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Luis Ocaña: The only man to humble Eddy Merckx

From issue 23 • Words by John Wilcockson with images from Horton Collection

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“Good luck won’t win you the Tour de France, but bad luck will lose it for you.” —Luis Ocaña

Who would you pick as the most talented, most complete athlete in Spanish cycling history? Current-day cognoscenti would probably put their money on Alberto Contador or perhaps Oscar Freire, while longtime race followers might choose Spain’s first-ever Tour de France winner Federico Bahamontes or five-time Tour champ Miguel Induráin. But none of these candidates has perfect credentials.

Contador, of course, still has to overcome the negative impact of his two-year doping ban if he is to emerge as the best of the Spanish best. Freire used his tenacity and sprinting skills to win a record three world road championships and three editions of Milan-San Remo, but he was limited in other spheres. Bahamontes was a pure climber who was more focused on King of the Mountains titles (six at the Tour, two at the Vuelta and one at the Giro) than overall race wins. And Induráin, despite his five Tours and two Giro victories, never won his own country’s Vuelta despite nine attempts—and it’s rarely mentioned that he didn’t become a Grand Tour contender until he started consulting with Italy’s controversial sports doctor Michele Ferrari.

So who are the other possible candidates? Perhaps sprinter Miguel Poblet, who won two Milan-San Remo titles and 26 Grand Tour stages; or maybe climber Pedro Delgado, a consistent Grand Tour contender for a dozen years, who won the Tour once and the Vuelta twice? And then there’s Luis Ocaña ….

Wretched Beginnings
In common with many of the world’s greatest cyclists, Jesús Luis Ocaña Penia came from an impoverished childhood. He was born three months before the end of World War II at Priego in Castilla-La Mancha, a remote village with a population of one thousand, 150 kilometers east of Madrid. Priego was still recovering from the earlier Spanish Civil War, and Ocaña’s dad worked a minimum-wage job in a textile factory, spinning sheep’s wool from the surrounding hills. They were tough times, and he and his wife kept a kitchen garden to help feed their growing family.

After the birth of a third child in 1949, and no sign of extra income, Ocaña’s dad looked for better-paid work. He’d heard about jobs in the zinc mines at Val d’Aran on the north side of the Pyrénées, some 500 kilometers northeast of Priego. And that’s where he went in 1951, first taking a job in the mine and finding a little house for his family in the hillside village of Vila, before becoming a builder’s laborer.

Ocaña, just six-years-old, first went to the community school in Vila. But when his often-angry teacher beat him with a ruler and sent him home bleeding from the head, his parents transferred their son to a Christian-run school in Vielha, the nearest town, six kilometers away. Ocaña would walk up the valley and back every school day, even when snow fell. It was also on that stretch of road that he first discovered cycling. One day, at age 12, he hitched a ride to school in the back of a pickup and was amazed to see a young racing cyclist jump into the truck’s draft and follow it all the way into town. Ocaña later told his parents that he wanted to be a bike racer, but buying him a bike was out of the question for a family barely able to put food on the table.

By chance, that same year, the Ocañas were invited by an uncle to live with his family across the border in France. The uncle had moved there from Spain a dozen years earlier and was working for a logging company in Magnan, a small town in the Armagnac wine district two hours south of Bordeaux. The now-teenage Ocaña thrived in his new surroundings, attending the local school and riding his female cousin’s little bike around the vineyards while his dad joined his brother-in-law, logging trees in the pine forests of the Landes.

When Ocaña was 14, his life was greatly influenced by a couple of developments. First, after saving enough money from helping his dad in the woods, assisting a mule driver transport the logs and working on the grape harvest, he bought a bike. “It was one of the most emotional moments in my life,” he said later. “A beautiful cream-colored Automoto bicycle with red lugs!” Then, at the end of 1959, the Ocaña family took their first ever vacation, traveling to Spain to visit with their dad’s mother in Priego and then going to Madrid to see a track meet at the city’s indoor velodrome. They watched Spanish hero Federico Bahamontes, who’d just won the Tour de France, racing with a host of other Grand Tour champions, including Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Louison Bobet. This first close-up look at professional bike racing was not quite what Ocaña or his family expected. The parents thought it dangerous, and their eldest son was perturbed by the risks the racers took diving up and down the steep bankings of the wooden track.

