In 1980, Stephen Roche packed his suitcase and left Ireland for Paris, hoping to race at the highest echelons of the sport, as only a few Irishmen had done before him. His resulting career encompassed a World Championship, Grand Tour titles, and numerous other victories.
Twenty-four years after Stephen turned professional, his son, Nicolas, lined up on the start line of the Tour de Vendée as a pro. Now racing for Team Sky, the younger Roche has forged a career of strong Grand Tour performances, stage wins, and selfless teamwork.
Both Stephen and Nicolas took the time to speak about the parallels and differences in their careers, the importance of passing exams, and sharing a profession.
When you travelled over to France to try and make it as a professional cyclist in February 1980 what advice did your parents give you?
They said that I should get something under my belt before I went off. Make sure you get your exams. Make sure you have an option for coming home. I had to qualify as a maintenance fitter in 1979 and once I had my qualifications behind me, I could go to France and if it didn’t work out I could come home and just pick up my tools. So that was their main worry, that I shouldn’t chuck in my job or my studies and go to France with a big dream to become a professional, and then have it all go bang, you know?
Was this advice similar to what you told Nicolas when he went out to race?
It was a bit different, because we were living in France as a family, so we were closer to it all. My advice to him was, if he played basketball or football, people will say, Nico is a fabulous basketball player’, or ‘Nico is a great footballer, an exceptional athlete’. But if he’s cycling, everyone is going to compare him to his old man. ‘Did he have the same pedal stroke?’ ‘Is he as good in the mountains?’ ‘Is he a better sprinter than his Dad?’… There were always going to be comparisons down this route, so he had to understand that it wouldn’t be easy. The thing is to learn and to keep going forward, and to have fun. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.
Reading interviews with you, one name keeps popping up, Claude Escalon. You describe him as a friend and a mentor. Could you tell me about him?
When I first came to France as an amateur, I met Claude. He was the Directeur Sportif at the ACBB [Athletic Club de Boulogne-Billancourt]. He was a very passionate man, great at tactics, and warm, always protecting his own lads. We became friends. Right through my career – including when I was a professional – he was always there to give me a hand and to talk to me.
For Nico’s career, Claude was even more important. If I ever tried to tell Nico something in the early days, well, it’s very difficult for a boy to listen to his old man. Nicolas had a lot of respect for Claude, so I’d say to Claude, “Could you tell ‘XYZ’ to Nicolas?” Then Claude would go along to Nicolas and talk to him and tell him what I said. It always worked.
How do you keep in touch with Nicolas – do you talk about racing, or do you try to let him get on with what he is doing?
I let him get on. We call and text, I wish him all the best, no pressure. I know that if he has a problem, he’ll call me. If I go to watch him, I’ll only try to see him for a quick cup of coffee, then I’ll disappear. I don’t like hanging around because it’s his time of glory, and I don’t feel like I have to be a part of it. I’ve had my time, and now it’s his.
You know when he got the jersey in La Vuelta two years ago? He spoke to me the night before, and I said, ‘Nicolas, if you finish in the top ten, it’ll be déjà vu, we know you’re capable of that. But, here you are, a couple of seconds away from wearing the leader’s jersey in a Grand Tour. This doesn’t come round every day in a guy’s career. There’s a climb up to the finish tomorrow – if you make just one effort, just one, full effort in the final km, you can take the jersey. It doesn’t matter if you win the stage or not, but you can wear the red jersey in Spain.’
So, the next day, he did it, and he got the jersey. He called me after, and he said, “Dad, thank you for making me believe I could do it.” That was nice, you know.
I asked your Dad about your early years of racing, and he told me about how he and his friend Claude Escalon would trick you into following your Dad’s advice. Did you ever catch on?
My Dad and I were talking about this recently. I ended up learning a lot of useful things this way. I remember one time Claude told me to keep a scrapbook and put as much information in it as possible – like what form I felt I had, how much I weighed, or what gearing I used on a particular climb or race. The idea was that, over time, I’d have this huge amount of information to reference, and I could see what I was doing well and how to avoid making the same mistakes each season.
I remember telling my Dad about how Claude had told me to keep a scrapbook, and he raised an eyebrow and just said, “Oh, I used to do that,” and didn’t mention it again. It was only years later that I realised most of the stuff Claude told me were filtered bits of advice from my Dad.
And was racing something you did for fun, or had you decided it’s what you wanted to do with your life?
I’m the sort of person who will do most things ‘seriously’, but I knew that I had to finish my studies before I made any decisions about racing for a career. Racing isn’t like football, where you can be thrust into the professional ranks while in your late teens – and that’s just because of the way that cycling works, and how you’ve got to have a good head on your shoulders before you can achieve anything.
I made the decision to try racing professionally when I was 19. Going to a hotel management school was on the cards, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to put in the time that school required. So my Dad and I made a deal – he’d give me a few years to try to be professional and race fulltime, and if I didn’t make it I would go back to the school. Oh, and I had to work a few shifts in a hotel while racing as an amateur.
How often do you talk to your Dad?
We have a strong relationship, so we call each other often just to catch up. If I’m in town, we’ll go for a ride once a week or so, and that’s always a good time to chat. We’ll talk about anything in a three or four hour ride, from diet and training to teammates to how wedding plans are going.
I spoke to your Dad about your taking of the leader’s jersey at La Vuelta, and his advice and reactions. How do you remember it?
It’s a complicated feeling, because winning the jersey was amazing, but you wake up the next morning and you know you need to prove yourself all over again. It’s not taken for granted, you don’t get any reprieve. The next day I lost it by a second to Daniel Moreno – and that’s just how it goes.
Do you remember seeing much of your Dad race?
Not too much. I do have a few memories of the last few years, because we went to see him in the post-Tour criteriums. There was less travel in those days, and families weren’t encouraged to go along with the racers as much, although it’s far more common now. I think that, were I to have kids in the near future, they might be able to come and spend time with me on rest days and so on – which wasn’t quite the case in the days of my Dad’s career.
The clearest memory I have is of him crashing in San Sebastian. My Mum took us to the town a few days early, and we played on the beaches and waited for Dad to be finished with the race. We had no way of knowing, but in the race he had attacked the peloton over the crest of a small climb, and went tearing into a corner. His brakes gave out, and he crashed into a pole.
I remember that we were waiting at the finish, but he never arrived. Someone told us that he been rushed to the hospital, so later we were sitting in the lobby of the hotel, waiting for the team to bring him back, and when they did he showed me the 25 stitches in his scalp. When he walked into the lobby he looked like a mummy, with the big white bandages around his head.
Do you find that other people are more eager to talk about your career in terms of your Dad’s?
I think it’s something the press did years ago, when I was first starting out, but I’ve got 11 years as a professional now and it’s much less common to be compared to him. I’ve never had any ego issues over someone introducing me as the son of Stephen Roche. He has all the respect of the cycling world – he was World Champion, Tour de France winner and so on. And I know that a lot of people respect the work that I do too.
Thank you to Siu-Anne Marie Gill at 11th Hour Global Management – Representing Stephen Roche.