PARIS, JULY 26 -- Stephen Roche of Ireland defeated Pedro Delgado of Spain today to win the 74th Tour de France, becoming the first Irish winner in the world's most prestigious bicycle race.
Prime Minister Charles Haughey of Ireland flew in from Dublin to help congratulate Roche after the race, which began with 207 cyclists in West Berlin 25 days ago. After pedaling 2,485 miles through France, 135 cyclists finished.
Roche, a 27-year-old milkman's son from Dublin, pedaled across the finish line to win by 40 seconds over Delgado. Third place went to Jean-Francois Bernard of France, 2 minutes 13 seconds behind Roche.
"The day went very well," Roche said. "This year is really the turning point in my career . . . I still can't believe it. It is wonderful. What revenge against fate."
Jeff Pierce of the United States placed first in today's final stage, 119 miles from Creteil to Paris ending on the Champs Elysees.
"I will be 28 Tuesday," Pierce said. "This is the best possible birthday present I could give myself. It is unbelievable, my first victory in Europe."
Greg LeMond last year became the first U.S. racer to win the Tour de France. But LeMond sat out this year's Tour, recovering from wounds from an accidental shooting this spring.
Roche's victory and Delgado's second-place finish, coming on top of LeMond's triumph last year, intensified comment here that a part of French folklore seems to be going international.
The Tour has been dominated since it began in 1903 by French cyclists, who have won 36 times (to 18 for Belgium and eight for Italy). As it moves from town to town with a caravan of racers, journalists and officials, the race becomes a cherished summertime tradition.
"This is the confirmation that we are seeing the universalization of the Tour de France," said Jacques Anquetil, a retired French racer. "The Tour de France is becoming the tour of the world."
Jeannie Longo held up French bicycling honors in the women's Tour, however. She beat last year's victor, Maria Canins of Italy, by 2:57 in an abbreviated competition that took 27 hours compared to slightly more than 115 hours for the men's race.
The victory ushered Roche into a select club with four other bicycle racers, including Anquetil in 1964, to have won the Tour of Italy and Tour de France in the same year.
Roche, a member of the Italian-based Carrera team, has been racing in Europe since 1980. He lives in Sagy, a village north of Paris, with his wife and two children.
Roche, who speaks fluent French, has been a favorite with television interviewers and bicycle fans throughout this year's Tour and was applauded loudly as he passed down the Champs Elysees today.
By 1985 he had shown well in a number of European races and placed third in the Tour de France. He finished only 48th because of a knee problem last year.
The last several days of the race pitted him directly against Delgado, who had a slight lead and had won more laps. Struggling to make up the difference, Roche required medical treatment for exhaustion four days ago at the end of a particularly trying stage through mountainous roads.
He pulled ahead of Delgado for good yesterday in a timed section of the race on roads around Dijon in southeastern France. He said today the race against the clock in Dijon was the key to his overall victory and the moment when he knew he was on his way to a win.