Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Luis Herrera Story - Part 4

This is part 4 of 4. To read from part 1 click here.

Herrera at the 1988 Dauphiné time trial to St. Pierre de Chartreuse.


By the beginning of the 1988 season everyone who knew cycling, knew who Luis Herrera was, and what he could do. Maybe it’s because of that, that the Vuelta a España organizers changed the race that year. Herrera knew it. “Everything changed [in 1988]. Maybe the organizers realized that last year’s route wasn’t good for [the Spaniards], and decided to change it.” The route change and terrible weather kept Herrera from having a good Vuelta, and the defending champion had to settle for 20th place. To be honest, I do not remember much about that Vuelta. I must have blocked off the feelings of disappointment. But the season was just starting and Herrera had plenty of other races to worry about. 

On the 31st of May the Café de Colombia team took the start line for the 1988 Dauphiné Libéré. The Dauphiné had been off my radar (and most other Colombians), until Martin Ramirez won it in ‘84. If a Colombian could win it then, I was sure Herrera could do it again. Pre-race and crowd favorite, Charly Mottet did not waste anytime. He attacked Herrera on stage 3. “My worst mistake recalls Herrera, was allowing Mottet to drop me on that stage to Annecy.” The Frenchman won the stage and took over the Yellow Jersey. The next day Portuguese climber Acacio Da Silva took the stage with Mottet in third. Herrera lost more time that day. “We’d lost everything by then. We never thought we could win at that point, but things turned around.” Stage 5 had 5 categorized climbs and Herrera knew if he had any chance to take some time back it was that day. He attacked on the penultimate climb along with Swiss rider Niki Rüttimann. The attack took Mottet by surprise and he got dropped. Rüttimann went on to take the stage, but the Colombian made up the time he’d lost in Annecy. Day 6 was divided into two stages, the final one being an ITT finishing at the ski station of St. Pierre de Chartreuse. The stage was tailor-made for Herrera. He didn’t disappoint. He won the TT and took the over-all in the last day. I’m not sure why, but Lucho winning the Dauphiné meant more for me, as a fan, than when he won the Vuelta. Maybe because the Dauphiné was in France and I felt Colombia had more to proof there than in Spain. Whatever the reason might have been, I was incredibly happy and eagerly anticipated the Tour. When it comes to cycling, my standards are very high. I was no different as a teenager. If I cheer for you, you better deliver. And by “deliver,” I mean, you better win the Tour the same year you won the Dauphiné. 

Herrera wearing the leader's jersey during the 1988 Dauphiné

THE '88 TOUR (My Story)

The 1988 Tour de France holds some of the best and worst memories for me as a fan. I have told the story of this Tour so many times, I know the results of the stages by heart. My usual spiel begins months before cycling season even started. I was playing soccer in school with some friends and I guess I wanted to show off. On a corner kick, the ball was perfect for me to head it, but I thought a bicycle-kick would be a good idea. It was the kind of skill that'd get you noticed in the playground. Scoring a goal with it would be by far my biggest achievement to date. Depending on who you ask, the account of the next few seconds of the story will vary greatly. But since I’m sure no one reading this knows anyone who was there that day, you’re gonna have to take my word for what happened. My “chilena” was perfect. A thing of beauty. I hit the ball perfectly and the whole playground witnessed the most beautiful goal ever scored. Ok, I botched my attempt at a bicycle-kick, landed on his left hand and was taken to the nurse’s office with a broken arm. I had a cast up to my armpit by that night.

Our family shared a vacation home with a few other families we knew well. We’d spend a few weekends there throughout the year and a big chunk of summer vacation. The house was just outside of Fusagasugá. I’ll save you trouble of going back to the beginning of the story. Yes, the same town where Luis Herrera was born, about a 2 hour drive from Bogotá. Understandably, Lucho was (and still is) a huge star there. You couldn’t go anywhere in Fusa that summer without hearing a conversation about how Herrera was gonna win the Tour.

The caretaker of the vacation home, a huge cycling fan, of course, had already told me he’d be up for every stage around 5am by his small house behind the pool house with his transistor radio. I looked up to this guy. He must have been in his mid to late 30s and knew, or at least I thought he knew, everything there was to know about cycling. He’d seen Herrera’s early races as an amateur and had plenty of stories about him. In retrospect, he probably made up half of them to entertain the two city kids hanging to his every word, but who cares. At the time he was the best person to listen to cycling with. He understood cycling strategy and what he didn’t know, I’m sure he made up. The plan was for my brother and I to head to his house, listen to the beginning of the stage with him, sitting on empty beer crates, until the TV broadcast started around 10am. Then we’d head back to main house to watch the end of the stage. The plan worked for the first 3 stages. My cast was due to be removed soon, so we had to head back to Bogotá to see my doctor. We’d take care of the cast and be back in time for the mountain stages. Or so I thought. Upon removing the cast, the doctor noticed that my wrist didn't heal right. They did new X-rays and realized they were going to have to re-break the bone and put it back into a cast. I’d never been under general anesthesia, but my fear was completely overshadowed by anger, when I was told when the procedure was to take place.

