Programmer maker Donal O'Herlihy introduces his Documentary On One production The Orwell Wheeler, a portrait of cyclist Stephen Roche - listen to The Orwell Wheeler above.
I love cycling. I always have. From the first time I rode a bike I was infused with an incredible feeling of freedom. Later in life I became obsessed with bike racing and was transfixed on the big continental races like the Tour De France. The big cycling magazine at the time was called Winning and I remember staring at images from these races awestruck and wondering how champions of the sport like Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond did what they did. They were gods to me.
I grew up in Cabinteely in Dublin. My local club was called Sorrento, but just a couple of miles up the road was Dundrum. The local club there was called the Orwell Wheelers. In the 1980s they had produced a professional racer who was now cycling on the continent. His name was Stephen Roche.
The three biggest races in the world are the Giro d'Italia (the tour of Italy), the Tour De France and the World Championships. It’s very difficult to explain just how hard it is to even be on the starting line of any of these races. It requires years and years of training and dedication. And even that won’t do it. You also need talent. Completing any of these races is the stuff of legend. Winning one of them is almost a pipe dream.
In 1987 Roche had been riding professionally for a couple of years and he had turned a few heads. He had real talent, could climb the big mountains, and also time trial which meant he could hold his own in the long three week races like the Giro and Tour. The world championships is a long one day race and not suited to a rider like Roche. It tends to be won by the more "built up" guys who are able to sprint. The Giro was in May and Roche raced it for a team called Carrera. They were an Italian outfit and Roche was not the star on that team because they had one of the darlings of Italian sport in their ranks - Roberto Visentini. The understanding was that the entire 9 man team would ride for Visentini and help him to try to win the race.
Roche had other ideas.
Visentini led the race for a while and had the distinctive pink jersey of race leader. He was asked in an interview, if Stephen helped him in the Giro would he help Roche the following month in the Tour De France. He said no because he was wasn’t riding the Tour - he had decided to go on holidays instead. Roche was 27 years old and had never won a big tour. On a stage of the race into Sappada, Roche attacked his own teammate and took the pink jersey. The Italian public were outraged at this act of treachery and he was subjected to daily attacks on the bike from spectators on the side of the road. He was kicked, spat on and even punched, but he kept going. Roche won the Giro.
The following month was the Tour De France and Roche had decided to ride it. One of the favourites for the Tour was the Spanish rider Pedro Delgado - a pure climber and almost impossible to catch in the Alps and Pyrenees - the mainstay of the Tour. But Roche kept going, knowing that if he could stay in touch by a minute or so, he could recover that time in a time trial on the second last day. The tour was about to see one of the most dramatic days
in its history on the climb to La Plange. Delgado attacked Roche and at one point was two minutes ahead of him. It appeared to all that the race was over. Race radio had broken down and there was no camera motor bike with Roche. All anybody knew was that he was somewhere on that mountain two minutes down. Delgado crossed the line triumphant in the knowledge that he had won the tour but as he rolled across the finish you could spot a rider coming up the road behind him just a few seconds down. Commentators and fans strained to see who it was until it became clear that, outrageously, it was Roche. He had saved the day by putting his head down and burying himself in pain on the climb.
Two days later he won the Tour De France. He became only the fifth rider in history to win the two big tours in the same season.
September saw the single day race of the world championships. This is the only race of the year in which competitors ride on national teams. Ireland had another professional with a chance of winning it - the world class sprinter Sean Kelly. Roche vowed to ride the race to help Kelly. Six hours of riding later, the race entered its last mile but there was a problem. The group of riders had split and Kelly was caught on the wrong end of it. Roche was up front with four other riders, but he was not a sprinter and had no chance of winning if it came to a dice like that. He had no choice and he had make his move from a mile out. There was a tiny gap between one of the riders and the crowd barriers. Roche squeezed through it as the other four were blindsided. By the time they realised what was happening he was already well ahead of them. Incredulously, he won that race too.
This boy from Dundrum had won all three of the world’s major races and he did it in the same season. To put it in perspective. It’s a feat that was only achieved once before him by the cycling colossus Eddie Merckx. It’s never been achieved since.
Stephen Roche, the Orwell Wheeler.
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