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It's now 16 years since Mariano Rojas lit up the 1995 Tour de France with a series of startling performances that led to many designating him as "the next Miguel Indurain". A Tour debutant at just 21, the young Spaniard looked destined to finish in the top 10 until a crash on the descent off the Col du Tourmalet put him out of the race with Paris just days away. Watching him perform back at home in Spain was his younger brother José Joaquín, then just 10 years old, but currently battling for the 2011 Tour's points competition.
Sadly, less than a year after his startling debut, Mariano Rojas died in a car accident when travelling to the Spanish road championships.
Both Rojas brothers made their professional debuts in teams led by Manolo Saiz: Mariano with ONCE in 1994 and José Joaquín with Liberty Seguros in 2006, and Saiz has provided his analysis of the brothers in El Diario Vasco.
"I signed Mariano after seeing him race in the Circuito Montañés," Saiz recalled, revealing that he was impressed by the way the young Spaniard was not deterred from making an attack even into a strong headwind. Saiz invited Rojas back to his home and signed him on the spot to an ONCE team that contained big names such as Laurent Jalabert, Alex Zülle, Erik Breukink and Johan Bruyneel.
"Mariano was very different as a cyclist to José Joaquín. He was very tall, with a smooth pedalling style. He was very good. In his first year as a professional he really surprised us in Majorca and the Ruta del Sol. He produced some impressive performances," Saiz recalled.
Saiz revealed that Rojas made such an impression on his far more experienced teammates that they came to ONCE team boss and asked him to select the youngster for his Tour debut in 1995. "The team's big guns really took to him. He was guy that it was very easy to like. They told me to take him and for once I listened to them."
The plan was for Rojas to ride for the first 10 days and then quit the race. "I knew that he would add a lot in both the team time trial and the individual. Climbing the Croix de Fer there were just 14 riders at the front and Mariano was there with them," said Saiz. "He came back to the car to get water for his teammates and told me: 'I'm going really badly, give me the water as I'm not fit for anything else.' And he was riding with the best!"
The plan for Rojas changed during the race as he showed he was well equipped to finish the Tour, but the crash on the Tourmalet ended what was to be his only appearance in the race.
A decade on from Rojas's death, younger brother José Joaquín was brought into the pro ranks by Saiz with Liberty Seguros. "Joaquín is more solidly built than his brother," Saiz said of the rider who led the Tour's points competition. "He's a rider suited to one-day races, although at the start of his career he rode some good time trials. He will end up winning a lot of races."