This story is a chapter from Richard Moore’s book Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France, which assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. Moore assembles an incredible cast of interviews with riders including Armstrong, Cavendish, Fignon, Hampsten, Hinault, Julich, LeMond, Merckx, Roche, and others. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race. Enjoy!
Monday, July 16, 1984
Grenoble to L’Alpe d’Huez
151 km/94 mi mountains
Herrera floats out of the saddle and eases clear. Hinault lifts himself heavily and accelerates back up to him. Then he passes Herrera. But it’s a façade. The Badger is bluffing. It has been the story of Hinault’s day, of his Tour. If he’s going to go down, he will go down fighting. Herrera, who looks like a child on an adult’s bike, pulls effortlessly clear again and Hinault, still snarling, has no response. Daylight opens between them.
Herrara, the little bird, is set free. Now he is flying up l’Alpe d’Huez, while Hinault labors, and a little lower down the mountain, Laurent Fignon, in the tricolore of French champion, sets off in pursuit.
Let’s freeze the picture there.
Herrera was an amateur, riding for the Colombian national team. For a 23-year-old débutant, he arrived at the start of the 1984 Tour with quite a reputation. Big things were expected. There was even talk of him win- ning. He had won a major stage race in his own country, the Clásico RCN, three times. All 23 editions of the Clásico had been won by Colombians, but in the early 1980s it opened its doors to European teams and some of the stars had gone prior to the 1984 Tour de France—including the ’83 Tour winner, Fignon.
Fignon talks about his visit to Colombia in his book, We Were Young and Carefree. “An astonishing experience,” he writes. He and the other Europeans were there primarily because it was at altitude, over 2,000 m, or 6,500 feet. It was thought to be good preparation for the upcoming Tour. Fignon was struck by the vast crowds, by the remarkable mountains, the equally remarkable climbing ability of the Colombian riders—and the co- caine. He later admitted he dabbled on the final night. But in the race it- self, the Tour champion was nowhere. Fignon finished 43rd in the Clásico, humbled by Herrera.
The question was, could the Colombians demonstrate their talent over- seas, in Europe? At the Dauphiné Libéré, a month before the 1984 Tour, Hinault was beaten by another Colombian, Martin Ramírez, despite some dubious tactics that spoke of the disdain in which the Colombians were held—or, perhaps, the threat these ingénues posed. Ramírez defended his overall lead by positioning himself on Hinault’s wheel, and later claimed to Matt Rendell for his book Kings of the Mountains that Hinault “responded by braking hard to make me fall, while his team bombarded me with elbows and fists.”
“No one knew who we were,” Ramírez continued. “Cochise [Martin Emilio “Cochise” Rodríguez, the first Colombian to ride the Tour de France, in 1975] had raced in Europe, but that had been long before. So it was clear that they saw us and called us ‘little Indians,’ ‘savages.’ We showed up all of a sudden, and managed to beat them in a big stage race on the eve of the Tour de France. Well, that just wasn’t something they wanted. So the reception was not very good.”
What was not appreciated or even widely known in Europe was how developed Colombia’s cycling culture was. It had prospered quite apart from the European circuit, separated by a chasm even wider than the Atlantic. The Colombian scene had its roots in the early 1950s when a national tour, the Vuelta a Colombia, started, followed a decade later by the Clásico RCN. Like the Tour de France, the Vuelta was founded by a newspaper, Colom- bia’s biggest daily, El Tiempo.
Almost immediately, both races attracted enormous crowds and dominated the national conversation. According to Klaus Bellon, a Colombian journalist, they unlocked something, revealing that “the entire mountain- ous South American country was delirious with passion for cycling.” That passion simmered for almost four decades before finally boiling over and spilling into Europe.
If nobody in Europe knew about the popularity of the sport in Colombia, the ignorance was fully reciprocated: Few in Colombia knew about the great European riders and races. “My first Tour de France was in 1972,” Hector Urrego, another Colombian journalist and broadcaster, tells me. “I worked for Mundo Ciclistico, a monthly cycling magazine in Colombia. My impression at the Tour de France was, this is the best, the biggest event in the world.”
Well, of course it was. It was the Tour de France. But in the pre–mass media, pre-Internet age, they did not realize this in Colombia, where the Vuelta a Colombia or Clásico RCN were the biggest bike races. Biggest in South America? The world? Who knew?
Major stars had raced in Colombia, including Fausto Coppi, but he, like Fignon three decades later, struggled in the mountains and altitude of Colombia. Any debate about who was better, the Europeans or Colombians, remained tantalizingly unresolved.
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