Today marks the 20th anniversary since the tragic death of Luis Ocana, one of the greatest cyclists of a generation, if not of all time. The Spaniard, who won the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana was famously described as 'my most dangerous rival' by Eddy Merckx and duelled with the Belgian throughout his career.
In this exclusive extract from Reckless: The life and time of Luis Ocana, Published by Bloomsbury, 2014, author Alasdair Fotheringham writes about one of the most exciting and complex riders ever to have raced a bike.
One very wet, stormy winter evening in 2012, Ramón Mendiburu and Domingo 'Txomin' Perurena find themselves sitting side by side on a long bench in an almost deserted txoco (a Basque gastronomic club) deep in the province of Guipúzkoa.
Both now 70 or so, they have been an integral part of Spain's cycling fabric for more than half a century. Perurena, a winner of 158 races including the Tour's King of the Mountains jersey and 12 Vuelta a España stages, is now a bespectacled, bald and solemn looking individual who arrives wearing a large txapela (a Basque beret) to protect his head from the torrential rain. Mendiburu, more dapper – his shirt collar turned up and with an expensive looking neckerchief to keep out the winter chill – is best known for his work, post-retirement in 1970, first as Spanish national coach then as team director with the legendary KAS squad and co-director of the Vuelta a España in the 1980s.
At the txoco, as the wine flows and plate after plate of traditional Basque dishes appear from the kitchen, the two have little difficulty remembering their Fagor team-mate 'Chepas' (Humpy), as they affectionately nicknamed Ocaña for his slight humpback. (As quick as all pro cyclists to notice the pros and cons of pretty much anything in terms of racing, their first thought is that it was an automatic point in his favour because it enabled him to adopt a very hunched, ultra-aerodynamic position when riding on a time trial bike.)
Ocaña, as Perurena points out, hit the ground running as soon as he joined Fagor, his first fully professional team, in 1968, taking three stage wins in the Vuelta a Andalucía, one of Spain's key early season races. But his limitations also became clear almost as quickly. 'I remember most of us were in a training camp in Dénia that February and [Fagor director] Pedro Matxain would ring up each evening to see how the part of the team that had gone down to Andalucía was going,' recalls Perurena.
'Matxain would come back to the dinner table each time and say, "My God, he's won again, he's going brilliantly. It'll take a real cock-up for him to lose the race."
'And, sure enough, things got really messed up' – on a stage on the delta-like western Andalucía flatlands between Sevilla and Jerez de la Frontera – 'when the Belgians got to the front and the echelons started forming in the crosswinds. Luis got blown out the back, straight away.'
Ocaña lost 6'00" overall and, although he bounced back and captured the next day's stage (his third) to the coastal town of Algeciras with a solo victory, Belgium's Antoon Houbrechts' advantage of over 5'00" was unsurpassable. Still, third overall and three stages was hardly a bad haul for Ocaña's first race as a fully fledged professional.
'He could have won a whole lot more if he'd had his head screwed on the right way,' says Mendiburu, 'but there was no doubting he was a rider with a hell of a lot of class. And we could see that right from the start.'
There could be little doubt either that there was a gap to be filled in the uppermost echelons of Spanish cycling. Since Federico Bahamontes, Spain's only previous Tour winner in 1959, had finally quit in 1965, it had initially been hoped that Julio Jiménez, an almost equally talented climber, could fill the space left behind by 'the Eagle of Toledo'. But 'the Watchmaker of Avila', for all that he took three King of the Mountains titles on the trot and a second place overall in the Tour in 1967, was in no way a good enough all-rounder to take the race outright. Other Spanish riders like José Pérez Francés (third in the Tour in 1963 and 1966), Gregorio San Miguel or Patxi Gabica (Spain's most recent Vuelta a España winner when Ocaña turned pro) were all too inconsistent or had reached an upper limit of – in San Miguel's case – fourth and a single day's lead in the 1968 Tour.
Ocaña was talented, but when he signed for Fagor his future was unclear. 'Ocaña was a good-hearted lad, but so, so impetuous,' says Luis Otaño, another team-mate in the final year of his career at Fagor in 1968 and who had ridden the 1959 Tour de France as a team-mate of the victorious Bahamontes.
'He had a problem; he never paid any attention to what the directors said. Having said that, Matxain as the Fagor director was pretty average. He never gave anybody any advice as far as I know. Those days, it was sink or swim.'
Otaño first came across Ocaña by chance as an amateur at the inauguration of the San Sebastián Velodrome in August 1965 and the two became friends despite the age difference.
'He was only a kid and they put me up against him in a five kilometre individual pursuit. Anquetil was there, too. So I beat Ocaña, but' – after slowing down deliberately so as not to humiliate his rival and to give the impression that it was more of a competition – 'only by ten lengths or so,' which was still presumably humiliating enough!
