I first went to the Vuelta in 1979 – it was my second big Tour after I turned pro (I’d ridden the Tour de France the year before) and I won the first stage. I had a second stage-win a week later, but near the end of the race I became ill and had to pull out. That was a disappointment, but at least I was getting to know the really big Tours, so I suppose you could say it was good experience.
The next season I rode the Vuelta again, and this time I won five stages and finished wearing the points jersey. The big surprise for me, though, was that I was fourth overall. At that time I was concentrating on the one-day races, and supporting the team, and I really didn’t think of myself as a big Tour contender.
It was five years before I next rode the Vuelta, and 1985 was the year when Pedro Delgado took the lead from Robert Millar on the last but one stage. I won three stages and the points jersey again, but only finished 9th overall. By then the race was getting a lot bigger and a lot harder – in 1979 there’d only been 90 starters, but by 1985 there was almost double that number. All the same, I had won a few Classics and a good few smaller stage races in the meantime. so I was beginning to think it might be possible for me to win a major tour. The trouble was I raced so much, starting in February, that it was always difficult to be in the special condition you need for a three-week race.
The following year I changed teams and went to Kas – one of the big Spanish team with a long history in cycling – and I finished third overall. I also won a couple of stages and the points jersey for the third time in my career. The owner of Kas was Luis Knorr, a great cycling fan from the Basque country where there’s such a lot of enthusiasm for the sport. He was sure I could win the race one day, and he also told me that he wanted me to stay in his Kas team until I retired. Maybe I would have done, but he died in 1988 and the Kas team folded. I was able to repay his confidence, though, eventually. But not before I reached my worst moments in cycling, and then one of my very best.
In 1987 I had to retire just three days before the finish in Madrid. I was wearing the maillot amarillo (leader’s jersey) and looking certain for the overall. But for some days I’d been nursing a really bad saddle boil and I just couldn’t bear the pain any longer. I had to drop out and leave the race to Lucho Herrera. For the first time in my career I’d been on the point of winning a major Tour, and I had to pull out. That hurt as much as the saddle boil. Later in the season I crashed in the Tour de France and had to retire from that race, as well. It was probably the worst year of my career.
I said at the time that losing the Vuelta like that was a thorn in my side, and I returned in 1988, determined to pull it out. And I did. It was a very special feeling. I also took the points jersey for the fourth time, and had a couple of stage-wins. It still remains the highpoint of my career – my win in the Tour of Spain.
Overall, Spain was always very good to me. I raced a lot there during my 18-year career, and I think the teams I rode for, and those passionate bike fans, appreciated my efforts. They gave me great support, that’s for sure – there were times when I felt I could have been at home in Ireland racing in the Nissan. I won the main one-week Tours, in the Basque Country and in Catalonia more than once, but none of that compared with riding into Madrid with the leader’s jersey after three weeks of the Vuelta.
This book takes me back to those years – to the good times and the times of despair. It makes me remember the stages, the riders, the teams and the battles we had, and the travelling through that mountainous country. A great race needs a great book like this so that it can live for ever.
A note from Richard Allchin
The Vuelta has always been a favourite race of mine, perhaps because it was the first big Tour I watched on satellite television, every day. And yet, over the years, I have often wondered about its importance and its relevance in the grand scheme of professional cycling. Then you think of the super Champions – men like Anquetil, Gimondi, Merckx and Hinault – they all desperately wanted to add the Vuelta to their grand tour palmarés, so they could say they had won all three of the major national tours. They all felt their careers would not be complete until they had added this very difficult and fiercely partisan stage-race to their tour victories in France and Italy.
When I was approached by Adrian Bell to co-publish this book with him, I wasn't initially convinced and, as Adrian publishes some of his cycling books independently, I decided to keep my options open and wait until I had read some draft chapters. He kindly agreed to this. When in due course he sent me a first draft, I found I myself learning so many things about the Vuelta that I’d previously had no idea about: the great battles for victory that had ensued over the years; the actual politics of the race; and the complicated and sometimes confusing history of Spain itself – a country we know today as one of the world’s truly great cycling nations. I discovered that Spain’s often sad, sometimes violent, and relentlessly changing history was as much a part of the race as the actual racing itself. And the organisation of the Vuelta often paralleled the ‘State of the Nation’, with its highs and lows coinciding with Spain’s shifting political and cultural scene. I found the book enthralling, and a joy to read.
It concentrates most often on the battle for the overall victory, rather than being a day-by-day account (although the appendices contain enough information to help history buffs and adds substantially to its overall attraction). It is this direction of the narrative, its concise approach to the overall contenders, together with its constant references to the Spanish background that gives Viva la Vuelta! its spark.
Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell have produced a remarkable work that should enthral all lovers of cycle racing, especially if Spain is close to their hearts. It is the product of hard work and a deep affection for Spain and for the Vuelta that is obviously felt by the authors – an English woman who had made her home in Spain and fell in love with the country and its great cycle race, and a Englishman who lives in Britain but has a special love of all things Spanish (having published two books about Miguel Induráin, and a book about the Spanish Civil War). This book has something for everybody if they love the country and the wonderful sport of cycling.
This is a book you can dip in and out of at anytime, or read straight through. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
Richard Allchin, Co-publisher