Anarchy at the 1987 Tour: ‘We’re going to kill ourselves if we carry on like this’

Sean Kelly, Pedro Delgado, and Stephen Roche battle it out in the mountains.

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There is a stage that has come to define the 1987 Tour de France. It was deep into the third week, to the summit of La Plagne, in the Alps, when the race seemed to be slipping away from Roche. It is most famous for Phil Liggett’s excited commentary at the mist-shrouded summit. “Who is that appearing? That looks like Roche. It is Stephen Roche!”

But according to the main actors, this is not the stage that decided the race. Indeed, La Plagne and Roche’s desperate pursuit of Pedro Delgado into the mist might never have happened—certainly, it would not have had the same significance—if, a couple of days earlier, the 19th stage to Villard-de-Lans had not happened. And Villard-de-Lans would not have happened without the previous day’s stage, a mountain time trial to the summit of Mont Ventoux. It marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Tom Simpson, who died near the top, having collapsed due to a combination of heat and drugs. It was a 37 km test (23 miles): a rolling 16 km to the base of the mountain, then a murderous slog up its 7.6 percent slopes, climbing to 1,912 m (6,273 feet), the riders alone against the hill and the clock and another challenge of this dome-like climb, which juts out of the Provence plains: the Mistral wind.

If Simpson lying unconscious near the summit was a tragic icon of Ventoux’s vicious demands in 1967, the image of Jean-François Bernard came to define its visit in 1987. One of the most stylish riders in the bunch—he sat back in the saddle, appearing to stroke the pedals with his long legs—Bernard was an absolute mess as he approached the summit. He looked as though he had been broken by the mountain. In fairness, most did. There was no way to ride it other than flat out, arriving at the top having, as Roche put it, “left everything on the road.” Yet with Bernard, such a consummate stylist, the spectacle was most striking.

Strings of spit and snot swung from his mouth and smeared his black shorts. A yellow headband dates the image of him grinding his way up, as the 1980s as Fame. In his colorful patchwork jersey, his shoulders were hunched, his face fixed in a painful grimace, his dark eyes screwed up, squinting at the road ahead, reduced to small dots. In the saddle, out of the saddle, he labored his way up; it was ugly to watch yet effective, as he ate into the three minutes that separated him and Roche at the start. No sooner had Roche crossed the line at the top than Bernard appeared in the near distance. He won the time trial in one hour, 19 minutes, 44 seconds; Luis Herrera was second, over a minute and a half back. Delgado was third and Roche fifth. Bernard was in yellow for the first time in his career, with a healthy two-and-a-half-minute buffer on Roche.

This, you felt, was his destiny. All of France felt it. Bernard felt it, talking confidently and bullishly at the summit of Mont Ventoux about defending the yellow jersey over the final week. “There are still some climbs and one more time trial to come in Dijon,” Bernard said, “but I’ve just shown everybody that I’m the strongest guy in the race.”

Dark, handsome, and French, he was the heir to Hinault. And yet Jean-François Bernard was not Hinault. That was apparent to Andy Hampsten, who had been a teammate at La Vie Claire the previous year. Hampsten and Bernard were the same age, but in a French team Hampsten, an American, could feel himself being squeezed out. On the eve of the 1986 Tour, the flamboyant team owner, Bernard Tapie, had promised Bernard a Porsche if he won a stage. “What about me?” thought Hampsten. Bernard duly won a stage, and claimed his Porsche. Hampsten performed better overall, finishing fourth in Paris, but got nothing. At the end of the season he left for the American team 7-Eleven. “I wasn’t going to stick around for what I could see was going to become the Jean-François Bernard show,” he said later.

