Success at the Tour de France never came easily for Pedro Delgado. A stomach bug here…a broken collarbone there…a missed start…you name it. There was something that always seemed to get in the way of Delgado when it came to his Tour aspirations. But when he did put it all together, in 1988, his victory put to rest years of frustrations for the Spanish racer and ushered in a new golden era for cycling in his country. PELOTON magazine caught up with Delgado, amiably known as Perico, to take a long look at his career.
This article originally appeared in issue 56, get your copy at: pelotonshop.com
Pedro, you were in many ways a pioneer of modern Spanish cycling: the first Spaniard to win the Tour since Luis Ocaña two decades earlier, but also the first of a long string of Spaniards to win the Tour and other great races…. Yes it is true. But I was not alone. There were also great riders like Angel Arroyo, who finished second in the 1983 Tour de France, Alvaro Piño and Marino Lejarreta. This new generation grew up under the dictatorship of Franco in Spain. The country was quite repressed and also very introverted. Spaniards did not travel much and didn’t think about life much beyond the borders of Spain, because for years we could not. As a result we had a sort of inferiority complex. We thought everything in Spain was second class.
And Spanish cycling was similar. We had a lot of races. Teams and riders came from other countries to race in Spain because there were so many races. As a result Spanish riders didn’t feel the need to travel. I remember, in the rare moments I raced outside of Spain when I was starting out, there would always be someone on the squad that would just shut down, just could not deal with being out of his own country.
And then there was another huge factor that really transformed cycling in Spain—the television. You know, when I was growing up, there were two television stations in Spain, Channel 1 and Channel 2. That was it! But in 1983, Channel 2 started broadcasting the Vuelta a España and the Tour de France live. And that was just huge! The whole country could see what we were doing and it excited everyone. Before that, when a rider would race in another country, people would just be like: “Why would you do that? You are just wasting your time!”
I remember going to my first Tour de France with no special training, like it was just another race. But I instantly understood that it was a race I could win. I was like: “Hey these mountains are hard, but they are no harder than the mountains in my country! I can do something here!” And when people started seeing us getting great results in the Tour de France, that just changed everything. And it helped change the inferiority complex.
Of course there were riders that managed to do well in the Tour before me. There was Ocaña and Federico Bahamontes. But Ocaña was basically half-French because his parents had to leave the country when he was very young due to Franco’s dictatorship.
Cycling, however, provided a new path to openness. And it gave us new national pride. And perhaps the highlight came when I finally won the Tour in 1988. People saw that we were just as good as anyone else. We were Europeans.
The Vuelta a España was a different race. I mean, there were guys like Freddy Maertens, a sprinter and classics rider, who won the race along with 12 stages in 1977. And other road sprinters, including Laurent Jalabert and Sean Kelly, managed to win it. It didn’t seem as demanding as it is today…. That’s true; it was not as hard as it is today. I was talking to Bahamontes just this morning and he was saying that he had the impression that the Vuelta organizers back in the day were more interested in making a race that would appeal to the great stars of cycling: Jacques Anquetil or Eddy Merckx. Those days, such riders were really strong in time trialing, while Spaniards have a long tradition in climbing. The Vuelta race routes in those days were far from ideal for us, as there would always be a lot of time trialing.
In many ways, you were a pioneer but also a symbol of transition. You were really in the mold of Spanish tradition—a great climber—but often struggled in time trialing, whereas Miguel Induráin and Alberto Contador, the greatest Spanish champions to follow you, were more complete riders. Yes, that is true. But don’t forget that before I won the Tour de France, I did something totally bizarre for a Spanish rider. I raced for a Dutch team, PDM, in 1986 and 1987. Today such a move is common, but back then Spanish riders just didn’t even think of doing something like that! Why did I do that? To try to improve my time trialing, to try to figure out what it was that made the Dutch so good in time trials and team time trials. And you know what I found out? That the Dutch riders are just as scared in the crosswinds, that the Dutch riders’ legs are burning just as much in a team time trial. When I left PDM, I had a lot more confidence in my time trialing.
