They were an expensively assembled shambles, and the first cycling team I loved.
The Fagor team was the vehicle intended to propel Stephen Roche to further glory after his annus mirabilis in 1987. It would include some of the cream of Anglo talent, with Robert Millar and Malcolm Elliott recruited to join Roche in his new venture.
Old hands at the Spanish squad, Sean Yates among them, soon realised, however, that none of the changes promised at the start of 1988 would materialise, and resolved to make their way elsewhere by season’s end. Yates would start 1989 with Andy Hampsten’s 7-Eleven squad, but not before adding two Grand Tour stage wins to his palmares in his second season with Fagor.
The incongruity of professional cycling and its commercial backers often gives pause for thought, and perhaps should have done so to the hapless bunch who rolled out in the striking orange and white jerseys of the Basque washing machine manufacturer.
As cycling obsessed 14-year-old, to me the jersey was a golden fleece: a cipher for the elevated world of Continental road racing. Someone knowledgeable would spot me inside it on my training rides and speed my ascension to the professional ranks; of that, I was convinced.
Back in the real world, as Roche wound up a campaign that had yielded the Triple Crown, the realisation that Carrera would not renew his contract after crossing swords with Roberto Visentini at the Giro led him to accept an offer from Fagor.
Roche was allowed to bring a selection of riders – the aforementioned Elliott and Millar (the Scot eager to leave Panasonic after the betrayal of the ‘Stolen Vuelta’ in 1985), loyal domestique Eddy Schepers and Laurent Biondi, with whom Roche had ridden at La Redoute.
More significant, however, was Fagor’s initial willingness to allow Roche to bring his own men into management, too. Mechanic and factotum Patrick Valcke was promoted to directeur sportif, and Philippe Crepel was hired to ensure the smooth management of the team (Roche had been warned of the often chaotic nature of the management by fellow Irishman and long-term Fagor rider, Martin Earley).
Disagreements emerged as early as the team presentation, however, where Roche was told that Crepel had been released. According to Yates, the team refused to put on their new kit for the team presentation. It was a strike. Roche won a partial victory when Fagor boss Agustín Mondragón agree to reinstate Crepel as “consultant”, but the early shots of a long war had been fired.
Yates recognised the stand off as the normal state of affairs at Fagor immediately. The team’s laissez faire attitude had not bothered him unduly to this point, though they would later drive him to seek another team. Yates had enjoyed something of an annus mirabilis of his own the previous year, winning the Grand Prix de Cannes and an insanely hard stage of the Nissan Classic around the Ring of Kerry with a 116-mile solo break: the first victories of a pro career then six-years-old.
The breakdown of Roche’s plans for Fagor were concomitant with his own physical breakdown. Chronic knee problems prevented him from replicating his form of the previous year, and the managerial changes he had hoped to impose on the team evaporated. With the star rider absent almost entirely from proceedings, Yates continued to make the best of things as he had a year earlier, while Millar perhaps found himself no happier than he had the previous year at Panasonic.
The Scot had joined Fagor in a “wildcard” role that would free him from the burden of leadership and allow him to deploy his immense talent when he deemed it most effective, rather than the team. At the same time, he would ride for Roche at the Tour, making official a bond of solidarity that had transcended team loyalties the previous year at the Giro.
According to Yates, writing in his 2013 book, It's All About The Bike, Millar was forced to ride La Vuelta, having vowed never to return to the Spanish tour after 1985 [he placed second overall in 1986]. He finished sixth, a testament to his ineffable class. The Tour would add insult to the injury of racing again at La Vuelta, when Millar was led by breakaway companion Philippe Bouvatier into the deviation, almost within touching distance of a second stage win at Guzet-Neige.
While Roche and Millar suffered the worst of times, others among my British heroes fared rather better. Elliott picked up a stage win at La Vuelta and the overall at the Tour of Britain, while Yates also claimed a stage in Spain, before claiming a still greater victory in France: his ride to victory on the stage six time trial in Wasquehal was the then fastest in Tour history.
Their collective journey would end with a bravura performance at the Tour of Britain, won by Elliott with the considerable assistance of Roche, Millar and Yates. The Sussex man had already signed a deal with 7-Eleven for 1989, while Millar left for Z-Peugeot. Elliott joined the Spanish Teka team.
I remained blissfully ignorant of the internal wranglings at Fagor. Every time I pulled on the orange and white (more often than was healthy, in hindsight), I was riding alongside Roche and Millar, Yates and Elliott. The jersey remains in my collection, alongside a PDM tunic, bought my parents for my 16th birthday to appease my obsession with Sean Kelly.
Images of Fagor from the Presse Sports archive, shown here, courtesy of Offside-L’Equipe, instantly rekindle a halcyon period in my own life, though are unlikely to do so for any who raced for the team. Thirteen riders left at the end of 1988. Paul Kimmage was among the nine replacements drafted in for 1989, Fagor's final season.
"I was left with a reasonable team, but not a patch on what it had been the year before," Roche said in his 2012 book, Born To Ride. "What seemed like a dream scenario little more than a year earlier had turned into a nightmare."
Roche rode out his contract, winning the Tour of the Basque Country, claiming a stage at Paris-Nice and finishing at the top 10 in the Giro, before joining Histor-Sigma the following season. While his subsequent results would be welcomed by lesser talents, his time at Fagor represented the beginning of a slow decline.
Dream teams do not always appear in such a positive light from the inside. Fagor unquestionably failed to live up to expectation. The quality of its star riders meant the team was not entirely bereft of results, but tales of chaotic management from the men who depended most on a stable working environment meant the team was condemned to underachievement.