In the spring of 1987, Irish rider Sean Kelly was the world’s number one ranked cyclist and his compatriot Stephen Roche was on the cusp of the greatest season of his career, during which he won the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and World Championships.
The two Irish riders had enjoyed a fierce and mostly friendly rivalry since Roche turned professional in 1981. In fact, it was the Dubliner’s victory at Paris-Nice, just a few weeks after starting his pro career with the Peugeot team, that prompted Kelly to get serious.
Although Kelly had won stages of the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, he had not made the sort of splash that Roche had made by winning one of the most prestigious stage races in French cycling.
Paris-Nice had often been a battleground for the two Irishmen but in 1987, with Kelly aiming for his sixth consecutive overall victory, the rivalry took on an extra edge.
In his autobiography, Hunger, Kelly tells the story of that incredible edition of the Race to the Sun. Going into the final day of the race Roche, riding for the Italian Carrera team, was in the leader’s jersey (which was white rather than yellow in those days). Kelly’s run of wins looked to be over…
There were two stages on the final day – a short but very tough 104-kilometre road stage from Mandelieu to Nice, going over the Col de Vence, then the traditional Col d’Èze time trial in the afternoon.
Paris-Nice looked lost. The time gap to Roche was too big to overhaul unless something dramatic happened, but I was determined to finish the race strongly. Roche might win overall but I still wanted to win the final two stages.
I was riding for the Kas team at the time and before the first stage we agreed to make the race as hard as possible right from the gun, to make the front group as small as possible and increase my chances of winning the stage. We knew we couldn’t get rid of Roche, he was far too strong for that.
On the Col de Vence, my team-mate Inaki Gastón set a very high tempo, before handing over to Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke.
Vandenbroucke could ride very strongly and the pace he was setting was so high that I was suffering a lot myself. But there was no way I could tell my own team-mate to slow down, I just had to hang in there until the top.
Roche was near by me, pedalling smoothly. And then something dramatic happened.
Near the top, the snow had been swept off the road into piles at the side and the surface had been gritted. The air was filled with big clouds of warm breath.
Then I heard a noise and knew immediately what it was.
Someone had a flat tyre.
‘C’est Roche,’ said Vandenbroucke. It’s Roche.
I didn’t say anything but Vandenbroucke knew what to do. He pushed harder on the pedals, upping the speed by about two kilometres an hour. I didn’t look back.
Roche only had one team-mate with him, so by the time he had changed his tyre his chance of getting back to us was all but gone. We flew down the other side and worried about the consequences later.
At the finish, Roche was almost a minute and a half behind me overall and I had salvaged victory from the jaws of defeat.
Perhaps driven by anger, Roche beat me by 10 seconds in the time trial but it was nowhere near enough to take back the white jersey. I had won the sixth of my seven Paris-Nice titles.
Roche was not happy, and I could understand that. The unwritten rule of bike racing is that you do not attack the race leader if he has a crash, a mechanical problem or a puncture.
It may sound like splitting hairs, but we didn’t attack. We had set the tempo from the very start of the stage and my team-mates had been increasing the pace on the Col de Vence. If we had been sitting in the wheels and chose the moment Roche punctured to attack, that would have been out of order.
But we just carried on with our plan. That’s bike racing. A puncture at the wrong moment can cost you a big victory.
Sean Kelly’s autobiography Hunger” (Peloton Publishing) is out now and available from www.seankellybook.com. The 2014 Paris-Nice starts this Sunday 9th March with every stage broadcast on British Eurosport and Eurosport Player.
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