But then I was hit with another problem. This was a time of great technological experimentation and advance, with full disc wheels and heavily sloping frames in time-trial bikes. Starting around 1985, there were just so many changes, and I just had a lot of problems adapting because often the bikes just weren’t as stable. Time trialing is so much about your confidence.
Your first Tour de France was in 1983. That year you were in second place, but then lost nearly 15 minutes due to stomach problems. So in many ways your first Tour, typified your relationship with the race, because while you had many highs, you also had many lows. Glory and tragedy were intrinsically linked for you…. Oh, that is so true! It was a real love and hate relationship. In my second Tour, in 1984, I was in third or fourth midway through the race, but I broke my collarbone. The next year I had some health issues. I was just sick the whole time. In 1986 I dropped out because my mother died.
It was funny because I understood the very first year that I entered the Tour that this was a race I could win. But there was just always something! In 1988, I finally won the Tour, but there was this case of a false-positive doping case hanging over my head. And in 1989, when I was in the best condition of my life, I missed the start and lost over two minutes. I finally finished third that year, but I can only wonder. There was always something like this.
As long as I have been covering the Tour, the race has talked about “gigantism”—its immense, often overwhelming, aspect. Is it really any different today? In my opinion, yes. Before, the Tour of Italy was almost on the same level, but not today. Heck, when I was racing, a Spanish team sometimes had trouble fielding a team for the Tour, and sometimes teams actually refused their invitation. Can you imagine that today?
Often in the history of the Tour, there is a sort of transition period between the multi-time winners, exciting periods when there’s so much suspense. You were part of one such period. You were up against men such as Laurent Fignon, Greg LeMond and Stephen Roche. Who was your toughest competitor? Oh that’s a hard question! Perhaps Laurent Fignon, because he was such a tough character. You never knew what he was going to do in a race and he could play real mental games. He was the specialist of the feed-zone attack. I’ll never forget when Jean-François Bernard lost the yellow jersey in the 1987 Tour after one of Fignon’s feed-zone attacks. He just always kept the pressure on. Physically though, he was not always at the same level. He first won in 1983, but he seemed beatable. In 1984, however, he was untouchable and it looked like he would go on to win many tours. But then he started having injury problems, and on a physical level, he was just never as strong again.
Each of us, it seemed, had our own strengths and weaknesses. Fignon’s strength was his character. LeMond was really strong at time trialing, but less dominant in the mountains. Roche was a great rider, but he really needed bad weather. He was never as good in the heat. And I, of course, was a great climber but was vulnerable in the time trials. So I guess I would go to Fignon, because he was so strong mentally and so unpredictable.
In 1988, you won the Tour, but with the cloud of doping suspicion hanging over you. [Traces of probenecid, a masking agent, were detected in one of Delgado’s urine samples, but the drug was not on the UCI list of banned substances, only that of the International Olympic Committee, which was not the governing body in the Tour.] The following year you finished third after missing the prologue start. Which was harder for you to deal with? Oh, 1989! I was really in the best condition of my life. I had just won the Vuelta and came to the Tour in top condition. And not only did I start the prologue 2:40 down, but I was so upset afterward that I couldn’t sleep. The next day, I got dropped in the team time trial and suddenly I was in last place, something like seven minutes down! I was so lost, so disillusioned, I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I really thought about dropping out. But then I just thought: “What am I going to do at home, watch the Tour on TV?”
What happened that opening day? It was totally my fault. I was warming up and ran into French prologue specialist Thierry Marie, who had just finished. I turned around and rode with him a bit as he explained the route to me. But Thierry is real friendly and talkative. At one point he said, “Hey you’re going to miss the start!” I thought it was a joke, until I turned around and realized the starting ramp was a lot farther away than I had thought! It was my error, and I only have myself to blame!