Back in their adopted home in France, where the family moved to a house in Le Houga, Ocaña left school at 15 and became an apprentice to a craftsman carpenter in nearby Aire-sur l’Adour. Cycling was in Ocaña’s blood, and he couldn’t wait to start racing. But when, on his 16th birthday, he was eligible for a junior racing license his parents wouldn’t sign the application. They said they didn’t want him getting injured in bike accident and jeopardizing his carpentry career. So what did Ocaña do? He signed the license himself.

Luckily, he found an ally in his boss, Monsieur Ducos, who’d always wanted to be a bike racer but never was. To get the young Ocaña started, he paid him a five-month advance on his wages so he could buy a real racing bike. He was soon riding it the 12 kilometers to and from work, while Ducos also gave him time to go training at lunchtime. Ocaña rewarded his boss by winning some local races and progressing through the categories until he was ready to race as a Category 2 amateur at age 18.

More good fortune then smiled upon him. When the main regional cycling club, the Stade-Montois, accepted his application he had to move to Mont-de-Marsan, a city of 20,000. The club president Pierre Cescutti was so excited by his new recruit’s possibilities that he found him a room to live and a part-time job with a carpenter friend. Ocaña won 10 races in his first year with the club, and he was upgraded in 1965 to the highest amateur ranking of hors-catégorie—a license that allowed him to compete against professionals in certain races.

That year emphasized his great promise, especially after he placed fifth (and first amateur) in the Mont Faron hill climb just behind Tour de France stars Raymond Poulidor and Roger Pingeon. And midway through the season, at a local race in St. Pierre-du-Mont, Ocaña received the winner’s bouquet from a blonde-haired demoiselle named Josiane Callede. Eighteen months later, in December 1996, they were married in the romantic Chapelle de Notre Dame des Cyclistes at Labastide d’Armagnac.

With the added responsibilities that came with marriage, the 21-year-old Ocaña knew he would soon have to choose between his two potential careers: carpenter or cyclist? He spent one more season racing as an amateur with the Stade-Montois, which rode Mercier bikes and was linked to Poulidor’s Mercier pro team. Ocaña impressed more and more insiders, first with his sixth place overall (and first amateur) at the Midi Libre stage race and then, in his final race of 1967, victory in the amateur edition of the prestigious Grand Prix des Nations time trial in Paris. [On a personal note, this is where I first saw Ocaña, who beat the runner-up, Englishman Peter Head, by 48 seconds. I’d raced with Peter for club teams in England and France, and that day I was his official helper, driving a follow car in the time trial, ready to change a wheel if he flatted. Luckily, he didn’t!]

The Talented Rookie
Ocaña was expected to start his pro career with Mercier, to become an understudy to Poulidor, the team’s aging leader, but Mercier’s old-school team manager Antonin Magne said the unpolished Spanish rider needed another year in the hors-catégorie ranks before he’d be ready. As a result, Ocaña, who was desperate to become a full-time bike racer, accepted a two-year contract with a Spanish team, Fagor, which was sponsored by the Basque electrical appliance manufacturer.

His urgency to succeed accelerated in the first months of 1968 when, first, his 49-year-old father, also named Luis Ocaña, was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, and then his wife gave birth to their first child, Jean-Louis. So it was with vastly mixed emotions that he began his rookie season.

It started brilliantly when Ocaña won three stages of February’s Ruta del Sol in Andalusia, placing third overall. That performance persuaded his Fagor team directors to put him on their short list for the Vuelta a España, which began in late April; but after a full schedule of races through March and into April, Ocaña was not in the best form for his first major stage race, and he quit the Vuelta on the 12th stage. Even so, two weeks later, the Fagor team bosses started their young rookie in another Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia.

