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BATTLING A SPANISH MAFIA

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NOBODY IN SPAIN WANTED A BRIT OR A COLOMBIAN TO WIN THE ’85 VUELTA. With three days remaining, the 1985 Vuelta a España had come down to a two-man race. In the pale yellow leader’s jersey was a determined Scotsman, Robert Millar. Just 13 seconds back was a talented young Colombian, Francisco “Pacho” Rodriguez. It looked as though cycling history was about to be made as no one from outside continental Europe had ever won a grand tour. That Vuelta’s top Spanish rider, time trial specialist Pello Ruiz Cabestany in third overall, had a tiny chance of overhauling the top two in stage 17’s 43-kilometer individual time trial, but he was almost two minutes back. And even the Spanish media acknowledged that Millar or Rodriguez would win the title.

Words: John Wilcockson | Illustrations: Matthew Burton

Rodriguez, 24, came to prominence the previous year when he won two stages of the Critérium du Dauphiné, performances that earned him a pro contract with Spanish team Zor-BH. Millar, 26, was leader of a French team, Peugeot-Shell-Michelin. He grew up in a notoriously rough Glasgow slum, The Gorbals, and he retained a hard edge beneath his calm demeanor. That grit and his light build helped him become one the world’s top climbers—he won the polka-dot jersey and fourth place overall at the 1984 Tour de France. In this Vuelta, he took the yellow jersey after the MG-Orbea team, first with leader Pedro Delgado and then teammate Cabestany, held the early lead.

Heading into the time trial at Alcalá de Henares, a city to the northeast of Madrid, Millar knew it would be tough to keep his tiny overall lead, so he gambled on using two bikes: a light, carbon-fiber machine for the opening 20 kilometers that included a steep hill, and one fitted with a rear disc wheel for the return journey on smoother, mainly descending roads.

Millar began brilliantly, taking 25 seconds out of Rodriguez in the opening 14 kilometers. He was still 21 seconds ahead of the Colombian after his planned bike change. “But four kilometers later, just as I was feeling the benefit of the [disc] wheel, I rode down a hole,” Millar later told me. The Scot, back on his original bike, didn’t panic, but steadily regained his rhythm. A time check 6 kilometers from the end showed him to be one second ahead of Rodriguez and 23 seconds behind Cabestany.

The last rider on the road, Millar came into the finish on a concrete velodrome in Alcalá to a chorus of derisive whistles—the partisan public desperately wanted a Spanish win after the Vuelta went to French riders Bernard Hinault and Eric Caritoux the previous two years. But the whistles couldn’t drown out Millar’s wonderful third place in the stage, just three seconds down on Rodriguez and 40 seconds behind stage winner Cabestany. Millar coasted for an extra lap of the velodrome before stopping next to his directeur sportif, Roland Berland. “You’ve done it, Robert!” said the bespectacled Frenchman. Yes, it looked like the Vuelta was in his pocket. The normally taciturn Millar was ecstatic. Tears of joy were welling behind his smiling eyes. He still had the yellow jersey, with a 10-second lead on Rodriguez and just one difficult day to go: the 200-kilometer stage 18 from Alcalá to Segovia.

SATURDAY, MAY 11, 1985, DAWNED COOL AND CLEAR. The only clouds in the opaque blue sky over the Castillian Plain were white puffballs lining the distant mountain rim as the Vuelta’s penultimate stage began. After an initial burst of activity—“the Spaniards start attacking every day as soon as the flag drops,” noted Sean Yates, Millar’s English teammate—a solo break was made by Alexander Osipov, who was on the first Soviet Union team to participate in a grand tour. Osipov had a lead of six minutes when light snow began falling on the first slopes of the 5,900-foot Puerto de la Morcuera climb. The sudden change in the weather also signaled unimaginable changes in the race.

Although eight men from the 10-strong Peugeot team were still in the race to support Millar, only two could stay with him on the climbs: Pascal Simon, who’d worn the yellow jersey at the 1983 Tour de France, and neo-pro Ronan Pensec. The other five had raced magnificently for Millar on the flatter stages but survived the hilly days on courage alone.

“This Tour of Spain has been harder than the Tour de France,” observed Sean Kelly, the world No. 1 who started the race as top favorite but took a battering in the first mountain stages. The Irishman’s form was improving, while Millar’s domestiques were close to their breaking point. Yates, Millar’s guardian angel, couldn’t finish the stage. “I was completely shattered,” he said. “I was dropped on the first mountain and got back on after the descent, but I couldn’t hold the pace on the second climb. I had nothing left.”

