Looking back at the 1987 Tour de France, which was won by Stephen Roche after an epic fightback on the slopes of La Plagne

(#01 – Top 10 Highlights from 2016 Tour de Travoy) The photo above shows Stephan Roche trying to hang on as Pedro Delgado in the Yellow Jersey attacks in the Alps during the 1987 Tour de France. By the time the Tour finished in Paris a few days later, the Yellow Jersey would be on the shoulders of Stephan Roche and not Delgado.  The battle between the 2 leading riders in 1987 was arguably one of the best contests in the history of the Tour de France. But not only was the 1987 Tour one of the most dramatic Tours ever, it was also one of the most political of all time as well. It had started in West Berlin just 2 years before the Berlin Wall and communism across Eastern Europe would fall. In an early sign of glasnost or openness, the Tour included an amateur team from communist Europe and a Polish rider from that team wore the Yellow jersey as the leader of the race after the first stage. But the 1987 Tour is mostly remembered nowadays for Stage 21 which finished at the ski resort of La Plagne and which resulted in the arguably most dramatic finish to a Tour de France stage finish ever. Stephan Roche, who had been 25 seconds that morning behind the leader of the Tour, Pedro Delgado, could only watch in horror as he was dropped by Delgado and the peloton at the start of the climb but he somehow found the will and strength to claw his way back up to the leaders and as a result, effectively win the 1987 Tour de France.


Sign for the ski resort of La Plagne. This is the same view that Roche, Delgado and the other cyclists in the 1987 Tour de France would have had as they approached the climb of La Plagne at the end of Stage 21. The climb of La Plagne is similar to Alpe d’Huez in that it also has 21 numbered hairpins. But whereas Alpe d’Huez is 14 km long and climbs about 1080m, La Plagne is much longer at 21 km in length and climbs a total of 1400m. However, the gradient on La Plagne only averages 6.7% whereas on Alpe d’Huez it is much steeper and averages 8.1%.

3D profile of the climb to La Plagne courtesy of Veloviewer. La Plagne is famous as it was here that Stephen Roche had to get oxygen after he collapsed at the finish of an epic stage of the Tour de France in 1987. Stage 21 between L’Bourg d’Oisans and La Plagne was the Queen stage in the 1987 Tour de France and featured the Haute Categorie climbs of the Galibier and the Madeliene before tackling the 21 km long climb to La Plagne.

Similar profile to Stage 21 of the 1987 Tour de France. The profile above is actually for Stage 16 of the 2002 Tour de France which started near Bourg d’Oisans and also climbed the Galibier and Madeleine before finishing in La Plagne. Michael Boogard won the stage to La Plagne in 2002 but there was very little drama that day unlike in 1987 which has long since passed into Tour de France folklore.

Source : Bikeforums.net

Delgado and Roche slugging it out during the 1987 Tour de France. On Weds the 22nd July, Roche started Stage 21 in second place on GC, 25 seconds behind Pedro Delgado. The day before, Roche had lost 1 minute and 44 seconds to Delgado on the climb to Alpe d’Huez and most pundits gave him little chance of wining the overall. However, Roche had other ideas and after crossing over the Galibier with the peloton, he attacked at the foot of the Madeleine. However, he was later caught and then dropped by Delgado and the peloton here at Aime at the start of the final climb of the day to La Plagne. What happened next is best told in Stephan Roche’s own words.

“I had attacked at the foot of the Madeleine but I found that no-one could ride with me. I rode the whole thing myself and down the other side. But Delgado had now regrouped. He chased and chased, and caught me a few kilometres before the start of the climb into La Plagne. I tried putting myself in his shoes. What would he do? I thought he would attack. If I go after him, he’ll go again and again and again, and I’ll never make it to the top. So my plan came together: let him go, stay within distance and try to recuperate. My thing was, if I went with him, I wouldn’t make it. So let him go and let him think he’s made it, hold the gap, and with 4km to go just give it everything.”

“He got to 30 seconds, then 40 seconds, then 50. I’m trying to keep my tempo. Then I notice that, as I get into my rhythm, that the gap is going up by five seconds at a time rather than 10, then two, then one. I think, it’s working! I stabilise the gap at one minute 25. I think, maybe he’s shot his bolt. Maybe I can hold him here. Him in his own brain, he’s thinking one min 25 up, add the 25 this morning, that’s 1.50 overall, should be enough for the time trial. I’m telling myself that’s what he’s thinking. So if I can accelerate at 4km, at 3km, he may think he’s okay. There’ll be confusion.”

