Even though I had had six months to prepare for L’Etape 87, I didn’t feel completely ready or confident for the three – day French Alp challenge, that would involve 350 kms and over 10,000 metres of climbing.
Stephen Roche and his cycling holiday team had organised this unique event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Stephen winning the triple crown in 1987.
This once in a lifetime opportunity to ride with only one of only two men who have ever won the Giro, Tour de France and World Championships in the same year, (the other being Eddy Merckx), was limited to thirty participants and consisted of three stages covering some of the most iconic alpine climbs from the 1987 tour; the Alpe d’Huez, Col du Galibier, Col du Télégraphe, Col de La Madeleine, and Col de La Plagne.
Stages Two and Three partially recreated the famous Col de La Plagne stage (Stage 21) that resulted in classic commentary from Phil Leggett, and images of Stephen receiving oxygen after crossing the line exhausted.
The stage was instrumental in Stephen’s success in the Tour. Pedro Delgado was leading the race and on the final climb of La Plagne he had opened up an 80 second gap. When Stephen tells the story, he has a glint in his eye when he explains that everyone thought his chance of winning the race had ended at that moment. However, one of Stephen’s strengths has always been being tactically astuteness, and Stephen made the conscious decision to let Delgado go. While Delgado thought he was winning, Stephen raised the pace and ‘buried’ himself in the last 4 km. In those days there was no race radios and the TV coverage had also failed to keep up with events. So it was a complete surprise when Stephen appeared around the last corner just 4 seconds down. Hence Phil Leggett’s words;
“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!”
Stephen’s overall tactical plan for the Tour was to be within one minute of Delgado by the final time trial as he believed he could beat him by 60 seconds. And indeed this was the case. Stephen put even more time into Delgado on Stage 22 and finally secured his Tour de France victory by finishing in second place in the time trial at Dijon, beating Delgado by 61 seconds!
I have fond memories of Stephen’s pinnacle year, particularly of him winning the Tour de France. So the chance to ride with the great man on the same climbs and routes that played such an important part in that momentous year was not to be missed.
All participants had received a training programme from Aidan Hammond which I found to be of great help even though I failed to stick to the timetable. Thankfully, when I met other members of the group, I was relieved to discover that I was not the only one woefully behind with the training schedule.
Alpe d’Huez. 62 km 2100m ascent
On Saturday 10th June 2017, excited cyclists began to gather outside the four star Mercure Président Hotel in Grenoble eagerly anticipating the Le Grand Départ.
We had been reminded of Stephen’s achievements by a short documentary presented over dinner the previous evening. Stephen and his daughter, Christel, also briefed us on the programme of events.
The evening had been rounded off by Stephen informing us that he hoped L’Etape 87, which was not a race, would result in us all having a great time, the emphasis being on comradeship and not performance per se. The performance really being the successful completion of the stages.
Whilst we waited for everybody to arrive, looking resplendent in our bespoke and exclusive yellow L’Etape 87 jerseys, Stephen mingled and chatted to us. Interestingly he informed us that this would be the first time he had climbed the Alpe d’Huez since 1987, and indeed the same was true about La Plagne. Quite an honour to think that we would be the first cyclists in thirty years to accompany this cycling legend on these famous climbs.
The format of the next three days was based on the tried and tested procedures used by Stephen’s cycling holiday team in Mallorca. Namely, we all received a briefing at the start of each stage by one of the supporting ride captains, there was also the provision of motorcycle outriders that stopped and warned traffic, a paramedic and two support vehicles providing water and electrolytes. Massages were also available at the end of each ride.
We set off and were soon out of the urban environment and cycling in the valley surrounded by the walls of rugged mountains that formed the town’s dramatic backdrop. Stephen rode alongside us, and talked to practicably everyone in turn. The atmosphere was relaxed and jovial, and felt just like a club spin or ride – out with friends. However, it just happened that one of the friends was a cycling legend! The peloton was a truly international affair, with clients coming from as far as South Africa, and Canada, and others from Belgium, France, Ireland and Britain.
Amongst the group were regular clients that frequent the training camps and cycling holidays in Mallorca. Stephen was proud that this event had spurred a couple of his regular clients to train hard and lose weight.
We span along at a comfortable pace, enough to stretch the legs without tiring them before the real work began, but fast enough to reach the base of the Col before the road was closed to allow the Critérium du Dauphiné to race up the mountain. The finish of which we were all looking forward to watching; as if climbing one of the ‘must do’ Cols with a triple crown champion wasn’t enough, Stephen had arranged for all of us to watch the finish of Stage 7 from the VIP area of the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) enclosure.
I may not have done sufficient physical training but I had done a little homework by studying the climbs we were destined to grind up. Therefore, as we started the 13 km climb to the top of Alpe d’Huez with it’s average gradient of 8%, it came as no surprise to suffer on the first few ramps renown for their steepness.
I began to count the 21 corners, which were helpfully annotated by signs on each bend.
As I reached Dutch Corner (corner number 7), I gave a sigh of relief as I knew the worst was over and the gradient eased a little. I took the opportunity to use the conveniently placed public toilets and to quickly look at the texts that were coming through from friends and family who were tracking my ride in real time, thanks to the live tracking system we had all been supplied with. A nice touch.
That’s if they could use it correctly;
Looks like you are flying up the Alpe d’Huez!!
Don’t think so, I’m one of the slowest.
The tracker has you near the front.
You must be looking at the wrong bloke!
Oh yeah – tell Llorenc I was rooting for him all the way!
As I neared the top, I caught up with Stephen who had stopped to talk to fans waiting to witness the Dauphine speed by. In the village of Alpe d’Huez, Stephen stopped again to have his photo taken and to chat to more supporters. A fact lost on my wife;
Wow! you have beaten Stephen Roche by 5 minutes!
I know, smashed it, I think I’m a natural hill climber
I continued to cycle past bend zero, past empty ski lodges and onto the finishing straight used by the Tour and of course set up for the finish of the Dauphine. Unfortunately, 75 metres from the line I was directed to leave the course by two burley marshals.
However, we all had a chance to cross under the official finish banner a little later when we regrouped and cycled up the finish straight and across the line with Stephen.
Two hours later we witnessed the spectacle of the Critérium finish, cheering Peter Kennaugh (Sky), the first rider to finish on the hill top, closely followed by Ben Swift (UAE Team Emirate), with a glass of champagne in our hand, and proudly wearing our VIP ASO badges.
It was also nice to witness a little Roche family moment when Nicolas Roche (BMC) cycled to the barrier to have a chat with his Dad and sister after finishing the race.
Stage two & three will follow shortly!!!