He suffered with bronchitis in the early stages but showed his class and determination by coming on strong in the final four days of the Giro, taking a second place in a two-man break on the rolling 19th stage into Rome, and then getting third place on the Block Haus summit finish the day before ending the Giro in Naples in 32nd overall.

His next race was the Spanish national road championship, which unusually was being run as an individual time trial of 75 kilometers over lumpy roads at Mungia in the Basque Country, not far from the Fagor headquarters in Mondragón. There was a lot of pressure from the team sponsor to be successful, but with his father’s health deteriorating, Ocaña was more focused on winning the title for his dad. Mission accomplished. And after pulling on the bloodred-and-gold champion’s jersey, he drove the 300 kilometers back home to give the jersey to his cancer-stricken father; and for the first time the son saw tears flow from his dad’s dark eyes. Tears of joy.

Ocaña won a couple of minor races in his new colors before representing his country at the world championships in Imola, Italy, in early September. That’s where he was when a phone call came from home telling him that his dad had died. He missed his passing, but Ocaña would later say he never forgot his padre’s dying words to his mother: “Maria, before I pass on, [I want to tell you that] I’m leaving in peace as Luis is here and he will look after you and the little ones ….”

That winter, partly because of his grief on losing his dad, Ocaña had to overcome a health problem with his liver. But, cognizant of his new responsibilities as head of the family, he vowed to confirm his good start in pro cycling and shoot for some major victories in 1969. After dominating the early-season Semana Catalana, he came into April’s Vuelta with good form and promptly took the leader’s jersey in a short opening time trial. He’d go on to win two more time-trial stages and take the King of the Mountains title, but one moment of weakness in the hardest mountain stage saw him lose too much time to Roger Pingeon, the French star who went on to win that Vuelta by 1:57 over runner-up Ocaña.

With that performance, followed by an easy win in the five-day Midi Libre stage race, Ocaña was written up as one of the likely contenders to challenge another rising star, Eddy Merckx, at the Tour de France. The race started well enough for Ocaña, who was 13th in the 10.4-kilometer prologue (Merckx was second) before making it into the Tour’s first decisive breakaway of 20 riders on the fifth stage into Mulhouse.

But the very next day, over some serious climbs in the Vosges, the young Spaniard crashed spectacularly on the gravelly descent of the Grand Ballon, colliding with a metal road sign. There’s a famous photo of Ocaña lying face first in the middle of the road with his bike’s front wheel, released by the impact, lying a few feet away. Five Fagor teammates stopped to help their leader and they literally pulled and pushed him up to the summit finish on the Ballon d’Alsace mountain with blood streaking his face and legs from a lacerated chin. He was taken from the finish by helicopter to a hospital, and advised to pull out. But coming from rugged stock, Ocaña vowed to continue. He started (and finished) the following day’s stage of 241 kilometers, rode the next morning’s time trial, and only abandoned when the Tour reached the Alps that afternoon.

Ocaña won a few minor races in the back end of that season, but his big news was being courted by the leading French team, Bic, which wanted a replacement for its just-retired five-time Tour winner, Jacques Anquetil. It was a bittersweet deal though. First, his old Fagor team sponsors were so upset they disbanded their team, putting several of Ocaña’s teammates out of work. And second, Ocaña had signed with Bic to benefit from the knowledge and tactical nous of Anquetil’s longtime directeur sportif Raphaël Geminiani, but the hot-tempered coach had just crossed swords with Bic’s commercial director Christian Darras—who got rid of “Gem” and brought in a rival team’s sports director, Maurice De Muer, and his top rider, the 1968 Tour winner Jan Janssen.