There certainly was confusion. With only two television cameras covering the stage, one on stage leader Laurent Fignon and the other one filming Delgado in the yellow jersey, Roche was closing in by stealth, unnoticed and ignored by riders and reporters alike.

“I had done a recce beforehand. I knew the final 4km. I knew it wasn’t too difficult – it was rolling. I should be able to sustain a big effort over 4km. So I give it everything I have. I found resources. I need to claw back at least 45 seconds, but I can’t see where he is – the crowds, the zig-zag roads. I’ve no race radio. Any information my own car might have had from the race director I won’t hear because of the noise. I feel myself working through my gears. There’s a burning in my legs, but it’s not a killing burn. It’s hurting all right, but I can cope with this burn for 4km. The fire is lit inside. I’m riding almost to explosion, but if I explode I will drop.”

Incredibly, Roche then puts his chain into the big ring. This is something Marco Pantani used to do on the big climbs to taunt his rivals but to think Roche did the same at the end of a 185 km long mountain stage to chase down Delgado is just mind blowing.

“Five hundred metres to go, the road opens out, and I put – crunch! – the chain on the big ring. It was like going from first gear to fifth in a car. For a moment I locked up, stalled. Then it picked up again and I got the chain turning over, waggh waggh, faster and faster, and then on the final corner, there was Delgado.”

Channel 4 coverage of the finish to Stage 21 at La Plagne. At one stage, Roche was nearly 2 minutes behind Delgado on the climb of  La Plagne but closed to within 4 seconds of the Spaniard at the finish line. The ensuing pandemonium is best captured in that famous piece of television commentary from Phil Liggett, who like everyone else had been caught completely unaware by Roche’s fightback.

“Just who is that rider coming up behind – because that looks like Roche! That looks like Stephen Roche… it’s Stephen Roche, has come over the line! He almost caught Pedro Delgado, I don’t believe it!”

This is probably the most famous piece of commentary in all of cycling history. But apparently, anyone who was watching the race live did not hear Phil Liggett utter those famous words until about 10 seconds after Roche had crossed the line. Liggett was as confused as everyone else as to the identity of the rider who almost caught Delgado and didn’t mention Roche’s name until about 10 seconds later. But when the highlights were shown that evening, 6 seconds were cut from the audio track by a sound engineer to make it appear as if Liggett was describing all the drama at the same time as Roche was approaching the finish line just behind Delgado.


Roche needed oxygen after collapsing at the finish in La Plagne. The huge effort to chase down Delgado caused him to collapse to the ground soon after finishing and he had to be treated by paramedics and given oxygen.

“The doctor puts the oxygen mask on me straight away. ‘Stephen, move your legs in…’ and I can’t move my legs. I can move nothing. He’s trying to put a survival blanket on me, and I can’t move my arms.”

For 10 minutes, Roche’s only method of communicating with the medical team was by blinking his eyes. When, eventually, he regained movement in the back of an ambulance, his first words to the frantic reporters looking for reassurance about his health were “Everything’s okay, mais pas de femme ce soir (but no women this evening).” Gas, just gas. Eventhough he was stretchered into an ambulance, he was not taken to a hospital and instead was dropped off at his team hotel that evening. Although he was advised to rest and eat in his hotel room, he insisted on having dinner in the hotel restaurant and took the stairs rather than the lift to show to his team that he had recovered sufficiently to start the next day.


Results of Stage 21 in the 1987 Tour de France. Despite collapsing at the finish line, Roche was still given a 10 second penalty for illegally taking food from his team car. This meant he lost a total of 14 seconds to Delgado and was now 39 seconds behind the Spaniard overall. However, the next day during the last Alpine stage to Morzine, Delgado was unable to drop Roche on the climb of the Joux du Plane. A few kilometres from the top of the climb, Roche attacked Delgado and incredibly, managed to gain 18 seconds on the Spaniard. This meant Roche was only 21 seconds behind Delgado going into the final time trial in Dijon.


Delgado and Roche during the Stage 24 time trial.  Roche beat Delgado by 1 minute and 1 second in the time trial which was enough to win the Tour de France overall by 40 seconds. Notice in this photo that while Delgado is riding with clipless pedals, Roche was using old fashioned toe clips. Notice also, that neither rider is wearing an aerodynamic helmet. The winner of the time trial that day, Jean Francois Bernard was wearing a helmet and beat both Roche and Delgado by over a minute. Roche had beaten Bernard by over a minute at the Stage 10 time trial in Futoroscope but he finished almost 2 minutes behind the Frenchman here in Dijon. In fact, Jean Francois Bernard could have ended up winning the Tour that year had he not lost 4 minutes after puncturing during one of the Alpine stages. The time trial in Dijon is also noteworthy because a young Spanish cyclist competing in his first Tour de France finished sixth that day. Miguel Indurain was only about 50 seconds behind Roche on the day and would go on to dominate time trials in the Tour de France throughout the early Nineties.


