José Luis Rubiera has said that he has no regrets at the end of a 16-year professional career that started in 1995 with Artiach and has ended at the age of 37 with RadioShack. Winner of two stages of the Giro d’Italia and a top 10 finisher in both the Giro and Vuelta, the rider known almost universally as “Chechu” acknowledges that he will be remembered by most people for helping Lance Armstrong to the last five of his seven Tour de France wins.
“I am very satisfied with my career. It’s true that my palmarès is not all that spectacular but I’ve had the chance to ride a lot of races and alongside some great champions such as Freire at the Worlds, Armstrong at the Tour, Heras in several Vueltas and Contador at the Vuelta,” Rubiera told Spanish website El Pedal de Frodo.
Asked for the personal highlight of his 16-year career, Rubiera said: “My most memorable victory would have to be the stage in the Giro, because it was my first win and because of the way they ride in Italy. There’s a lot of romanticism in the racing there, with lots of attacks and escapes and the riders always get on so well together, which always gives me the impression that it’s a more passionate form of racing. In other races likes the Tour there are always a lot of interests in play and the race is more controlled by very strong teams.”
Having broken through with Kelme and looking set to become one of their key leaders, Rubiera surprised many when he opted to leave the Spanish team in 2001.
“From 2001 my career was totally different and I think joining US Postal was the best thing I could have done,” he said. “I really enjoyed my time with Lance and I experienced things that I simply wouldn’t have in another situation. It might seem stupid or frivolous, but mixing with Robin Williams, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sheryl Crow, and important people from Hollywood and the world of politics, or travelling with him in his private plane are events and opportunities that I don’t think I would have had in any other place.
“When I signed with US Postal in 2001 they needed someone who could be with Armstrong in the mountains. They put their faith in me and it worked out well. I was very good in that first Tour and from then on I was always one of the guaranteed nine for the French race, alongside the likes of Hincapie, Ekimov, Padrnos…
"Lance was a rider who made history and being alongside him as he won five Tours was a very important part of my career, especially because lots of people remember me more for this than for my victories or other performances. They remember the 500m I spent pulling the bunch along in 2001 and that gives you an idea of the power of the Tour – 500m setting the pace on a climb had greater impact than two stage wins at the Giro d’Italia.”
Asked whether Armstrong is as serious with those close to him as he often seems at races, Rubiera said: “He’s an extremely nice guy. He’s got a very good sense of humour. He is also very professional and when it comes to the Tour de France and cycling in general he was always so focused that he wasn’t very accessible, especially when it came to the press.”
Recalling his memories of one of Armstrong’s most famous Tour stage wins at Alpe d’Huez in 2001 when he faked illness to outsmart Team Telekom, Rubiera explained: “He came up with that ploy during the stage. He responded to the need to give Telekom responsibility for setting the pace because at that moment our team wasn’t so good. It was a very tough Alpine stage and he only had me and Heras with him in a group of about 40 riders, so it was impossible for us to control things.
“The idea came to him that he should go to the back of the line and pretend he wasn’t feeling so good. It was absolutely epic! People remember it because the broadcasters were saying that Armstrong wasn’t looking good and then he went on won the stage on Alpe d’Huez totally against all expectations… When we were at the back of the line he was telling me: ‘I will kill ´em! I will kill ´em!’”
Rubiera admitted he is unsure where his future career lies, but is adamant that he will always find time for his bike. “I still love the bike and even though I’m retiring I will keep on riding every day,” he said.
He revealed that he is likely to be involved in the organization of the Tour of Asturias in his home region in Spain. “They have asked me if I will help plan out the route and I will try to give them a hand,” Rubiera said. “I would like to remain involved at a regional level, with schools and such like. But, as a recently retired pro I don’t know yet exactly what I will be dedicating myself to or where my life will lead me. What I do know is that I am not going to be involved in professional cycling if it means me being away from home 100 nights a year.”
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Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).
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