Interview: Stephen Roche (part 1)
In this first part of a two-part interview Stephen Roche talks about riding the track, his problems with his knee and how he feels the Irish cycling federation handled the legacy of the Kelly-Roche era.
It’s a sunny Monday morning in Dublin and I’m sitting in the foyer of Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge. Next door is the RDS, where Lance Armstrong held his International Cancer Conference back in 2009. I’m here this morning to interview one of the men who preceded Armstrong on the Tour de France’s roll of honour: Stephen Roche. The Dubliner is back home to plug his new autobiography, Born to Ride (Yellow Jersey Press), and I’ve been squeezed in for a twenty-minute interview in between TV and radio appearances.
The key to a good interview, I’ve always been told, is preparation. Know who you’re interviewing, know what you want to talk to them about and, biff bang bosh, half the job is done. I’ve spent the weekend reading Born to Ride – as well as re-reading The Agony and the Ecstasy and My Road to Victory – and reckon I know what I want to talk to Roche about this morning.
One thing I hadn’t really planned talking to Roche about was his travails with his knee. In a crash during a Six Day race in December 1985 Roche crushed the cartilage in his knee. Most of his 1986 season – his first year with Carrera – was wiped out as doctors struggled to diagnose the problem and treat it properly. Then the injury flared up again in 1987, following a crash in a critérium in Cork prior to the World Championships. All of Roche’s 1988 season was wiped out. Instead of showing off his rainbow jersey and defending his crown in the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, Roche spent most of the year trying to sort his knee out. He never regained the form that carried him through that magical season of 1987, when one man’s exploits on a bike gripped the land, gave cheer to a nation that was slowly dragging itself out of recession and beginning to sow the seeds of the Celtic Tiger economy.
But Roche’s knee is where this interview begins. Two days before I was due to meet Roche I managed to wreck my own knee, nearly dislocating the patella and leaving my knee looking like a bruised and swollen grapefruit. A very sore bruised and swollen grapefruit. It had been tempting to cancel the interview with Roche rather than endure the hassle of getting to Ballsbridge with a knee that really needed rest. But the two days I spent nursing my knee had made me particularly empathetic toward Roche. And kind of curious about his knee problems. So we began with knees and how a German doctor with a surfeit of names finally sorted the problem out for Roche.
It was very, very frustrating, going to all these different doctors and no one really being able to identify the problem. You’d go to one doctor and he’d ask you ‘how long have you been in pain now?’ ‘Two weeks.’ ‘Well, give it another week.’ And you’d go back to him a week later and he’d look at you again and say ‘well, it’s not as bad as it was last week. Give it another week.’ And there you are, your bread and butter is riding your bike and you can’t ride your bike. You’ve been off for two, three, four weeks now and you’re saying to him, ‘one more week is detrimental to my career. I have to get back on my bike.’ And he’d come back with another week of rest.
Then you’d meet these other doctors. ‘Ah yes, I’ll fix that for you.’ All they want to do is open you up so they can see if there’s something in there. They have an idea but they’re just not sure. But, because these are specialists, you kind of have to have confidence in them.”
That, more or less, sums up Roche’s experience throughout the 1986 season, when his knee first started bothering him: bounced from one doctor to the next, with periods of rest and operations in between. When the knee flared up again toward the end of 1987 Roche was expecting more of the same. Until one day, while in Stuttgart for business, he was introduced to a German sport’s specialist, Dr Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, whose client list included the likes of Boris Becker, Yannick Noah, Ivan Lendl and Franz Beckenbauer.
I met Müller-Wohlfahrt by accident, and I was quite sure I was wasting my time after already meeting everyone else, all the biggest doctors in Belgium, France, Spain. Everyone was telling me he was a great guy, but really, what’s he going to tell me that I don’t already know? I met him at a football match, half-time or full-time I don’t remember. We talked and he invited me to go to his office in Munich the following morning. I was in Germany on business and had to go to Munich anyway, to sort out a problem with my passport, so I agreed.
