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Legend Stephen Roche is ready for some Gran Fondo memories

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 20/06/2015

Back in 1987, it was an early September afternoon in Austria when Stephen Roche decided to take himself for an ice-cream.

Nothing unusual about that of course, especially as temperatures rose to the 40-degree mark, but this was a man who in 24 hours' time would compete at the World Championships in an attempt to join the great Eddy Merckx as the only man to win cycling's coveted Triple Crown.

As his Carrera team directeur Davide Boifava watched on in horror at his star rider's display of indulgence, Roche reminded him that, given a route supposedly far better suited to others, his primary objective at the ski resort of Villach would be to help his fellow Irishman Sean Kelly to victory.

Against all the odds, however, the Dubliner, who will ride the route of tomorrow's Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia alongside Team Sky's Richie Porte and more than 3,000 amateurs, sprinted his way to victory on the final lap and cemented his place in the pantheon of the sport's legends.

Recalling his seemingly dim prospects ahead of the defining race, he reflected this week: "People weren't expecting me to win and it was only a day before that I realised I was in with a chance.

"It wasn't something that I had targeted for months like you usually would with a big event. I was going to ride for Sean and make sure that he was in a winning position and lead him out for the sprint.

"The thing was, everybody was talking about how it was a flat circuit and it wasn't for me to win as I wasn't a sprinter.

"It was only when we arrived the day before that I realised there were two climbs and if I had a good day it could be perfect for me.

"After that the heavens opened on the day of the race, which suited me being from Ireland, and everything just went in my favour.

"It was one of those days when everything just lined up."

It proved to be the final leg of an historic treble that began with victory in the Giro d'Italia, still remembered today for Roche's feud with Italian team-mate Roberto Visentini that had locals spitting red wine and rice at the Dubliner as he rode the final week.

Roche, now 55, then secured the yellow jersey in a Tour de France immortalised by the commentary of Phil Ligget as Roche (pictured) came from nowhere to eat away at Pedro Delgado's lead in the crucial stage at La Plagne.

Looking back now, Roche has time to fully appreciate the magnitude of his achievements, something that finally struck him during last year's Grande Partenza when the Giro d'Italia started here in style.

"When I saw the Giro presentation last year in Belfast, I sat watching it and thought 'Wow, I won one of those myself'," he said.

"When you see the crowds that were there, it made me think about the numbers in my day and how you almost don't see them because you're so focused on what you're doing.

"Looking back it means more to me today. It's only probably now that you realise how big it was in those days.

"Back then, you're running from interview to reception, to bike race, to training and you can't take the time to sit back and really analyse what you're doing. It wasn't about celebrating, it was about getting to the next victory.

"I didn't take the time to savour what I was doing because I was probably already moving on to the next one but, looking back now, I appreciate it more.

"I see how big the Giro is, how big the Tour is, how big the Worlds are, and I can say I've done all that."

Given his successes, Roche, who now runs a successful cycling camp in Palma for much of the year, was an integral part of the bid to bring the Giro d'Italia to Northern Ireland last May and now, over a year on, it is an endeavour he looks back on with immense satisfaction.

"It was very emotional," he admitted.

"I was given my Hall of Fame trophy up at the Giant's Causeway a couple of weeks before the start. My Triple Crown started at the Giro so, despite the goings on, I have very fond memories of the race and having it in Ireland brought them all back really.

"Going around the race route in the cavalcade, with all the people along the roads, was amazing.

"The whole journey of the Giro coming, the Big Start, the footage of the Titanic Centre ahead of the time-trial, was just unbelievable. I was blown away by how the Tourist Board got the people behind it and just turned everything pink.

"I suppose winning the race and being partially responsible for it coming to the country was one thing, but then seeing everyone come together and have everything in place to make the whole thing a success just made me even more proud.

"To show everyone around the world what my country, what Northern Ireland, and what Belfast can do was incredible.

"I was so proud to be involved in it and to see what a success it was.

"The NI Tourist Board, Shadetree Sports and RCS all came together and gave us an event that we'll never forget."

His ambassadorial role for that race sees him fill a similar position for tomorrow's Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia, an amateur sportive linked to the Grand Tour event, and Roche is determined to see more top cyclists return to these shores.

"This doesn't stop here," he affirmed.

"You'd hope now that what happened with the Giro, with the way the people embraced the race and embraced cycling, plus all the corporate and commercial interest that is there, that we'll see another professional cycling race here.

"I think the country is ripe for it.

"The Gran Fondo is a three-year contract, the aim is to get the Giro back here in either 2019 or 2020, and we should be getting a five-day pro race maybe even as early as 2016."

For this weekend at least though, Roche's focus will be on tomorrow's 173km trek that, after beginning at the Titanic Centre, will move through Co Down and take in testing climbs up the likes of Dree Hill, Slieve Croob and Spelga Dam.

Whether or not he chooses to prepare with an ice-cream remains to be seen.

Belfast Telegraph

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