Man walks into a bicycle shop in Spain, wearing a vintage jersey. Bloke behind the counter says, “Where’d you get that? I used to ride for them.”
On a scale of coincidence, Matthew Preston’s chance meeting with José Manuel Garcia Rodriguez, once of La Casera-Bahamontes, a middling Spanish squad of the early 1970s, ranks pretty highly.
Preston, a devout follower of Spanish cycling, riding the Camino del Norte variant of the famed Camino de Santiago Pilgrim’s Trail in northern Spain, had bought the red and white jersey from Prendas Ciclismo, known for the accuracy of their reproduction kits.
Stopping at the Deportes Roxin bike shop in Avilés for inner tubes, Preston was surprised by the older proprietor’s interest in his jersey.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m English, and there’s a company called Prendas Ciclismo and blah, blah, blah. Why do you ask?’ He said: ‘I rode for that team 40 years ago.’
“He took me up to the office and took down a folder of press cuttings and old papers. He pulled a newspaper article off the shelf with the full team photo from 1974. He had a sheet of pictures of himself, in the team kit, for signing.”
The proprietor identified himself as José Manuel Garcia Rodriguez; a diminutive figure, according to Preston, whose physique offered a key to his former team’s specialism: mountainous stage races and Grand Tours.
“He was really, really chuffed,” Preston remembers. “He said, ‘The shop is on the Pilgrim’s route and we get a few [tourists] a week, for one reason or another, but in 30-odd years of running this shop, I’ve never once seen anyone come in wearing the kit of my team, least of all an Englishman.’”
Preston shared his tale with Mick Tarrant and Andy Storey of Prendas Ciclismo who, in turn, passed it on to us. It’s the latest chapter in the low-key saga of a neat, but unremarkable jersey, which has surprised the duo with its popularity.
“It hung in a corner of the ITV4 studio during their coverage of La Vuelta,” Tarrant recalls, “somewhere behind David Millar’s ear.”
The pair had stumbled across the La Casera-Bahamontes jersey while researching jerseys of the Giro d’Italia, specifically the Gazzola kit of another climbing legend, Charly Gaul. Despite the unusual combination of flowing script for title sponsor La Casera and unprepossessing ‘flocked’ lettering for Bahamontes, they had not expected it to be a big seller.
However they took a punt on it, working on Tarrant's modus operandi of, “Would I buy that?” La Casera ticked the box; a desirable quality apparent even in the black and white photos and colour ‘smudges’ that they worked from to reproduce the jersey with Santini’s Fergus Niland. Information on the team, however, was scarce.
Prendas contacted respected journalist Alasdair Fotheringham, author of The Eagle of Toledo: The Life and Times of Federico Bahamontes, and an acknowledged expert on Spanish cycling. Fotheringham provided the key facts of a team that existed professionally for just five years, before co-director and 1959 Tour de France winner Bahamontes walked away.
Fotheringham reported that La Casera's professional existence (the team had first competed on an amateur basis) yielded a stage win at the 1970 Giro d’Italia for Miguel María Lasa and a King of the Mountains crown for Pedro Torres at the 1973 Tour de France, after winning the savage 14th stage from Luchon to Pau. José Luis Abilleira won two consecutive King of the Mountains titles at La Vuelta, the second in 1974, but the team folded at the end of the season.
Is there an equivalent of La Casera-Bahamontes in the modern peloton, we wondered? “The short answer is that I don’t think there is one,” Fotheringham says.
“I think, basically, you’d have to say somewhere between Movistar and Caja Rural, but with colossal differences. It was another era; another time. Movistar is so much more versatile as a squad; so for that matter is Caja Rural, taking part in the Four Days of Dunkirk, a race which La Casera was unlikely even to have heard of.”
Fotheringham believes that Bahamontes would have served La Casera chiefly as a figurehead, though he housed the team’s service course in the headquarters of his fan club. The Eagle of Toledo was famously temperamental and pulled the plug on the team in a row over transport costs.
Preston, married to a Spaniard, offers a final note on La Casera: "The soft drink remains the key ingredient in the simple but extremely popular summer Spanish drink tinto de verano,” he informs us. We’ll raise a glass to Bahamontes and his team.