Tour winner Roche's hell at career end
'WHEN you finish a cycling career," says Stephen Roche, "it's incredibly depressing. You're 33 or 34 and it's over and you are retired but you're too young. You have to find something else".
'WHEN you finish a cycling career," says Stephen Roche, "it's incredibly depressing. You're 33 or 34 and it's over and you are retired but you're too young. You have to find something else to do and you're not sure what. In those days, you weren't rich enough from cycling to live off it, but you come home and you start looking for something, trying to work out what is normal life and you just don't know.
"You don't know what normal family life is," Rochecontinues, recalling his 1993 retirement from professional cycling.
"Getting up in the same house ever day, when you're used to years of touring. Going to bed in the same house every night. My career was my priority and then, all of asudden it was over, I didn't know what else I could do and when I looked at it, I didn't know what was in my marriage. You're friends, but there's no love there. We weren't a couple, we were a couple of individuals."
Like many men, Stephen Roche seeks help from the woman in his life in pinpointing the significant dates of his personal history. As he talks, as if seeking some reassurance, he glances at her across the low table in the Berkeley Court lobby and she confirms or corrects. The number of years he has lived in France, the year of his marriage to Lydia, the period spent in Ireland ahead of the 1998 Tour de France. Sophie Kamoun looks ill-at-ease with the exchange only once, when Roche hesitates on when exactly his marriage faltered in the mid-Nineties. After all, it was not her marriage, and perhaps a sense of respect sees Sophie tell Stephen Roche, her partner of four years, that she's not quite sure about those particular dates.
It's safe to say that dark-eyed Parisian Sophie is not the woman Irish people expect to see on the arm of Stephen Roche. Were most of us to name the two things with which we associate the Dundrum-born Roche, we'd list his 1987 Tour de France victory and his blonde wife, Lydia, who charmed us and lent him an air of sophistication on visits home.
As a couple, the Roches were attractive and charming, and that's how we froze them in our minds, young and ideal and on top of the world. But away from Irish eyes, life moved on and altered immensely. Today, the cycling career is long over, he and Lydia are divorced since 2003 and life with Sophie is a hectic schedule of juggling their respective children and carving out a life for themselves. The apparently innocent boy of those Eighties Late Late Show s is long gone, replaced by a man with much experience under his belt but relatively few regrets.
Stephen Roche was 21 when he first left Ireland for France.
"It's 26 years away from Ireland," he says in an accent that becomes more Dublin as the conversation continues, though there is a French 'euh' at the end of many words, "Twenty of those in France, so I've lived in France almost as long as I ever lived here. I say I'm 50 per cent French and 100 per cent Irish."
Of course, as far as we're concerned, Stephen Roche is Irish. The only Irishman ever to win the Tour de France, a victory that allowed Charlie Haughey step on to the victor's podium on the ChampsElysees, that allowed usfeel some national pride years before the Celtic Tiger. And before the fever of Italia '90 or the Oscar victory of My Left Foot .
Roche left Ireland as an amateur cyclist who had been spotted by a visiting French coach who suggested he start to train and race in France if he wanted any chance of competing in the Moscow Olympics. Roche arrived in France completely green, and while he made steady progress in cycling, socially it was more difficult, until he met Lydia.
"We were very young, you know," Roche recalls, adding he now advises his 22-year-old cyclist son, Nicholas, against settling down too early. "Lydia was only 17 when I met her," he continues, "I was only 21. I was 22 when we got married and she was 18.
"I was young and living in France, training, lonely, and her family were all into cycling. Her father was one of these people who encouraged his children to be the best at sport, did everything for them, but they did not haveit. Then there's this Irishguy, a good cyclist, going out with his daughter and it was a case of 'You've got to marry this guy.'
"I moved into their home, then we're getting married and you just didn't think of the reasons why it might be good or not good."
As he explains it, Roche did not step back and really assess his marriage to Lydia until after his retirement from professional cycling in 1993. His career had been a good one and all-absorbing; he was determined and driven. The peak of his career came in 1987, in which he won the Tour de France and became only the second cyclist in history to win the Triple Crown (the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the World Championships). Even by 1987, however, Roche had been troubled by a knee injury which deteriorated over time. He pulled out of the 1989 Tour de France after bashing the knee against his handlebars and by the early Nineties had significant power loss in his right leg. He rode the 1993 Tour "just for fun" and retired soon afterwards.
As many sportsmen testify, however, retirement was difficult to deal with, and he was not sure what he could turn his hand to professionally.
"I made a lot more money than some guys made," says Roche of his financial situation, "but not enough to sit back for the rest of my life. Then you got ?30,000 for the Tour de France; now it's ?400,000." The money and his career prospects werenot the biggest worry, though. Of more concern was the state of Roche's marriage to Lydia. Soon after Roche's retirement, they couple decided to separate.
"We were fighting all the time and could never agree on anything," Roche explains. "But we fought all our lives, you know, and Nicholas and Christel [now 20 and studying in Canada] suffered a lot because of it. When Lydia and I separated that time, they were the first to acknowledge that it was a good idea."