When I got to his office the next morning he had himself, his chiropractor, his physio and a masseur all waiting. After all the other doctors, I was so determined I wasn’t going to open my mouth, to tell them what the problem was. And so I just kept quiet as each one of them came along and examined me, from my big toe to my ears. Then they all congregated in the corner and compared notes. Müller-Wohlfahrt came back to me and gave his diagnosis: this is why you have pain, we think the pain is stemming from this, the whole thing. It was like an x-ray of what had happened to me and I hadn’t told them a thing. It was all good. ‘Well that’s all well and fine, but how’s the knee treated?’ ‘Well, you have to stay ten days here. In ten days you can find some improvement.’ And I said ‘no, sorry, I’m only gone from home for two days, I can’t stay here for ten days.’
And he comes back, ‘you’ve already said you’ve been to the rest of the world and they couldn’t cure you. In ten days’ time if you see no difference here you can go away and tell the world that Müller-Wohlfahrt hasn’t cured you. But I want my chance.’ That sounded very impressive, he was putting his neck on the line, his arguments sounded good. So I was okay with it and I stayed with him for the ten days. And after treatment every day for those ten days I could feel a difference. My knee wasn’t better, but I could feel a difference. And I understood what I was doing. That was the real difference between Müller-Wohlfahrt and the others: he understood the mechanics of it all, which is very important.
Müller-Wohlfahrt maintained that in my first crash I had crushed my cartilage and, when they operated, they shaved a little too much off it. What made that worse was that I was off my bike for two months and so I lost muscle around my knee. The patella went over to one side. Unfortunately, that was the side that was shaven and, as too much had been taken off, when I was riding it was bone against bone. So Müller-Wohlfahrt had to help me bring the muscle up again, in order to pull the patella across. But how do I build the muscle up again when I’ve got pain?
Well he used to inject this glycerine – a sort of temporary cartilage – which enabled me to do weight training. I’d get in at seven o’clock in the morning, every morning. Müller-Wohlfahrt would have put a bandage on my knee the night before and in the morning he’d take the bandage off and have a look at my knee, and then say ok, this is what we’re doing today and he’d organise a physio, the chiropractor and the masseur, everyone, and set out what had to be done that day. I’d do the whole thing and then we’d meet up again at six or seven o’clock in the evening. Then he’d have another look at my knee, put a fresh bandage on with liniment to keep the knee warm, and then we’d start again the next morning at seven o’clock.
There were ten days of that, then back home, then back to him for a week and so on for six months. And then I started back on my bike, for thirty minutes – thirty minutes, ha! I’m the world champion! – and things began to improve.
We struck up a great rapport and I had a lot of confidence in Müller-Wohlfahrt. Every time I’d go back to him I felt that my pain was his pain. He was so interested in what was going on inside my knee, he gave me so much confidence in what he was doing, he’d tell me what he was doing and why he was doing it. Doctors, when I meet them today, they all say ‘well, you couldn’t have done it without an operation.’ But Müller-Wohlfahrt did.”
That, more or less, was the end of the problem. Roche’s knee recovered and he began to get back to what looked like winning form. But then the compensatory injuries caused by living with a messed up knee began to manifest themselves.
During the two years before I met Müller-Wohlfahrt, when I was on the bike, because of the knee, I was riding sideways. And as a result of that I had two slipped discs in my back. I could have had them operated on, but there was no guarantee of success and that would have been another six weeks or two months off the bike, which wouldn’t have been good for me. Or I could make do with it. As Müller-Wohlfahrt said, it was big enough to hurt but it was too small to operate. So, between us, we decided we wouldn’t operate, we’d just try to maintain the pain. And that involved a lot of stretching. During the big Tours, Müller-Wohlfahrt would come see me on the race, he’d come and do a treatment and it basically consisted of a lot of stretching.”