That instantly changed the dynamic of the Bic team for 1970, and the media was speculating on whether the 24-year-old Ocaña would be able to share the team’s leadership with the vastly experienced Janssen, a 29-year-old Dutchman. The potential problem of dual leaders started to resolve itself at the season’s major opener, Paris-Nice, where Janssen won a stage and Ocaña placed second overall behind an “unbeatable” Merckx. And when Janssen went to the classics, Ocaña started his third Vuelta. It proved a very successful Vuelta for Bic because their talented young Spaniard won the first and last time trials, finished with the best climbers on the key mountain stage and won his first Grand Tour by 1:18 over Spanish climber Agustin Tamamès and 1:27 over third-placed Herman Vanspringel, the seasoned Belgian all-rounder.

With Bic management delighted with Ocaña’s victory, they decided to enter him in the Critérium du Dauphiné as a warm-up to the Tour de France. Though he was reluctant to ride another tough stage race before the Tour, Ocaña went along with De Muer’s proposal and followed orders in the weeklong race. After placing second in a short prologue, Ocaña made a surprise attack on the not-too-difficult Col du Cordon just before the third day’s finish at Sallanches, caught breakaway Roger de Vlaeminck and worked with the Belgian classics specialist on the descent and took over the race lead. He then marked his main challengers and even let his teammate Jean-Claude Genty take the leader’s yellow-and-blue jersey for a few days before blasting the opposition out of the water in a final 30-kilometer time trial.

By winning the Dauphiné after the Vuelta, Ocaña was written up as co-favorite for the Tour de France with defending champion Merckx, who’d just won his second Giro. Merckx was in dominating form for the first 10 days of that Tour, winning the prologue at Angers and taking a solo win in a half-stage that finished near his home in Brussels. Then, in the afternoon time trial, Merckx was second, just four seconds faster than fourth-place Ocaña. So, after a week, Merckx held a two-minute lead on the runner-up, his sprinter compatriot Walter Godefroot, while Ocaña’s teammate Janssen was in third.

It seemed that Ocaña was waiting for the mountains to make his first aggressive move. Instead, the day before the Alps, both he and Janssen finished in a 40-strong group at Divonne-les-Bains, more than 12 minutes behind stage 10 winner Merckx. It was then revealed that Ocaña had been battling sickness for a few days: bronchial congestion, colic and hemorrhoids.

Three days later, Ocaña was on the point of quitting the Tour on a mountain stage between Grenoble and Gap. He was even dropped by the back group on the Col du Noyer, the third of six climbs on the 195-kilometer stage, with his French teammate Charly Grosskost dropping back to help. Both men were suffering and Ocaña felt so bad that he was on the point of quitting and told Grosskost to carry on. But his teammate stayed, later telling reporters about Ocaña: “I could never imagine until today that a rider could suffer as much as that. It makes sacrificing everything for him so worthwhile.”

Ironically, Ocaña began to recover some strength near the top of the Noyer and it was his teammate who said he couldn’t go on. Showing his true character, Ocaña stopped with Grosskost, thanked him for his help with a big hug, and then proceeded to slowly catch the groups ahead to finish the stage more than 20 minutes down. He’d been pilloried by the Spanish media for his poor showing, but Ocaña came through to win stage 17 in a solo break at the foot of the Pyrénées, and in the closing 54-kilometer time trial to Paris, he took a phenomenal second place to Merckx to finish 31st place overall.

That wasn’t the result Ocaña nor his Bic team were looking for, but given the Spaniard’s health crises and his ultimate recovery, he proved that he had the pedigree and guts needed to win the Tour at a future date.

Glory and Tragedy
For 1971, Bic got rid of Janssen and built its team around Ocaña. The big goal, of course, was the Tour de France. It proved to be a year when Ocaña won 25 races, but his losses received more publicity from a still-skeptical media. In the build up toward July, Ocaña finished third (behind Poulidor) in the Setmana Catalana, third in Paris-Nice (behind Merckx), first in the Tour of the Basque Country (ahead of Poulidor), third in the Vuelta (behind Ferdinand Bracke), and second in the Dauphiné (behind Merckx again).

