Rage was written across Roberto Visentini's face as he crossed the line in Sappada, doomed rage. Almost seven minutes had passed since Stephen Roche had completed stage 15 of the 1987 Giro d'Italia, and the Irishman was already being helped into the maglia rosa when Visentini wheeled deliberately to a halt in the middle of a scrum of reporters and photographers. On stepping from his bike, he cast his eyes balefully towards his teammate on the podium. If nothing else, the man had a sense of theatre. "I want to come up," Visentini called out, pointing to his own grimy pink jersey, before RAI television's Giorgio Martino thrust a microphone in his direction.
"It looks like you've got something to say," Martino began.
"I've got a lot of things to say," Visentini said darkly.
"Let's start saying them, then," Martino responded.
"Niente. I'll tell you tomorrow, maybe it's better," Visentini said. "But there's going to be people going home tonight."
He was wrong, and deep down, he probably already knew it. Visentini, in his anger, was fixated on betrayal, but the decision makers at Carrera were focused on business. Next man up.
Roche's status had changed by the time the 1987 Giro rolled around, however, after his sparkling spring form delivered Tour de Romandie victory in the build-up to the race. He wasn't lacking in motivation, either. In mid-April, Fagor had made overtures about a contract for 1988, and with more formal talks set to take place ahead of the Tour de France, Roche knew that nothing would strengthen his hand in negotiations quite like a Grand Tour win. Yet Visentini, as defending champion, still blithely assumed that he would lead Carrera at the Giro, while Roche would target the Tour de France.
At the start in Sanremo, Boifava was reluctant to anoint a team leader, simply stating that the road would decide. "They set out as equals, on the same level," Boifava says now. "We decided whoever took the maglia rosa in the San Marino time trial would be helped by the other." Roche and Visentini's markedly similar characteristics as riders only exacerbated Boifava's dilemma. Both strong time triallists who could climb with the best, it was difficult to envisage precisely where they might be separated. Visentini won the short prologue in Sanremo to claim the first maglia rosa, before Roche responded by landing the novel – and dangerous – downhill time trial the following afternoon, which sent the riders screeching down the descent of the Poggio. When Carrera, inspired rather than impeded by the posturing of their leaders, won the team time trial to Camaiore on stage 3, Roche took possession of the pink jersey, while Visentini moved back up to second overall.
Visentini carelessly coughed up seconds to Roche when he was caught napping in the finale at Montalcino, but he scored a psychological victory when the Irishman's solo attack on the Terminillo came to naught two days later. They remained locked in their positions atop the overall standings as the Giro travelled back up the Adriatic coast in the second week. By the time they reached Rimini, Roche had spent 10 days as race leader, but the pink jerseys cluttering his suitcase counted for little when Visentini trailed him by just 25 seconds ahead of the uphill time trial to San Marino on stage 13.
A couple of days beforehand, Tuttosport journalist Beppe Conti asked Boifava which rider he would follow during the time trial. "The weaker," came the gnomic response. Boifava turned out to be a man of his word: he drove the car behind Roche, and, in the space of 46 kilometres, Visentini seemed to put an end to two weeks of shadowboxing with one knock-out blow. Roche complained he was still feeling the effects of his crash in Termoli five days previously, but Visentini still beat him by some 2:47 to divest him of the maglia rosa. In the overall standings, he now had a buffer of 2:42. The road had spoken. Visentini was leader of Carrera. The Giro was as good as his.
These days, Roche tends to flip into auto-pilot when asked to recount his 1987 season and his treble of Giro, Tour and Worlds, not out of weariness, but simply out of habit. Besides, like the audience at a pantomime, every interviewer already knows the story. Roche, ever-obliging, trots out all the old lines to knowing nods.
Like a latter-day Odysseus, Roche's anecdotes tend to emphasise his cunning. In the hotel on the night of the San Marino time trial, so his version goes, he and his disciple Eddy Schepers sat watching a television interview in which Visentini flatly dismissed the prospect of riding the Tour in return for Roche's support at the Giro. There and then, Roche resolved to go on the offensive on the medium mountain stage to Sappada two days later, on the eve of the race's entry into the Dolomites. "Visentini was over with the journalists saying, 'Roche will ride for me at the Giro but I'm not going to the Tour, I'm going to the beach,'" Roche says.