Results of the Stage 24 time trial.  It is a long time ago now but I still remember to this day listening to Jimmy Magee commentate live on Irish TV (RTE) as Roche overtook Delgado during the time trial in Dijon. Jimmy Magee’s co-commentator that day was one of the McQuaids and it may even have been Pat McQuaid who would almost 20 years later go on to become president of the UCI. I may be wrong but I think RTE only started showing the Tour de France after Roche had won the Stage 10 time trial. Nowadays, TV and media deals for big sporting events are agreed years in advance but back in the Eighties, broadcasting rights for sporting events were arranged on a more ad-hoc basis. RTE certainly didn’t show any of the Giro d’Italia live that Roche had won in May 1987 and I am nearly sure they didn’t show the first week of the Tour de France that year also. However, my memory is a bit fuzzy particularly so as our TV was broke during the summer of 1987 due to a blown valve. There was no picture on the TV but the audio still worked and I was able to tune in RTE and listen as Jimmy Magee and Pat McQuaid described the drama in Dijon as Roche clawed back the time gap on Delgado. Anyone who had a TV in the 80’s will remember that the valves would often blow in the back of a TV and the picture would vanish. That is why most people would rent TV’s in those days as they could then get a replacement when the picture went. We used to rent our TV’s from Samzone in Gweedore and definitely had one the previous summer as I remember watching the World Cup in Mexico. But we must have been busy during the summer of 1987 and had to make do without a replacement TV. But we definitely had one when Stephen Roche appeared on the Late Late Show in December 1987 with Gay Byrne and they showed highlights from his Tour victory. It would be the first time I would actually get to see the dramatic scenes at La Plagne and  Roche’s performance in the Dijon time trial.

Source : Cyclismas.com

Podium in Paris after the 1987 Tour de France. This photo shows Roche alongside Delgado and Jean Francois Bernard on the podium on the Champs Elysses. Unfortunately, no Irishman has ever pulled on a Yellow Jersey or an geansai bui as it is called in Irish since this photo was taken almost 30 years ago. Incredibly also, it would be over 20 years after Jean Francois Bernard’s 3rd place finish in 1987 and Laurent Fignon’s 2nd place finish in 1989 before a Frenchman appeared on the Tour de France podium again. No country has won the Tour more times than France but from 1990 to 2013, not one Frenchman even made it onto the podium in Paris until in 2014, when Jean Christophe Perraud was second and Thibaut Pinot 3rd.

Source : Newstalk.com

Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Charlie Haughey and Stephen Roche. Of course, what most Irish people remember about that day is that somehow Roche ended up sharing the podium with our Taoiseach at the time, Charles Haughey. Charlie was fond of flying to Paris to stock up on Charvet shirts at their shop on the Place Vendome opposite the Ritz hotel. However, despite the Troubles in the North and the poor economy back home, he still made the decision to drop everything and fly off on the Government jet to join in the celebrations.  He met up with his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac, and they got into one of the cars in the cavalcade following the cyclists up and down the Champs Elysses which he later described as “one of the greatest experiences of my life. It is one of my favourite cities… the atmosphere, the excitement. It was just unbelievable.”.

Roche on the podium in Paris as Charlie Haughey looks on. Roche was later presented with the Yellow Jersey by Chirac and he was then given a cuddly toy lion by Haughey, who then raised Roche’s arm like a referee after a boxing fight as the world’s media looked on. Of course in the Irish media ever since, Haughey has been pilloried for upstaging Roche. For example, Fergal McKay writing in Cyclismas described the occasion thus

”On the final podium in Paris the Irish Taoiseach – our prime minister – hugged Roche. Charlie Haughey was one of the cutest whoors in Irish politics (a despicable game played by cute whoors) and had flown to Paris to make sure that everyone back home knew that Roche’s victory was down to his party’s policies : a vote for Fianna Fáil was a vote for the future of Irish cycling (i.e more emigration). It was hilarious to watch but Haughey could get away with it because no one outside of Ireland knew who he was.”


