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Roche v Delgado, 1987

Applied Maps is an R&D project we’ve been running since the 2014 Tour de France, which draws on our fascinations with maps, data and cycling. My personal interest in cycling was sparked by watching stage 21 of the 1987 Tour, one of the most memorable duels in the history of the sport, between Irishman Stephen Roche and the Spanish climber Pedro Delgado.

La Plagne

Time-trial specialist Roche had lost the yellow jersey to Delgado on the previous mountain stage to Alpe d’Huez, and needed to finish within 30 seconds of the Spaniard to stand a realistic chance of reclaiming the race lead in the final time trial on stage 24. At one stage on the final 18.5km climb of La Plagne, Roche was over 1’30” down and losing the race, but staged a dramatic off-camera comeback in last 4.5km, appearing in the background just before the finish line having clawed back all but four seconds of the deficit, spawning one of sport’s greatest pieces of commentary as Phil Liggett described “Just who is that rider coming up behind? Because that looks like Roche! That looks like Stephen Roche! It’s Stephen Roche coming up behind, he nearly caught Pedro Delgado on the line, I don’t believe it!”. Roche went on to win the race by just forty seconds.

We recreated Roche’s stunning comeback in Applied Maps by making estimates of the time split at different points on the climb from the archived TV coverage, and first hand accounts from Roche, interpolating the intermediate times. Roche ended up winning the race by finishing within 44” of Delgado on stage 21, which according to our map, occurred at around 3km to the finish, a mere 0.07% of the overall race distance of 4,321km.