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Often diminutive in size (Indurain aside), the Spaniard is characterised by his unpredictability. Just as likely to make an impossible escape as he is to be swallowed up by the broom wagon, when the cycling planets are aligned correctly, the Spaniard on two wheels can be unstoppable, particularly if his innate devotion to his country is inflamed by adoring fans.
Few personify this more than Federico Bahamontes, El Aguila de Toledo. A climber with scrawny legs and restless hands, his victory in the mountains in the Tour of 1959 (on a bike given to him by Fausto Coppi) was welcomed with great fanfare at home. The following Tour, in 1960, was a different story. The Spanish Civil War had ended two decades previously, yet the spectre of fascism continued to exert its grip. Though Bahamontes was unwell, pressure from the Franco regime forced him to compete. After only three days of the race he decided to abandon. Persisting knee trouble and a succession of flat stages left the Eagle of Toledo frustrated and disillusioned. Following his withdrawal from the race, Bahamontes was subsequently pictured in L’Equipe, sitting on his suitcase on an empty train platform.
A decade on, it was the turn of Luis Ocaña to carry the hopes of his nation. Ocaña rode to victory in the Vuelta of 1970 when, with French team Bic, he claimed the golden jersey from fellow countryman Augustin Tamames in the final time trial. Revered as the best time-triallist Spain has ever seen, Ocaña was the first pro to race on a titanium frame and was also a Tour winner in 1973.
The mid-1980s ushered in a new political era in Spain and with it a new cycling hero emerged. Pedro Delgado symbolised Spanish cycling’s return to the highest level of racing and, in winning the Vuelta in 1985, thanks to his electrifying ability in the mountains and aggressive attacking flourishes, won himself an army of fans worldwide. ‘Perico’s’ second Vuelta win, in 1989, saw him battle an emerging group of Colombian riders, most notably Fabio Parra, whom he held off in the final time trial.
Not all Spanish riders have been of the diminutive, mercurial variety. Miguel Indurain, the farmer from Navarra, won the first of his five Tours in 1991. ‘Big Mig’, whose enormous frame housed a freakish lung capacity of eight litres, was robotic in his training regime, using the punishing terrain of the Vuelta to prepare his body. Though he failed to bring his Tour dominance to bear in his home Grand Tour, his popularity in Spain extended sufficiently beyond cycling for him to be voted one of the country’s leading sporting heroes of the 20th century.
One Spaniard who did perform in the Vuelta was José María Jiménez. Winning four Vuelta mountain classification titles between 1997 and 2001, Jiménez continued a strong Spanish tradition of pure climbers, enjoying a cult following thanks to his penchant for instinctive (and occasionally reckless) attacks. Among them was Stage Eight of the 1999 Vuelta where, having powered up the 24% grade of the Alto del Angliru in heavy mist, Jimenez caught, then passed Russia’s Pavel Tonkov on the line. Tragically, what cemented his place in the hearts of fans as much as anything, was Jiménez’s premature death, the result of a heart attack at just 32 years of age. Carlos Sastre dedicated his Tour de France victory of 2008 to Jiménez.