Three years later their paths crossed again and Otaño could see that Ocaña had still not matured in certain crucial ways. 'I rode with Ocaña in [his first race at] Andalucía and he was right out the back when the splits went, and that was it. He was still wet behind the ears then. He attacked everywhere and never listened to anyone.'
Apart from his impetuosity, individualism and natural talent, Ocaña's team had also noticed that his impulsiveness revealed itself in another way: in his appetite for food. Most bike riders are choosy to the point of obsessiveness about what they will or won't eat and how much; Lance Armstrong, who always used to weigh his food carefully before eating it, is one of the most extreme cases.
Ocaña, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. 'He'd eat absolutely everything,' says Perurena, 'and he wouldn't think about the consequences. If he wanted a watermelon, he wouldn't eat a slice: he'd eat the whole thing, and then live with whatever happened to his stomach.'
Fast-forward ten years and his ability to eat prodigious amounts of food in one sitting still created a huge impression. 'I remember one time Luis slept for an entire day,' says Agustín Tamames, who raced and roomed with him in his second last squad, Super Ser. 'And the hotel receptionist would go up with room service. First it was "knock-knock, breakfast", then "knock knock, lunch" and so on. And she left the trays by the side of his bed. When he finally woke up, he ate the whole lot – breakfast, lunch and dinner – in one go!'
Ocaña's passion for art also caused heads to turn very early on. When staying in the Basque Country for training camps with Fagor, his team-mates were amazed to come across Ocaña standing beside the famous local sculptor Jorge de Oteiza, intently questioning him about the sculpture he was working on at the time at the Aranzazu sanctuary next to the team hotel. 'He was really good with carpentry, painting, handiwork of all kinds,' says Mendiburu.
And if that artistic bent impressed them, there must have been both a sense that Ocaña's errors would iron themselves out with time, and that what counted, above all, was that here was a real rough diamond. 'Luis had a heck of a temperament, but everybody knew he was the coming man,' says Perurena. 'One of the most amazing feats I've ever seen on a bike was what he did in the GP Llodio [one-day race] up here that first spring. This was at a time when the "war" between Fagor and [arch-rivals the top Basque squad] KAS was at its height, above all between the directors.
'And Luis got away and for all that the whole of the KAS squad were chasing him down, they couldn't bring him back. I remember [KAS director Dalmacio] Langarica drove past the front of the pack and up to Luis to see what was going on – and to check he wasn't getting any assistance from a motorbike. But he wasn't.'
There were other reasons for recalling Ocaña that day. He arrived so late from France for the start of the Llodio that he drove his car – an Opel with French plates, a rare enough sight in Spain as it was – at full speed through the crowds to the foot of the signing-on podium, and leapt out of it, leaving the keys in the ignition and the engine running as he then headed for the start line.
Driving style apart, Ocaña's death or glory style of racing appealed enormously to the fans. 'When he attacked, he never looked back,' says Perurena. 'These days I think the riders need rear-view mirrors the amount they turn round. When Luis went for it, it was with total confidence. He never looked back once, instead he just steadily accelerated and he was away.'
Following Ocaña's very promising start to the season in Andalucía and Llodio, the 1968 Vuelta, his first Grand Tour, was not nearly such a success – to the point where, in his autobiography, Ocaña does not even mention that he took part in it. But, in a tedious first week in which little happened but a series of bunch sprints, and when perhaps the most exciting moment came when German race leader Rudy Altig was fined 200 pesetas for stealing oranges from a tree mid-stage to quench his thirst, Ocaña survived reasonably well and even, on one day, got a top three placing.
On stage eight's hilly route inland from the Mediterranean coast at Benidorm to Almansa, Ocaña had taken second behind lone stage winner Martín Piñera and had moved up to eighth overall. Although Piñera's late attack over a non-classified climb had made the Spaniard the hero of the day when he claimed the overall lead (and fi nally ended the monotony of several sprint stages), Ocaña's sudden charge for the line to pick up some time bonuses for second place had indicated improving form.
Then, on stage nine, disaster struck. On a 230-kilometre trek across the fl at, exposed plateau of central Spain to the railway town of Alcázar de San Juan, Altig took advantage of strong crosswinds and an intermediate sprint mid-stage to break away. The peloton split into three and, after a ferocious pursuit lasting nearly two and a half hours, all the pre-race Spanish contenders – 1966 Vuelta winner Gabica, Perurena and the former race leader, the 37-year-old Piñera (or El Abuelo, Grandpa, as he was nicknamed) – were out for the count. (The local media put Ocaña down as one of the favourites but only, ironically, when he had no chance of winning.) Most of the Spanish riders lost 12'00" while Ocaña finished second to last, nearly 25'00" down.
