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The Eagle of Toledo, by Alasdair Fotheringham

Alejandro Federico Martín Bahamontes. Fede to some. Baha to others. Within the peloton he was el Gitano, the gypsy. To everyone else he was and will always be the Eagle of Toledo. Alasdair Fotheringham's new biography tells his story.

The Eagle of Toledo by Alasdair Fotheringham

Title: The Eagle of Toledo: The Life and Times of Federico Bahamontes
Author: Alasdair Fotheringham
Publisher: Aurum Sport
Year: 2012
Pages: 281
Order: Aurum Press
What it is: The first English-language biography of the man they called the Eagle of Toledo, Spain's Federico Bahamontes.
Strengths: Fotheringham tells the tale wonderfully, with many contributions from people who rode with and against Bahamontes. He also takes the time to try and place Bahamonte's life in the context of its time.
Weaknesses: It's a book you ought read twice, to really capture the full glory of the tale.

Solo me muevo mejor que nadie
~ Bahamontes

Alejandro Federico Martín Bahamontes. Fede to some. Baha to others. Within the peloton he was el Gitano, the gypsy. To everyone else he was and will always be the Eagle of Toledo. And when he took flight in the high hills, hearts soared.

Baha never won a Monument. Never won the Vuelta a España or the Giro d'Italia. He 'only' won the Tour once. Rightly or wrongly, those are the headlines we look for in a rider's palmarès. That's often how we judge riders. But look closer at Baha's roll of honour: KOM titles in the Vuelta (twice), the Giro (once) and the Tour (a record-setting six times, beaten only by Richard Virenque). He also bagged KOM titles in lesser stage races like the Tour of Asturias (four times), the Volta a Catalunya (twice), the Tour de Suisse, the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and the Midi Libre (once each). Look also at the races he won that have ceased to exist, the hill climb classics Naranco, Montjuic, Nice-Mont Agel, Monaco-Mont Agel (twice each), Mont Faron (four times, plus three in the time trial version) and Arrat (five times).

Actually, you know what, sod the numbers. They're soulless. Remember Jean-Pierre Jeunet's little film from 2002, Amélie? Remember the box of toys Audrey Tautou finds? And the reaction of the man when she returns his childhood treasures to him? They remind him of watching Bahamontes winning the Tour in 1959. That is Bahamontes: an ideal of childhood.

That ideal of childhood is more than just having been there and seen that. It's of how fans today respond to Tommy Voeckler, how fans before responded to Marco Pantani. It's how we revel in a climber who puts the foot down when the road goes up and just goes for it. It's how we laugh, cry and cheer at their childlike impetuosity. Bahamontes was wild and fun. Here's Raphaël Géminiani:

"They [the French fans] liked him here, he was spectaculaire. Everybody knew about that ice cream incident and they loved him for it. Maybe he only ate it because he'd needed a wheel change, but it caught their attention."

Ah, that ice cream incident. If you know one thing about Bahamontes you know that ice cream incident. It's in almost every book you can find that mentions him. How, in the 1954 Tour, on the road from Lyon to Grenoble, Bahamontes raced to the top of the Col de la Romeyere, climbed off his bike, cadged an ice cream and sat eating it on a low stone wall, waiting for the peloton to catch up: a man alone and at peace. It's the antithesis of René Vietto sitting sobbing on a similarly low wall. For British cycling fans it's up there with Beryl Burton when she caught and dropped Mike McNamara in a time trial one time, she offering him a sweetie as she passed. It's brilliant is what it is. It's also bullshit.

"I only stopped because two of my spokes were broke and I had to wait for assistance. I had got away with three guys, one of them a Belgian. The Belgian's team car came up to him to tell him not to collaborate because that was only going to favour me. When his car came past me, it struck a stone, which bounced up and broke my spokes. The Romeyere was a shortish climb [13.4 kilometres, topping out at 1,074 metres] but very tough, with some very steep sections. When I got to the top, with my spokes broken, I was nervous and really angry. There was no sign of [Spanish team director Julián ] Berrendero So I stopped. The summit was packed, just like every summit of the Tour. But there were two ice cream carts. I picked up a cone from one of them and put in a scoop of vanilla ice cream. At the time I was more angry with Berrendero than anything else."