Two years later, Stephen and Lydia Roche reunited. In this time, he had set up a business on Mallorca, running cycling holidays for international visitors, a business that has flourished since and expanded to embrace a line of bicycles and clothing. Perhaps Roche felt his confidence restored somewhat by this success and in that spirit re-entered his marriage.
"We had split up as soon as I finished my career," he says, "and later I thought maybe I hadn't given it a good enough chance. So we gave it another go and tried to see if it would work, and it was probably good for a month or two, but then it was the same."
Then, in advance of the 1998 Tour de France - which began in Ireland - Stephen Roche was invited home to work on promoting the event and the Irish angle. It seemed at the time, he reflects, a chance for a new start in anew place.
"Coming home to Ireland in 1996 we thought might change everything," Roche says, "So we moved, and I was very involved in the Tour and Lydia wanted more children. She would have had 25 kids if she could, and it was just kids, kids, kids.
"I was 'no, no, no'," Roche recalls, "and even Nicholas and Christel were against it. They felt I hadn't been around when they were small and now was their time with me, but Lydia wanted another kid. I said no and then it went to an argument and then you give in and you have one (Alexi, now 8) and then he's on his own and so you go again and have another one (Florian, 6). Nothing told me at that stage we'd split up, because I wouldn't have done it in that case and you think children might change things, but they don't. But you hope."
The time in Ireland gave Stephen Roche a chance to understand what it might be like to move home permanently and, ultimately, it proved a disappointment to him. The Tour was a great success and his involvement in it remains a source of pride, but once the Tour was over, the work was over too.
"I thought there might be a knock-on effect, but there was nothing," he says. "In the two years I worked here, I felt that everybody, whether it be the Government, the tourist board, the companies, the local businesses, I thoughtthey might have recognised that Stephen Roche was an international figure, at ease with French business people, someone who could promote Ireland.
"But because I was Irish, people expected me to do that for nothing. In France, when they ask you to turn up at something, the first thing they ask is what's your fee. There's no qualms or cribs, but in Ireland they think it's enough when you come along just to pat you on the back."
Roche goes on to explain how, at the same time, he received flak from some Irish quarters for promoting the French Coeur de Lion cheese and being somehow unpatriotic to Irish cheeses.
"There's one answer to that," he laughs. "If you want me to promote Irish cheese, then pay me. There is a market for Irish cheese in France, where they know me, but I have to make a living. But no, and, in the end, that was very disappointing and we just moved back to France."
It was to the South of France the expanded Roche family of six returned, settling near Nice, where they bought a seafront hotel. The location was beautiful and the children were happy at their international school, but home life was fraught.
"We fought about everything," says Roche, "what car to buy, what clothes to wear. Everything was a fight, and when there's no love it'svery hard."
Stephen Roche and Sophie Kamoun met at the 2001 Tour de France, at which both were working. Sophie, a former professional athlete and communications director for Nike in Paris, was working for a radio station and Roche was there for the TV channel Eurosport, for which he remains a commentator. One morning, he appeared on her radio show and afterwards gave Sophie a lift to her hotel. Platonically, they hit it off and had dinner together that night, over which they marvelled at how many professional connections and friends they had in common and how they had managed never to meet before. "We had a good talk," says Roche, "but neither of us were free to get involved, so after that, we didn't see each other for a long time. But a short time after the Tour I was separated and around the same time Sophie split withher partner."
"So then we met up again and here we are," Sophie chips in cheerfully, having allowed Stephen tell his story, only verifying dates on request.
She admits - as does he - that she took on a lot with her relationship with Roche, not just him but his children, but there appear to be no regrets. It hasn't been easy, but it has been worth it and they have felt in it together.
In the summer of 2002, Sophie and Roche became a couple and that autumn he moved to Paris, where they now live with her son, Morgan, 11. In 2003, Stephen Roche's divorce came through from Lydia, who continues to live near Nice with their two youngest children. It's a situation that has become more amicable, though a couple of years ago Roche and Sophie changed their plans to move to the South of France out of respect for Lydia's discomfort at living close by them. It's a plan that may happen eventually, along with their plan to go into real estate together, but for now, Stephen Roche and Sophie live to a hectic schedule of flights from Paris to Nice, taking care of the hotel, making sure no more than 10 days pass without seeing his children and making sure Morgan feels taken care of, too. Needless to say, their two-day trip to Dublin, just the two of them, is an exceptional occurrence, which they clearly relish.
"It's been strenuous over the last few years," Stephen Roche admits, "And our relationship has had to be strong to get through it and it's been a big commitment, you realise that now, just talking about it, but when you're in it, you just do it.
"You look back and think maybe you should have left years earlier, that maybe that would have been better for everyone, but you just don't know." A huge consideration, he says, was the younger kids. Roche knew how Nicholas and Christel had been affected by growing up in a fractious environment and wished for something better for Alexi and Florian.
"Still, you want to be sure that you went to the end," he says, "that you took it as far as it could go,and I feel confident that I did,that I tried my best. If I hadn't gone back in 1995, then maybe I'd have more regrets, but now I know there's no point because I know I went to the end. Which is important, I think, so you don't wake up in the night wondering if you made the right decision."
"And if he'd left earlier," Sophie laughs, "then he might not have met me."
Stephen Roche agrees and smiles in response, but does not go so far as to laugh at the idea.