Shelley Verses, the American soigneur, went the other way, from 7-Eleven to Toshiba (formerly La Vie Claire). She felt protective of Bernard because she could see the pressure on him and that he would struggle to cope with it. “At the start of the Tour in Berlin, Jacques Chirac came to visit,” Verses says. Chirac was the French prime minister. “And Tapie, he was president and owner of Olympique Marseille, the soccer club, and he helicoptered in. Jeff was set to be the next Hinault, he was the golden boy of France, and everybody wanted to be seen with him. When Chirac arrived to have dinner with us, French TV was there. And there was Tapie, in his beaver coat with the big fur collar, demanding that the boys were pulled off the massage table so they could meet Chirac. And that night he’s telling Jean-François, ‘When you win the Tour I’m going to get you a ranch.’

“Berlin was already very loud, very stressful for the riders,” Verses continues. “I had to buy 60 pairs of earplugs because they couldn’t sleep. It was crazy, it was chaotic and stressful. And the race hadn’t even started yet.”

Verses was already feeling protective of Bernard in a way she never would have been—never would have needed to be—with Hinault. “He was stepping into Hinault’s shoes, but he was different,” she says. “There was this storm around him and he could be calm at the center of all that, but at the same time there was something about him. You could see from his face, he almost looked depressed. He was very inside himself. I told him if he was feeling nervous or anxious that he could knock on my door at any time. If it was [after] midnight, one in the morning, whatever, he’d come and say, ‘Shelley, I’m sweating,’ and I’d get him on the table, rub his legs and back, and he’d fall asleep. I’d wake him up, ‘You’re OK now, you’re centered,’ and he’d go back to bed.”

Before the Tour, Toshiba organized two training camps in Provence, close to Mont Ventoux. The mountain time trial was where the race would be decided, thought Bernard. His strategy was to start on his time trial bike and finish on his lighter road bike. “He had almost like a GPS in his brain,” Verses says. “He knew every curve and turn on that road. He knew which side of the car he wanted the mechanic to get out. He rehearsed the bike change. In his head, he had done it so many times.”

Perhaps that was why he spoke with such confidence at the summit, after winning the stage and taking the yellow jersey. Having convinced himself that Ventoux would be decisive, he didn’t seem to have thought beyond it. The evening of the Ventoux stage, Roche sat in his room with Eddy Schepers, his domestique. He was stung by his defeat and by the margin of Bernard’s victory. But his ears pricked up when he heard the winner’s interview. “We were all watching television after the Ventoux stage and we all saw Bernard,” Roche says. “We heard him saying, ‘You saw how strong I was; how far ahead I was of everyone. And since there’s one more time trial to come, I’m going to win this Tour.’

“We all saw that. And I think all the favorites said to themselves, ‘Who does this guy think he is? Has he read the road book? Does he realize there are still seven days to go?’”

Roche had also been interviewed at the top of Ventoux. After such a humiliating defeat, some of his usual ebullience had gone; his eyes had lost their sparkle. “The time trial Jeff rode, I thought he had a chance to win,” Roche said. “What surprised me was the time he put into the second person. I thought the first five would be within a minute.”

Would he attack Bernard in the mountains to come? Roche looked thoughtful. “I think I’ll wait and see how he is in the mountains. There are three hard stages to come, on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. If I see he’s weak on one of those days, I’ll have to go for it. But Bernard is going very, very well.”

Did he still believe he could win? “I think it’s not lost.”

Interesting that, in looking ahead to what he thought would be the decisive days, Roche didn’t mention Monday’s—the next day’s—undulating 19th stage in the Isère, to Villard-de-Lans.

Imagine all these top riders at the front and riding together, with no hesitation, fully committed; not thinking or worrying about the next climb, just rolling through.

On the morning of the stage, Roche was approached by Charly Mottet, who had been in yellow until deposed by Bernard. He was a teammate of Laurent Fignon at Système U, the team managed by one of the sport’s great strategists, Cyrille Guimard. Guimard had fallen out with Hinault and viewed his former team, Toshiba, as a bitter rival. According to the American journalist Owen Mulholland, Mottet presented Roche with a plan. It owed something to Mottet’s local knowledge, because he was from the area. But it had the imprint of Guimard.