Baha went on to bag the KOM title in that Tour (the polka-dots jersey was still two decades in the future), just like his Tour directeur Berrendero had done eighteen years before him. And like his Spanish rival Jesús Loroño had done the year before, 1953. Loroño. The Lion of Larrabetzu. Italy had Coppi-Bartali. France was soon to have Anquetil-Poulidor. In the 1950s Spain had Loroño-Bahamontes.

All the great sporting rivalries are somewhat media manufactured. They start with a grain of truth which the media nurtures and then they grow and they grow and they grow until the legend becomes real. The Loroño-Bahamontes rivalry grew and grew and grew. It is said by some that it grew so big it split Spain, Loroñistas on one side, Bahamonistas on the other. The reality seems to be that the rivalry revealed the split at the heart of Spain itself: Loroño was a Basque, Bahamontes was Castilian. Loroño represented separatism, Bahamontes represented unity.

Irony is wonderful. And the irony of the political ideals Loroño and Bahamontes came to represent is that, as riders, Loroño was the better team-player while Bahamontes was the rugged individualist. Actually, to say that Loroño was a team-player is a bit misleading: what I mean is he was better at getting people to work for him. Bahamontes, for many reasons, never really mastered that trick. And rarely had a directeur who was able to make up for that deficiency.

Outside of Spain Loroño is not known for much. For the most part he stayed south of the Pyrenées, where he was a big name. While cycling in Spain was popular, it was also quite insular. Only a handful of Spanish riders had achieved much success on the international stage. That had begun to change in the 'twenties and 'thirties, but was interrupted by the Civil War and all that followed. It began to change again in the 'fifties, with riders like Bernardo Ruiz and the Catalan sprinter Miguel Poblet, as well as Bahamontes and Loroño, all coming along around about the same time.

But this surfeit of talent produced a problem. With the Tour and the Vuelta run along national lines, throwing all these riders together on the one team was a recipe for disaster. This isn't a Spanish thing, it's a reality thing. For the rest of the year these men were rivals but for the Vuelta and the Tour - the two biggest races on their calendar - they were expected to be team-mates? Expected to work together? Good luck with that.

An example for you. For the first two years after Alejandro Echevarría resurrected the Vuelta, under the banner of the Basque newspaper El Correo Español-El Pueblo Vasco, the Spanish national squad had been unable to work together and secure a home victory. The squad had the crème de la crème of Spanish cycling but in both 1955 and 1956 internal strife saw them sitting by and watching first a Frenchman and then an Italian win their race. And then came 1957.

The 1957 Vuelta ought be up there with Contador-Armstrong 2009, Roche-Visentini 1987, LeMond-Hinault 1986, Balmamion-Defilippis 1962 and all the rest: it was a year when a team was torn apart from within but still managed to take the win. And the two men at the heart of the war were Loroño and Bahamontes. Actually, that's another bit of a lie. For there was a third man in the frame. Ruiz had been overlooked for the national team and was on one of the regional squads. He would play an important role in the events that unfolded.

Luis Puig, the Spanish squad's directeur, went into the race with the brilliant idea that the road would decide the designated leader. Loroño, who was soon the best placed of the national squad, was napping when a break went away early into the race. Bahamontes and his team-mate Sergio Botella were wide awake and Baha went on to build up a monstrous lead over Loroño, thirteen minutes or so. The next day Loroño tried to strike back, only for the stage to have to be cancelled after sixty-odd kilometres due to foul weather. A few days later Botella put time into Bahamontes and took the overall lead. Only to lose it the very next day.

