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Pedro Delgado at the 1989 Tour de France
Spaniard recalls formative years and Grand Tour triumphs
It will be hard for some bike fans to believe given that Pedro Delgado still looks almost as fit and sprightly now as he did in his pomp, when he became a two-time Vuelta a España champion and won the 1988 Tour de France, but the former Reynolds, PDM and Banesto star turns 50 today.
Still a regular at top level bike races in his role as a pundit for Spanish national broadcaster TVE, Delgado is interviewed at length in Thursday’s edition of AS. He reflects on how he and his brother sold copies of the local newspaper in their home city of Segovia to buy their first bike and how his passion from the sport developed from there.
"At that stage all I was interested in was having a bike so that I could go to the river with my friends. I used to get bored when the rest of them went off swimming," says Delgado. Having bought a second-hand girl’s bike with small wheels, he was later encouraged by a friend to join the local cycling school and describes these days as the ones he has the best memories of.
"I can remember my first victory, a race in which I also punctured and broke a toe-clip, better than I can my first victory in a Tour stage at Luz Ardiden. I’d only been out of Segovia a couple of times before and suddenly I found myself on the Moliner amateur team with a group of lads determined to enjoy life to the fullest and travelling all over the place.
"When I thought about turning pro, my father didn’t want me to give up my studies in nursing. He told me that I wouldn’t make anything of my life with the bike. But I couldn’t train and continue my studies at the same time. So in 1983 I decided to devote myself totally to cycling. It was the best decision I’ve ever taken. Everything I’ve got in my life I owe to cycling."
Riding for Reynolds, Delgado was thrown into the Tour de France in that first year and remembers it being a question simply of survival. "The flat roads, the cobbles, the infernal rhythm… I wondered what I was doing. But then I reached the mountains and I was up among the 20 best, then the 10, then I finished a stage second behind Robert Millar. That year I realized that the Tour was my race and that I could even win it," says the Spaniard.
After a still much-debated victory over Millar at the 1985 Vuelta and two years at PDM, with whom he came close to winning the Tour in 1987, Delgado returned to Reynolds (later Banesto) in 1988. "We won the Tour that year on the Alpe d’Huez stage. Indurain sent a fierce pace on the descent of the Madeleine, then Arroyo, Magro and Omar Hernández pulled the bunch apart... I didn’t win the stage but it decided the race," he recalls.
That victory, though, was clouded when Delgado delivered a "false" positive for probenecid. "I took probenecid just after that Alpe d’Huez stage. We used it to assist draining from the kidneys. It was also used to mask anabolic steroids, but if I’d wanted to hide something in that way I would have had to have used it every day and it only appeared on that one. Besides, the product wasn’t banned by the UCI, although it was by the International Olympic Committee. But we didn’t have it on our banned list," he explains.
The following year, of course, Delgado missed his start time for the Tour prologue and ended up losing the title largely because of his error. "It’s been said that I arrived late at the start because I was having a coffee or because the police stopped me. But it wasn’t that. I went to warm up far from the press and the fans. I met [Système U rider] Thierry Marie and asked him what the course was like, and by then I’d gone too far from the start and ended up setting off 2 minutes 40 late.
"That night I couldn’t sleep and in the team time trial I was a broken man and my teammates had to wait for me. But I never felt as well prepared physically as I was that year. I could have ridden on one leg. We all went to the Vuelta to ride for Indurain and when he broke his wrist I took over leadership of the team and won the race," says Delgado.
And how does it feel to be 50? "I don’t have any special feeling about it. My spirits are very good and that’s what’s important."