The Irish team that went to Austria in 1987 might have been small, but it was one of the strongest ever fielded by the Emerald Isle at a World Championships.
With Martin Earley and Paul Kimmage in support, Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly were carrying the torch for the Irish.
Now riding at the peak of their powers, both men had already won bronze medals at the Worlds – Kelly at Goodwood, in 1982, behind Giuseppe Saronni and Greg LeMond; and Roche one year later in Altenrheim, behind Adrie van der Poel as LeMond soloed to glory in Switzerland. Twenty-five years earlier, Shay Elliott had finished a distant second behind his St Raphaël teammate Jean Stablinsky in Salo di Garda, Italy, to take the silver medal. But no Irishman had yet worn cycling's fabled Rainbow Jersey.
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After winning the 1987 Giro d'Italia in controversial circumstances and then doubling up in July's Tour de France, Roche was pretty worn out by the time the Irish team arrived in the Austrian city of Villach. On what was deemed to be a sprinters' course, Kelly was seen as the main focus of the Irish team, with Roche very much the Plan B.
After all, only one man had ever won the Giro, Tour and Worlds in one season before – and Stephen Roche, for all his class, was no Eddy Merckx.

At the Grand Tour double

To say Roche's Giro-Tour double was unexpected is an understatement. He had finished on the podium behind Bernard Hinault and LeMond as a 25-year-old in his third Tour in 1985. But in the season before his annus mirabilis, Roche rode as a domestique for Carrera teammate Roberto Visentini in a maiden Giro he failed to finish, then limped to Paris an-hour-and-a-half down on LeMond in the Tour.
A chronic knee injury dating back to a high-speed crash in a six-day track event in 1986 was the root of Roche's ills – prompting the Irishman to describe that 1986 Tour as "entering a dark tunnel" of pain. The next spring, Roche was denied victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège by the Italian Moreno Argentin in what would be the closest he ever got to winning one of cycling's five Monuments. Victory in the subsequent Tour de Romandie confirmed his fine form, and the Irishman entered the Giro as one of the favourites.
There was one rather large obstacle, however. Roche's teammate at Carrera was the defending champion Visentini, who received the Italian team's backing in their national race. After winning the prologue, Visentini wore the first Maglia Rosa before the Dutchman Erik Breukink took over. Roche then enjoyed 10 days in pink after Carrera won the team time trial – relinquishing the lead to Visentini after the Italian won the Stage 13 individual time trial.
So far, so good for Carrera, whose two-pronged attack was reaping the rewards. Then came the controversy. The 15th stage to Sappada saw the race enter the Dolomites. Roche launched an attack, distancing his teammate. Despite orders from his team director to sit up for Visentini, Roche pressed on. Finishing in the lead group, Roche took over the race lead that afternoon as Visentini plummeted down to seventh place, more than three minutes down.
This apparent act of treachery incurred Roche the wrath of both his Carrera management and teammates, not to mention the Italian tifosi. Visentini attacked Roche on numerous occasions in the final week of the race, but was unable to crack his teammate, who capped his winning ride with victory in the final time trial as he became Ireland's first ever Grand Tour winner.
Two months later, in the Tour, Roche memorably fought back on the climb to La Plagne to limit his loses to Pedro Delgado as the commentator Phil Liggett delivered his now legendary cries of: "And just who is that rider coming up behind? That looks like Roche! That looks like Stephen Roche! It's Stephen Roche who has come over the line – he almost caught Pedro Delgado. I don't believe it."
That effort required him to be put on an oxygen mask, and he was even taken away by ambulance to a local hospital before being given the all clear to continue the race. Roche completed his victory over the Spaniard by cutting the mustard into Dijon with a strong time trial performance that saw him wrest control of the Yellow Jersey on the penultimate day of the Tour. The small, quiet man from County Dublin had only gone and done the double – following in the footsteps of the likes of Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx and Hinault.
The knee injury had raised doubts over Roche's ability to perform at the top level, while his fallout with teammate Visentini in the Giro had cast – at least, in the eyes of the Italians – a shadow over his character. But there was no denying that Roche was ticking along nicely ahead of the World Championships.
As the Irish writer Colin O'Brien, author of Giro d'Italia: The Story of the World's Most Beautiful Bike Race, says: "Roche is often characterised as this treacherous chancer who won races that he shouldn't have won, but he had already come close in the Worlds a few years before, and he'd been on the podium before in the Tour.
"He was a punchy rider who was great at taking advantage of the situation on the road; rather than characterising that as cynical, I'd say that it showed an intelligence that he was a really good judge of what was happening around him – particularly when he was on good form – and also of his own abilities."