“Today the feed station is in a tiny town, Léoncel,” Mottet told Roche. “The road comes down off one hill, squeezes across a narrow bridge in the village, and starts climbing immediately. We all are taking extra food from the start so we can skip the feed and attack out of the town. If Jeff is just a little way back, he’ll be held up by the riders slowing for the musettes [food bags]. Who knows, but it’s worth a try.”

After studying the road book the previous evening, Roche knew it would be a challenging day. Certainly a difficult first day in yellow for Bernard. “We’d all made a big effort,” says Roche, “but Bernard, had he left a lot on the road? The bike change made a difference, but for him to put so much time into us, he must have buried himself.”

Even before his conversation with Mottet, Roche identified the feeding station as a dangerous point on the course, a place to stay alert and close to the front. Attacks in the feed zone—where for several hundred meters the soigneurs stand at the roadside, handing out musettes—were a breach of etiquette, but hardly unheard of, especially in the absence of a patron like Hinault. “I didn’t know the roads well but Eddy Schepers was my righthand man and very good at reading the map. Davide Cassani [another Carrera teammate] was very good, too,” Roche says. “Looking at the map, you see that the feeding station is on a very narrow road. You see the arrows, which mean it’s a steep climb. You think, that’s a stupid place to put a feeding station, but if there’s a bit of panic in the bunch it could be a place to force a selection. You never know.”

Roche plays down the pre-stage conversation with Mottet. “All the leaders had the same reaction, they made the same deduction. That’s why when we hit the feeding station all the top riders were bunched at the front. All the leaders had their right-hand men beside them. And if the opportunity was there, they were going to ride their eyeballs out.”

There was a climb before Léoncel, the Col de Tourniol. It was long but not especially steep and, on narrow, windy roads, it stretched the peloton without threatening to cause a major split. Then, just before the summit, Bernard punctured. It could hardly have happened at a worse point, so close to the top and before a fast descent. Bernard dropped down the line, stopped, took the wheel of a teammate, Jean-Claude Leclercq, and chased back. He rejoined the peloton, but with the riders snaking quickly down the descent, regaining his place at the front was impossible.

After the descent came Léoncel and the feed zone. And as Roche and Mottet foresaw, it became a bottleneck. Those at the front got through, those behind bunched up and slowed to a crawl. Bernard was still threading his way through the peloton when he suffered an additional misfortune: He unshipped his chain and had to stop again. Meanwhile, at the head of the line of riders, Roche, Mottet, and 11 others took flight. The attack was launched by Mottet’s teammate Martial Gayant. Others were quick to follow.

Roche says he was unaware that Bernard had punctured and was stuck behind. “We didn’t have radios in those days.” But, he adds, “Those of us at the front immediately saw that he wasn’t with us. He was the only top guy who missed the move.”

Bernard was isolated, with teammates such as Leclercq behind and three others several minutes ahead. Steve Bauer, Dominique Garde, and Heinz Imboden, all Toshiba teammates, were up the road in the break that had formed earlier in the stage. This now looked like a mistake by the French team. Roche believes Bernard’s men “overdid it. Every time there was an attack, a Toshiba rider was in it.”

Before the Col de Tourniol, Roche even joked with Bernard, “Jeff, you’ll soon have more riders up the road than you do back here.”

“Don’t worry,” Bernard replied. “I’ll be OK.”

As well as Roche and Mottet, the front group included Delgado, Luis Herrera, Marino Lejarreta, and Fignon. “You might say, well, how come all those top riders found themselves in the front?” Roche says. “I say, imagine all these top riders at the front and riding together, with no hesitation, fully committed; not thinking or worrying about the next climb, just rolling through.” There was full commitment and cooperation, in other words. They were united in their determination to eliminate the man they had identified—and who had identified himself—as the favorite. Bernard’s words from the previous evening were haunting him now.