In front, his teammates were being stretched by repeated attacks. “Rodriguez tried to get away several times,” Millar said, “but I had no trouble countering him.” The most dangerous move on the Morcuera—a long, evenly graded ascent to a cold, barren summit—was by a dozen-strong group that included Rodriguez. That attack was neutralized just beyond the feed zone of Rascafria following a rapid descent.

The race was now in a deep, pine-covered valley in the Sierra de Guadarrama, where the road leading to the day’s second climb, the Puerto do los Cotos, was paved with cobblestones. It was a road that neither Osipov nor Millar would forget. The tall, blond-haired Soviet visibly wilted and was caught shortly after the cobble section gave way to smooth asphalt 8 kilometers from the mist-shrouded summit. The first man to pass Osipov was the Spanish rider José Recio of Team Kelme, a stage winner at Benidorm four days earlier. He had left the peloton with two other Spaniards, Rodriguez’s Zor teammate José Navarro and Angel de las Heras of Hueso, and Frenchman Dominique Garde, from Kelly’s Kas-Skil team.

While these four were chasing Osipov across the cobbles, Millar flatted. Before stopping, he said he “tried to drift to the back [of the group] without anyone seeing. But the Spaniards saw and attacked.” Despite receiving a quick bike change from his team car, Millar had to chase hard, assisted by Simon and Pensec. The other Peugeot men fell back as the peloton exploded on the Cotos climb. The deterioration in the weather caused most of the riders to don rain jackets, and so it was difficult to identify the composition of the various groups scattered up the winding mountain road. Millar jumped from group to group with his two teammates, before bridging the gap to the main race favorites on his own. “When I got back, I thought I was with the front group,” Millar said. “I didn’t know anyone was away.”

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Ahead, Recio dropped the others and passed the Cotos summit 37 seconds clear. Next came Millar’s group that also included second-placed Rodriguez, third-placed Cabestany and his teammate Delgado, Spanish climber Vicente Belda (one of Recio’s teammates), and Caritoux from Kelly’s Kas-Skil team. Others would soon join them. The immediate danger for Millar seemed over. The attacks did continue on an almost flat main road beyond the summit, before the true descent began, with Millar comfortably countering accelerations from Rodriguez and Cabestany, but he was not too concerned when the less dangerous Caritoux went clear with Zor’s Navarro, Frenchman Pierre Bazzo of Fagor, and another caped-up rider, who proved to be Delgado.

On overall time, Rodriguez and Cabestany were the only men within five minutes of Millar, so the Scot had eyes only for them. Delgado, sixth overall at 6: 13, later said that the motivation for his attack was a stage win into his hometown of Segovia. Riding strongly, he closed the 30-second gap to Recio with the finish still 69 kilometers away. Kelly was also keen to win the stage. He attacked from Millar’s group on the damp descent with teammate Garde and two Spanish riders. “We were taking off our capes, freewheeling, when Kelly attacked from the back of the group with the other three,” Millar said. “They came past so fast there was no way we could have gone with them. But I wasn’t worried about Kelly….”

The race leader was more concerned about teammates Simon and Pensec, who were chasing in a 20-strong group. They were less than a minute back at the foot of the descent when the barriers of a railroad crossing closed in front of them. “We were stopped for two minutes,” Pensec reported, “but no trains went by before the barriers were raised.”

Left on his own, Millar was casting anxious backward glances approaching the third climb, the Alto do los Leones, shorter and steeper than the first two. On leaving crowd-packed Guadarrama, Recio and Delgado were 56 seconds ahead of Caritoux, Navarro and Bazzo, 2:17 up on Kelly’s group, and 2:56 ahead of Millar’s platoon. With Delgado, Kelly and Millar doing most of the work in their respective groups, the time differences were the same at the 5,000-foot summit, where 10-deep crowds roared Delgado through, hoping he could win the stage.

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Already 3: 15 up, could Delgado gain another three minutes in the remaining 43 kilometers—and win the Vuelta too? That question seemed academic when, on one of the sweeping bends on the fast descent to San Rafel, Delgado almost crashed as he followed the more adroit Recio. He recovered, but he and Recio were not gaining anymore. With no big climbs to come, it seemed like the race was done. Rodriguez rolled alongside Millar to recognize that fact, with Millar giving the Colombian a friendly tap on the back, then the same with Cabestany.

A brief spell of sunshine gave way to more rain, with hail adding to the riders’ discomfort and adding confusion to the race. To get some accurate time checks—the official checks were few and barely discernible on the poor-quality race radio—we stopped our press car on an uncategorized climb, where black bulls dotted a bleak gray-green hillside. There was also a motorcycle-borne blackboard to show riders the time gaps, but Millar saw it only once in this vital final hour. Our check showed the two leaders to be 1:55 ahead of Caritoux and Navarro, who were about to be joined by Kelly’s group, while Millar and six others were still 3:20 back. Just 30 kilometers remained.

