Roots: The Last Great World Championship

Spanish version

ROOTS is a series about cycling and culture between 1985-1995 that explores cycling’s wildest decade in all its glory and shame. Although cycling is the hub of this series, we will branch out to dust off forgotten tales and unpack those that need fresh perspective. 

 

I'm taken aback by the fluorescent getups flashing across the screen, the “head protection” accessories, and the unpredictable nature of it all. “Estas cosas ya no pasan,” these things don’t happen anymore, a Spanish cycling fanatic friend of mine described the 1995 UCI Worlds hosted by Colombia as a stand-in for cycling’s romantic past. The race is still rightfully talked about as “el último gran mundial,” the last great world championship, and the first time Spain came home with a win.

For Spain, the late 80’s and 90’s make up a historical time period of growth. In 1986, Spain became a full member of the European Union--free of their dark, devastating fascist past and ready to contribute on an international stage. 1992 represents a huge year for Spain as they hosted both the Seville Expo and the Summer Olympics in Barcelona--making medal history at the latter. At once, Spaniards rejoiced in reaching an economic and social level to be acknowledged as Europeans and took risks in pop culture content: Pedro Almodóvar includes an explicit rape scene in his film Kika, terms like “petting” and pieces of sex advice make it to the pages of teen magazines, a feminist anthem represents Spain in the European singing contest Eurovision. It was an upbeat, daring time in Spain--they showed themselves to the world and let the world influence them. 

When it came to cycling, however, the only races that held weight for the Spanish fans were the Grand Tours: the Vuelta de España, the Tour of France, and, lastly and least significant, the Giro De Italia. Behind fútbol, cycling became the most popular sport in the country and along with its popularity came money--to pay for both the riders’ substantial, steadily growing salaries as well as EPO. The lack of effective doping controls amplified race finishes and unexpected attacks--adding an overall surprise factor that drew people to the sport. There were no surprises, however, when it came Miguel Indurain: five-time Tour of France winner, two-time winner of the Giro de Italia, and, just days earlier in the same ‘95 Championships in Colombia, time trial world champion. Although Spain seemed impartial to the world championships, everyone expected Indurain to bring home Spain’s first-ever victory; however, it wouldn’t be simple. 

The ‘95 UCI World Road Race Championships in Duitama, Colombia came to be known as the toughest circuit since the 1980 Championships in Sallanches, France--where Bernard Hinault took the victory. In only fifteen laps, the 20 surviving cyclists rode over seven hours to complete 265 kilometers and 5,000 meters of climbing, the lowest point of the course at 2,530 meters above sea level. In fact, officials had decided that not only would this year indicate the last Championships to include an amateur competition, but also the last year it would take place in a high-elevation location. 

As I sit with my eyes glued to the screen, ill-fitting fluorescent yellow/green, lipstick red, and violet jerseys flash by. Four-wheel drive official cars give the race a military feel akin to the Eastern European races of the 60’s. By lap 11, Columbian Israel Ochoa works with Russian Dimitri Konyshev at the front and rain coats the newly paved road with a layer of slickness. The Italians fight to close the gap. By the end of lap 12, Marco Pantani starts breaking up the fields while four Spanish riders hold strong in the ten-man chase group. Having never won a title, they seem committed to adopting the Italian’s approach by consistently putting guys in the breakaway and fighting for a Spanish win, regardless of who that rider may be. Indurain’s reputation as “a man of June,” meaning staying focused on the Tour de France, exclusively, along with his upcoming retirement plans may have played a part in his racing tactics in the ‘95 Championships. He’s steady, settles in, and strategically partakes in cat-mouse games with Pantini that sporadically arise up until the finish line.

By lap 13, only 35 out of 98 riders remain. The mountain in the middle of the circuit means this race favors strong climbers, like Fernando Escartín. At the end of the 13th lap, with just 35 kilometers to go, Escartín pulls swiss rider Felice Puttini up the climb giving them a 20 second advantage. The Italians push to protect their reputation as World Championship dominators at the head of the 16-man group in pursuit. Only 25 cyclists remain in la carrera. Indurain gets a flat, makes a split-second decision to switch bikes, and effortlessly catches Konychev and the breakaway group. Spain holds all the cards.

As nine riders move as a unit, Olano takes advantage and re-fuels as Indurain attacks with Konychev on his wheel. Their short-lived stint in the front ends when they’re caught by the group. Olano, now fueled up and ready to go, shoots off the front and gets to work on a 46 second gap. Indurain cranes his head back to see who will launch next, so he can hop on their wheel. No one takes the bait. He continues to look back at fellow riders, hope in his eyes, but Big Mig recognizes that by switching his plan to protecting Olano, known as Indurain’s doppelganger, his chances for a world title will slowly slip away.  

In the final climb, with only 8 kilometers left in the race, Pantani, Indurain, and Swiss riders, Gianetti and Richard, close the gap to only 30 seconds. Gianetti boldly attacks and Indurain wastes no time in grabbing his back wheel. It’s Pantani who loses ground and must expend energy in catching up. Olano--sporting a Mapei hat, rainbow-colored bibs, and, like the other Spanish riders, red and yellow stripes across his jersey--exudes sheer panic in his face as he pedals with a flat back tire and two kilometers to go. With only a 35 second advantage, you can see him grappling with potential unfortunate outcomes--the tire could come off, the wheel could collapse, etc--as he quickly, carefully approaches the finish line and secures the win for Spain. The next three riders near the finish line, Pantani attacking first and letting Indurain unleash on his left and take 2nd for Spain. Indurain proved his position not as a pawn in the race, but instead the rook: specialized in supporting the advancement of fellow teammates. Indurain's selflessness led to both another Spanish success story to add to their 90’s revival tale and a noble win for cycling as a collaborative sport where two competitors found strength and success in fighting together.