Roche confirms as much. “Everyone was riding on the front,” he says. “Generally you might get a rider who knows he’s going to get dropped on the final climb and doesn’t come through, or some who are bluffing a bit saving themselves for later. But on that day, the amazing thing was, everybody was riding, everybody. I think it was because they were all so eager to show Bernard that the Tour wasn’t over.”

Panicking, Bernard’s directeur sportif, Paul Köchli, raced up to the break to instruct the three Toshiba riders to sit up, wait, and help Bernard with the chase. There were 50 km to go and Bauer, when he was reunited with Bernard, did a lot of work. Bernard, too, did long turns at the front. He was able to maintain the gap at around a minute, but, against the combined might of the 13 men, as they raced through the Vercors forest and another climb, the Col de Lachau, it was hopeless.

Hampsten was one of the riders stranded in the second group with Bernard. “I’d had a terrible day the day before and wasn’t sure about my condition. I was right there at the front in the feed zone, but I couldn’t go with the break. I remember going through the feed, looking up and seeing Roche and Mottet attack, and thinking, if that goes, the race is done. I ended up in a tiny chase group with Jean-François. He asked me to help. I told him, ‘If I’d been strong, I’d have been with the break!’ Jean-François was pretty disappointed. He was trying hard to get people to help him. But those were bumpy, lumpy roads. I remember thinking, this would be a good road to be away on.”

It was the biggest test of Bernard’s qualities as a leader. Mont Ventoux had been a test of physical ability. But in some ways that was the easy part. “I remember seeing Jean-François act like a leader, and be very charismatic at the dinner table,” Hampsten says. “But I’d say he was a long way from [being] a leader on the road.

“He had been studying Hinault, and the French press were all saying he would be his successor. But he never showed himself tactically or psychologically to be very strong. He was a nice guy, but very nervous.”

Up ahead, on the Côte de Chalimont, another long, draggy climb that they tackled before dropping into Villard-de-Lans, Roche and Delgado broke away from the leading group. Roche had a well-deserved reputation as a shrewd, calculating rider. He needed all his bluffing skills now as Delgado, a strong climber, attacked and he followed him. “I was cooked,” Roche says. Like everyone, he had been riding hard for the past hour. “There’s a very good photo of me and Delgado climbing side by side [on the Côte de Chalimont], me level with his bottom bracket as if we were welded together.

“I was stuffed. But if I’d sat behind him, on his wheel, he’d have seen me struggling. Because I was level with his bottom bracket, and seemed to be pushing on, he thought I was comfortable. But I was cooked.”

Delgado tried some small attacks but Roche stayed with him. In Villard-de-Lans, Delgado won the stage. Bernard, who cut an increasingly forlorn and desperate figure as he led the chase group, was over four minutes down when he crossed the line and rode tearfully into the arms of his soigneur, Shelley Verses.

While Bernard dropped to fourth overall, Roche took yellow. Delgado claimed the overall lead the next day, only for Roche to win it back the day before Paris in the time trial that Bernard had been banking on—and which he did win. There had been three days in the Alps after stage 19, and they saw a thrilling duel play out between Delgado and Roche. Yet as Roche says, “Villard-de-Lans was the crucial day. That was the day I won the Tour.”

In Paris, Bernard was third overall behind Roche and Delgado. Roche’s victory in this most open and anarchic of Tours owed much to his outstanding form in the year he also won the Giro and world title, but also something to his tactical awareness and cunning. He has some sympathy for the man who stood below him on the podium. “Bernard was OK,” he says. “I liked the guy. He has a great mind for cycling now.

“But I think he didn’t learn from his lesson. Even today he says, ‘If I hadn’t punctured or dropped my chain, I would have won the Tour, because I won the final time trial.’ What he forgets is that on the climbs, on all the other stages after Villard-de-Lans, he was dropped. He got back on again, but why? Because he wasn’t a threat. If he had been we’d have kept going. If he’d been in yellow, he wouldn’t have got back on. He won’t acknowledge that. He still believes he would have won in 1987.”

Adapted from Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore with permission of VeloPress.