PARIS — Four days ago, Stephen Roche collapsed of exhaustion, paid a penalty of 10 seconds for snatching at two unauthorized canteens of water and held no better than second place in the Tour de France. But the cycling experts believed that the odds were with him.
The 27-year-old Roche said he was not so sure, but he rode without a mistake, nudged ahead by less than a minute on the next-to-last day and kept that margin easily Sunday, becoming the first Irishman to win the Tour, the most prestigious bicycle race in the world.
Although it marked the second year in a row that a foreigner had won the Tour de France, the victory was a popular one, for Roche lives in France, is married to a French woman and speaks fluent French. But there was no hiding a bit of Irish nationalism. Prime Minister Charles Haughey of Ireland flew to Paris to congratulate Roche at the finish line, and the cyclist donned a green and white, shamrock-decorated cap to celebrate.
Roche actually finished back in the pack on the Champs Elysees in Paris at the end of the final leg of the 25-day, 2,485-mile race that had started in West Berlin on July 1. But so did Spaniard Pedro Delgado, who thus failed to cut down the 40 seconds that separated him from Roche in the overall standings.
Both Roche and Delgado were far behind an American, Jeff Pierce, who took some glory by winning the final leg even though more than 90 cyclists were ranked ahead of him overall. When it was clear that Delgado was too weak to challenge Pierce, Roche was content to stay behind as well.
"I felt very relaxed this morning before the race," Roche, speaking in French, told television reporters afterward. "Everything went really well today."
Roche and Delgado were followed in the overall standings by Jean-Francois Bernard of France, 2 minutes and 13 seconds behind; Charles Mottet of France, 6 minutes and 40 seconds behind, and Luis Herrera of Colombia, 6 minutes and 40 seconds behind. Greg LeMond, the American who won the Tour de France last year, could not defend this year because of a hunting accident that left him injured several months ago.
Although French men failed to win their own championship bicycle race for the second year in a row, Jeannie Longo, a French woman, took the women's Tour de France easily, finishing 2 minutes and 52 seconds ahead of Maria Canins of Italy.
During the winners' ceremony, held in sunny and mild weather on the Champs Elysees, Longo stood next to Roche on the podium to receive her trophy and congratulations from Premier Jacques Chirac of France. However, the women's Tour de France, created only in 1984, has still not achieved much popularity in France.
The battle between Roche, who won the Tour of Italy last month, and Delgado was one of the closest since the Tour de France began in 1903. Winners in the last few years have tended to accumulate an unbeatable margin several days before the end. The final day or two of cycling, as a result, has often seemed more ceremonial than real.
But this year's race bristled with drama and suspense. Last Monday, Roche was leading all cyclists, with Delgado in third place, 1 minute and 19 seconds behind the Irishman. But Roche, who cannot cycle up mountainous roads as fast as the Spaniard, faltered in the Alps, and Delgado rushed ahead into first place on Tuesday, 25 seconds ahead of Roche.
More mountains lay ahead Wednesday, and Delgado increased his lead to 39 seconds. But in fact, this represented a significant failure for Delgado, for the climber had been expected to increase his lead by far more in the mountains. However, Roche, with a tremendous and painful effort, managed to keep only four seconds behind Delgado that day. Roche also lost another 10 seconds as a penalty for taking water at the wrong time and place.
The enormous effort seemed almost too much for Roche. He collapsed after he crossed Wednesday's finish line. Medical aides revived him with oxygen and rushed him to his hotel by ambulance.
Roche not only recovered to continue in the race in the mountains Thursday, but managed to cut Delgado's lead to 21 seconds. He did so by surprising the Spaniard, catching up with him and then speeding past him down a hill at the end. On Friday, both Delgado and Roche coasted far back in the pack, saving themselves for the all-important special race the next day.
By the start of the Saturday race at Dijon, the Spaniard was still 21 seconds ahead of the Irishman, but the leg that day was one in which the cyclists race not against each other but against the clock. Each athlete had to cycle 24 miles alone.
Most experts believed that Roche would have the advantage in this kind of race, and they were proven right. Bernard, the Frenchman, finished first, completing the 24 miles in 48 minutes and 17 seconds. But Roche was second, only 1 minute and 44 seconds slower. Delgado finished seventh, a minute and a second slower than Roche.
This was enough to catapult Roche back into first place by 40 seconds. This lead, although not insurmountable, was comfortable. Roche kept it easily on the final leg that ended with six passes down the Champs Elysees.