Best of Memories: John Pierce

A photographer who has covered over 50 editions of the Tour de France, John Pierce writes about one the most memorable, the 1987 win by Ireland’s Stephen Roche

Best of Memories: John Pierce

John writes … Following many years in the 1970’s as the event photographer for the Raleigh Dunlop Tour of Ireland, I became friendly with many of the Irish race organisers and riders.

John with Roche in 1988

During the 1979 season, one of the organisers from the Tour of Ireland – Noel Hammond invited me to his Dublin home. It was here that the winner of that years Ras Taileann, Dubliner Stephen Roche, showed me a small letter from AC-BB France signed by Mickey Wiegants. The letter invited him to join the club in the western suburb of Paris, unusually it came direct from the club’s owner/president in the South of France.

Noel Hammond (Orwell Wheelers), coach of Stephen Roche pre AC-BB. Noel was a Board Member of ICF and also co-organiser Tour of Ireland with John Lackey. The Tour of Ireland was sponsored by TI Raleigh (Ireland) for whom I worked. PhotoSport International. uk usa asia.

Stephen had been invited to join the French club, designated to accept English, speaking riders. The list who have ridden for the club is enviable and included some riders from my own club, and thus I was considered a confidant on the possibilities. I asked the 20 year old Roche some straight questions, regarding home, job, languages and of course girlfriends.

At that time, the answers were favourable for living abroad for a while. He was at the end of an apprenticeship as a diesel vehicle fitter. We decided that first he should finish the apprenticeship, so he had something to fall back on. Over the coming winter he should take French lessons, then he should pack his handlebars and saddle for a spell in France.

He went to Paris to meet with Claude Escalon the manager of the AC-BB. Escalon was a hard task master. In training, riders were given points, not just for being on the front, but for related efforts. Roche had an unusual talent as a rider he simply ‘floated’ such was his smooth pedalling action, he hardly ever ‘fought’ the bike. In his first season at AC-BB in 1980, he found success as winner of the amateur Paris Roubaix (below). He turned pro for Peugeot, a sponsor of the AC-BB and won 10 races in the 1981 season including Paris Nice.

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Fast forwarding to 1987 ,Roche achieved an amazing triple, becoming only the second rider in history to win the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the World Title in the same season.

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The Tour de France was a special landmark moment for myself. Firstly, it started in the centre of Berlin, two years before the wall came down. It was also my 21st Tour, a moment not overlooked by the Tour’s then owner Jacques Goddet who made a personal presentation to me. In his speech, he talked about how he had been educated in Britain where Cricket and Football were more important than cycling. That I was the first to take images of their beautiful sport outside of France. It was also noted by him that the race leader was also an English speaker, and indeed shared the same path.

There were some great moments, but two incidents were the foundations of a fantastic Tour de France victory by Roche. Some would say tactically brilliant, others would say he made his own luck. I wonder if there is a difference?

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On the stage to La Plagne, won by Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado (Spain) was in yellow, second on GC was Roche, but he couldn’t climb as fast as Delgado. Instead of fighting to stay in contact, Roche ‘regrouped’ and set his own pace. On the 15 km long climb, Roche lost 1 min in the first 5 km – if this continued, the race for him would be over. Then a strange thing happened, and was realised by Roche, and this is the clever bit.

Delgado was of course receiving time checks (via motorcycle as there were no radios in 1987) and had been told that Roche was at 1 m 40 sec, so the race was his, as Fignon was not a danger. In Roche’s head, he had to make a big effort to contain Delgado, so at 5kms to go, he let go with his biggest effort of the Tour.

At this point Delgado would have been at 4 kms to go – much too late to receive any more time checks on the whereabouts of Roche. I was at the 1 km banner making pictures – it was a chosen place. I made a time check for Stephen – 40 sec down on Delgado. The final 600m of La Plagne is a false flat where Roche caught former team mate Denis Rous (Z) and as he passed him, Roche threw the chain onto the big ring, and his bike ‘stopped’ – Rous went back past him, wondering what on earth he was doing. Then Roche got his momentum back and sprinted past Rous for the second time – to within sight of the cars behind Delgado. Minus 8 sec. Incredible.

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The other stage that comes to mind was where Roche deployed superb tactics, or simply got lucky. Into Morzine-Avoriaz, a stage won by Chozas, Delgado – a much better climber had to drop Roche on the climb of the Joux Plane before the descent into Morzine – he didn’t, or couldn’t. However, Roche knew that Delgado had crashed out of the Tour on
this descent in a previous year, breaking his collarbone.

So, when it came to the descent, a long and sinuous 16 kms, Roche tried an attack and Delgado faltered. Roche descended so fast that he caught the red Race Directors advance vehicle that precedes the battle for the Yellow Jersey. That has never happened in the Tour de France before and was quite outrageous – Roche took the Yellow jersey.

Roche winning the worlds for Ireland

Roche was a huge natural talent, to win the Giro d’Italia, he was assisted by Carrera team mate Eddy Schepers and to a great extent by his former AC-BB and Peugeot friend Robert Millar, who in Italy won the Mountains award. Schepers was again there for him in France, as was Sean Kelly. The latter sacrificed his own chances in the World Championships at Villach, when in the last kilometers Roche streaked away to victory, robbing either Kelly or Moreno Argentin of certain victory. It would be prudent to note that these performances were achieved when the performance booster EPO did not exist.

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John getting his award for his 21st Tour de France behind the camera from John Pierce Bernard Hinault,Guy Merlin and Jean Marie Leblanc

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