority of the rated climbs, earning him the green climber’s jersey.
In three leaps the race made it to Rimini on the Adriatic coast for the first big event in the drama, an individual time trial up Monte Titano to San Marino. Visentini won the 46-kilometer event and took the lead. Roche’s ride was dreadful. Blaming race jitters and a crash three days before, he came in twelfth, losing 2 minutes 47 seconds.
The new General Classification:
1. Roberto Visentini
2. Stephen Roche @ 2 minutes 42 seconds
3. Tony Rominger @ 3 minutes 12 seconds
4. Erik Breukink @ 3 minutes 30 seconds
5. Robert Millar @ 4 minutes 55 seconds
At this point everyone except Roche and Eddy Schepers thought the Carrera family fight, if not the Giro itself, was over. Visentini again announced that he would work for Roche in the Tour de France.
Roche, an intensely driven man, was burning with indignation and ambition and with Schepers he planned his revolt. They picked stage fifteen to put their plan into action, the first mountain stage with its three major ascents: Monte Rest, Sella Valcalda and a finish at the top of the Cima Sappada.
The story of the Sappada stage is one of the most famous in the modern history of the Giro. An aggressive descent of Monte Rest allowed Roche to separate himself from the pack, taking along Ennio Salvador and Jean-Claude Bagot (whose loyalty had been purchased earlier when Schepers helped him win a stage). Boifava knew immediately what Roche was up to and was having none of it. He drove alongside the fleeing Irishman and told him to stop the attack. Roche refused, telling Boifava that if the other teams didn’t mount a chase, he would win the stage by ten minutes and Carrera would win the Giro. Boifava was unmoved and ordered the Carrera team to bridge up to Roche. The Carrera squad buried itself working to close the gap and Visentini, a high-strung rider, seemed to be having an off-day and suffered badly during the pursuit.
The team chased like fiends, and finally, exhausted, they dropped out of the chase while Roche kept his escape going, leaving Visentini alone to try to salvage his jersey. Eventually a small group caught Roche, but Visentini was not among them. Phil Anderson and Jean-François Bernard were among those who did make the connection, then unsuccessfully tried to get away.
Johan Van der Velde won the stage with Roche in the second chase group, 46 seconds behind. A broken Visentini came in 58th, 6 minutes 50 seconds after Van der Velde. Roche now had a slender 5-second lead over neo-pro Tony Rominger while Visentini was sitting in seventh place, 3 minutes 12 seconds down.
All Italy erupted with fury. The Italian papers blared what they believed was Roche’s betrayal of a teammate who was in pink and who had deserved the unstinting support of all members of the Carrera team. Moreover, Roche had been insubordinate. He had been given a direct order by his director to stop the break and Roche had refused. Carrera management was furious and threatened to keep Roche out of the Tour if he insisted upon winning the Giro. That evening team director Boifava, beside himself with anger over Roche’s buccaneering, reminded Roche that before the stage, Carrera had a five-minute lead on Rominger, now they had only five seconds (thanks in no small part to Boifava’s chasing the Roche break).
Visentini told the papers that someone (meaning Roche) was going home that evening and Boifava ordered Roche not to speak to the press. Roche ignored the command, feeling that if he didn’t speak, no one else would present his case.
Roche’s taking the Pink Jersey so enraged the tifosi that Roche was given police protection. He even went on television to plead for sanity. He later wrote that he was frightened as the fans spit on him and even hit him. Because of the inflamed passions, that day after the Sappada stage is called the “Marmolada Massacre”. It had five big climbs, the final one being the Marmolada, also called the Passo Fedaia. Visentini tried to get away, but Roche marked his every move. While Roche was obviously protecting his lead, another day of what appeared to the Italians of riding against his teammate cost Roche dearly in the eyes of the Italian fans. Second place Rominger lost time that day, but there was no other serious change to the standings.
On the big climbs that followed the Sappada stage, Millar stayed with Roche, riding at his side to protect him from assault while Eddy Schepers did the same. Visentini tried to make Schepers crash, even boasting about his attempted mayhem. The feelings on both sides were raw.
Stage seventeen was the last day in the Dolomites and again, the situation was unchanged. Heading to the Alps and the final time trial, the General Classification stood thus:
1. Stephen Roche
2. Erik Breukink @ 33 seconds
3. Robert Millar @ 2 minutes 8 seconds
4. Flavio Giupponi @ 2 minutes 45 seconds
5. Marco Giovannetti @ 3 minutes 8 seconds
6. Marino Lejarreta @ 3 minutes 12 seconds
7. Roberto Visentini @ 3 minutes 24 seconds
During this Carrera family fight, Torriani and the Giro management were reasonably impartial. Roche said the Giro boss whispered encouragement to him when they would meet. In any case, the incredible drama was selling papers and riveting everyone’s attention to his race. Torriani probably couldn’t believe his good fortune.
The equilibrium remained over the Alpine climbs of stage nineteen and Roche’s slim lead held. It was the twenty-first stage to Pila that Roche showed he was deserving of the maglia rosa when he, Robert Millar and Marino Lejarreta broke clear and arrived in Pila over two minutes ahead of the first group of chasers. This moved Millar into second place. Visentini, suffering a terrible loss of morale, lost another six minutes.
The 1987 Giro ended with a 32-kilometer time trial. Visentini didn’t start, having broken his wrist in a fall in the penultimate stage. Roche won it, cementing his ownership of the lead. While his Carrera team had been deeply divided, especially after Roche’s attack on the Sappada stage, the squad slowly came around to the fact that he would probably win the Giro and therefore yield a good payday for all of them. Roche says that in the final stages he had plenty of support from the team.
But he didn’t get it from the tifosi. To this day the Italians speak bitterly of Roche’s betrayal of Visentini.
Final 1987 Giro d’Italia General Classification:
1. Stephen Roche (Carrera) 105 hours 39 minutes 40 seconds
2. Robert Millar (Panasonic) @ 3 minutes 40 seconds
3. Erik Breukink (Panasonic) @ 4 minutes 17 seconds
4. Marino Lejarreta (Orbea-Caja Rural) @ 5 minutes 11 seconds
5. Flavio Giupponi (Del Tongo-Colnago) @ 7 minutes 42 seconds
1. Robert Millar: (Panasonic) 97 points
2. Jean-Claude Bagot (Fagor): 53
3. Johan Van der Velde (Gis Gelati): 32
1. Johan Van der Velde (Gis Gelati): 175 points
2. Paolo Rosola (Gewiss-Bianchi): 171
3. Stephen Roche (Carrera): 153
Visentini began his racing career by going from one triumph to another, including being Amateur Italian Road Champion and Amateur World Time Trial Champion, his promise being fulfilled with his 1986 Giro win. After the Sappada stage he never again won an important race. He retired to run the family funeral home in 1990 and has had little contact with the cycling world ever since.
Roche, on the other hand, had a brilliant 1987. For all of his trouble with Carrera, Roche, with grudging and equivocal support from his team, was the leader of their Tour de France contingent and raced to a brilliant win. He capped the Giro/Tour double with victory at the World Championships. He joined Merckx as the second rider in cycling history to win the Giro, Tour and World Championship in the same year.
Early the next year he re-injured his knee and from that point he was never a contender for overall victory in Grand Tours. He won several important shorter stage races before retiring in 1993.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti