Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
It’s been some weeks now since I’ve had the time to write something for La Course en Tête, my absence largely down to the fact that I was finishing work on my next book, Climbers: Pain, panache and polka dots in cycling’s greatest arenas, which is due for publication this coming June.
I’ve been obsessed with the mountains ever since I first saw the Alps as a 13 year old on a family holiday in the late 1970s, and I’ve been similarly fixated with the riders that thrive in these magnificent natural arenas since I first started to following bike racing a few years after that. That obsession has stuck with me, to the point where I now live in the French Pyrenees, my office window offering a view across the Barguillère valley near Foix to the first high ridge of the chain, the 2019 Tour de France summit finish on its end point, but cloaked today in mist and falling snow.
The book traces the history and development of mountains and climbers in bike racing, from the intrepid racers who engaged in a bike reliability event over the Tourmalet pass in 1902 through to Tadej Pogačar’s duel with Jonas Vingegaard and Richard Carapaz on the Tour’s summit finishes on the Col du Portet and Luz Ardiden (two of my favourite cycling locations) last summer.
Inevitably, when writing a book on climbers, the question of who is the all-time greatest exponent of the art arises. Not long before Christmas, with my writing almost complete, I put up a poll on Twitter in order to get an answer to this. Which of a) Federico Bahamontes, b) Lucien Van Impe, c) José Manuel Fuente, or d) AN Other is the best of all time. Bahamontes got the most votes of the three riders mentioned, but d) won by a landslide, taking 56% of the 500-odd votes, with Marco Pantani and Gino Bartali the favourite picks, and Il Pirata the overwhelming winner.
I wasn’t surprised at this, but am still convinced that the correct answer is c) José Manuel Fuente. I wrote about the Spaniard last year, and the only change that I’d make to the title of that article would be to remove the question mark on the end. Fuente had every quality – and deficiency – you’d expect of every great climber, except elegance on the bike. I reckon he compensated for that by over-excelling in his unpredictability and brilliance in the mountains. He won two Grand Tours, finished on the podium of the other two, and won the Giro’s mountains title four years in succession. What’s more, Eddy Merckx rated him as the greatest climber of all time.
Fuente’s performance in the 1974 Giro d’Italia was arguably the best of any climber in any race. He won five stages and gifted another to his Kas teammate Santiago Lazcano. He wore the maglia rosa for half of the race, losing it on a cold and wet stage to Sanremo when – affected by the moon, according to his teammates – he went to the front of the bunch and started pulling despite the fact Kas already had riders in the break up ahead. He lost a shedload of time, then spent the rest of the race trying to regain it.
On the penultimate day, lying fifth overall, three minutes down on race leader Merckx, Fuente attacked early on in the 257km flat stage into Milan. The peloton chased him down after he got two minutes clear. The Spaniard’s response was to attack again, Merckx himself responding this time, the pair of them riding away from the rest in Hinault-v-Zoetemelk-like fashion until the Belgian said they’d gone far enough and sat up.
What stood out about Fueute was his uncompromising commitment to attacking and going his own way. He never sought out alliances, and rejected the advances of rivals when they offered them, even when it would clearly have suited the Spaniard. The best example was his persistent refusal during the 1973 Tour to collaborate with his compatriot and overall winner Luis Ocaña.
It resulted in an epic face-off between the pair on an immense stage through the Alps to Les Orres, on the only occasion in the Tour’s history that the riders have tackled the tougher northern flanks of the Galibier and Izoard passes. Ocaña won it, after Fuente punctured with 30km left and finished a minute down. But the rest were nowhere. Bernard Thévenet was seven minutes back in fourth, while Joop Zoetemelk lost 20 as he finished sixth. It was almost as extraordinary as Mourenx (Merckx 1969) or Orcières-Merlette (Ocaña 1971) but is largely forgotten.
One of the best things about watching racing in the last few seasons is seeing how this kind of all-or-nothing strategy has re-emerged in the mountains. We’ve seen Chris Froome and Tadej Pogačar risking everything in order to win Grand Tours. It’s perhaps best epitomised, though, by Richard Carapaz, who has consistently shown a Fuente-like commitment to relentless attacking. During last year’s Tour, his Ineos teammate Michał Kwiatkowski suggested the Ecuadorean was attacking too much, but added that the tactic often seemed to work for Carapaz.
I can’t wait to see what Carapaz and his Ineos teammates come up with this season. None of them appear to be at the level of Pogačar, but if they can combine their strength in the mountains in the way that Fuente and his Kas teammates did they may have the beating of the Slovenian. Whatever happens, their contest, spiced up by Roglič, Gaudu, Vingegaard, Mas and others, promises to be spectacular, befitting the magnificence of the setting in which they take place.