Italy: Now it’s a war!

From issue 11 • Word by John Wilcockson with art from Matthew Burton

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

The dramatic inside story of Stephen Roche’s battle
with Roberto Visentini at the 1987 Giro d’italia

For several long moments, a distraught Stephen Roche sat silently in the passenger seat of his Carrera team’s Citroën, its door open, while his thin, muddied legs were wiped down by his personal helper, Patrick Valcke. The Irishman was still wearing the maglia rosa of the 70th Giro d’Italia, but he had just lost the lead to the defending champion, his teammate Roberto Visentini, in the stage 13 time trial from Rimini to San Marino. It was a humiliating defeat for Roche, who on that windy, rain-filled afternoon lost some three minutes to the Italian in 46 kilometers.

Eventually, a wry smile brightened the Irishman’s mournful face, and he began to answer the reporters’ questions, first in Italian, then French, and finally in English. “I went over the course this morning, riding behind the team car, and I felt grand,” he said in his quiet Irish brogue. “And I felt fine for the first few kilometers in the race. But my legs couldn’t handle the big gear riding into that wind, and I couldn’t get out of the saddle on the climb [to the finish]. I knew I couldn’t win.”

For the reporters who listened to him—and for the tifosi, the fervent Italian fans, who were chanting “Vis-en-tini, Vis-en-tini” as their man was presented with a new pink jersey—this 1987 Giro was as good as over. And with a commanding 2:42 lead on Roche, who was now in second place, Visentini knew that all he needed to do was ride defensively through the final week to take a second overall victory.

At least, that’s what he and most everyone else thought. So you can imagine my shock when, a few hours after the time trial, I sat down with Roche in his hotel room and the first words out of his mouth were: “I still think I can win this Giro.”

If he were going to win, Roche would have to attack his own teammate—not exactly pro-cycling protocol! And even if he did attack, why would he want to? Didn’t his Carrera team have the race firmly under control? And wasn’t Visentini the team leader now?

Not if we listened to Roche. He had another story to tell me in the hotel room as he looked back at the first two weeks of that Giro. He said that Visentini, who came from a wealthy family and was known as a playboy, had been showing a cavalier attitude toward his teammates. The Irishman, then 27, explained how Visentini, who won the prologue, was furious when he lost to Roche in the next day’s downhill time trial into San Remo—because the time gained there allowed Roche to move into the pink jersey when Carrera easily won the team time trial two days later.

He may now have been the race leader, but Roche didn’t get the support he felt he deserved. “Visentini followed my wheel for a week,” he confided. “He made me nervous. Then, on the climb to the Terminillo finish, he wouldn’t even work with me when we could have outdistanced contenders such as [Phil] Anderson.”

Concerning that stage 6 finish to Terminillo, Roche didn’t mention that his Belgian teammate and close friend Eddy Schepers apparently gave the stage win to his breakaway companion, Frenchman Jean-Claude Bagot of the Fagor team. Schepers told his Carrera team boss Davide Boifava that the reason he let a rival win was to gain a favor from Bagot, who promised to help later in the three-week race. Such agreements are commonplace in pro cycling, but while Boifava thought the favor would be given to the Carrera team, Roche knew that he was the one who might benefit from his friend Bagot’s support, not the team.

The mind games between Roche and Visentini continued as the race headed south down the Italian peninsula. The Dubliner was still wearing pink when the peloton hurtled toward the finish in the crowd-jammed port of Termoli at the end of stage 10. That was where the Carrera team’s sprinter Guido Bontempi almost ended Roche’s Giro.

Bontempi, desperate for a stage win, tried to sprint through a gap that didn’t exist, lost his balance and crashed to the ground, causing a 40-rider pileup. The Scottish rider Robert Millar, Anderson’s top teammate, had earlier told me what happened to Roche: “I saw the bodies going up into the air and I managed to stop in time. Stephen also stopped, but … others rammed into him from the back.”

As a result, Roche sustained a massive hematoma and abrasions on his left buttock and upper thigh. He knew it would make riding a tough proposition for a few days. So did Visentini. “I might have been all right if the next stage had been an easy one,” Roche said in the hotel room. However, stage 11 was a near-seven-hour, 245-kilometer, marathon that went over several climbs in the Abruzzi. “When Visentini decided to put on the pressure up a big climb,” Roche added, “I couldn’t follow him.”

That was open warfare in cycling terms, and it took tremendous willpower from Roche to chase back to the leaders on the descent. When Visentini again pushed hard on that day’s uphill finish into Osimo, Roche was dropped and lost seven seconds to his teammate. He still wore the leader’s pink jersey, but he knew that his injuries would affect his performance in the San Marino time trial.

