The year was 1985. The starring characters were Spain’s Pedro Delgado and Scotland’s Robert Millar. One of them would contend that he won the Vuelta. The other actually said: “They preferred to see me lose and a Spaniard win.”
Jose Recio, Kelme rider: ‘It was one of the weirdest things that ever happened during my cycling career: seeing somebody win the race who was more than six minutes behind on general classification the day before.’
Robert Millar is by far the greatest climber Britain has ever produced and proved it just a year before the fateful 1985 Vuelta with victory in the KOM competition in the Tour de France, securing 4th place on the GC in the process. He also achieved the highest ever finish in the Giro by a Briton, with 2nd in 1987, securing another KOM jersey there.
One thing he never won though was a Grand Tour. But he and every Scottish cycling fan will tell you that he should have…
Before the start of the penultimate day of the 1985 Vuelta, Millar had a 6 minute lead over Spain’s Pedro Delgado. Delgado was furthest from Millar’s mind, however, not even considered a threat. His closest competitor was the Colombian Pacho Rodriguez, just 10 seconds behind. But with just the penultimate day and then the procession of the last stage to go, Millar was confident of the victory and sure that his rivals had all but given up hope…
But when Millar punctured on the second of the day’s three difficult climbs, Delgado attacked with Kelme’s Jose Recio. Somehow the pair managed to build a lead of over 7 minutes, unbeknownst to Millar. In the days before ear-piece radios, riders had to rely on their team managers, driving in cars behind, to inform them of the gaps. Millar’s Peugeot team directeur – Roland Berland, a Frenchman – states that he was never given enough information over the radio, and that when it did come it was only in Spanish.
However, the Spaniard Ramon Mendiburu, the technical director and offical timekeeper of the Vuelta, states that he was in the first car following Millar and Rodriguez and that time checks were given “every two to three kilometres of the time between Delgado and the race leader. I knew that the the Vuelta was up for grabs that day. How could I not remember that?”
But in yet another version, Dutch journalist Jeff Van Looy says disagrees with Mendiburu. “In those days I can remember the time checks were irregular. How could they not be, given that the race had split up completely over the last climb? There were little groups of riders in twos and threes all over the place. And they didn’t let the cars through to talk”.
Whatever happened it is clear that at the very least Millar had no idea that Delgado was riding into the leader’s jersey. Watching the youtube footage, at 2 minutes 40 seconds you can see Millar relaxed and talking to the other riders around him – he clearly has no idea that Delgado and Recio are flying away up ahead. Millar was, in fact, watching the man in second, Rodriguez. When Millar finally did hear that the gap was at 7 minutes, there was only 20 kilometres left of the stage. Is it possible that Millar alone wasn’t receiving time checks whilst the others were?
Another rider alongside Millar was Spaniard Ruiz Cabestany, only a minute behind Millar on the GC. It seems that somehow he was receiving time checks, as he later said that he knew all along that Millar was losing the Vuelta but that he been ordered to say nothing to the Scot. And just as Millar was receiving no information, Delgado and Reico were given time updates constantly, encouraging them to keep driving hard.
There is also a question about Millar’s Peugeot teammates, none of whom appeared to help the race leader. Some have suggested that this was in part due to jealousy. Millar was not an easy man to get along with and as something of a lone wolf he often irritated others with his eccentric ways. He was also not French – there have been rumors over the years that the French riders did not want to see a foreign rider, and certainly not a haughty one, win the race and steal the glory. Whether true or not, we may never now, but what is certain that, apart from some good work to the foot of the last climb by Pascal Simon, none of his teammates were there to help pull Delgado back.
The situation on the road as the race topped the last mountain was Delgado and Recio in the lead, with a small group containing Sean Kelly behind them, then Millar and Rodriguez’s group. Kelly later said that despite the fact that he was going full gas with a strong group of 5, they could not even take a little time off Delgado and Reico. In fact, they lost a further 2 minutes on the pair by the end.
The Millar group was now about 20 riders strong, with 20km to go, with many Spanish in the group. All of them left Millar to chase alone at the front. Rodriguez, only 10 secs behind Millar on the GC, was seeing his second place go too, but he offered to do no work. Some of the Spanish media had been unkind to Millar, commenting on his appearance ( he had an earring at a time when they were very uncommon), and Spanish cycling was desperate for a homegrown hero.
Kelme’s directeur sportif in the race, Rafael Carrasco, said that: “I wanted Recio to take the stage, and if we could help a Spanish rider win the Vuelta, well, so much the better. In terms of publicity for the team, it was just what we needed. The stage and the Spanish helping the Spanish. But it wasn’t anything more than that. Txomin Perurena (Delgado’s directeur sportif) didn’t even turn up until we’d covered half the distance, which shows how improvised the whole thing was. But Delgado never even so much as took Recio out to supper to thank him.”
Recio claims that “I could have won that day without any help but my directeur sportif made me wait for Delgado.” Delgado, a fierce descender and a very good climber, finally had won the Vuelta – but could he really have won without all the circumstances coming together to help him?
Millar stated that he was naiive in not buying protection from other teams before the stage started, though traditionally this would have been the job of his DS, Berland. “I was new to being leader in a stage race. It wasn’t like I was le patron or anything like that. If I’d known then what I do now I would have reached some agreements.”
By ‘agreements’ Millar means that he should have offered other riders and teams money to ride for him, common practise in professional cycling. Often in local races in Europe riders in a breakaway will bargain over the last few kilometres to ‘buy’ the victory. Millar and Brland’s problem was that they left it too late, and that most in the peloton wanted a Spaniard to win.
The journalisy Van Looy says that “Nobody sat down at the beginning of the stage and said, ‘Right, today we do Millar.’ It was a combination of mistakes made by his directeur sportif and unfavourable circumstances. You can find that combination any day in cycling, even though it doesn’t normally have such a dramatic effect”.
Millar blames Berland. Berland says that Millar was ‘betrayed’, but won’t say by who.
Millar himself states that “The other pros can’t make you win a race, but they can help you to lose one. Delgado didn’t win. I lost. This was mainly thanks to circumstances which shouldn’t have happened. I didn’t begrudge Delgado at all because he wasn’t to blame, but the other Spaniards didn’t get gold stars in my notebook”.