Setting the scene: the Fab Four

Prior to the World Championships, Roche and his Irish teammates took part in a number of criteriums in Ireland – including one, in Cork, where the man of the moment bashed his bad knee in a fall. Despite some apparent struggles for motivation after his Tour win earlier that summer, Roche was still confident enough he could put in a good turn for his friend Kelly, whose strengths suited a course that Eddy Merckx had predicted would be won by a sprinter.
By contrast to Roche, Kelly had enjoyed a rotten campaign in 1987. At the beginning of the year, his directeur sportif Jean de Gribaldy – the man who had first identified his talent and with whom he was very close – was killed in a car crash. Saddle-sores then forced him out of the Vuelta just three days from the finish while he was in the Maillot Amarillo. Then, at the Tour, not only did Kelly crash out in Stage 12 without a win, he watched at home as his countryman propelled himself to superstardom with victory in the world's biggest bike race.
At this point in his career, the 31-year-old Kelly had won four of the five Monuments, a record six consecutive Paris-Nice titles (another would follow), and multiple stages on both the Tour and Vuelta.
"To have sat at home injured and watch another Irishman wipe out everything he had ever done with one triumph must have been unbearable," Paul Kimmage writes in his seminal book, Rough Ride. "If Kelly was in agony then Roche was very much in ecstasy. For years he had played second fiddle to the 'King', but every dog has his day and this was Stephen's."
While the two were friends both on and off the bike, that's not to say they did not have their moments. For all their chumminess, tensions had appeared in their relationship earlier that spring when Kelly took advantage of a Roche puncture to take the Yellow Jersey off his back in the penultimate stage of Paris-Nice in March. This led to a minor falling-out that took weeks to repair.
However, Ireland's two leading lights were united not only by a strong friendship, but by their perceived underdog status.
"There was the sense of being outsiders – like Andy Hampsten or Greg LeMond – even if the two of them had been at the forefront of European cycling for a while already and were fairly embedded in the French and Belgian cycling scene," says O'Brien. "There was a certain feeling of ‘us against the world’. They wanted to prove that they were two of the best, if not the best, riders around."
Any differences they had was water under the bridge come September. Kelly and Roche actually arrived at the Worlds by bike, choosing to ride the 120km to Villach from Gemona, where they had been competing at the Giro del Friuli. They were staying at the swish Hotel Piber at the expense of their pro teams along with Martin Earley and Kimmage, the remaining two of the team that inevitably became known as the Fab Four.
There was, in fact, a fifth man who rode for Ireland that day, but he is often overlooked. Alan McCormack was an amateur rider who made the journey all the way from Boulder, Colorado, via Boston and Vienna. He stayed in a hotel in the centre of town (which he described as a prison) and openly told reporters that he was there to ride for himself, not in the service of Kelly and Roche, who earned much more than him, and who had not offered him any financial incentive.
The Irish team had no manager and the rough plan, at least initially, was to ride for Kelly. As the Cyclingnews journalist Barry Ryan explains in his book The Ascent – Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling's Golden Generation: "They knew there was no point in devising a more detailed scheme when the 12-man squads from Italy, Belgium and France would inevitably dictate the terms of engagement."
Reflecting on their tactics, Earley tells Ryan: "You can't talk tactics with five guys. I think the idea was just to hang on as long as possible and try to help Kelly."
But when the Fab Four recced the course on the Thursday – McCormach's train from Vienna did not arrive until late on the Friday – Roche began to question the consensus that this was a race for the fast men.
"All of the talk of it being a flat circuit and one that suited the sprinters was off the mark,” he says in his autobiography The Agony and the Ecstasy. “It was a circuit for strong men, essentially like Sean and [Moreno] Argentin, but I knew that I would go okay on such a circuit."
It was here, two days before the race, that Roche, rediscovered his mojo.