It was a much heavier defeat than he expected, and perhaps Roche should have accepted his fate—but his gut feeling, he said, was that the injuries, along with Visentini’s mind games, had caused his poor performance. So, instead of a disconsolate athlete, I found an astonishingly confident Roche in his hotel room that Thursday night—a fact that was confirmed by his studying the profiles of the upcoming weekend’s two stages, both of them filled with mountain climbs. I could detect a devilish determination beneath his calm demeanor when he said, “I’m looking to see how far it is from the Pordoi Pass to the Marmolada at the end of Sunday’s stage. That looks like a good place to break away. I should be feeling better by then.”

Luckily, Friday’s stage 14, despite being the longest, at 260 kilometers, was also the flattest, which gave Roche an extra 24 hours of recovery time and encouraged him to think about pushing up his weekend plan by a day.

And so we begin the story of Saturday, June 6, 1987, a day that began in warm sunshine at the beach resort of Lido di Jesolo with Visentini, reinstated in the maglia rosa, smiling and confident, and ended in cold rain at the mountain village of Sappada in a highly charged atmosphere of treachery and confusion. It proved to be one of the most remarkable days of racing in Italian cycling history.

After a typically quiet opening half of the stage, the peloton remained intact until the first of the day’s three climbs, 90 kilometers from the finish. As the massed ranks of riders crossed a small, stone-arched bridge at the foot of the Forcella di Monte Rest, those who looked upward saw the narrow back road twisting its way up a near-vertical, wooded mountainside toward mist-shrouded limestone pinnacles 3,000 feet above their heads. After countless attacks on the 8-kilometer climb, Schepers and Roche’s French friend, Bagot, emerged solo at the summit, 40 seconds ahead of an elite group led by Millar, with both Roche and Visentini in the mix.

Those who knew about the deal made by Schepers 10 days earlier thought that Bagot’s attack might mean that Roche was also considering a move—most likely on the next climb, which was still 50 kilometers away. That was the theory, but Roche had a different plan.

The Monte Rest descent was even more twisting than the uphill, with sharp turns hidden by tall conifers that clothed both sides of a deep valley into which the road plunged. It was an ideal place for a daring attack. Roche, despite his still-painful thigh, had the same thought ….

“Several others jumped away on the descent, and I followed,” Roche told me at the end of the day. “I saw Bob [Millar] ahead, and I knew that if I cut him on a corner that he would leave a gap. That’s how I got clear. I took a lot of risks on that descent … and had a few close shaves!” Millar’s Australian teammate Anderson later took up the story. “Roche didn’t attack,” he said. “Visentini misjudged a turn and almost fell because he was trying to follow Roche’s wheel.”

The fearless Irishman quickly caught one of the earlier aggressors, Italian Ennio Salvador of the Gis team, and they worked together on a short uphill and another long descent before joining Bagot in the valley. The trio’s lead was already 1:20, and ahead of them were 30 kilometers of wider, straighter roads before the second climb, the Sella Valcalda. News of Roche’s time gain stunned the race entourage, particularly race leader Visentini and his directeur sportif, Boifava. Canadian Steve Bauer, riding in the main group, said, “Visentini didn’t know what to do. He was confused, looking about as if he were thinking, ‘Should I chase the break?’”

Visentini didn’t make a move, but Boifava ordered the rest of the Carrera riders to chase their Irish teammate—though Schepers refused to help them. The gap gradually closed to a minute, at which point Boifava honked his Citroën past the chase group up to his insubordinate star.

“I was riding steadily on a 53×16 gear,” Roche said. “Then Boifava came up and said he would knock me off my bike with his car if I didn’t stop. So I put it in the 14 [sprocket] and went faster. I told him, ‘I’m not interested in coming second; it might as well be 20th. I came here to win.’” His fighting words were not ones that Boifava wanted to hear, so the director pulled over, waited until the chase group appeared and told his men to ride even harder.

Roche continued, “I took a lot out of myself in the attack, but not too much. They did wrong by chasing me. What if I’d stayed away and won by 10 minutes? It would be a Carrera that won. They should have let the other teams chase …. They shouldn’t have worked to bring me back.”

Roche had a setback when Bagot flatted and was absorbed by the Carrera-led chase group. His last companion, Salvador, wasn’t as strong, and their one-minute lead shrank quickly in the lead-up to the short, but steep Valcalda climb. “The gap was down to about 50 meters,” reported Anderson, who counterattacked with Frenchman Jean-François Bernard as the gradient kicked in. They were soon up to Roche and Salvador, and only the Irishman could stay with them. Three others soon joined them. Then, on an 11-percent kicker, Millar led up five others to create a 12-strong breakaway that had a minute’s lead at the summit.

The long, paranoid chase by Visentini’s team had boomeranged. The race leader, who by now had lost all his teammates except Schepers, the traitor, faced another pursuit. This time, he got some help from rival Italian teams, who were hoping to close down the lead break and then shoot for a stage win. And they did manage to close the one-minute gap on the slowly ascending valley road—but the day’s third climb, the Cima Sappada, was just starting.

