Alençon, Basse Normandie, France on the morning of July 14th 1991 – we really shouldn’t have been there.
The day before we’d witnessed the start of Miguel Indurain’s reign as King of the Tour in the Stage Eight Alençon time trial; but Ed The Pole had forgotten to set his Psion Organiser (remember those?) to CET and we’d missed the morning ferry home by 30 seconds.
There was but one thing to do – once we’d changed our P&O tickets to early evening – go and see the start of Stage Nine in Alençon.
It was different back then, as we drove to the start we passed the stars en route the sign-on; Soren Lilholt on his radical monocoque and glum-looking super-climber, ‘Lucho’ Herrera.
‘Ça va, Lucho?’ we enquired, hanging out of the car window – ‘ça va, ça va’ shrugged the tiny Colombian but he gave us a smile and a wave.
Infiltrating the start area nowadays without the right bits of plastic hanging round your neck would be impossible – but back then we just ducked under a plastic tape and we were among the team cars.
And there was Laurence Roche who happily chatted away to us until the field was called to the line; ‘sure the start’ll be a few minutes yet’.
He looked a million dollars in his Tonton Tapis kit but was warm, friendly, grounded and good fun.
Ever since then I’ve meant to catch up with him, again – and just after the New Year this year, I managed it.
Your first team was Carrera, Laurence – quite a coup.
“I had a few wins in Ireland so I went to France with ACBB and had some wins there – but it’s so long ago that I can’t remember the names of the races.
“Carrera were up in Northern France for Paris-Roubaix at the start of the next season, I met them with Claude Escalon the head man at ACBB and we agreed a contract for me and a French guy, Bruno Bonnet.
“I must tell you about one of your countrymen who was with me at ACBB, Brian Smith – we’d just arrived at the team flat and were starving, so I said to Brian; ‘we need to get some food.’ Brian replied; ‘we can buy a baguette and make some pieces,’ so I had to say to him; ‘what’s a piece ?’ We call them sandwiches in Ireland !”
Carrera was one of the first real mega teams.
“There was a lot of cycling royalty there for sure; Guido Bontempi, Claudio Chiappucci, Acacio Da Silva, Erich Machler – all very good riders.
“Initially they were a bit cool towards me; there had been that rift in the team back in ’87 in the Giro which my brother Stephen won – but Roberto Visentini wasn’t best pleased with how Stephen had ridden and it divided the team.
“But eventually they warmed to me and I found them all to be good, approachable guys – even though there were some big egos around.
“Chiappucci was actually a gas; there was an American wrestler at the time called ‘The Ultimate Warrior,’ Claudio fancied himself in that role, we’d get to the hotel after the day’s stage and he’d be flexing his muscles in front of the mirror and thinking he was The Warrior – he was a really down to earth guy.”
Where was ‘home?’
“I lived beside Lake Garda; we all used to train together – it was a really good team but probably too good for me start with.
“There were so many good guys on the squad it was hard to get race days – and I needed racing.
“I raced about 60 times each season with Carrera; with Tonton I had 120 starts.”
Did you learn Italian?
“With ACBB I learned French and picked up some Italian – which I spoke to most of the guys.
“But Bontempi’s Italian was a dialect and full of slang so he and I used to speak French to each other.”
You look a million dollars on the team ‘hero cards.’
“It was a long time ago but yes, it was a cool team and the gear looked terrific.”
From Carrera after two seasons to Tonton Tapis.
“When I signed with Carrera Stephen tried to talk me out of it, saying that I should go with him to Fagor – and with hindsight, he was right.
“But I wanted to part of that Carrera set up, it all just looked so cool !
“At Tonton I was with Stephen and rode pretty much his French programme and that suited me much better than the Italian racing.
“It was a logical move to go with Stephen after my contract ended with Carrera.”
There’s still a debate; the Tonton jersey – the best or the worst, ever?
“The thing was that it wasn’t long after the Iraq-Iran war and the guy with the carpet on his shoulder looked like Saddam Hussein with a rocket launcher !”
Did you get to ride with Stephen much on Tonton?