How the race was won

Heavy showers greeted the 168 riders at the start of the 269km race, which featured 23 laps of a lumpy 11.7km circuit that contained two short climbs and some portions of 10 per cent gradients.
A reduced bunch finish was expected, with defending champion Moreno Argentin deemed the race favourite by most journalists.
Italy also had Guido Bontempi as back-up, while Dutch duo Teun van Vliet and Steven Rooks, the Belgian Eric Vanderaerden, Germany's Rolf Golz and Denmark's Rolf Sorensen were also seen as possible threats to Kelly's chances.
Severe rain and slippery conditions kept the pace slow and dulled much of the interest over the first half of the course, with Portugal's Orlando Neves the only attacker. He built up a lead of two minutes but was reeled in with 75km remaining as the rain eased and the battle of attrition came to an end.
A dangerous break of four soon formed, including Juan Fernandez of Spain, Argentin and Van Vliet. Roche told McCormack to lend him a hand to close the gap, but there was never any formal agreement between the two, no carrot to go with the stick, and Ireland's fifth man was wary of burying himself for someone else. McCormack lasted one more lap before pulling up to watch the finish on TV in the makeshift Irish tent.
And what a finale it was.
Earley and Kimmage put in huge shifts to help bring the race back together and neutralise the threat posed by the Argentin quartet. The Italian was something of a bête noir for Roche, having twice used all his trademark cunning to get the better of him in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
When Earley joined McCormack in the pits with two laps remaining, Kelly and Roche combined with Canada's Steve Bauer to drag a chase group back to the leaders. This was followed by a brief lull in which the pace slowed ahead of the final lap, with a peloton of around 70 riders crossing the line as the bell rang.
With Kelly in his wake, Roche kept the pace high on the hill at the start of the final lap, keen to tire out the remaining sprinters. Going over the top, there were just 13 riders left in contention. Only the Dutch – with three riders – outnumbered the Irish. The attacks then came thick and fast with Dutchmen Breukink and Van Vliet particularly aggressive.
Roche's aggression had managed to shed the likes of Vanderaerden and Bontempi, but not his old foe Argentin, the defending champion. The Italian, however, had pinpointed Kelly as the man to watch, and took it upon himself to stick to his wheel and goad his rival.
If it came down to a reduced sprint, Kelly and Argentin shoot out head and shoulders above the rest. This meant the others had no choice but to alter the script – forcing the two Irishmen to take turns covering the moves.
As Kelly recalls to Ryan in The Ascent: "I said to Stephen, 'Look, the only thing to do here is one of us goes with one attack and the other goes with the next attack.' I went at least two or maybe three times with attacks. I'd get a little bit ahead and then I'd be closed down, and then Roche would go with the next one. Roche went with one. They looked at each other behind, and that was the one."
With just over one kilometre to go, Van Vliet had zipped clear. Roche and Golz latched on, with Sorensen and the Swiss Guido Winterberg making it five out ahead.
Everyone in the chase group was looking to Kelly to react. But Kelly knew that any response by him could reopen the door to Argentin and deny both Irish riders the spoils. The Italian goaded Kelly, sat on his wheel and told him he had thrown away his chances of gold.
Roche later described the moment in his autobiography: "I looked behind and could see they were stalling. I became anxious. I wondered what was happening. How could Kelly lose contact at this stage? What I did not know was that Kelly and Argentin were having their own private battle of nerves, Kelly refusing to lead the pursuit of a breakaway group that included his teammate, Argentin refusing to lead Kelly because he feared Kelly would then beat him in the sprint."
For O'Brien, Kelly's sangfroid in the face of Argentin's provocation was an indication of what a "shrewd operator" he was. "You never know the truth, but the story goes that Argentin was mocking him when the move went, toying with him, trying to make him work to pull it back. Kelly didn't rise to the bait, knowing that his teammate was up the road."
Meanwhile, Roche had a dilemma of his own. He didn't have the same kick as Van Vliet or Golz, and he had no desire to finish the Worlds with another bronze medal. So, turning a big gear, he threw the dice and went early, with 500m remaining. He passed Sorensen, Van Vliet and Golz; Winterberg cottoned on but didn't have the legs; they all hesitated – and in that instant, lost all chances of the victory.
Further back, the penny suddenly dropped for Argentin. Maybe Kelly wasn't Ireland's man after all. He finally responded but left it way too late.
Glancing under his arm with 300m remaining, Roche got what he would describe as "the most beautiful surprise of my life". Argentin was closing in but was going to run out of road. The Italian would be forced to settle for the medal that matched his name, with Fernandez taking bronze to deny Golz the final place on the podium.
Finishing four bike lengths ahead, Roche raised his arms in celebration at winning the Worlds and completing an unlikely Triple Crown after what he would describe as "the best single-day effort of my career".
Kelly, meanwhile, punched the air in disbelief, beaming as if he'd finally won the Rainbow Jersey as he came home for what was arguably the best fifth place in the history of the World Championships.

