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.
Only a day after celebrating his 27th birthday, BH’s Fede Etxabe took on Alpe-d'huez in the 1987 Tour de France. Born in Kortezubi, Basque Country he epitomized this northeastern Spanish region where rich soil breeds tough humans and tougher cyclists. In the Tour, this basque beast couldn’t completely fly undercover after having won La Vuelta de Burgos in ‘84 and coming in 10th in the World Championships in both ‘84 and ‘86; however, climbing was never his greatest strength--he’d have to settle for strategy. While coping with the thick, summer heat, a big group favorites--including Etxabe, his teammate, Anselmo Fuerte, and Pedro Delgado--jumped off the front that got whittled down into a smaller group. Etxabe and Fuerte saw an opportunity. With better climbers coming after him, Etxabe knew his only shot meant an early escape leading up to this commemorated climb.
In a snapshot, this climb consists of 21 hairpin curves spread out over 14 kms with an 8% average gradient that’ll leave you 1135 meters above where you started. Just a year earlier on this same epic climb Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, both on team La Vie Claire, crossed this finish line together. In 1987, there was hope that team BH would pull off a similar duo finish as Anselmo Fuerte and Fede Etxabe worked hard to stay together until the top.
Aways back, Pedro Delgado, Lucho Herrera, Stephen Roche, and Marino Lejarreta towed the line between pushing to beat their competitors and bonking. In a constant game of cat/mouse, these favorites ascended--weaving in and out of stragglers, the Cafe de Colombia crew seemingly stronger with each bend in the road. In the end, not even Fuerte could keep up with his basque teammate, who crossed the finish line with only a 90-second advantage over Fuerte. Fede Etxabe was declared the first Spanish winner of the Alpe-d'huez. Pedro Delgado’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed as he took back the yellow jersey after a 14-year Spanish drought--Luis Ocaña being the last Spainard to stand on the podium and accept the bouquet.
The podium portion of the day’s stage was properly broadcast by the french cameraman and narrated by ex-riders and experts in each country; however, no one saw Fede Etxabe take the victory for Spain. Without drones or other advanced means of documenting the race, French cameramen precariously hung off the back of buzzing scooters to capture what they could while whipping around corners and catching up with their cycling countrymen. The press covered strictly Laurent Fignon as he pedaled up this mythical french climb and the Spanish took offense--saying phrases like “They aren’t showing our riders on purpose,” or “Typical chauvinist French attitude.” Etxabe and Anselmo Fuerte pinnacled Alpe D'huez three and half minutes before Fignon yet no one watching the live broadcast in Spain was privy to this historical moment in Spanish cycling. 34 years later, we can properly enjoy Etxabe's epic victory at any time from anywhere in the world.
Ten years later, Fede Etxabe decided to leave the intense world of professional cycling behind. He has returned to his basque roots and begun living a life where cycling plays no part. Terrified of modern drivers and their lack of awareness, he prefers to fill his time with fishing, lettuce farming, and long walks with his dogs. Now 25 kilos heavier, a loop around his village on the bike might prove harder than winning the Alpe-d'huez stage in the Tour of ‘87.