Having talked about the cure I wanted to go back and consider the cause of the problem: what had at first seemed like an innocuous crash during a Six Day race in Paris toward the end of 1985. I say innocuous, in that any crash where you can get back on your bike and ride on doesn’t look too bad. Roche thinks it was a lot more spectacular than that though:
The crash itself was huge. It was incredible. Daniel Gisiger had eight stitches in his head. Two or three guys didn’t get back on their bikes. We were doing sixty odd k an hour coming off the last corner. It was very impressive. I slid the full length of the back straight.”
Ireland isn’t exactly renowned for its track stars. We do have some history; there’s Teddy Hale‘s exploits in America’s Grand Tour and Shay Elliott‘s early years, when he set some track records. But what we really lack is infrastructure. Ireland’s vélodrome is a tarmacadamed track in Eamonn Ceannt Stadium, a small park up the road from where I grew up, in Crumlin. We’ve never had the budget to blow buying baubles and bangles at the Olympics every four years and so track racing is alien to us. And, back in the eighties, fixie chic hadn’t yet taken hold, it wasn’t considered cool to be zipping through town on a single gear bike. (Hell, before Kelly and Roche came along, it wasn’t exactly considered cool to be riding through town, period.) So what was a kid from Dundrum doing riding the track in Paris in the first place?
I started getting involved in track because my directeur sportif, Raphaël Géminiani, wanted me to attack the Hour record.”
Géminiani was Roche’s directeur sportif at La Redoute in 1985, so this would have been the year after Francesco Moser had finally cracked Eddy Merckx’s 1972 Hour ride, over the course of five days in Mexico stuffing more than seventeen hundred metres onto Merckx’s record and pushing the distance out to 51.151 kilometres. Merckx’s 1972 record had been thought to be untouchable before Moser came along. Now it was Moser’s that was thought to be untouchable. Géminiani, though, well he reckoned Roche could take Moser. And Gém should know about these things: he was Jacques Anquetil’s directeur sportif back in 1967 when Maître Jacques had beaten Roger Rivière’s distance but then failed to get the record ratified by the UCI in a contretemps over drug testing.
There’s no point in doing the Hour Record if you don’t have track experience. And the only way of getting track experience is to ride the track. So, I thought, hey, it’s good, a road rider like me with a bit of a name gets good money on the track.”
Back then the Winter Six Day circuit was still a part of the old critérium circuit, races you rode at the invitation of the organisers and which enabled you to pad out your bank account with the appearance fees.
Riding the track was two things for me. One thing was that I did a full season, from the first race of the year to the last. Once the last race was over it was time for a rest. But I always felt that stopping after the Giro di Lombardy wasn’t good for me, physically. So the first week after Lombardy there was a Six Day on and I’d ride that. Resting also made my winter long and I’d always put on weight over the winter. By riding the track I shortened the winter.”
Six Day racing over the years has changed a lot. Compared with the glory days of Madison Square Garden – the days of Teddy Hale and Bobby Walthour – by Roche’s era the track had been tamed. But it was still a pretty hard way to earn a crust. And it was still a helluva spectacle.
We were on the track from seven in the evening ’til two or three in the morning. The vélodrome would be full of smoke and the smell of hamburgers … at the end of the night you felt like you’d eaten ten hot dogs! Those Sixes were amazing and I used to love them. The atmosphere was absolutely unbelievable, really unbelievable.
Tony Doyle was one of the ring leaders of the Six Day mafia then – the Blue Train – and I rode with him, so I was privileged in a way as well. I was a good rider, supple, sustained pressure all the time. It was a good team, Doyle and me. He had the experience. I was really good at taking the laps. I could pedal very easily, that’s why I adapted so easy to the track. On the track pedalling fast is an asset.”
(At that comment we share a bitchy laugh over who it was who invented high-cadence cycling, whether it was Bradley Wiggins today or Lance Armstrong a decade ago. I’m crediting Armstrong, Roche is crediting Wiggins.)
