by Edmond Hood
With two yellow jersey riders abandoning in this year’s Tour de France it’s apt that Ed Hood takes a look at the career of Luis Ocaña who famously crashed out of the 1971 Tour. Ed has never hidden the fact that he is a big Eddy Merckx fan, but he is not exclusive to other riders and anyone who can scare Merckx into thinking he was not invincible has to be given a lot of kudos. The Ocaña story is of great talent and a lot of “what if’s”, the brightest flame burns quickest.
On the day the 2015 Tour de France started in Utrecht, I finished reading a book about one of the race’s all time greats – not one of those on five wins; Anquetil, Hinault, Indurain or Merckx. This man won just one Tour; but it’s not for that win he’s remembered for rather for a glorious defeat which old Merckx-istas like me still deconstruct and debate into the wee small hours in the bars of Gent.
Luis Ocaña is the man and Carlos Arribas’ book is titled simply; ‘Ocaña.’
There’s just one race picture, on the cover – not of the handsome Spaniard in his pomp in yellow on the tops at the head of some royal group in Le Tour or hunched at his stylish best against the watch. No, this picture is of a wasted Ocaña in the mountains staring down at the front tyre of his intricately drilled out Motobecane; one finger points ahead as his big hands smother those tiny Campagnolo brake levers we all revered back then.
It’s as if that one finger is all that can respond to the commands of a brain which never calculated, which only knew one way to race – attack! It’s an unusual book; there are huge chunks of imagined dialogue some of which is hard going but some of which is fascinating – like his attention to detail on his bike. He was one of the very first to adopt a titanium frame, had his mechanics drill his bike for lightness and source aerospace titanium bolts.
His Tour win came in 1973 when he dominated the race, winning six stage – but it’s for the 1971 epic that he’ll always be best remembered. Whilst the other riders of the day talked about ‘taking the race to Merckx,’ the truth was that most were happy to ride for a podium spot.
Not Ocaña. With two brilliant stage wins he shattered the myth of Merckx invulnerability to grab the yellow jersey – and it looked as if the race was won. But a wounded Merckx was a dangerous beast and the big Belgian attacked the Spaniard relentlessly over the next stages.
Merckx-istas like me, maintain that Ocaña would eventually have crumbled and succumbed to the Belgian but there’s a school of thought which contends that had Ocaña not crashed heavily on the river of mud which the descent of the Col de Mente had become he’d have worn yellow all the way to Paris.
Merckx crashed first but was soon up and away; not Ocaña, who had Zoetemelk and Agostinho slam into him as he lay on the deck, leaving the maillot jaune bruised and broken on the tarmac. Merckx didn’t don yellow for the next stage in deference to the Spaniard but Ocaña was on the front pages all over Europe that day and his place in Tour legend was secure.
If there was any doubt about Ocaña’s form and class that year it was dispelled when he dominated the late season time trials, winning the Gran Prix des Nations, A Travers Lausanne and the Trofeo Baracchi with classy Danish Bic team mate, Leif Mortensen who couldn’t spell Ocaña by the end of the percorso – such was the Spaniard’s pace.
Ocaña came from a dirt poor background and a background where affection and food were scarce commodities. His first race was in 1962 – so was his first win and by 1963 he was racking up the first places. He rode ‘independent’ for four seasons piling up victories, usually by disappearing up the road, solo never to be seen again with little thought of tactics or how far there was to go. Full pro for ’68 with Fagor he took the Spanish Professional road Race title, was second in the then highly sought after but now ‘no more’ Montjuich hill climb in Barcelona and took three stages in the Ruta del Sol – an auspicious pro debut by any standard.
In ’69 he won the now late lamented but prestigious Setmana Catalana and another race now longer on the calendar, the equally desirable Midi Libere as well as finishing second on GC in the Vuelta with three stage wins. For 1970 the name on the jersey was Bic and he claimed the Vuelta and Dauphine to confirm his class and potential.
His 1971 season we’ve looked at – but he also won the Tours of the Basque Country and Catalonia that year. In ’72 he took the Spanish Champs and Dauphine again but collapsed in Le Tour where the expectation was he’d pick up the spear from ’71.
