We did the Première Manche - the first round - of A Travers riding across France from Dieppe to Marseille in the summer of 2009, and it was the original inspiration for this blog. The plan to put the 'band back together again' for another go in 2013 for the second installment fell on stoney ground, with life just getting in the way for too many of us, much to our disappointment. However, our enthusiasm for the bike remains undimmed, and so I'll keep posting my thoughts on the diverse and beautiful facets of the sport regardless. But there's bound to be another big 'adventure ride' coming soon - quite possibly in Italy - so potentially a name change too: Attraverso l'Italia in Bicicletta anyone?

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Stephen Roche - Born To Be A Rider

From Wikipedia:
Blarney is something more than mere flattery. It is flattery sweetened by humour and flavoured by wit. Those who mix with Irish folk have many examples of it in their everyday experience.
And so it was that two leading proponents of the genre - owner & compere Frank Beechinor and cycling hero Stephen Roche - came to provide us with a masterclass in the art, in an evening at Cadence Performance in Crystal Palace, one of a number of venues Roche has visited on a tour to promote his new autobiography, Born To Ride. I'm still buzzing about how much fun this was.

Remind me. Who is the book about?
I know the title of this post isn't exactly that of the book - which incidentally was going to be the darker and more interesting "Angels and Demons" - but it's my take on it. It's entirely intentional: Anquetil was clearly born to ride, as were Kelly and Cavendish. But Roche really was born to be a rider, in the completest sense of the word. As a fan, and undoubtedly for any sponsor, he's exactly the type of successful yet eloquent modern athlete I'd not only enjoy witnessing winning, as so often he did, but I'd also want to listen to and be representing my brand. He's effortlessly engaging, a marketing man's dream, with a commercial value beyond being a fast-moving logo-plastered sandwich board for a multitude of corporate backers. A prolific, stylish winner on the bike, you could always rely on Roche for a brilliant quote once off it. Gift of the gab, yes. Irish Blarney, if you like.

I always cringe when sportsman are asked to, for example, 'talk us through that second goal'. There's very little point, really. Do we simply expect too much from our sporting heroes? I admit it's far too easy to criticise footballers in particular for their banality, in no small part due to the ubiquity of the sport's coverage, and I'm unreservedly grateful that cycling is getting more of a look-in in the UK given the success of the British contingent on Team Sky. However, I'm nevertheless hard-pushed to find Cav's constant thanks for his team-mates particularly edifying. He's undoubtedly accurate and being genuine, minding his 'P's and 'Q's, but in my opinion he's not engaging anyone other than a very narrow audience of previously converted geeky followers. I'd like the real Mark Cavendish to stand up please, warts and all. Fortunately Wiggo has a tendency to be a bit more of a loose canon, prone to inadvertently saying something that - heaven forbid - doesn't fit in with strictly moderated sponsor 'messaging'. It's so much more interesting when he goes off-script. But when we talk about Roche, well, Roche is in a different league.

Some of the evening's anecdotes surrounding his exploits and antics are better known than others. On the 1987 La Plagne stage collapse - Liggett's memorable commentary maître d'œuvre - and so exhausted that he's unable to talk, he describes his communicating with the Tour doctor by blinking as 'not a great conversation'. The audience is in stitches. This alongside the much-publicised gem of a response to a TV interviewer as he lies prostrate in the ambulance, and 'not ready for a woman just yet'. From the Stephen Roche Story DVD, asked for the secret of his first stage-race success in the 1981 Paris Nice, a young Roche, already showing an excellent command of the language, reveals "Chez nous on mange beaucoup de patates" - in our house we eat a lot of potatoes. It's media-savvy, instantly endearing genius. Tonight perhaps only he could have got away with his highly amusing impression of Sean Kelly because he's a fellow Irishman and friend. I failed in an attempt to stifle my laughter, the flimsy urge for political correctness brushed aside by something simple, peurile, and most of all, fun. It was spot on.

It didn't matter that there was much talk about aspects of the book that as fans we were, for the most part, well aware of already. It was all there: his violent persecution by the Italian tifosi as 'a traitor' for taking the race to incumbent Giro winner and 1987 team-mate Roberto Visentini in what photographer Graham Watson describes as the 'best stage race he's ever seen'.