It was of little comfort to Ocaña that his Fagor team-mate José María Errandonea – one of the few gifted Spanish time triallists of the time, and clear-headed enough to get into the Altig-driven move – had won in Alcázar de San Juan. 'Luis spent the last 30 kilometres with two KAS riders sitting on his back wheel,' Otaño said, 'and got to the finish exhausted.' Ocaña's failure to ask the two KAS riders for help was not in keeping with a long tradition in bike racing of collaboration between rivals when there are mutual interests at stake, be it in forging a breakaway or limiting the gap when dropped. On that stage, where all three riders were presumably aiming to expend as little energy as possible and survive, mutual interests were blindingly obvious.
But, instead, Ocaña rode his own race, driving away at the front of the trio without them 'taking turns', ignoring the opposition and the effect of that on his own energy levels. As will become clear, rather than this being just a beginner's error, what was essentially a massive – and chronic – blind spot on Ocaña's part when it came to seeing the bigger picture during breaks became evident again in the 1969 Vuelta, with far more damaging consequences. In the 1968 Vuelta, in any case, Ocaña was all but out for the count, but he showed what was to be his trademark spirit in such circumstances, and promised his team-mates that, after such a humiliating failure to get on the right side of the break in the crosswinds (a repeat of what had happened in Andalucía in February), he would not miss out on the following stage to Madrid. In the first hour, one that again saw an ultra-fast start with the peloton constantly splitting and reforming, Ocaña was in the thick of the action and keeping true to his word. But then, to his immense frustration, when a pack of 31 riders finally went clear, he was not among them.
Instead, as Otaño recalls, 'Luis attacked and attacked at the start of the stage, on a road going through all those vineyards they have round there, but he'd gone so hard that he burned himself out in the first hour. And then he was so pissed off that he decided he'd abandon' – after less than 50 kilometres of racing. 'He'd come in the night before second to last and then swore black and blue that he would knock down half the peloton if he got blown out in another echelon,' recalls Jesús Aranzabal, another team-mate. 'And then, we-ell ...'
The freezing weather, with ten centimetres of snow making life very difficult for the peloton on the mountain passes outside the Spanish capital, can hardly have increased Ocaña's motivation, given his particular dislike, throughout his career, of cold weather. But his abandon was far more motivated by his annoyance at being unable to make an impact on the race. 'He couldn't do what he wanted, so he just quit' is how Otaño sees it. Ocaña's 'hissy-fit' was probably aggravated even more by the fact that, prior to stage nine's debacle and stage ten's exit, he had begun to show some form. Yet, in a sudden reversal of fortune less than two days later, Ocaña was heading back to Mont-de-Marsan with precious little to show for his first major Tour experience – except that he had a dangerous tendency to overreact to adversity, regardless of the consequences, and also to ignore one of the basic rules of bike racing - you form an alliance with your rivals in a break, no matter what the cost to your pride, if it is to your mutual advantage.
It has to be said that, in terms of racing, Ocaña did not miss much in what was left of the Vuelta. In a dreary, otherwise uneventful second half, probably the most notable moment came when a bomb planted by the separatist organisation ETA in the Basque Country went off beside the race route. Fortunately, no one was injured but, after a two-hour delay, the riders dismounted, unwilling to continue. Tension built as the organisers pushed the riders' bikes through the debris caused by the explosion. At that point the best-placed Spaniard at the time, José Pérez Francés, came out with an unforgettable line: he would not race any more that day because 'I have already done my military service in Africa'. The stage was finally cancelled.
This stage had come after a spell of exceptionally freezing weather, with the 'high point' a blizzard on the descent of the notoriously dangerous Col de Pajares that ripped the peloton apart – unfortunately, however, with such poor weather, TV coverage was abandoned and nobody could see it happening. The racing as such had fizzled out well before the Vuelta reached a rain-drenched finale in Bilbao. It was eventually won by Italian stage race specialist Felice Gimondi, who took advantage of the relentless war between Fagor and KAS to claim the third of his four Grand Tour victories.
Dull it may have been, but Ocaña might have reaped the benefits: with strong form and a low position overall, at the very least a stage win was within his grasp. Instead, Ocaña's initial Vuelta performance revealed what were, in hindsight, a number of none too positive trademarks of his racing style: a promising start followed – not without some dramatic visual fireworks – by a dramatic and self-induced collapse of energy levels. Had Fagor director Matxain not had enough on his hands already when Ocaña abandoned (that day, too, Perurena was in the process of notching up Fagor's second straight stage win), Ocaña might not have been allowed to quit on what were clearly his own terms. Instead, a dangerous pattern in the way Ocaña tackled a major Tour was established very early on in his career.