Stephen Roche, a milkman's son from Dublin, rode victoriously Sunday along Paris's Champs-Élysèes as that epic bicycle race, the 25-day Tour de France, came to a rousing conclusion. Roche, 27, has an endorsement deal with a battery company in Ireland and a high-voltage smile that has been seen a lot this year. With his triumph he became only the fifth cyclist to win the classic tours of both Italy and France in the same year. On a map, the places where Roche, riding for Italy's Carrera team in his fifth Tour de France, won it look like pieces of the small intestine. They're the series of Alpine switchbacks that, sandwiched between two time trials, made up the final week of the race, a winding course that required both guts and guile.
France's Jean-Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois Bernard had gained the maillot jaune, the yellow jersey worn by the leader of the Tour, in the Mont Ventoux time trial on July 19, and as the riders headed toward Villard-de-Lans the next morning, Roche made certain to be near the front of the pack. He had heard that Système U, a French team, was planning to attack on a narrow stretch in the village of Lèoncel, where the riders must file through a feed zone. As the leaders reached the bottom of the Col de Tourniol and grabbed their food bags, Bernard was far behind with the rest of the pack. Three Système U riders started a breakaway with Roche right behind them. By the time the stage ended, Bernard had lost 4:13 and handed over his jersey to Roche.
The Irishman would lose it the next day on the ascent to L'Alpe d'Huez. Spain's Pedro Delgado, who last year had abandoned the Tour in tears after learning of his mother's death, took a 25-second overall lead over Roche after skillfully negotiating the 22 switchbacks up the mountain to the finish. Bernard was now more than two minutes back, and the race had distilled into a duel between Roche and Delgado, with two mountain stages and a relatively flat time trial to go.
The next day, on that stage's final climb, Delgado broke away, and with five kilometers left had 49 seconds on Roche. But Delgado had moved too soon, and alone. Over those final few turns, Roche was up off the saddle, pumping away en danseuse, as the French say, like a dancer. He finished only four seconds behind the Italian, then slumped astride his bicycle before being trundled off and treated for oxygen debt. With only one stage remaining in the mountains, where Delgado excels, Roche was just 39 seconds behind. The rider they call l'Homme Mètronome—Metronome Man—had picked up the pace as he sensed victory. Said Italy's Luciano Loro, "The way he gritted his teeth and almost overtook Delgado was superhuman."
Delgado's last real chance to put time between himself and Roche came the following day, last Friday, near the Swiss border, on a stage that ended with a perilous descent into Morzine. But Roche was even with him at the crest of the last hill, the Col de Joux-Plane, and he knew that the Spaniard had suffered a terrible fall on this very descent two years ago, breaking his collarbone. As Roche rolled over the crest, Bernard was just ahead of him. Roche yelled, "Écartetoi!"—get out of the way—flicked into his highest gear and passed the Frenchman. Delgado also tried to pass Bernard, but the hairpins were too tight. He could only watch as Roche made up 18 seconds of his deficit on the 15-kilometer slalom into town. Roche now trailed by only 21 seconds, which he easily made up on Saturday in Dijon in the time trial, finishing 1:01 ahead of Delgado. At one point an Irish flag, brandished by a spectator on the route, seemed to brush Roche's head ever so slightly as he cruised over the 38-kilometer course, building the 40-second lead which was his margin of victory in Paris.
Roche won only two of the Tour's 25 stages, so the victory was a credit to his consistency. To win in Italy in June, however, Roche showed an almost reckless aggressiveness. When he took an early lead in the race, his fellow Carrera rider, Roberto Visentini, did nothing to help him. Two weeks into the event, Visentini took over the leader's jersey. Although he was riding on an Italian team in Italy's biggest race, Roche tore after his Italian teammate against orders. It was an almost daft thing to do. As Roche began his attack, the Carrera team director, Davide Boifava, pulled alongside the Irishman, telling him that if he didn't desist, he had best keep pedaling beyond the finish.
Roche forged ahead. Desperate, Boifava sent Patrick Valcke, Roche's French mechanic and good friend, to try and talk some sense to him. Roche, who lives outside Paris with his two children and wife, Lydia, a former junior sprint champion, speaks French fluently, but Valcke could not convince him to desist in any language.
After his attack on Visentini, Roche pedaled a gauntlet for the next few stages, being spat upon and derided by fans on the roadside, while the Italian press called him a traitor. As it happened, Visentini abandoned the race six days later, after a crash, and the Irishman won so decisively—by nearly four minutes—that most of Italy came to see him as a worthy champion.
The Italy-France double is to bicycle racing what the Grand Slam is to tennis. The four other cyclists who did it were giants of the sport: Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Fausto Coppi. But those first two were French and the last Italian, and Merckx, a Belgian, was a francophone. Roche had to win more than just two races; he had to win over two countries.
And so, with the notable exception of France's Jeannie Longo, who finally beat her Italian nemesis, Maria Canins, for the women's title, this was a Tour de France without borders, a Tour for touristes. Raise a Big Gulp to the 7-Eleven outfit that placed third in the team points competition: 7-Eleveners Davis Phinney of Boulder, Norway's Dag Otto Lauritzen and Jeff Pierce of La Mesa, Calif., each won stages, and Mexico's Raul Alcala won the white jersey as the best newcomer. Delgado and his Spanish countrymen won three of the four Alpine stages. And not since Samuel Beckett has an Irishman so brilliantly imposed himself on that which the French hold dear.
For Stephen Roche, patient and impetuous in just the right measure, there was no more waiting.
Delgado, who led during the 22nd stage, had clearly bitten off more than he could chew.
Roche, in the yellow jersey of the Tour leader, rode consistently from first day to last.