By Steve Thomas
Spring 1981 and the Paris-Nice headed into its iconic time trial stage up the Col d’Eze. A 19-year old Dubliner riding for the Peugeot team was about to formally open his long chapter in the annals of cycling history. His name was Stephen Roche.
In the weeks before that race the young Irish rider had taken his first ever pro race victory — the Tour of Corsica; slaying a certain Bernard Hinault in the process. Then on the fabled and sunny slopes rising from central Nice, the affable youngster was about to take one of the biggest honors in cycling, a sport still very much dominated by the major European nations.
Roche took the time trial and the overall victory, scribing his name down alongside the all-time greats.
At just 19, Roche was, and remains, the youngest winner of the “Race to the Sun.”
“I always remember that day, riding a 44 x 17/18 on the climb. I went on to win another couple of times on the Eze, but that was my only overall win,” Roche remembered in a recent interview with VeloNews.
Over the next few years the race was to become very much an Irish occasion, with the GC often being fought out between Roche and Sean Kelly, who won the race seven times in all.
“There were less than a handful of Irish riders in the peloton at that time, but we made the race our own for a while. I rank it as one of the top three stage races in France (Along with the Tour and Dauphine), and it’s always been very special to me.”
Over the years Roche got to know every inch of road in the region. “Myself and Sean (Kelly) were based for training in a small hotel here for a very long time, and then I ended up moving here, opened a hotel, and still think it’s a great region for cycling — one of the few places in Europe where you can ride through the whole winter in good weather, and on great roads.”
Back in the 80’s and 90’s, Nice was in its heyday as a base for top pros, with most of the Australian pros based there, along with Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal team.
“It’s having something of a revival now,” Roche said. “There are still lots of top pros based here, and we get lots of teams come for training too.”
As we were speaking the 1987 Triple Crown (Giro-Tour-World Championship) winner was busy checking out the guests at his hotel. “We just had the Endura team here to train, and we get lots of other cyclists coming to ride. We’ve just opened a new restaurant, and have the bike tours in Majorca too, so it really restricts time. But I went out yesterday for a one hour and a half, I still really like to ride the bike.”
I’d ridden many of the local roads with the great man in the past, and his memories and tales of great racing battles on the local climbs are truly entertaining, as is his famous tactical insight and sense. “Young riders don’t have the tactical sense these days. Their directors do all the thinking for them (referring to race radios), which makes the racing much more predictable.”
On viewing the parcours of this year’s Paris-Nice, certain memories were evoked; “Well, in the past few years it’s been a really tight and exciting race. It has come own to attacks on the last day. The Col de Vence will make a big difference, but they may have snow, which could be a problem.
“I would like to see it come over the opposite way, that’s very tough, and would really stir things up. In ’87 I was leading the race and punctured on the Vence going in the same direction as it does this year. I had to chase flat out on the decent, but Kelly, Charlie Mottet and Jean Francoise Bernard had already attacked, and it lost me the race. It leaves a bitter-sweet memory of that day, as I won the afternoon time trial on the Eze, so that was a great feeling.”
We’ve seen some big battles by the biggest riders in recent years, with the cream of the pro peloton turning out and fighting almost as hard as they would in the Tour de France.
“It’s a very high profile race, but it’s also a race where the big riders have to come out to really test and prove themselves. There are very few early races where you see Tour contenders racing like that. It ‘s like banging your fist down; saying I’m the boss, which sets the scene some, especially on the morale side. With the Eze coming so late in the race, it could well be decided in the final kilometers of the race, by seconds rather than minutes.”
This year’s line up will be no exception; “Obviously the big guys (Valverde, Contador etc) are on good form, and will want to prove that. But from what I’ve seen in the Tour of the Med, Haut Var, and so on there are a lot of young guys coming through. There are a couple of good French guys on great form too; Christophe Le Mevel being the most impressive, so there could be a couple of French surprises, which is about time. The Italians always like to put on a race here too.“
And of course there will be two other young Irish riders lining up for the race, his son Nicolas and nephew Dan Martin. Could we see an Irish revival?
“This year Nicolas has come on two notches physically, and a notch mentally — he’s learning, and is very classy. Dan, well — he’s far more tactical, a very smart rider, who stresses over nothing, but they’re still young, It’s like to see them up there, and it’s definitely possible …”