Luis Ocaña won the Vuelta a España just once, in 1970, although he finished second overall on three occasions. Winning the Tour de France was easier than winning the Vuelta, he once remarked, because 'in Spain it seemed I was expected to win each and every stage.'
In this extract from the recently-published 'biographical novel', Ocaña, written by Spain's leading cycling author, Carlos Arribas, we find Ocaña in conversation over dinner with his doctor, Pedro Celaya. It is the first evening of the 1987 Vuelta, and a now thoroughly disillusioned Ocaña is bemoaning his lot as directeur sportif of a minor Belgian team.
‘Eddy told you all that. Don’t you remember?’ Celya dared to advise him, while he stirred his spoon round in the bottom of his empty coffee cup, making transient little pictures in the dark dregs. ‘The job of director doesn’t fit with the temperament of a champion… You were like him, like the Cannibal; that’s what you were like, and that’s how I remember you from the first day I saw you and fell in love with your appearance, with your insatiable look in a race, with your style…
'You remember that day, the time trial day in the Tour of the Basque Country, so long ago… I had come up to see Anquetil, that phenomenon, and I discovered you, with that hunchback of yours cutting through the wind like the keel of a boat. And Eddy himself, Luis, the pair of you, you’re the same breed; you couldn’t fool yourselves. That’s how I see the two of you. You’re both the sort who thinks that a cyclist is not a true cyclist until he has plunged into the madness and has made that his method.
'And that, as that hopeless Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, remarked, is something that can’t be taught; it’s just something you’ve got, that madness, that lack of restraint, that lack of calculation. We are born with fear and caution. That’s what our survival depends upon, at least for the majority of us. And the majority of cyclists, too, like the kids you direct, those who turn you to the point of despair. You want them to be like you, over the top and unpredictable. You demand they all have the same fighting spirit as you, and that is impossible.
'It’s equally impossible you carrying on being a director: you’ll never be any good at it because you’ll never be normal. You’ll never be able to teach anybody to be mean, small-minded, crooked…Look at today’s bunch of directors, Luis. Look at what they teach them in Spain: they teach them to be shrewd, to act smart all the time, never to go crazy. When they’re in an escape, they say to their riders: “Go to the front so it seems you’re doing some work, but keep the changes moving; never be the fool who pulls harder than any of the others, but never be the smart arse who shirks his turn.” And what do they learn from that? To learn to try and fool the rest, to be the smart arse.’
‘Then I was the fool, and I want my riders to be the fools,' Ocaña replied. 'I don’t understand why somebody in an escape group doesn’t pedal harder than anybody else. That’s what they told me to do and that’s what I did, and so that’s what I want everybody to do. If not, cycling isn’t worth the bother. And don’t call me daft, Celaya, don’t call me daft. I don’t believe in that about madness.
'When I did what I did, when I attacked to get rid of all the conformists, all those who only knew how to sit on someone else’s wheel, all those who didn’t dare take off by themselves away from the safety of the peloton all around them, I didn’t do it because of a streak of madness. I did it because of a desire, because of an obligation. I needed to give it everything, to get to the finish with nothing left, to go where nobody else dared go. That’s not madness, that’s cycling. And I did my calculations, too, and I still do. I rode for money; I always did, not for romanticism. Cycling is that, too. The wheels don’t go round if they’re not oiled with banknotes. I haven’t just fallen off the Christmas tree. But it is possible to be sincere and honest as well. I discovered that in the first Vuelta I rode.
‘I’ll tell you a story: I was riding for Fagor, in the first Fagor team, that of Perico Matxain, and one night, after dinner, when only the cyclists were around, they said to me, “We know that you’ve got aspirations; you’re young and you’re talented and you dream about winning the Vuelta, but Kas have offered us a lot of money to lend them a hand. So now you know: if you want us to carry on supporting you, you’ll have to offer us more than them.”
'And do you know what I did, Celaya? I told them to go and fuck themselves. Then I went off to talk to Pingeon, the Peugeot rider, and then on the day of the etapa reina, I destroyed the Vuelta, by myself and with Pingeon on my wheel. I destroyed Kas and Fagor and I showed them what it was to be a cyclist. I did that for pride, of course, but also for money. Call it character. Call it style. Things have to be done with style.’
‘And that’s not madness?’
‘No, that’s Luis Ocaña. That’s being a man. And I’ll tell you another thing, Celaya.’ Luis now didn’t need to raise his voice; he could talk in a whisper because all of a sudden he realised that the dining room had become practically empty as the hordes of strident, thick-skinned foreigners had marched out en masse just as they had entered.
‘I had to hang up the bike in France, when I would have preferred to have done so in Spain, but in Spain they insulted me. The 2 October, 1977, an Autumn Sunday in Cannes I rode for the last time with a race number on my back. It was the Grand Prix des Nations, the first that Hinault won, the beginning of a new era in cycling when we earlier champions had been overtaken. Merckx only managed a few more months, till March of ’78, before finding out that his body was no longer up to it.
In that Grand Prix des Nations I did reasonably well, finishing tenth, and at least I took four minutes out of Poulidor, the old man who was giving me ten years and who also retired that day. But I would have liked to have made my farewell to all that at the Montjuïc hill climb. I said that to Sabater, the organiser, hoping he’d know how to reward me for the gesture, but what he did was to insult me. He offered me 75,000 pesetas, half what he was giving to others, as if I, Luis Ocaña were a Mister Nobody. I told him he could stick it up his arse. I went back to my estate in France and there it all ended.’
Ocaña, by Carlos Arribas (978-1-874739-72-2) is published by Mousehold Press, £14.95. www.mousehold-press.co.uk