But alas, Ocaña didn’t have Merckx’s bull rhino constitution and could be fragile. The following year belonged to him though – the Dauphine, Setmana Catalana and Tour of the Basque Country as well as second in the Vuelta, all crowned by his beautiful Tour win. The 1974 season should have been another triumph – but wasn’t; his eye was off the ball as he bought a grand country house and vineyard during the off season to realise his dream of being a gentleman land owner producing fine armagnac in Southern France, distancing himself from his peasant beginnings. The house and vineyard would eventually ruin him financially and certainly meant there were no big wins in ’74.
Ocaña’s story is one of highs, lows, triumphs and disasters – and a desperate desire to please and be better than his father. He was also torn between his Spanish birthplace and French home – his mind was never still. Bic let him go for ’75 and he rode for Super Ser with again no major victories – ’76 was a similar tale and in ’77 he lined up for the Dutch – and now cult – team, Frisol. It was with the Dutch squad I first caught sight of the man.
I was never a fan of Ocaña’s in my youth for no other reason than he dared to speak out against my idol, Eddy. But in a criterium on the now defunct Eastway circuit in London in a criterium organised by boxing promoter, Mike Barrett to showcase Eddy Merckx and other continental ‘Bigs,’ Ocaña shone like a diamond.
Didi Thurau won the race with Sid Barras third and an aging – but still mighty strong – Eddy Merckx third. But ‘man of the match’ was Ocaña, tanned, stylish and constantly on the attack whilst many of the other continentals stuck their start money in their pockets and trundled round in the peloton. I was an instant convert – I recognised cool and class when I saw it.
After his career as a pro ended he became a DS but with little success. The old truism that, ‘the best riders don’t make the best DS’s’ was never more true – with Ocaña frustrated by his charges’ inability to skoosh off up the road like he used to. It didn’t occur to him that he was a ‘great’ and they weren’t.
He worked as a journalist and radio and TV pundit but was constantly fighting a battle with his ailing health and finances. It was May 1994 just days before he was due to go and work on the Giro when Jesus Luis Ocaña took his own life with a pistol shot to the head.
This fact is recorded in the book and was always what most believed – however, Sen. Arribas puts forward another possibility which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Men like Ocaña don’t exist anymore, impulsive, out spoken, arrogant but never not conceited. Not for Luis Ocaña the ‘politically correct’ line or ‘letting the right break go’ – he told like it was, raced like a man and was one of a very few to put my hero, ‘Big Ted’ on the ropes.
Read the book, grit your teeth through some of the dialogue but marvel in the life of a man who lived it, ‘his way’ in an era when ‘drama’ wasn’t just someone’s chain coming off.
Ocaña by Carlos Arribas is available form Amazon and many other book shops.
Paperback: 362 pages
Publisher: Mousehold Press (June 24, 2014)
All photos from archive and many unknown sources, but with thanks to all the photographers.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.
“To talk about Merckx without mentioning Ocaña is to evoke the sun without its shadow.”
Ocaña was born in Priego, Cuenca, Spain but his family moved to Mont-de-Marsan (Landes, France) in 1957. Ocaña took up racing in with a club in Mont-de-Marsan and began his professional career in 1968 with the Spanish Fagor team, becoming Spanish champion that year. The following year he won the prologue and two time trials, the mountains classification as well as finishing second in the Vuelta a España.
“Ranking athletes in terms of their luck – or lack of it – is always a subjective business. But if one name among professional cyclists is indelibly associated with misfortune it is surely that of Spain’s Luis Ocaña.
More than for his Tour de France win in 1973, Ocaña is remembered both as the diehard rival of Eddy Merckx – universally acclaimed as the sport’s greatest rider – and his insistence that, as double Tour de France winner and contemporary Bernard Thévenet puts it, “if Luis wanted to win a race, it had to be with an hour’s advance, that was what counted. It was all [about] panache and how he won.” He added: “He was a real torero. And until he’d killed the bull and it was good and dead, he wasn’t happy.”
Ocaña’s ability to create some of cycling’s most dramatic racing reached its zenith in the 1971 Tour when, in a memorable 60km solo breakaway to the Alpine ski resort of Orcières-Merlette, he single-handedly destroyed Merckx’s stranglehold on cycling’s blue-riband event. Ocaña claimed the yellow jersey and stage win by a massive eight minutes. To win by that margin over any rider in the Tour is impressive enough. To do so against Merckx was nothing short of revolution.