Bahamontes then took the lead and, with Botella now carrying an injury and Loroño more that a quarter of an hour in arrears, the road seemed to have spoken and deemed Bahamontes the man to ride for. But on the road from Valencia to Tortosa, ten stages in and with six to go, Loroño appeared to be deaf. Or perhaps he couldn't hear because he had Ruiz whispering in his ear. And when Ruiz launched an attack, Loroño went with him.

The gap to Bahamontes opened. And opened. And opened. When Bahamontes realised just how wide it had opened he tried to chase. But his director, Puig, blocked the road with the team car while Baha's national squad team-mates reined him in: literally reined him in, tugging on his shorts and jersey to hold him back. In Tortosa at the day's end Loroño was in the leader's jersey, Bahamontes was six minutes in arrears in third and Ruiz was halfway between the two.

At dinner that night things almost came to blows. And then simmered and steamed away for three days until the race arrived in Huesca and a great show was made of Loroño and Bahamontes shaking hands. Bahamontes had by then pushed Ruiz into third (and claimed the KOM title) and that was the way the race finished: Loroño, Bahamontes, Ruiz. Puig was a very happy camper. But not for very long.

* * * * *

There's a story Alasdair Fotheringham tells in The Eagle of Toledo, from later that same year, during the 1957 Tour that may amuse many. It's the story behind that day Bahamontes quit the Tour. Bahamontes' explanation was that he had been given an injection which caused his arm to swell up, reducing him to riding one-handed. Bahamontes claimed that it was Puig who had administered the injection. It's said to have been either of lime, or calcium, or vitamin B, or Vitamin C, or maybe even a mix of all four. Nothing that was banned (not that the UCI had a banned list in 1957, but the point is the same).

Puig confirmed the injection to journalists: "It's perfectly natural for me to give the riders injections." This was a long time before Puig assumed control of the Spanish federation, and a long long time before Puig assumed control of the UCI, and a long long long time before Puig defended Pedro Delgado during the 1988 Tour. Such things should surely have a statute of limitations, no? Such things should surely be forgotten with time, quietly swept under the carpet and not be used to damn those who govern our sport? Of course of course of course they should.

But ... well, back then, the world was changing. The French had laws saying only doctors could give injections. And these were the days when Pierre Dumas was only recently installed as the Tour's doctor, and was changing things from the inside out, working behind the scenes to nudge the UCI along. The Tour had a sort-of no needles policy: only Dumas was permitted to administer injections. Puig's openness with the media about the injection given to Bahamontes was a confession that he had broken that rules. So Jacques Goddet politely informed the Spanish federation that Puig should not return to the Tour the following year. And he didn't.

* * * * *

That injection was probably the best thing that happened to Bahamontes, because Luis Puig's replacement as manager of the national squad was Dalmácio Langarica. Unlike Puig, Langarica was a former pro. A rider of some renown. Four stages and the overall in the 1946 Vuelta. Another four stages in 1948. He was also a member of the ill-fated 1949 squad Spain sent to the Tour, alongside Julián Berrendero. Bossed by a deaf directeur the team was poorly provided for, with shoddy equipment and weak support (Langarica had to wait by the roadside for forty minutes for his team car to arrive after he had a mechanical) and all six riders had abandoned before the race was even a week old.

Langarica was also a Basque. So when he was given control of the 1958 Tour squad and had to work out how to handle the Loroño-Bahamontes problem you night think you can guess which side he would take. Langarica had even been on the same team as Loroño in the past and the two had been room-mates. But anyone who believed Langarica would play the Basque card soon got a rude awakening: he made it clear to both riders that he wasn't going to take any more shit from either of them. In fact, of the two, Langarica favoured Bahamontes and soon made that clear.

If you want to understand the impact Langarica had on Bahamontes and how he did it, read The Eagle of Toledo. How Langarica helped guide Bahamontes to his 1959 Tour victory alone takes up more than fifty pages of the story, which is the sort of detail you often want to see given over to one race. The short version of it is that Langarica found a balance between Bahamontes' tactical naivety and his mercurial talent.