Stephen Roche celebrates winning the Tour de France. At the time too, I wasn’t too happy at Haughey gatecrashing Stephen’s victory parade but having read about the incident since, it seems as if, like a lot of Irish people, he was genuinely swept up by the occasion. Certainly, Roche himself didn’t seem to mind him being there and in 1999, when asked about Haughey said  “There is something else I appreciate now more than ever too, and that was having the Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, stand on the podium beside me. At the time, it didn’t mean a lot to be honest. But, in hindsight, whatever the motive was, I do appreciate it.”. There is no doubt that Haughey was a crook and pulled off some awful strokes in his lifetime but flying to Paris to congratulate Roche on his victory certainly was not one of them.


Route of the 1987 Tour de France. The 1987 Tour de France was historic for all sorts of reasons not just because it was the only time an Irishman has won it. At 4,261 km, it was one of the longest post war Tour’s and incredibly, also featured 5 time trials counting the prologue and the team time trial. It started on a Wednesday whereas nowadays the Tour always starts on a Saturday. The race began in Berlin in Germany but at the time, Germany was still divided into West and East. Berlin itself was also divided in 2 and the Tour was not allowed to enter East Berlin. Indeed, it would be another 2 years before the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was re-united. So looking back at the photos from the 1987 Tour start in West Berlin, there is a fin de siecle or an end of an era element to the whole event.

Route of the prologue (yellow), road stage (red) and team time trial (blue) in West Berlin. The authorities in East Germany would not let the Tour encroach into their territory so all the stages had to take place within the confines of the divided city. There obviously was a huge political element to starting the Tour de France there and there are many photos online of riders beside the Berlin Wall, such as Lucho Herrerra, the Columbian climber above. Of course, nowadays the Wall is a tourist atraction but back in 1987, less than 30 years ago, it was for real. First built in 1961, the Berlin Wall was still being reinforced and extended in 1987 but it would only last another 2 years before it fell. Indeed, the Tour in 1987 played a small part in the fall of the Wall and the end of communism in the Eastern Bloc as for the first time ever,the Yellow Jersey was worn by a rider from Eastern Europe, when Poland’s Lech Piasecki took the lead after the first stage in Berlin.


1987 Tour de France stages and winners. The race started on Wednesday the 1st July and featured an extra 3 stages than most Tour de France’s since but there was no extra rest day. Looking at the list of winners, some names stand out. Sean Kelly crashed out early during the 1987 Tour but his arch nemesis Jean Paul van Poppel went on to win 2 stages. David Millar’s mentor when he raced amateur in France, Martial Gayant won Stage 11 and Taylor Phinneys dad, Davis won stage 12.  The race overall was much tougher than any typical recent Tour de France. Not only was it about 800 km longer, the time trial on Stage 10 was 87 km whereas nowadays time trials are normally around 50 km. There was also a time trial up Mont Ventoux and if that was not enough, another time trial in Dijon the day before the finish in Paris. In all, there was 209 km of time trials including the 41 km team time trial. In contrast, next year, when the Tour will start in Germany for the first time since 1987, there will only be 36 km of time trials. Of course, all the time trials suited Roche as he won the first one at Futuroscope and finished second in the other 2 individual time trials plus his team Carrera won the team time trial.

2017 Tour de France will be similar to the 1987 Tour. Next year, the Tour de France will start in Germany for the first time since the epic Tour in 1987. There some brilliant articles by Inner Ring online here and here and here all about Germany’s Love-Hate relationship with cycling and the Tour de France over the last 3 decades. But the focus of this post is the 1987 Tour, which was arguably one of the most political and dramatic Tour de France’s ever and yet incredibly, an Irishman won it. On the PodiumCafe website, they have a section for readers to write in and describe what Tour de France was their Greatest of All Time which they call GOAT. It is a term that is trending and recently Gary Lineker tweeted #GOAT after Lionel Messi scored his 500th goal in the last minute of the Classico against Real Madrid. While I have watched some vintage Tour de France’s and in 2015, was lucky to have been on Alpe d’Huez to see Quintana’s audacious attack, my nomination for the Tour de France #GOAT on the PodiumCafe website has to be 1987.




One thought on “Looking back at the 1987 Tour de France, which was won by Stephen Roche after an epic fightback on the slopes of La Plagne

  1. You’re correct about RTE starting live coverage midway through the race when Stephen looked a likely winner. I remember being glued to the TV each afternoon for 2-3 hours watching it all unfold. The contrast to the 30 min highlight program we used to get before that was astonishing. Even more astonishing was watching an Irishman do the impossible, and with confidence. Haughey’s turn on the podium was one of the most breathtaking pieces of grandstanding ever, but he got away with it and it added even more attention to the achievement.


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