Ocaña managed to fend off Merckx’s ferocious counter-attacks for three days, so successfully that the Belgian later said he had been on the point of throwing in the towel. But on the descent of the Col de Mente in the Pyrenees, when Merckx darted away from him, Ocaña’s bad luck kicked in with a vengeance.
A summer thunderstorm turned the dangerous downhill road into a skating rink and on a corner the Spaniard lost control of his bike when a tyre punctured, skidded and crashed. Merckx, who also fell on the same treacherous hairpin, was able to haul himself up and continue to victory. But Ocaña was hit by two or three riders descending at full speed and his injuries – so bad that some initial reports claimed he had died – forced him to quit on the spot.
Ocaña’s retirement while leading the Tour after besting the seemingly unbeatable Merckx was unfortunate enough. But the Spaniard’s luck was worse than that. When a black cat ran out into the road at the start of the 1973 Tour, he was the only top rider to hit it and crashed. When a group of riders went for a beach swim while racing in the West Indies, Ocaña stood on a sharp rock, partly cutting a tendon. In June 1974, in a mass crash during a small race, one rider was injured, wrecking his Tour chances – no prizes for guessing who.
“It reached a point,” said Thévenet, “that you didn’t have to ask which rider had come off the worst in a crash. It seemed like it was always Luis.” “He was almost cursed,” said Ocaña’s British team-mate Michael Wright.
No matter the circumstances, the Spaniard’s bad luck never seemed to leave him. When sharing a fondue savoyarde with his team-mates Ocaña was the only one to swallow a lump of cheese big enough to cause him nearly to choke to death. In a car rally in 1980, he made a last-minute decision to co-pilot a vehicle – which crashed and fell nearly 300m, causing him terrible head injuries.
Ocaña’s bad luck pursued him long after he retired from racing in 1977. After the rally accident, a faulty blood transfusion is said to have been responsible for his contracting a series of illnesses that plagued him for years. And his wine and brandy-making business got into serious difficulties when poor weather ruined successive harvests.
Ocaña’s predilection for rash attacking – and overestimation of his own natural limits – led to the blurring of the lines between bad luck and a tendency to race himself into a box. Some blame his loss of the 1971 Tour on his insistence on following Merckx on a very risky downhill despite being a poor descender. He lost numerous top races by failing to calculate his own strength – or the opposition’s – and riding himself into the ground.
One notorious case is the 1969 Tour of Spain, when he blew the entire field apart in one rainy stage in Catalonia except the Frenchman Roger Pingeon, who stayed on the Spaniard’s back wheel. He then dropped Ocaña on the last climb to take the lead. Ocaña clawed back time later in the race, but finally had to settle for second.
Ocaña’s constant miscalculations provoked exasperation among his team directors at the legendary French squad BIC. But his refusal to accept Merckx’s domination drew universal admiration. “He was a total idealist,” says Thévenet, “unable to accept the reality of Merckx’s winning regime.”
Ocaña’s obsession with beating the “Cannibal” even went to the point where he named one of his dogs Merckx – purely for the pleasure of giving it orders. And if Ocaña beat the Belgian on only five occasions in his entire career, his win at Orcières-Merlette and subsequent loss of the yellow jersey surely place him in a class of his own when it comes to stubbornness, courage and extreme misfortune.”
‘Reckless’, Alasdair Fotheringham’s biography of Luis Ocaña, is published by Bloomsbury.
(Article as originally published by Alisdair Fotheringham on www.independent.co.uk)
Additional article: Tour Look Back: Luis Ocaña by Ed Hood
1963 – Vélo-Club Aturin
1964 – STADE-MONTOIS – indépendant 2ème catégorie
1965 – indépendant HC – Stade-Montois équipé par MERCIER
1966 – indépendant HC – Stade-Montois équipé par MERCIER
1967 – indépendant HC – Stade-Montois équipé par MERCIER
1968 – FAGOR
1969 – FAGOR
1971 – BIC
1972 – BIC
1973 – BIC
1974 – BIC
1975 – SUPER SER
1976 – SUPER SER
1977 – FRISOL