“I followed most of Stephen’s programme; the team was split in two with one riding a Belgian programme and us riding a French programme.
“I learned so much that year and the French races and weather suited me much better.”
And you rode that ’91 Tour.
“There were three places on the Tour team left and I trained really hard to try and make the cut.
“And then I rode the Midi Libre and got absolutely hammered !
“On the Monday after it I turned back from training, I was just so de-motivated; in fact, that week the only pedalling I did was in a pedalo with my wife !
“Then came the Dauphiné and I was flying – it was accidental but I’d needed the recovery and was picked for the Tour team.”
That was the year Stephen missed his start in the TTT…
“It was so easily done; there was a 120 kilometre road stage in the morning then a 60km TTT in the afternoon.
“The TTT starting order was on a spread sheet with no lines on it and our guy made a mistake when he scanned across the page, saying we were off at 15:20 – but it was actually 15:12.
“Stephen wanted to time it so he would turn up at the last minute – he didn’t want hassled by journalists before the start.
“We arrived at the start 15 minutes before the start but Stephen was still away on his ‘loosener’ ride.
“There were no mobile phones back then so there was no way to contact him; we wanted to wait but we were told; ‘go ! or go home !’
“We set off at a leisurely pace hoping Stephen would catch up – but again they said; ‘race ! or go home !’”
Four Irish guys started that Tour but you were the only finisher.
“If you’d told me that before the start I’d have said; ‘no way!’ but Stephen, Martin Earley and Sean Kelly were all out and so was Sean Yates – he had a really bad crash ending up with a brake lever in his arm.
“At the end there was just Robert Millar and I left.”
There was no renewal at Tonton.
“No; and I’d ridden a good Tour, I came out of it really strong – I was in the break on the Champs Élysées in Paris.
“It was all supposed to be organised for ’92, I was to sign at the end of August then it was mid September then; ‘sorry, the team is folding …”
“By then it was too late to get a ride elsewhere; that winter there was a 10% drop in the number of professional riders – my career was over at 23 years-old.”
As well as the Tour you rode the Worlds a few times.
“Yes but I never finished one – savage races !
“Dan Martin and Nicolas have banter with Stephen and I about how much harder it is now but of course we reply with; ‘in our day, men were men !’
“And they forget that the bikes are so much lighter and the races shorter – I’m working on stats just now to prove to them that it was harder for us !
“But seriously, I remember the Worlds at Chambery; it was just so quick – 48 kph for the first lap even with that big climb, Adrie van der Poel climbed off after that one lap.”
Tell us about your comeback.
“It wasn’t so much a comeback, I just wanted to get my belly off – but I did ride the Ras, twice.
“I rode a few seasons but I’d stop a quarter or half way through the year – you don’t have the drive you did when you were young.
“I was driven when I was young, wanting to be a pro – when you get older there’s not the same buzz and then you have family commitments.
“I remember when I decided to get fit, we were living in Spain and I’d just picked up my son from rugby – were sitting in a Burger King stuffing our faces with Whoppers and I said to my him; ‘I’m going to get fit and lose 10 kilos !’
“He just laughed at me.”
What do you do now?
“I’m involved with ‘Tax Free Bicycles’ – which is like the Cycle2Work scheme in Britain.”
“Not really – but I do wish I hadn’t shown the other riders in the peloton so much respect when I was at Carrera.
“Coming in to the bottom of a climb there’s a big fight for position and I showed too much respect in those situations; ‘after you, Mr. Indurain !’
“With Tonton I didn’t ride like that – I just knuckled in ! It wasn’t my decision how my career finished, as I said, I came out of the Tour strong, in the break for seven of the nine laps of the Champs.
“I had a good year, it was circumstances which defeated me.
“I was gutted at the end though, it took me a year to get my head round it – from when I was 12 years-old I decided I was going to be a pro and was always training for a goal be it the Olympics or Tour.
“Then suddenly – nothing …
“It took me a year to re-group get my focus back, find a decent job and start my degree in business.”
I hope it’s not another 23 years before I get the chance to speak to Laurence, again.