Stephen Roche – one of Ireland’s cycling greats – was inducted into the Giro d’Italia Hall of Fame on Tuesday in a ceremony overlooking the iconic Giants Causeway.
Roche won the Giro back in 1987 and follows in the pedals of the great Belgium rider Eddy Merckx and Italian Felice Gimondi to collect the Trifeo Senza Fine (Trophy without End).
Merckx, who won the Giro on five occasions including 34 individual stage wins, is the only person along with Roche to have achieved cycling’s hat-trick of the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the World Championship in the same year.
Gimondi won the Giro three times, twice in the Sixties and again in 1976.
Roche’s victory in 1987 was more than a little controversial, indeed it resembled something straight out of a Guy RItchie movie.
All of the cycling fraternity in Italy were expecting the coronation of home cyclist Roberto Visentini who had won the Giro the previous year.
Visentini and Roche were deemed dual captains even though the Irishman had virtually won every race he had entered that year as a member of the Carrera Jeans-Vagabond team. It was then assumed that Roche was there to help his fellow leader to a successive Maglia Rosa.
However, despite Roche being in such good form, Visentini had in his mind made a deal with the then 25-year-old Roche that if he backed him and gave him full support for the Giro he would help the Irishman during the Tour de France.
However, halfway through the race, Roche was told in a matter-of-fact fashion by the Italian, who was already leader after taking the jersey off Roche after a time trial in San Marino and was two minutes 40 seconds ahead.
Visentini informed Roche, that he had already decided to miss the Tour de France and had booked a holiday and was spending some time on the beach!
On hearing his favour would not be reciprocated, Roche decided on a different approach and to do his own thing on the next two big mountain stages thus regaining the pink jersey.
This not only annoyed his team, his Directeur Sportif but also the tifosi (Italian cycling fans).
The vitriol from all sides was unreal. Indeed, Roche feared for his safety and nearly dropped out for fear of physical abuse, and amid taunts, and constant spitting during some of the mountain stages. Indeed, he also believed that Visentini was prepared to bump him off the road.
“We were cycling side-by-side, and he kept inching closer to me and as he guided me nearly off the road I grab his bar and said ‘If I go, you go!’”
But with ferocious determination and sheer grit, Roche stuck to his guns after he took the lead on the 15th stage and took the Maglia Rosa after winning the final time trial and taking the general classification by three minutes and 40 seconds from Scotland’s Robert Miller who helped in those final lonely stages.
In his anxious bid to catch Roche, Visentini crashed out on the penultimate stage breaking his collarbone.