Kelly the hero in Roche's finest moment

Despite the smiles, the final piece in Roche's Triple Crown jigsaw was clearly a bittersweet occasion for Kelly who, interviewed at the finish by Irish reporters, admitted: "Naturally I'm a bit disappointed, I would have liked to have won."
As Ryan writes: "Kelly had been Ireland's standard bearer for a decade and now, in the space of one summer, Roche had carried off cycling's three biggest prizes, a treble that had been achieved only by Eddy Merckx."
Years on, speaking to Ryan, Kelly is more philosophical about the turn of events that day: "It could have been the other way. It could have been that I was in the move that stuck – it would have been with Argentin, of course, because he was on my wheel all the time. But that's the way it goes."
If Kelly was in his pomp in 1987, he no doubt felt that he would have many more opportunities to secure the Rainbow Jersey in his career. By the same token, Kelly's very presence in that lead group in Villach made it possible for Roche to win.
With this in mind, O'Brien recalls watching the 2013 World Championships with the Portuguese team in "total disbelief" as the Spanish duo of Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez threw the race away and let Rui Costa ride off with the win.
For O'Brien, it is to Kelly's credit that the 1987 Worlds did not end with a similar scenario for the Irish. "It can't have been easy for Kelly to keep his cool and refuse to chase. Credit to him. That ability to hold your nerve and watch the race get away from you doesn't happen an awful lot in cycling," he says.
"There's such a fine line between knowing when to stop playing poker and making that gamble. You look very smart when it pays off, but all too often you look a complete fool for not jumping and reacting to it."
Kelly played his cards just right that day – and that's not to take anything away from Roche, who had the strength and tactical nous to do his bit and work with the excellent hand dealt to him by his loyal teammate. In that sense, Roche's victory was very much a victory for them both, and, above all, a victory for Ireland.
"It was an unusual occurrence in cycling in that there was a genuine happiness that they had won as a team," says O'Brien. "A lot of riders say, 'Oh, we work for the team and it's a team sport', but privately that's not always the case. With them, I think it definitely was."
Roche was an elevated Plan B in a finale that was perfectly executed by the Irish. Right to the final kilometre, the commenters that day still saw Kelly as the dangerman. Everyone was watching the multiple Monument winner, and they took their eye off the rider least suited to pulling off the win.
"The guys who were up there towards the finish were all big sprinters and Classics guys who would have fancied their chances on a course like that," says O'Brien.
"But the smaller guy, a better climber who had won two Grand Tours already that year – I think they thought that he was totally cooked, and that he was no Eddy Merckx. The unlikeliness of someone winning a Giro, a Tour and a Worlds, and the improbability of it being someone like Stephen Roche – and not being a Greg LeMond or someone universally recognised at being the best of a generation – I think it probably just wouldn't have dawned on a lot of directors that this guy could do it."

What happened next?