The Hour ride, of course, never came about. It would have been a nice addition to Roche’s palmarès, looked pretty up there alongside the maglia rosa, the maillot jaune and the arc en ciel, but hey, what’s the point in being greedy about these things? Some riders would give their left leg to win just one of those races in the whole of their career. Roche knocked off all three in one season. Annoying and all as his problems with the knee were, what you don’t normally get from Roche is regrets over the races he might have won had he not had the knee problems. So there’s no regrets over never getting to take a shot at the Hour.
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In the years since the Kelly-Roche era ended, Irish cycling has bounced and bumped along. How does Roche feel that the authorities – the Irish cycling federation – coped with managing the legacy of what he and Sean Kelly did for the sport in Ireland?
Definitely they coped with it. But they didn’t actually manage it. They coped with it in that every invitation to go away to foreign events, they coped with those very, very well. They managed it wrongly because they didn’t prepare for what was to come after it. They were too busy trying to cope with the international trips that the sudden international interest that other countries had in Irish cyclists had brought about. Nobody had any time left over to actually put in place an infrastructure for the next generation. With a result we found ourselves in a situation whereby after myself and Kelly, Martin Earley, Kimmage and my brother Laurence had gone, there was nothing left.”
In the years since, the success of Irish cycling on the Continent has largely been down to individuals. Mark Scanlon, Philip Deignan, Nicolas Roche, Dan Martin, Matt Brammeier, they’ve not really been products of the Irish cycling federation, they’ve pushed themselves to the top.
I know. It just goes to show the stupidity that is in the country when you see these riders coming from nothing, with very little help, and seeing where they get to. If there was a national academy, some kind of help …”
How does Roche feel about Sean Kelly’s An Post set-up in Belgium? Rather than a national cycling academy, is a privatised one the best way forward?
It’s a step in the right direction. Sean has a hard time doing what he’s doing. Things could have been made a lot easier for him, I think. I don’t know the whole structure of Sean’s outfit, but yes, it’s a step in the right direction.
I think that even staying more locally before getting to that step would help. I think the young riders could be handled a lot better. The kids could have more professional people looking after them rather than depending on parents to bring along the kids every Sunday. It’s an awful lot to ask, it’s an incredible task for parents to be looking after your kids on a Sunday morning when you are home in bed.”
Coaching is another area in which Roche thinks there’s room for improvement:
There’s guys out there who have all the passion but don’t have the technical side of it. The technical side of it is very interesting for kids today and it’s important that they have people to inform them about that. But we haven’t got that here. We’ve only got people who have read books and have gone down the road themselves.”
So what’s the way forward, what should Cycling Ireland do to today to build for tomorrow? Roche is blunt in what the first step should be:
Clean the office first. That’s a beautiful office but it’s badly maintained. The first thing you see when you go into Cycling Ireland’s headquarters is the state of the office. You don’t have to ask yourself any questions about the state of the federation when you see that.”
Cycling Ireland’s headquarters on Dublin’s North Circular Road are one lasting and visible legacy of Roche’s own era, when he and Kelly turned us, even if only briefly, into a cycling nation. Those headquarters carry the name of that era: Kelly-Roche House.
I have the Roche-Kelly House, or the Kelly-Roche House or whatever you call it, in my heart. It was a major helping hand to the federation, to any federation, and I think it’s not been respected as it should be. If any young kids are looking for a licence and they go into Kelly-Roche House and they look at the state of the place, and the state of the equipment which people don’t maintain, they won’t be encouraged to stay.
Maybe it’s not an issue. But at the same time I think you have an image. When people go into a place where it’s derelict simply because it’s not being looked after – not because its old but simply because people aren’t taking the time to clean it, or dust it, or Hoover it –you can kind of imagine what the rest of the structure is like.”
Next: In part two of this interview we discuss Paris-Nice, the public perception of the Kelly-Roche era today, doping and the next generation.
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Born to Ride, by Stephen Roche (with Peter Cossins) is published by Yellow Jersey Press (2012, 272 pages).