As the two groups merged, Visentini went to the back of the line to talk with Boifava through the Carrera team car window. The Italian reporters in the pressroom thought their race leader might be contemplating an attack of his own. Instead, five minutes later, they were shocked when Visentini lost contact with the group, riding his smallest gear despite the still-gentle grade. And when the man in the maglia rosa slowed to a crawl as he reached a 16-percent wall, 2.5 kilometers from the summit, they were horrified—but still hoping he could keep some of his 2:42 lead on Roche.

The situation at the finish line was so confusing that, following a 4-kilometer descent from the Cima Sappada, the second-place finisher Tony Rominger raised his arms, thinking he’d taken the stage win. He didn’t know that Dutchman Johan Van der Velde had won after slipping away in the previous valley before the two groups merged. But everyone soon knew that, 10 seconds behind the Rominger group, a visibly exhausted Roche was in the next chase group led home by Bauer.

It was cool and windy at the finish, a rainstorm having just passed though the small ski village, and Roche was eager to wrap up and get to his hotel. But he still took time to talk. “I didn’t need to do what I did, but [my team] didn’t have to do what they did,” he said angrily. “They didn’t have to ride [after me]; there were 20 other teams there.” When I asked him if he knew that Visentini had cracked on the last climb, he replied, “Serves him right. I’ve ridden his race for two weeks. Now it’s my turn.”

Roche didn’t know the extent of Visentini’s defeat until some race officials hurriedly took him up to the winners’ podium. He was being presented with the pink jersey when Visentini finally crossed the line below him, almost six minutes back! Visentini and Boifava stormed away to their hotel, leaving the Italian reporters to tap out stories of treason and retribution.

After dinner that night, I walked down Sappada’s dimly lit main street to the Corona Ferrea hotel with my photographer friend Graham Watson. We climbed a steep, narrow staircase and knocked on the solid wooden door of room 14. “Who’s there?” asked the voice from the other side. Stephen Roche let us in. He went back to lying in bed, waiting for the team doctor to treat his injuries. “I can put pressure on my backside now,” he said, “but the pain is spreading down the back of my left thigh. I was cramping up today.”

Asked about the consequences of his attack, Roche said, “Your man [Visentini] won’t talk to me. He just goes red in the face and walks away. Because of what happened, they [the team bosses] are trying to stop me and Eddy [Schepers] from starting tomorrow. The patron [of team sponsor Carrera Jeans] is here, and there will be a meeting to decide.”

Roche said he felt alone and threatened, unsure of his rights and waiting for his confidant, Valcke, to return from dinner with an answer. As the leader of the 70th Giro continued to talk about his problems, the doctor entered. He picked up Roche’s bloodied shorts and threw them to the floor in disgust. He began to apply a mud-colored substance to a 12-inch by 3-inch patch of thigh injured in that crash five days earlier, and then covered it with an elastic bandage. Roche would have another sleepless night.

Despite the hostility of the media, the tifosi and his own team, Roche and Schepers did start the next day, a monster mountain stage crossing the Gardena, Sella and Pordoi passes to a finish over the Marmolada into Canazei. Visentini attacked twice on the closing climb, but Schepers and Millar helped Roche close him down. The fans hissed and whistled at the Irishman, some of them filling their mouths with wine and spitting at him, others hitting out with sticks and rolled-up newspapers. But Roche, with Millar and Schepers riding as bodyguards on the climbs, survived.

Two days before the Giro’s finish, when the race came to Visentini’s home region, the Italian’s fans were out in force—not only to show support for their hero, but also to show their anger toward Roche. He later told me that all along the lakeside before the finish of stage 20, “the tifosi were shouting vicious names at me, and on the finishing circuit in Como the crowds were 10 to 15 deep, shouting bad names and waving placards against me. There were eight corners, with cobbles, and it was very, very nerve-wracking. There was a crash in the last kilometer ….

“There was a gap between the first group and the second group, and the police hadn’t time to get to me. Before they could reach me, people were dragging me everywhere. And when I turned around, my wife [Lydia] was there; that was probably the worst moment. I didn’t know she was going to be there. I wouldn’t want her there. I just broke down. That was the end of the road.

“I’d had the pink jersey for 14 days. There was the Visentini thing, and up on the mountains the crowds were hitting me and shouting. It was finally getting to me. Lydia never comes to races, and I didn’t want her to see me like that.”

The day before the Giro’s end, Visentini feigned a crash and didn’t start the closing time trial—which Roche won to take the overall title by 3:40 over runner-up Millar. The Dubliner was so tired that he did not race again until the Tour de France began in Berlin 18 days later. But that’s another story ….

From issue 11. Buy it here.

Trending on Velo

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.