My favourite sporting moment: San Sebastian erupts after Big Mig delivers
July 4th, 1992: The Tour de France gets underway in the Basque Country
Spain’s Miguel Indurain in the yellow jersey is protected by his team-mates Marino Alonso (left) and Pedro Delgado (centre) during the 17th stage of the 1992 Tour de France. Photograph: Boris Horvat/AFP via Getty Images
If memory serves, the bus from Bilbao pulled into San Sebastian on the Friday morning. Thursday night had been spent on the sleeper train from Madrid’s Atocha station to Bilbao and here we were, bags dropped, in the Basque Country, on the coast, drinking vino tinto from those great little flat Basque glasses as if wine rationing was looming.
Tony and myself, two wide-eyed travellers, were on tour to the Tour.
For reasons to do with the Maastricht Treaty, the 1992 Tour de France was starting in northern Spain on the fourth of July in a city fully justifying its description as one of Europe’s jewels.
We were cycling fans, not cycling fanatics. Over the years like so many you spent the three weeks of the Tour plugged into coverage of what to innocent eyes was a gripping, and sporting, epic.
Even in 1970s Belfast the name Eddy Merckx entered the vocabulary – and the imagination – via occasional reports. Then came Bernard Hinault and into the 80s Laurent Fignon and what felt like a peloton full of major players: Greg LeMond, Pedro Delgado, Seán Kelly and of course, Stephen Roche.
These names and this interest was injected into us via Channel 4 and the beyond-enthusiastic commentary of Phil Liggett. It was Liggett, who in 1987, Roche’s annus mirabilis, almost self-combusted at the end of the Tour stage to La Plagne.
Fignon had won it and eyes turned to the yellow jersey worn by Delgado, a man desperate to shake off Roche, second overall. It seemed Delgado had done so. The cameras re-focused on Fignon as he out-sprinted Anselmo Fuerte to win the stage, Fabio Parra coming third.
Then, as Liggett said, “the real drama of this Tour de France will begin as we watch Pedro Delgado come over for fourth place.”
Liggett reminds viewers of how Delgado had slipped Roche on the climb. But as Delgado pedals into view, suddenly Liggett sees another cyclist partially hidden in the Tour melee.
“Just who is that rider coming up behind?” Liggett asks in a voice escalating in excitement. “Because that looks like Roche! That looks like Stephen Roche! It’s Stephen Roche who’s come over the line! He almost caught Pedro Delgado! I don’t believe it! What a finish by Stephen Roche!”
For once, every exclamation mark is merited.
“Surely, Paul Sherwen, ” Liggett says to his long-time commentary partner, “Stephen Roche is now going to win this Tour de France.”
And Roche did, and for weeks after a few on a Saturday night you’d be saying: “That looks like Roche! That looks like Stephen Roche! It’s Stephen Roche!”
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LeMond missed that 1987 Tour. He’d taken a bullet from his brother-in-law on a turkey shoot in California, or something mad like that.
But LeMond was back by 1989, though no-one really thought he was a contender. Then on the last day he went into the time-trial from Versailles to the Champs-Elysees in second place, 50 seconds behind Fignon. No way could Fignon lose 50 seconds. He was Laurent Fignon.
But he did.
Roche’s 1987 victory was by only 40 seconds but LeMond’s was just eight seconds on the last afternoon. Even more incredible. Cycling was brilliant.
LeMond was an American you could believe in; the Tour de France was a sport you could believe in. Fignon, Hinault, LeMond, Roche, Delgado: five different winners in five Tours in the mid-80s. Competition, unpredictability and the aura of the Tour, this is what takes two not-flush eejits to the north of Spain. Boys a dear, was it worth it.
Miguel Indurain had won in 1991. A Basque himself, his bonus was San Sebastian in 1992. It was home turf and he would be the last rider out.
Not that everyone wanted to see it. The day before, ETA set off a car bomb damaging one of the Channel 4 motors; there was a fair bit of ‘Gora ETA’ graffiti around. It was a bit too Belfast for your holidays.
When the Prologue began on Saturday there were Basque nationalist men in black berets in the crowd. Then the race started and attention turned.
It was an 8km time-trial. Nine riders in 21 teams. Again, if memory serves, the team leaders all rode last.
This meant growing anticipation as, theoretically, the leading time was clipped. In the last hour we would see all the names – Indurain, Roche, LeMond, Kelly, Eric Breukink, Gianni Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci.
We had begun at ground level but were on a balcony for the climax. Can’t remember the name of the avenue but it was thronged. The atmosphere was electric. The early evening sun was out.
Paul Kimmage – another of those 1980s names you absorbed through the TV, like Martin Earley and Seán Yates – was there as a reporter, it turns out. We had discovered Samuel Abt in the International Herald Tribune. Such cosmopolitans.
Alex Zulle set a time no-one could match, not even the big beasts as they were counted down and counted out. Bugno was 10 seconds off him, Breukink 12, Roche 18.
Then there was only one man left: Indurain.
‘Big Mig’ had it all to do. As he stormed into view amid the soaring cacophony, the clock said he had a chance of beating Zulle, the only one. But it would be close.
For every wheel-turn the noise rose. He was zooming down the last avenue and the home crowd was going wild until he passed the line and everyone gasped. He’d done it. Two seconds. Two utterly fantastic Basque seconds.
The place went berserk. Dancing in the streets was not just a saying. In every plaza, avenue, bar, restaurant, on the beach, even up the hill by the famous statue probably, there was dancing. It was magical, unforgettable.
Whatever time San Sebastian went to sleep, it was up again for Stage One. This was out into the countryside and back to the city. There was a bunch finish, Kelly coming in the top 10 with familiar names like Johan Museeuw and Richard Virenque, the great French hope.
Indurain made sure he was there, too. As Kimmage wrote, even then, “for his rivals, the writing must already be on the wall.”
It was. Indurain was on the way to his second of five consecutive Tour de France wins. But while it was such a pleasure to witness his greatness, Indurain’s dominance took a toll. It became predictable. Geoffrey Nicholson wrote in The Observer of “a heavy feeling that we are back to the days of Merckx and Hinault, when the favourite cannot be beaten; he can only lose the Tour by misadventure.”
Tragically, he wasn’t. Lots of it isn’t. Kimmage is right and brave in his criticism.
Still, it’d be great to be on that bus from Bilbao again.
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