His multiple defeats at the hands of Eddy Merckx riled Ocaña. He could never seem to get the better of the Cannibal. But those losses just added to his motivation according to his Bic team director De Muer, who said Ocaña was obsessed with Merckx. “It was if he could have killed him,” he said. “When he saw Merckx in a race, it was very much like taking a stimulant, only better.”

After Merckx’s total domination of the 1969 and 1970 Tours, the mainstream media was eager for someone to challenge him. And before the 1971 Tour started in Mulhouse, in eastern France, the headline in Paris-Match magazine read: “Is Merckx going to kill the Tour?” It looked like going that way when Merckx grabbed the yellow jersey on the opening day, and then on stage 2 he led a 15-man break that gained almost 10 minutes over the main field on the road to Strasbourg. Merckx won that stage in a risky sprint to take a 20-second time bonus, but most of his main rivals, including Ocaña, Bernard Thévenet, Lucien Van Impe and Joop Zoetemelk, were also in the move.

A week later, Merckx was still in yellow, 26 seconds ahead of teammate Vanspringel, with Ocaña less than a minute back. Then came the stage that finished atop the steep, abrupt climb of the Puy de Dôme. After the preliminary slopes, only half a dozen riders were left in front when a tiring Vanspringel dropped back to leave team leader Merckx on his own, with 4 kilometers to go. Sensing the race leader was vulnerable, Ocaña jumped ahead on the steep, narrow road that corkscrews up and around the Puy’s volcanic peak. The Spaniard won the stage, followed home by Zoetemelk and Portuguese hope Joaquim Agostinho. Merckx, after fighting back at the end, came in fourth. He lost only 15 seconds to Ocaña but he now knew he was going to have to fight for his cycling life in the upcoming stages in the Alps.

The hostilities began in an unexpected way. With 30 kilometers to go in stage 10, Merckx flatted descending the Col du Cucheron while riding in a small lead group. It was a while before his team was able to get him a new wheel, but the Belgian worked his way back, closing to less than 100 meters by the start of the day’s last climb, the Col de Porte.

By now Ocaña was pushing hard, and causing his Bic teammate Leif Mortensen, a Dane, to drop back. Under Tour regulations, the race director then stopped team cars from passing Mortensen to prevent the dropped rider from being paced back to the leaders. Unfortunately for Merckx, he too was left in no-man’s-land, and he didn’t have the power to cross the now widening gap to Ocaña and his three breakaway companions. At the Porte summit, Merckx was two minutes down, and after chasing hard on the long, technical downhill into Grenoble, he was still 1:36 behind the leaders.

Thévenet won that stage in a sprint finish, Zoetemelk took over the yellow jersey by one second from Ocaña, and Merckx was now sitting one minute back overall. As for Ocaña, he was frustrated that the other leaders hadn’t contributed much to the breakaway. “They never made a pull,” he claimed, “and then, when I started to tire, they jumped away to take the stage and the jersey. The important thing was to distance Merckx, but if the others had done just a quarter of the work I did, he’d be five minutes back.”

Stage winner Thévenet consoled Ocaña, putting his arm around him and saying, “You were by far the strongest of us today, Luis, and tomorrow at Merlette you can get the yellow jersey.” His spirits returning, and realizing that he had been the strongest on that first alpine stage, Ocaña said on his arrival at the Bic team’s Grenoble hotel, “Tomorrow, we attack!”

Knowing that the stage 11 from Grenoble to Orcières-Merlette was short, only 134 kilometers, the Bic team did an hour’s warm-up ride before the start. So they were ready for the day’s first climb, the Côte de Laffrey, which was only a dozen kilometers out of town. It was here that Merckx, not fully recovered from his long solo chase the day before, had one of the worst moments of his career. Under the burning midday sun, he couldn’t follow his rivals on the 11-percent wall at the foot of the 8-kilometer, almost dead-straight hill, when first Agostinho, then Ocaña sprinted ahead. Only race leader Zoetemelk and Van Impe managed to catch the fast-disappearing Iberians, and over the top, the four men began to eat up the terrain.