Because of the weather, the evolving situation and the lack of time splits, Millar had yet to find out that Delgado was in front. “The first time I knew he was away, he had four minutes,” Millar said. “Even then, I wasn’t too worried.” That split of 3:58 was taken 26 kilometers from the finish, but just after his team director Berland drove alongside Millar to tell him, we took another split at 23 kilometers to go. It was 4:54. The sudden increase coincided with a lack of action in Millar’s group. Of the 10 men now with the Scot, the only one not on a Spanish or Spanish-sponsored team was Dutchman Gerard Veldscholten, one of two Panasonic riders left in the race.

“DELGADO GAVE THE STAGE TO RECIO—WHO’D RIDDEN SO HARD HE QUIT THE RACE NEXT MORNING COMPLAINING OF DAMAGED KNEE LIGAMENTS.”

“I spoke to Rodriguez,” said Millar, “but he said he wasn’t working because he would rather see Delgado win. There was also a danger that if I chased too hard Rodriguez would have jumped me at the end to take his 10 seconds.” With his mind in a quandary and no teammates to help, Millar had nowhere to turn except his own legs when Veldscholten stopped helping. “Nobody else was pulling, so why should I?” Veldscholten later said.

Spanish radio and TV commentators were virtually screaming into their microphones, sending the roadside crowds into a frenzy as the two leaders were carried on a tidal wave of enthusiasm toward Segovia. “When we caught Caritoux, we started riding hard to try to catch the two in front, because we wanted to win the stage,” Kelly explained. “I was riding really well at the end with Garde and Caritoux, and we still lost time to Delgado and Recio. It’s unbelievable how the Spaniards ride when they are at the front.”

A time check 17 kilometers from the finish showed Kelly’s group 2:27 down, with Millar’s at 5:12. Unaided, the race leader was now losing three or four seconds every kilometer. He could afford to lose only one more minute. It was going to be touch-and-go. Unfortunately for Millar the stage didn’t end in Segovia itself, but 5 kilometers later, outside the distillery of stage sponsor DYC whisky.

Over this final stretch—a main road into town, a descent on a cobbled street, a climb past a ruined bull ring, and a dipping highway to the distillery—Millar’s efforts were disrupted by the Spaniards, who sprinted past him and then coasted as soon as he took their wheel. Meanwhile, Delgado and Recio, perhaps aided by race motos, averaged 45 kilometers per hour over the last 10 kilometers.

Delgado gave the stage to Recio—who’d ridden so hard he quit the race next morning complaining of damaged knee ligaments. Three-and-a-half minutes after Recio won the stage, Kelly out-sprinted Prieto and Navarro for third place. By now, the fans were chanting Delgado’s nickname: “Perico, Perico….” Then, as the six-minute mark approached, they began counting off the seconds, and when 6:13 arrived, a huge roar erupted—just as police whistles blew to signal the arrival of the yellow jersey group 400 meters from the finish line. That was the margin of Millar’s defeat in the 1985 Vuelta a España.

Sprinting across the finish line at the head of his group, Millar did not know he had lost the Vuelta. He came to a halt in a mêlée of spectators, straddled over his bike, exhausted from his long chase. When told that Delgado had taken the lead, Millar swore loudly with shock and anger. “I didn’t know there was a risk of losing the jersey,” he then mumbled. After reporting to the trailer that housed the anti-doping control, he emerged 15 minutes later and rode straight to his team car for a 30-kilometer drive to his hotel.

Four hours later at the Club Nautico Nayade, a residential and sports complex occupying a private estate on the wide Moros River, Millar was in the bathroom washing his shorts before hanging them from the window frame. His eyes were still red with emotion. “I haven’t said more than three words since we arrived here,” he told me. After bearing all the physical and mental pressure as leader of the world’s third most important stage race for more than a week, Millar was understandably disillusioned. “I’m disgusted with it all,” he continued, after several moments of silence. “The crowds throw things at you and spit at you because they want a Spaniard to win. But I don’t let them affect me…. I haven’t lost this race because I cracked up. You can’t compete against the whole peloton.”

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There were few observers who did not agree that Millar was the race’s moral victor. But there are few morals in professional sports. In the end, a Spaniard won. Delgado raced hard to achieve his stunning victory, but his achievement was not reflected in the words he used on the winner’s rostrum. Asked to comment on his yellow jersey, the hometown champion said, “I must thank the directeurs sportifs of the other Spanish teams. Without their support, this win would have been impossible.” Those words emphasized the day’s dark deeds, which prevented a brave-hearted Scot from winning the Vuelta and making history.