July 14th, I told my mom, was no good for me. They were going to have to pick another date. The Tour was going up to Alpe d’Huez and I could not miss the stage. Apparently my opinion didn’t matter and the OR was scheduled for July 14th at 10am, right around the time the peloton would start the final climb of the stage. I pleaded. I begged. I screamed. I cried. Nothing seemed to work. I tried to talk to my dad, convince him to talk to the doctor, to move the date back until after the Tour, but he didn’t help me. These people actually thought that some silly medical procedure was more important than watching Herrera win his second stage at the Alpe d’Huez. The morning of the operation I woke up in a foul mood. I triple-checked that the Betamax was programmed to record the stage and got in the car. I tried to talk to my mom one last time on the way there, but the conversation quickly turned into an all-out screaming match. My best fighting years with my mom were yet to come, but I still think that the fight we had that day ranks in the top 5 of all time. By the time we got to the hospital I was boiling with disgust and tears of anger ran down my face. I was NOT going to miss this stage, even if it meant having to kick a few nurses out of my way. It almost came to that. I refused to leave the car, so nurses were called to get me out. With all the commotion the doctor came out to see what was happening. My mom told him and he approached me carefully. He told me that he, too, loved cycling and he wanted to keep up with today’s stage. He said his radio was always on during the Tour in the OR, so I wouldn’t miss a moment of the action. "What a great doctor," I thought. "What a dumb kid," he thought.

The radio was indeed on in the OR when they rolled me in. A nurse told me to count to ten, and put a mask on my face. It smelled funny... I woke up a few hours later. My arm hurt, my head hurt, I was dizzy and nauseous. None of that bothered me as much as the fact that I’d been taken for the proverbial ride. This doctor knew nothing about cycling. He’d probably turned the radio off as soon as they'd put me out. The stage was over by now. Herrera had won the stage and I’d missed it? Tears of anger (and pain) ran down my cheeks again. I felt like an idiot. A few hours later I was back home. No one had told me what had happened in the Tour, so it wouldn’t spoil the Betamax recording. I remember throwing up a lot that day, so I’m not sure when I actually got around to watching the stage. But I did. I hit play, watched about 3 minutes of coverage and the tape stopped. It ran out of tape. I had forgotten to put a new one the night before. I heard Rooks won, I threw up a few more times and cried myself to sleep. 

1988 Tour: Millar, Rooks, Delgado, Herrera.

Herrera finished 7th in the stage to Nancy, 5th at Alpe D’Huez, and 6th overall. That’s a good Tour, but not good enough for Colombian fans. We were all disappointed with Lucho's performance.

Fabio Parra, on the other hand, had a great Tour. Before the season started he had left Herrera’s side and the Café de Colombia team to race for Kelme, in Spain. He won the stage at Morzine, was 4th at Alpe d’Huez, 9th at Luz Ardiden, and finished 3rd overall. The first (and so far only) Colombian podium finish in the Tour. At the beginning of the season I saw Parra as a traitor for leaving the Colombian team, but felt just as proud of him on that podium as if he were still wearing the blue Café de Colombia jersey. I admit, I was a fair weather fan. The poster of Herrera on the Dauphiné podium came down, and up went one of Parra standing along with Rooks and Delgado.

1988 Touer podium: Pedro Delgado, Stephen Rooks, Fabio Parra.

Federico Bahamontes. Image cyclinghalloffame.com.
The main objective for Herrera this year: To win the King of the Mountains jersey at the Giro d’Italia and join the legendary Spanish climber Federico Behemotes as the only two riders in history to win the mountain’s competition in all three Grand Tours.

The Giro started pretty good for the Colombian. On stage 8 to Gran Sasso, he out-sprinted breakaway partners Erik Breukink and Marino Lajarreta to get second place on the mountain-top finish. It was a cold stage, but the weather was just going to get worse. A few days later, Herrera lost a lot of time on a snowy stage. “It was a stage with snow. I never did well in that kind of weather. I lost over 5 minutes.” Who can blame him? Herrera came from a place where temperatures often reach 90°F (32°C) during the day, all year round. But even bad weather could not stop Lucho. It was cold and rainy on stage 13 (the day after one Mario Cipollini won his first Giro stage), from Padova to Tre Cime di Lavaredo. The race was already splintered by the time the riders reached the bottom of the last climb. With 18 kms to go, a small group containing most of race favorites (Breukink, Fignon, Hampsten, Roche, Lajarreta…) was in front. As soon as the road started to slope, Herrera sent his team mates, Alvaro Sierra and the ever loyal Henry Cardenas, to set tempo. The Colombians looked out of place surrounded by snow, even in the lower slopes, but with 5 kms to go, Herrera looked comfortable as he went up to the front of the group and steadily left everyone behind. “With 5 kms to go, I attacked hard and no one could keep up. I reached the line first and won at Tre Cime di Lavaredo.” The shy and introverted Herrera didn’t even raise one hand in celebration. He hardly ever did. His team mate Cardenas, however, did, when he crossed the line over 3 minutes back. That stage win gave Lucho the Green Jersey of leader of the KoM. 