Visentini, unsurprisingly, disputes the claim. "No, that's bollocks," he says. "I was always very professional and I was going to go to the Tour to prepare for the World Championships and the races at the end of the season. That was the way the team had planned it. The Giro d'Italia was for me and he was going to lead at the Tour de France. That was the plan."
They can at least agree that their entwined destinies turned on the sinuous descent of the Forcella di Monte Rest in the Carnic Prealps on stage 15, though, to this day, Roche glosses over the fact that hurtling down the gravel-strewn strada regionale 355 constituted a direct challenge to the maglia rosa. "There was no intention to attack him," he says, not entirely convincingly.
Visentini, for his part, didn't even notice that Roche had scrambled down the mountain and bridged across to the leaders. "I didn't realise he'd attacked at all. We were on the descent and riders were taking a drink or eating a sandwich and so on, when this group slips away," Visentini says. "If the maglia rosa is in crisis, then you can go for it, but if he's strong and you attack him by surprise, that's not right. I didn't even realise Roche was in the group. We let the them go and they built up a lead of four or five minutes. And that's how it all happened."
Not quite. There were still 80 kilometres and two climbs to come before the finish at Sappada, and on the long, flat approach to the Sella Valcalda, Roche's own Carrera team – rather than the rival Panasonic or Supermercati Brianzoli squads – massed on the front to close him down. "It was up to the other teams to chase, but the management reminded us that Visentini was the leader and told us to ride behind Stephen, though I wouldn't ride on the front of the peloton," says Schepers.
Roche had Ennio Salvador of Gis for company in the break, 1:30 ahead of the bunch, when Carrera's second-in-command Sandro Quintarelli drove up alongside him to relay Boifava's orders to desist. From the back seat – and in French, which Quintarelli didn't speak – Valcke told him to do precisely the opposite. "Quintarelli started shouting to Boifava, 'Patrick's just told Stephen to keep riding!'" Valcke laughs.
Back in the peloton, Visentini was growing increasingly flustered, driven to distraction by what he deemed to be Boifava's procrastination. "Boifava should have sent the team to the front to ride full gas and chase him down, but that didn't happen," he says, a version contradicted by Schepers. Boifava reckons Visentini should never have allowed himself fall into the predicament to begin with. "He made a mistake by sitting in the middle of the gruppo coming up to such a dangerous descent," Boifava says. "And the thing is, he was actually very good on descents. A leader can't let a group like that go away. If he wanted Roche to help him, he should have been up there with him."
It is easily overlooked, but the Carrera contingent's efforts brought the bunch back to within sight of Roche at the base of the Valcalda, where Visentini was part of the counter-attack that bridged across to the leaders. He remained in touch over the top, and was still clinging on ahead of the final haul towards Sappada, where Schepers refused Boifava's entreaties to go back and help him. Physically, Visentini still seemed capable of offering resistance, but his mental resilience had been stretched to breaking point, which seems to have been Roche's objective in the first place. "He was very uptight and we knew if we could make him panic and blow his brains, that would be a good scenario, you know," says Roche.
Already guttering, Visentini's hopes were snuffed out altogether once left to his own devices, and he slowed almost to a standstill as Roche and the Giro rode away from him. His strength deserted him completely on the stiffest section of the final climb, where only Mauro-Antonio Santaromita of Magniflex offered any assistance, and he limped to the finish on the plateau over the top. Up ahead, Roche was also beginning to flag, but he did enough to stay in the group that came home behind stage winner Johan van der Velde.
Immediately after the finish, Roche held a brief, anxious conflab with Schepers and Valcke in a tent where journalists were watching the race on television, before he was ushered towards the podium. He had done just enough to take the pink jersey, five seconds ahead of Tony Rominger. Five seconds that made all the difference.