The fast pace up the initial climb had jettisoned most of Merckx’s teammates, even Vanspringel, and the two that remained with their leader were soon dropped. That left Merckx pulling a line of uncooperative opponents (including several of Ocaña’s teammates) for the rest of the stage, vainly pursuing the men in front.

With the sun still burning down, Ocaña was in his element, and with almost 60 kilometers still to race, he rode away from his three companions as they climbed out of the Defilé de la Souloise, a deep, narrow rocky canyon. They were now on the ramps heading to the day’s third obstacle, the Col du Noyer—the same Col du Noyer where, 12 months’ earlier, Ocaña was the last man on the road and almost quit the Tour. Now, he was the first man on the road and sailing away from the opposition.

In the haunted look that personified Ocaña, his dark eyes, shaded by the small peak of his orange-and-white cotton cap, focused on the road ahead, thick dark sideburns framing his solemn face, he clicked up through the gears as the grade slackened and was soon out of sight, his thin, muscular legs metronomically turning the pedals.

By the Noyer’s exposed 5,459-foot summit, he was already four minutes ahead of Agostinho, Van Impe and Zoetemelk, while only a dozen riders were left on Merckx’s wake, another 90 seconds back. After Van Impe dropped the other two and plugged on behind the leader, the blackboard man came up to Ocaña and showed him the time gaps: “Le 40 (Van Impe) à 5:15 Pel à 6:30.” De Muer suggested to his rider, “Slow down a little, Luis, you have six minutes!” Ocaña’s reply: “Dammit, that’ll soon be seven!”

By the finish line atop the final climb to the Merlette ski station, Van Impe was almost six minutes down, while Merckx, still nobly pulling the nine men remaining with him, conceded 8:42. Totally drained from his more-than-three-hour pursuit, Merckx said to the reporters: “If you’d asked me if I was tempted to get off the bike, I would have to tell you I thought about it. I was wasted …. What Luis just did was extraordinary. He was superior to everyone.” And a visitor to the race that day, three-time Tour winner Louison Bobet, said, “That was a legendary stage, as good as any of Fausto Coppi’s solo raids.”

Fortunately for Merckx, there was a rest day at Merlette, and the following stage to Marseille, he attacked with two teammates, followed by six others, on the downhill out of the start—and conducted an extraordinary 250-kilometer-long breakaway to take back two minutes of his huge deficit. And the day after that Merckx won a 16-kilometer time trial before heading into the Pyrénées. He was up to second overall, but still 7:23 behind Ocaña. Only a foolish optimist would believe that Merckx could turn things around in the Tour’s final week. But Merckx was an optimist.

The 14th stage included the first three Pyrenean climbs, the Portet d’Aspet, Menté and Portillon on the road to Luchon. The Col de Menté had the steepest grades, and it was here that Merckx made repeated accelerations, all of which race leader Ocaña was able to follow. Up ahead, storm clouds were thickening over the peaks, and as the lead riders topped the pass, heavy drops of rain began falling. Within seconds, as Merckx fearlessly sped down the twisting descent, the rain intensified into a deluge mixed with hailstones as thunder clanged above.

Merckx knew that Ocaña, riding a short-wheelbase bike for the climbs, would have a hard time following him around the Menté’s sharp turns. Even the Belgian was challenged by the sudden flood of water, mud and rocks, and he skidded on a left hairpin as his tires lost their grip. Merckx clipped a low stone wall and fell, but was soon on his way. Two drenched spectators had also fallen when they jumped out of Merckx’s way, and they caused the following Ocaña to fall too. The man in the yellow jersey was lying on rocks on the outside of the bend, his feet still strapped in, as other riders coasted by, some with their feet out of the pedals and dragging them along the road to slow down.

