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!
Tuesday, July 06, 1976
Montgenevre to Manosque
224 km/139 mi mountains
His is a name that is only ever mentioned in connection with one obscure but impressive achievement. Otherwise, it has faded from the cycling record books; and in any case, it was never in bold type. A career, in short, that passed almost without note or notice.
Apart from one stage.
He meets you at the train station in Azuqueca, a dormitory town 30 minutes east of Madrid. He is not tall but wiry, gray-haired, wearing silver-rimmed spectacles and a striped shirt. He drives you in his modest car to his modest first-floor apartment. And in his living room he shows you his trophy cabinet, which is large and has pride of place and suggests the re- cord books might be lying—or at least not telling the full story. There is a glut of silverware, three shelves, packed with trinkets, ribboned medals, and big-eared cups. A bronze medal from the 1971 amateur world road race championship, where Freddy Maertens was second; a trophy for winning the amateur Tour of Poland, the only Spaniard ever to do so; awards for stage wins in the weeklong stage races that pepper the Spanish calendar.
Now in his early sixties, José Luis Viejo can also boast of a fifth over-all finish in his national tour, the Vuelta, in 1977. But that is not what he is known for. Instead, his fame, if it can be called that, is of the pub quiz variety. The biggest winning margin by an individual rider on a stage of the Tour de France? That would be José Luis Viejo, on stage 11 in 1976.
It is a historic feat, yet one that earns only a couple of pages in Geoffrey Nicholson’s wonderful The Great Bike Race, a book that tells the story of the Tour through the reporter’s travels on the 1976 race. Nicholson’s book is all the more remarkable for it being a pretty unremarkable edition of the great bike race. In fact, Viejo’s achievement was one of the most no- table things to happen, but Nicholson doesn’t dwell on it; he had no idea that the record would endure into a fourth decade and is unlikely ever to be beaten. For Viejo himself, it is the source of great pride, but also frus- tration. Not least because the true story, or his story, is not the official one. “José Luis Viejo is not a name that anyone has bothered to conjure with so far in the Tour,” writes Nicholson. He mentions a couple of minor placings, “but the proper function of this long-faced, twenty-six-year-old Castillian has been to cater for the needs of the two Super Ser stars, Luis Ocaña and Pedro Torres.” Which, says Nicholson, “is not a particularly thankful job when the stars themselves are waning.”
Viejo’s best performances—the 1971 worlds, the Tour of Poland—were as an amateur. As a professional, his problem was that he was good at everything rather than excellent at any one thing, “a proficient climber, sprinter, and time trialist—a coureur complet, if not of the highest rank.”
The stage began on top of Montgenèvre, where the previous day a stage won by Joop Zoetemelk had finished. It looped south, through the Hautes Alpes and Alpes de Haute Provence, with four category 3 climbs in its 224 km (139 miles). It was a classic transitional stage after two tough days in the Alps; it would be followed by a rest day and then four days in the Pyr- enees. It was, in short, a fill-in stage wedged in between decisive and difficult days, which perhaps offers a partial explanation for the strange events of July 6, 1976.
Nicholson described the scenery, spectacular and ugly at the same time—“an oppressive landscape of rocks striped like cross-sections in a geology textbook. Pipes the size of brickyard stacks ran down the moun- tainside with no attempt at concealment; red and white pylons marched brazenly down the valley; the Durance was flowing like lava”—but con- cedes that it is a day when not much is expected to happen.
This might explain why he and other reporters race ahead and stop for coffee in Embrun.
It means they miss “the start of a puzzling sequence of events.”
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