Visentini in his usual spot: on Roche's rear wheel.
On strategy for winning the Tour, he gave us revealing insights into the tactical nous for which he's held in particularly high esteem: the constant on-the-road observation and decision making, the evening planning for the days ahead, potential alliances with other teams, and the analysis of his rivals' state of both body and mind. And who thought bike racing was just about riding fast?

Make mine a Triple.
Similarly the revelation that he might not have won The Triple if it hadn't been for the weather. The 1987 Giro witnessed unseasonally cold conditions in the normally cauldron-like south, the Tour had hot days interspersed with the sort of colder, wetter weather Roche thrived in, and the World professional road race was run off in low temperatures and early-morning rain. I'd helped out with the supporting video presentation for the evening, and the clip that was shown of his rainbow-jersey winning ride - again, not widely broadcast in the UK, if at all, at the time - was met with a virtual standing ovation from the 100-plus guests. His move through a gap barely wide enough for his Benotto-taped Cinelli 64's was the epitome of audicity, the toothy smile breaking across the grubby face of a World Champion who'd earned his title competing in the rain and cold for 7 hours. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, because here we were standing next to the man that did that.

When asked to compare racing from then with now, the pressure on today's pros is something that Roche unsurprisingly has opinions on, not least I expect because it's the place where his son Nicholas plies his trade. For someone wrestling with the predictability of modern racing, I'm particularly interested in his views. Roche bemoans that fact the today's riders are too willing to ride for second place, for UCI World Tour points, to defend their 'interests' rather than seizing an opportunity to win. The result is that the radio-controlled racing has become formulaic and predictable, with Roche repeating his Carrera DS Davide Boifava's mantra 'to win you have to be prepared to lose'. His view that today's riders - still living in Armstrong 'era of the robots' - don't seem to enjoy the sport as much as they did in the past also chimes well with Laurent Fignon's Nous Etions Jeunes / We Were Young And Carefree - another recommended read. Whilst multilingual Roche may well have found the PR side of his work easy - and enjoyable - compared with most, he obviously still had to deal with the uncertainty and contractual wrangles brought about by his recurring struggles with injury. The overall tone is that modern cycling appears to have lost its sense of fun, that it's no longer anything like a game. Gone is respect, tradition and character, replaced with the modern-day practice of building riders up, pushing them as prodcuts, expecting so much on a sporting and commercial level, and then abandoning them when they fail - the fear of which means no one is prepared to take any risks. You can see this change slowly yet inexorably creeping in, and for me it's not a positive development.

Peter Cossins has done a fine job of bringing everything together in a highly enjoyable read. Despite being a massive fan of cycling from this era in particular - for reasons outlined in the paragraph above - it doesn't matter one iota that I was already aware of most of what has been written in the book. As The Washing Machine Post so eloquently points out, you knew what was coming, because you'd been interested all along:
Biographies and autobiographies suffer from the same intrinsic problem; most of the intended readership already know that the butler did it. the destination is often already well kent; the motivation for purchase is more about the journey.
Un champion du monde peut en cacher un autre ...
Now imagine being treated to a book - and career - review with the man himself. Roche augments the whole experience with has insights, amusing anecdotes, banter and witticisms. All in all, a wonderfully enjoyable evening, and enough to make me want to jump aboard that old steel bike, ditch the helmet and feel the wind in my greying hair, to go and ride with all the enthusiasm of the 20-year-old carefree young man I was back when Roche was astounding us all with his 1987 'annus mirabilis'

I'm well known as a died-in-the-wool Hinaultista, but I'm quickly gravitating towards Roche after this evening. My wife Kelda and I hung around to the end of the event to get him to autograph a multitude of my 1987 copies of Miroir, Vélo and Bicisport, and he seemed to genuinely enjoy looking back at the images. He surely wouldn't be human if there was no lingering nostalgia for the pro rider he once was, and I'd guess that it's undoubtedly the case. Plans are underway, through Frank's various contacts, to get Le Blaireau up to Cadence for a similar evening, but he's really gonna have to go some to match the Irishman's charm, to be sure.