Then, just as Ocaña was getting to his feet, feeling pain in his shoulder and knees, he was T-boned by an out-of-control Zoetemelk, followed by two other riders, leaving the Spaniard sprawled on his side again. Ocaña had an atrocious pain in his lower back and was semiconscious when his team boss De Muer stopped to help him along with race director Jacques Goddet and other officials. Later, Ocaña said, “I thought I was dying. I was thinking about my (late) dad, my wife, and the little ones.”

A race ambulance took him down to the valley town of St. Béat, only 20 kilometers from Vila, the Spanish village where Ocaña grew up. For the second time in his three Tours, he left the race by helicopter to the nearest hospital. He had no broken bones, but that barely mattered when he knew his dream of beating Merckx in this 1971 Tour was ended. Merckx refused to wear the yellow jersey next day, saying, “I would have preferred to finish the Tour in second after having battled every day rather than take the lead like this.”

Following that emotional letdown, Ocaña recovered in time to enjoy a remarkable end of season, when he not only won the Volta a Catalunya stage race again, but followed this up by winning three of the world’s major time trials: the GP des Nations, the GP de Lugano and the Trofeo Baracchi (with teammate Mortensen). He headed into 1972, focusing everything on the Tour. He tested his form in the Dauphiné, winning easily, and a week before the Tour he dominated the Spanish national road championship, winning solo in Segovia, to don his second red-and-gold jersey. He was ready for the Tour.

It should have been a great battle with Merckx, and it looked that way when they reached the Pyrénées at the end of the first week. Over the last climb of the seventh stage, Ocaña was away in a 10-man break with Merckx and the other leading contenders when the Spanish champion flatted. He had to chase back alone through a rainstorm, and was within 100 meters of catching back when he had to swerve to avoid some team cars on a sharp turn. He collided with a parapet wall, while the three following him also fell, including his teammate Alain Santy, who fractured a vertebra.

Ocaña chased alone through the cold rain for the remaining 30 kilometers, but lost almost two minutes to the Merckx-led group. The next day, on the major Pyrenean stage from Pau to Luchon, Ocaña was in the winning three-man break with Merckx and moved into third place overall. And after the 11th stage’s finish atop Mont Ventoux, Ocaña was in second, three minutes down on Merckx. The Alps were still to some, but Ocaña had caught a flu virus in the Pyrénées, and instead of challenging Merckx on stages he liked, the Spaniard’s virus worsened and he dropped out of the race before the 15th stage.

And so Ocaña had to re-focus on another season, and another tilt at the Tour in 1973. It proved to be an almost perfect year, with Ocaña winning 30 races. He started with victories at the Setmana Catalan and the Basque Country tour before facing Merckx at the Vuelta. The Belgian was on phenomenal form, and won easily, with runner-up Ocaña not even winning a stage. Then while Merckx went on to dominate the Giro, beating second-place Felice Gimondi by 7:42, Ocaña again won the Dauphiné and went into the Tour as a top favorite—Merckx did not start after his exhausting Vuelta-Tour double.

The Tour didn’t start well for Ocaña, who crashed on the first stage in the Netherlands when a dog ran out. And then his teammate José Catieau got in a two-man break the next day with one of the Tour favorites, Vanspringel, who gained 2:30 and took the overall lead. A frustrated Ocaña, angry with his French teammate for working with Vanspringel, said, “What can I do when everyone’s against me? If it carries on like this, there’s no way I can win the Tour.”

But he fought back on the following stage, leading a breakaway with Bic teammates Mortensen and a back-in-favor Catieau, to gain almost three minutes on his main rivals. And then, on the seventh stage, he made a solo break over the Mont Salève mountain to win the stage and take the yellow jersey. But it was the next day, on a giant alpine stage that took almost eight hours to ride over the Madeleine, Télégraphe, Galibier and Izoard passes to a summit finish at Les Orres, that Ocaña produced one of the most phenomenal performances in Tour history.

