The winner of the 1959 Tour and six times the winner of the race's King of the Mountains, Spain's Federico Martín Bahamontes, aka 'The Eagle of Toledo', is widely considered to be the best climber cycling has ever known. Yet his relation with his home race, the Vuelta was far more tumultuous. In 1957, as this extract explains, he lost the Vuelta as a result of a mass attack forged by his arch-rivals Bernardo Ruiz and Jesus Loroño and, apparently, his director Luis Puig . Yet Bahamontes, to this day, remains convinced that the race slipped out of his hands for political, not sporting, reasons. Now read on...
‘I whispered in Loroño’s ear, “Come with me”,’ is how Ruiz explains the start of the mass attack in which Bahamontes lost twenty-one minutes and the yellow jersey to his arch-rival.
Poetically appealing though Ruiz’s recollection of events is, the truth is slightly more mundane. Ruiz and two other riders powered up the coast road in the first hour, and when they had opened a twenty-second gap Loroño came across with four others. Then the race was on. But there was no doubt who the move was directed against. Another 1950s Spanish professional, Luis Otaño, recalls Loroño telling him: ‘During the break Ruiz was yelling, “Go, go, Jesús, Bahamontes is dropped and you’re going to win the Vuelta.
You’re better than him, fuck it, go, ride!”’ Moreover, it was rumoured that Bahamontes’ team-mates participated in the con - spiracy. Some reports claimed that rather than help their stranded leader, they went as far as holding on to his shorts to prevent him counter-attacking. Certainly he received little support. ‘With Loroño ahead, and with all my Faema team-mates and friends in the national squad behind, nobody would work for Bahamontes,’
Ruiz recounts with a hint of smugness. ‘Bahamontes was the leader, he could have won that Vuelta, he should have won it, but he didn’t know how to win over his team-mates.’ Evaristo Murtra, Bahamontes’ ‘godfather’, who was following the race, confirmed:
‘He had no support whatsoever. Nobody wanted to help him, and the last anybody saw of Puig was when the break had gained two minutes, and he shot past in his jeep indicating with his hands to the riders that they should take it easy and not work to bring back Loroño’s break.’
Ruiz says: ‘So we reached Tortosa miles ahead, [Italian Bruno] Tognacini gets the stage, Loroño got first overall, I moved into second and Tognacini third, and that’s when the scandals started.
Even the Federation had to intervene.’ It was a brutal, barefaced betrayal, but even fifty-five years on, Ruiz has no regrets. ‘Fede says that we robbed him of that Vuelta. But he was vulnerable, he let himself lose it. And the ones who knew how to race, well, just like in this Vuelta, we beat him.’ As for Loroño, he claimed to be surprised at his success, but equally pitiless. ‘I never thought I’d get the yellow jersey,’ he says. ‘From two-thirds of the way through the stage it was pretty clear what was happening. But if Bahamontes couldn’t do anything then it was because he couldn’t.’
Somewhere in Bahamontes’ office, amid all the rows of photo - graph albums and collections of newspaper cuttings, lurks a piece of paper that allegedly explains why he did not win the Vuelta in 1957. Given that at one point Bahamontes had an advantage of nearly sixteen minutes over Loroño it seems almost more difficult for Bahamontes to have lost the race than to have won it. However, that was what happened.
Bahamontes’ hand thrums on one knee and a ferocious glare comes over his face as he gives his explanation for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. He says he was ‘robbed’ by a government telegram, received while in Valencia, instructing him to throw the race in favour of Loroño. In the middle of a military dictatorship there was no ignoring an official communication. That the rider who benefited happened to be his sworn enemy only added insult to injury. According to Bahamontes the instructions came from ‘above’, which is how Spaniards refer to the higher echelons of power. At the very least, Bahamontes says, it was the Minister of Sport José Antonio Elola who put his name to the telegram.
Whoever decreed that Bahamontes should lose, if, indeed, such a decree was made at all, the logic behind the decision would have been purely political: Loroño was Basque, the Vuelta was Basquerun, and Euskadi was the most troublesome region Franco had to deal with. Rather than let someone from the Madrid area win, Bahamontes believes that Franco’s henchmen let the Basques get one over the centre of Spain to satisfy local pride. In some ways it was like the Roman emperors who kept the noisiest parts of the populace happy with ‘bread and circuses’.
It is an extraordinary claim to make, but Bahamontes says he still has a telegram from the Ministry of Sport to prove it. He has certainly kept others, like the telegram from Toledo town hall promising him some prime building land in the city after the Tour victory in 1959, which he is always quick to locate in a photograph album for anyone curious enough to want to see it. Yet when asked if it is possible to see the document that proves he lost the Vuelta as a result of political maneuvering, he says ‘sure, sure’, half-gets out of his seat, looks around and then slumps down again, as if he cannot be bothered. Or maybe he knows that the telegram cannot be found.
The Eagle of Toledo: The Life and Times of Federico Bahamontes by Alasdair Fotheringham is published by Aurum Press and available now.