And what happened in 1988 with your positive test? That was the fault of the race official that announced that I was positive, because I was never positive! I had no idea what probenecid was or how it got into my body, but regardless, it wasn’t a banned substance, so the official that announced that I was positive made a huge mistake. And today it is still frustrating, because I have to explain something that I should not have to explain.
I really had a couple of hard days, I remember. The day that followed, I really expected to get booed by the public. And I knew that I would be the center of all the attention. But instead, the French public was really supportive. “Allez, Perico!” I heard all the way to the sign-in, and that just saved me!
In 1990, the winds of change seemed to be blowing for you. You were not as good as in previous years, and your teammate, Miguel Induráin, was on the rise. He won the big Pyrenean stage and even had to wait for you another day…. Actually in 1990 I was good, but I got hit with a stomach bug on the stage to Millau [stage 14]. I’ll never forget that! The last 40 kilometers were just terrible. I hit the finish line and just kept on going. A Spanish journalist chased me down, but when he finally caught up to me, I was in the bushes with my shorts down. I just lost everything! In the days that followed [including the stage Induráin won], I was just not myself. And then in 1991, the real Miguel arrived.
When did you realize that Induráin was superior? When he won the Tour in 1991. In 1988 he was already my teammate and he was strong, but we never thought that a rider of his size would last three weeks. That changed in 1991. In that year we made a real error too, because I came into the Tour over-raced. I did the Tour of Trentino, Giro d’Italia, Tour of Switzerland. I kept telling José Miguel Echavarri, my director, that I was not good, that I needed rest, but he thought I just was not in shape and needed to race more to get my rhythm. That was a mistake and I was not myself in the Tour. I remember getting dropped on the Tourmalet and I knew then that I would never win. When I finished, a journalist asked me if I was happy, and I was like: “Me happy, why?” And then he told me that Miguel had taken over the yellow jersey. And I was like: “Ah, yeah, I guess things are pretty good then!” That really helped me make a good transition; that made my own decline easier. Miguel and I are friends to this day.
Ironically, my Spanish journalist friends always say: “Miguel won more races, but Delgado won the hearts of the Spaniards.” Yes, I know, and I think it is due to two things. First, I’m just more extroverted than Miguel. And second, I think this popularity is due to the fact that I am a bit more like your everyday Spaniard. Miguel is almost perfect. He could do everything well it seemed. He was flawless. Me, I had my problems. And that is more like the everyday Spaniard. We have our highs and our lows, so the everyday Spaniard sees more of himself in me.
Since retiring in 1994, you have been a popular television commentator on Spanish television. It seems to be something you really enjoy! Oh, yeah. I started the year after I retired, so I’ve been doing it for 20 years. It was a great transition for me. It gave me the chance to follow the sport, but also to spend more time with my family.
In your opinion, has the sport changed that much. After all, you still have to pedal. Yes, everything has changed: the material, the training methods, the diet, everything. Most of the things are positive and the riders today are just so professional. And the riders are followed so much more closely. Before, we would go to a race with a sports director, a mechanic and a masseur. Today there are two or three staff members for each rider it seems. It’s just so different.
The one thing that has changed for the worse, however, is the recognition that the riders get. They are not respected like they once were, mostly because of all the doping scandals. And that is a shame, because the average cyclist just works so hard to get to the level that they have. They deserve more respect.
The riders are also less accessible. That doesn’t help. Back in your day, there were no team buses. As a result you pulled up to the start in your team car and you were much closer to the public. That is true, but today with social media, with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, everybody gets a better look inside a cyclist’s life. That is great for the sport. That said, there is one other thing that I think has hurt the sport and that is the race radio. Riders are always under the control of their directors. But it should be the cyclist that feels the race, that seizes the race. I have the impression that riders today are too controlled. It is a sensitive problem, because I know that the race radio really helps for the security, for telling riders what is up ahead on the road. But why not have the riders’ radio fed by the race director’s car, so they get safety information directly?
As a result, today, riders are too calculated and they wait too long to make a move, because they are afraid of making a mistake, of going too early. But mistakes are good too; they are good for the spectators. Cycling needs to be spectacular!