His compatriot, pocket climber Juan-Manuel Fuente, kicked things off by attacking on the Télégraphe, a move that only Ocaña, Thévenet and Zoetemelk were able to follow. Fuente kept on attacking up the Galibier, but Ocaña stayed with him. There were still 180 kilometers left to race, but the two Spanish riders were never seen again by the chasers. By the Izoard summit, Ocaña and Fuente were 4:15 ahead of Thévenet and French climber Mariano Martinez, and more than 10 minutes ahead of the other favorites, including Poulidor, Zoetemelk, Vanspringel and Van Impe. Thévenet chased to within three minutes on the descent but never came closer. Then Fuente, who’d been sitting on Ocaña’s wheel for most of the Izoard climb and descent, flatted. He couldn’t close a 200-meter gap, and Ocaña, despite having been in the lead for almost six hours, continued at a blistering pace up the final climb to Les Orres to win the stage by a minute over Fuente, seven minutes over Martinez and Thévenet, with the Zoetemelk, Vanspringel, Van Impe group more than 20 minutes back.

In Paris, 12 days later, Ocaña took his brilliant Tour victory by 15:51 over Thévenet, with Fuente completing the podium. Race followers felt that not even Merckx would have been able to beat this supreme Ocaña. Indeed, longtime race observer and correspondent for L’Équipe, novelist Antoine Blondin, wrote: “The apotheosis that Luis Ocaña is enjoying right now, and the majestic manner in which he acquired it, rewards him and rewards us in so many ways. It has the secondary advantage of interrupting the monologue of Eddy Merckx and giving him a valid opponent. Is it necessary to point out that the Belgian’s absence in no way diminishes the Spaniard’s triumph? In this Tour de France there were many moments where you could believe that not all the losers were in the peloton.”

Merckx would get a chance to face Ocaña a few weeks after the Tour in the world road championships held over a hilly 14.6-kilometer circuit in Barcelona. After 17 laps and 248 kilometers of racing, just four men were left to contest the finishing sprint: Merckx, with young teammate Freddy Maertens, Gimondi and Ocaña.

It had been a long, hot day, and the advantage was clearly with the two Belgians. Maertens led out the flat sprint for Merckx, with Gimondi and Ocaña following. Then—shock, horror—Merckx couldn’t raise his pace to go past Maertens when his teammate eased off with 200 meters to go. Gimondi grabbed the opening and shot though to win the rainbow jersey by a bike length ahead of Maertens and Ocaña, with Merckx sitting up in fourth place. A startled Ocaña told reporters: “I didn’t think that Eddy Merckx would falter like that, and as I’d given up on winning, I stayed at the back. When I realized what was happening I chased Gimondi as hard as I could, but it was too late! Another 20 meters and I’d have been world champion. It’s frustrating to lose like that!”

Ocaña would race for another four seasons, but he’d never win another important race. He couldn’t defend his Tour title in 1974 because of the injuries sustained in a crash at the preceding Midi Libre, and he never discovered his best form in the last three years of his career, when his best result was second in the 1976 Vuelta behind the surprising Spaniard José Pesarrodona.

After retiring from cycling, Ocaña devoted most of his time to his family and ran a winery he bought in the Armagnac district. He worked as a radio consultant at certain races and almost lost his life when he crashed an ATV down a grassy mountainside on a rest day at the 1979 Tour. For the wide breadth of his career, including major victories in Grand Tours, weeklong stage races, time trials and (almost) the word road championship, Ocaña can be rated as one (if not the very best) of Spain’s greatest pro cyclists.

Ocaña died at the same age as his father had succumbed, two weeks short of his 50th birthday. He too had been diagnosed with cancer, perhaps the result of a liver infection. The Tour de France champion was also said to be in financial trouble, though his family denied it. Whatever the reasons, Luis Ocaña committed suicide with a gun at his property at Caupenne d’Armagnac on May 19, 1994. It was the tragic end of a tragic champion.

Twitter: @johnwilcockson