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Luis Ocaña: The rider who ran out of luck

Spain's Luis Ocana crosses the finish line during the 11th stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Grenoble and Orcieres-Merlette in 1971 - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Luis Ocaña was a lion of a cyclist, yet his was a life seemingly cursed by fate

They say that in sport, as in life, you make your own luck. One man who might disagree with that statement, and with some vehemence, is Luis Ocaña. Despite being one of the greatest cyclists Europe ever produced, such was Ocaña’s catalogue of ill-fortune he must have felt that he’d somehow tweaked the nose of fate itself.

For a start he was a contemporary of Eddie Merckx, whom many regard as the greatest rider the sport ever produced. That was fate’s first cruel trick, cruel enough that the two riders were even born just eight days apart. After that, it seemed that whenever there was a crash in which a whole bunch of riders would go down in a tangled heap only Ocaña would end up injured. Of all the riders a dog could have darted out in front of at the start of the 1973 Tour de France it had to be Ocaña that was brought down.

“It reached a point when you didn’t have to ask which rider had come off worst in a crash,” said two-time Tour winner Bernard Thévenet. “It seemed like it was always Luis.”

His luck didn’t improve after he retired either. On a rest day from covering the 1979 Tour as a pundit Ocaña took part in a car rally for journalists and was involved in an accident that left him with serious head injuries and requiring a blood transfusion, a lifesaving act that also gave him hepatitis C. He started a business making wine and brandy only for some of the worst weather in generations to ruin successive harvests.

In the end a liver cancer diagnosis proved to be a stroke of ill-luck too far and Ocaña shot himself three weeks before his 49th birthday. Yet for all his misfortunes Ocaña is rightly remembered as a lion of cycle racing, a man with unquenchable determination and a willingness to put his body on the line not just to triumph over fortune but to annihilate the opposition too.

“If Luis wanted to win a race it had to be an hour ahead of the rest, that was what counted,” said Thévenet. “It was all about how he won, the panache.”

Of the prestige races he might only have been able to claim one Tour de France and one Vuelta a España, but in the age of Merckx that was still a decent return. Indeed, it was his battles with the Belgian that defined Ocaña, who for a few short years during the early 1970s became the closest thing Merckx had to a rival.

Ocaña’s first serious tilt at Merckx’s supremacy came at the 1971 Tour. The previous year Ocaña had finished well down the order thanks to an ill-timed bout of bronchitis, while in 1969 he’d been forced to withdraw after injuring himself colliding with a road sign. Merckx won both races and in 1971 he appeared invincible.

Then halfway through the 134km 11th stage from Grenoble to Orcières-Merlette, Ocaña attacked.

It was an extraordinary ride. As he stretched his lead the Spanish rider showed no sign of easing off, gritting his teeth, giving absolutely everything to each push of the pedal until after a gruelling three hours against nothing but the clock and himself Ocaña had both the yellow jersey and a lead of 8 minutes 42 seconds over the champion.

“If you’d asked me if I was tempted to get off the bike I would have to tell you I thought about it,” said Merckx afterwards of his strength-sapping, fruitless chase. “I was wasted. What Luis just did out there was extraordinary.”

For the next three days Merckx was only able to chip away a few seconds here and there from Ocaña’s lead and admitted later that he even considered quitting the race. Ocaña was on the threshold of greatness; this had become a race he wouldn’t only win, he’d eclipse Merckx as cycling’s dominant force. The Spaniard looked out of sight; only a disaster could prevent him from winning.

This being Luis Ocaña, disaster is exactly what came to pass.

During the 14th stage in the Pyrenees Merckx commenced a lightning fast descent of the steep Col de Menté. Ocaña went with him as the skies darkened then burst open with thunder, lightning and hailstones. At a sharp turn in poor visibility Merckx skidded on the wet surface, glanced off a wall and fell, picking himself up quickly and riding away. Two spectators who had been forced to take evasive action as Merckx slid towards them also fell. Into the roadway. Right into the path of Luis Ocaña.

Down he went, landing on rocks at the side of the road and badly bruising his shoulder. As he got to his feet and prepared to climb onto his machine the next three riders hurtled out of the gloom and smashed into him, leaving Ocaña barely conscious, forcing an overnight stay in hospital – and his retirement from the race.

Merckx, who would go on to win his third Tour, refused the yellow jersey the following day, saying, “I would have preferred to finish the Tour in second after battling every day rather than take the lead like this”.

The following year Ocaña was in second place after 11 stages, three minutes behind Merckx with a decent chance of catching him in the Alps, when he developed a chest infection and was forced out of the race four stages later. 1973, however, proved to be the peak of his cycling career, a year in which he won 30 races – including the Tour de France. For once, uniquely even, luck was on his side.

Merckx had opted out of attempting a fifth straight Tour victory, deciding that winning the Vuelta a España and the Giro d’Italia were more than enough for one season and leaving the way clear for Ocaña. Merely winning wouldn’t be enough for the Spaniard, however. He wanted to win in such a way that no-one could claim it was down to Merckx’s absence.

Despite crashing into that dog during the first stage and seeing his teammate José Catieau break away with race leader Herman Van Springel the following day – “What can I do when everyone’s against me?” he railed afterwards, “if it carries on like this, there’s no way I can win the Tour” – he claimed the yellow jersey at the seventh stage, then produced an extraordinary ride through the Alps to Les Orres to finish 20 minutes clear of the main group.

Ocaña rode into Paris to win the Tour by nearly 16 minutes with many pundits agreeing that Merckx’s absence did not detract from Ocaña’s incredible ride one iota.

“Is it necessary to point out that the Belgian’s absence in no way diminishes the Spaniard’s triumph?” asked L’Equipe. “In this Tour de France there were many moments where you could believe that not all the losers were in the peloton.”

Pointing out that he was in a richer vein of form than when he’d last worn the yellow jersey two years earlier, Ocaña said, “I have only thought about winning, the rest didn’t worry me. If he had been here, it would have been a good fight. Merckx is Merckx, I am me. The important thing is to win.”

Yet despite this convincing victory, Ocaña is still probably best remembered for the way he obliterated Merckx that day on the 11th stage in 1971, a ride that even the Belgian admitted made him consider jacking it in. Having almost certain victory taken from him by another slice of Ocañan ill-fortune made the three days between claiming the yellow jersey and losing it from a hospital bed arguably the pinnacle of his career, if not his life. The denouement made it seem as if the entire story of Luis Ocaña, all its glory, all its tragedy, had been condensed into less than 100 hours.

The hospital in which he lay was only a few miles from Vila, the village where he grew up poor, whereas a young boy he would walk four miles to school and four miles back and where at the age of 12 he fell in love with cycling. He’d managed to cadge a ride to school on the back of a pick-up truck one morning and watched as a racing cyclist on a training run slipped in behind the vehicle, using its wake to reduce wind resistance as he tucked in his elbows and pumped the pedals, eating up miles as if trying but failing to catch Ocaña who stayed ahead, stayed in the lead, learning the thrill of being in front in the days before fickle fortune began its cruel campaign.

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