A few weeks later, Ireland's two cycling superstars lined up at the Tour of Ireland as Roche gave his Rainbow Jersey its first outing. It was a one-two for the home riders, but this time Kelly came out on top.
Moreno Argentin then picked himself up by winning the Giro di Lombardia two weeks later, but Kelly had the last laugh in their ongoing rivalry by denying him, in 1992, the Milan-San Remo victory the Italian coveted badly.
When Argentin attacked over the Poggio, Kelly led the chase over the summit and put in one of the sport's most daredevil descents to peg back his rival before outfoxing him on the via Roma for his second victory in La Primavera – it was last big win of his career.
Kelly admits that he never forgave Argentin for his negative tactics in the 1987 Worlds, how he latched on to Kelly's every move, sticking to him like a persistent mosquito. Roche's win was a welcome tonic, but Kelly always regretted the circumstances.
"I did think of that when I was on the Poggio," Kelly admits. "This guy, how he hurt my final of that World Championships. I think that pushed me that little bit more to try and catch him and beat him. That was something of a sore point with me after that Worlds."
A closure of sorts for Kelly, for whom the rainbow bands would always prove a step too far. He came close in 1989, finishing third – again – behind Greg LeMond at Chambery, and then took fifth in Utsumomiya in Japan in 1990. But despite being one of the best one-day riders of his generation – perhaps even of all time – Kelly never stood on the top step of the podium at a Worlds, a fact that makes his role in Villach all the more significant.
Roche remains to this day the only Irishman to be crowned World Champion, but he couldn't have done it without his teammate. As Roche tells Kimmage in Rough Ride:
People shouldn't say that I have won this race and Sean has won that. They should look at our careers and say that between us we have won every race on the continent worth winning.
And between them, they had indeed pretty much mopped up everything on offer. For when Kelly won the Vuelta in 1988, he completed the full house of Grand Tours for the Irish pair. Like the World title, however, the Tour of Flanders always remained elusive for Kelly – and Roche was hardly suited to the cobbled Classics, so the winner of the Triple Crown was never going to complete the full house of Monuments for the duo.
Roche struggled to scale the heights of his monstrous 1987 season again. A move from Carrera to Robert Millar's Fagor team, where he also joined up with Britain's Sean Yates, was seemingly cursed, with Roche plagued by a recurrence of his knee injury that virtually sidelined him all year.
Roche finally made his first appearance of the 1988 season at the World Championships in Ronse, but the defending champion went through the motions to come home in 75th place as the Italian Maurizio Fondriest soloed to glory.
The wins dried up, as did his days as a bona fide GC cyclist. Roche managed to finish in ninth place in the Giro on two more occasions, and took 14th in his one and only Vuelta in 1992. But two DNFs either side of a lowly 44th place in the 1990 Tour highlighted the sorry state of his knee and his changeable form.
Back at Carrera and riding in support of Claudio Chiappucci, Roche was able to show flashes of his former self, winning a stage in the 1992 Tour and finishing in the top 10. But by now, things had moved on. This was big Miguel Indurain's era of domination, cycling had changed, and Roche was yesterday's man.
O'Brien attributes the sudden decline of his countryman to a number of things on top of his chronic knee condition, including "the change in technology, and other areas of the sport that we can mention or choose to ignore." As such, he asks, of Ireland's ground-breaking Worlds victory in 1987: "Was that the early days of modern cycling, or the end days of the old ways? I suppose it's probably a bit of both."
While it's harsh to reduce Roche's victory in Villach to a case of the stars aligning for the man who had already won the Giro and Tour in the same season, it's also fair to say that he was never as consistent over his entire season as the man who made his Worlds victory possible.
'King' Kelly was a winning machine, his first Tour stage victory coming in 1978 and his last Monument triumph in 1992. Roche, by contrast, had a tiny window through which he concentrated his rainbow prism of light in 1987 to glorious affect. He was the man who, according to Phil Liggett in the Villach commentary box, "eclipsed the world with his magic legs” that year.
"Kelly was, if not the bigger talent, then much more dependable throughout his career," says O'Brien. “Whereas Roche was mercurial in that sense. “But you don't fluke your way to a Triple Crown. If that were possible, it would have happened more than twice."
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