Henry "Cebollita" Cardenas lifts his right arm in "victory" as he comes in
over 3 minutes back of stage winner Luis Herrera
A week later at the mountain TT to Monte Generoso, Herrera struck again. “I took that stage easily, but it wasn’t enough to help me on the GC.” With the KoM points he got from that stage victory, Herrera pretty much locked up the Green Jersey. For the first time since 1958, a climber won the climber’s jersey in all three Grand Tours, a feat no one has been able to repeat since. 

Lucho wears the green jersey on the TT to Monte Generoso, during the 1989 Giro.

Luis Herrera, in the Postobon colors 1991.

1990 was a forgettable season for Lucho. Café de Colombia had been poached by European teams and the international reinforcements weren’t working out as well as they had hoped. Herrera switched to the Postobón team* for the 1991 season, but it didn’t seem to have made a difference. His results in the early part of the domestic season were way below expectations. “I knew retirement was near and I saw it as something that had to happen. I knew that the new generation was going to be better than me. I knew I wasn’t unbeatable or could live forever.” As a fan, I gave up on Herrera. It was time for him to hang the boots. But, he didn’t. He went to back Europe and finished an awful 60th in the Vuelta a Andalucia, before heading to the Vuelta a España.

If you know your Vuelta history, you know the 1991 race was dominated by Melchor Mauri. Go ahead, look him up. When I say dominated, I mean he wore the leader’s jersey 17 out of the 20 days and won four stages. Meanwhile, Herrera, showing that he wasn’t too old to climb with the best, came in second to Fabio Parra on the TT on stage 14 to Valdezcaray. Just two days later Lucho re-conquered Lagos de Covadonga and won the stage with the same climbing power he had done in 1987. Then, he was third to Laudelino Cubino and Lajarreta on the stage 17 to the Alto del Naranco. Herrera finished 13th and, for the second time in his career, he went home as the KoM

* if you want to read an excellent piece about the rivalry between the Café de Colombia and the Postobón teams, click here

Herrera wins in Lagos de Covadonga. Vuelta a España, 1991

A few weeks later it was time for the Dauphiné. Rominger and Cubino came in as favorites, but as soon as the climbing started Herrera reminded everyone he was still a contender by winning stage 6 to Villard de Lans. “We went up in a small group with [Tony] Rominger, [Oliverio] Rincón, [Laudelino] Cubino, [Henry] Cardenas, [Martin] Farfán and [Robert] Millar. We controlled any attacks. With 500m to go I went for it, I won the stage and ended up 20 seconds behind the overall leader, Rominger.” The next day Herrera would put on the yellow jersey. “It was the stage that went up to Aix les Bains. I went up with Cubino a few kilometers from the finish and we managed to get a sizable gap. [Cubino] won the stage and I got the yellow jersey. I defended it well on the final TT.” Herrera had won his second Dauphiné.

Unfortunately, his good form would not last until July and he finished 31st in the Tour.

Herrera wins his second Dauphiné. Photo: cyclinginquisition.com


Monument to Lucho Herrera in his native city of Fusagasugá.  

The press and the fans expected Luis Herrera to retire after the ‘91 season. “Things changed. I analyzed my season and concluded that it had been good. Besides, [Team] Postobón wanted me to go on and at the end, they convinced me.” The team set their sights on the Giro as their main objective for the year. They went to Spain to prepare and Herrera won the overall and the KoM in the Vuelta a Aragon. He continued to show good form in the Giro and won stage 9 to Terminillo. “…in the last few meters I outwitted everyone and won. I finished 8th overall, ahead of many of the great ones.” Eighth overall and a stage win in a major Tour would be a great result for most, but Colombians wanted more. After his victory in the 1987 Vuelta a España, he was expected to win the Tour, and since he didn't "deliver," fans moved on. I look back and feel ashamed. Herrera was still giving us great results, but we turned our backs on him.

Herrera in 2009. Photo: Colombia.com

Luis Alberto Herrera Herrera took his last pedal stroke as a professional in the 1992 Colombian National Championships.

Lucho introduced me to the fervor, to the passion, to the beauty that is professional cycling. With Herrera gone, I lost interest in the sport. Even today, no race I watch has ever given me the excitement and exhilaration that I felt when I watched Lucho race in the mid to late 80s. For that, I will be eternally thankful.

I was a Senior in high school, when Herrera retired. I can’t recall watching a single cycling race while I was in college.

NOTE: Some of the content for the post, including Herrera's quotes (unless otherwise noted), come from a 1992 issue of Mundo Ciclistico magazine.

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