Fotheringham tells Bahamontes' tale from rise to decline. Of the biographies delivered this year it's up there with Daniel Friebe's Merckx book. To tell the tale Fotheringham's interviewed quite a cast of characters. From Bahamonte's day there's the man himself - now into his eighties and still going strong - along with Antonio Jiménez Quiles, Luis Otaño, Miguel Poblet, Bernardo Ruiz, Brian Robinson, Julio Jiménez, Raymond Poulidor, André Darrigade and Raphaël Géminiani. To show Bahamontes long-term impact on Spanish cycling he's got Pedro Delgado, Miguel Induráin and Carlos Sastre adding to the portrait.

The stories they tell can, at times, be marvellously politically incorrect. Bernardo Ruiz refers to the racing at times being childlike: "it was a case of 'last one to finish is a poof.'" Jiménez Quilles notes how Bahamontes earned the nickname el Gitano, the gypsy, because of his trading in gears and spokes and rims and tyres and the what-not, with a massive mark-up: "he was a right gypsy." Luis Puig is reported saying this to Bahamontes the day he quit the 1957 Tour: "when you're getting changed out of your clothes, take a look down at your chest and you'll see you've grown tits!" Ok, it's not big and it's not clever to use such pejoratives, and the world has grown up and moved on. But for fuck's sake, this is the way these people spoke, to tame the language, to excise these comments from the record, would be a lie.

One such story is worth quoting in greater detail. This is Bahamontes explaining to Fotheringham why doping was a no go:

"Your health takes priority over everything. If you don't take care of it, it's like not taking care of your wife or your car. Wherever you go, make sure your car has good tyres and good petrol, and make sure your wife has money so she's got nice clothes and good food. Because if you don't, then - pardon me for being so direct - somebody else is going to fuck your wife and somebody else is going to steal your car. I never took anything, never. I saw a soigneur put something in a bidon, once, and that was it."

(At looking after his car Baha is not so good. Fotheringham reports being left sitting in it one day while Bahamontes got out to do something, only the handbrake was off and the car rolled down a hill until a bollard halted it. But at looking after his spouse Bahamontes was much better: the two are still husband and wife. Back when they got married, in 1956, she - Fermnina Aguilar Sanchez - gave this pen picture of Bahamontes' love for her: "When we go out riding our bikes, he never overtakes me, not even on a climb." No greater love hath a man than to not overtake the love of his life, even on a climb.)

As well as the stories his interviewees tell, there's the stories Fotheringham tells about them. Take Raphaël Géminiani. Gém is the of the true characters of cycling, a fine rider in his own right who went to carve out a colourful career as a directeur that stretched from Luoison Bobet through to Stephen Roche and the Colombians in the eighties, taking in Jacques Anquetil along the way. Here's Fotheringham's description of Gém:

"Interviewing Géminiani is not for the faint-hearted. At six feet tall, he is a mountainous man with huge hands and tree-trunk thighs to match his girth. His laugh is like a long, dry drain and he has a leery, shark-like grin. If Géminiani had a previous life, it probably had something to do with bottles of rum, high seas and buried treasure. Instead he played the role of pirate on dry land."

(How much of a pirate Gém was is wonderfully told when Fotheringham gets to the 1963 Tour, when a thirty-five-year-old Bahamontes proved himself to be a serious challenger to Anquetil and Gém had to indulge in some creative interpretation of the rules in order to give Anquetil a chance of holding him in check.)

Or there's Fotheringham interviewing Luis Otaño and being struck by how little regard there seems to be for the men who helped Bahamontes to his Tour victory: "If they had won football's World Cup, they would barely be able to get out the front door without somebody offering to buy them a drink or do their shopping." Fotheringham goes on:

"The degree of neglect strikes home harder when Otaño's wife comes in halfway through the interview, camera in hand and takes a picture of me talking to her husband. There could hardly be a more graphic illustration of how completely forgotten Otaño's contribution to one of a handful of sporting highpoints in an impoverished, war-torn, politically repressed country has been."

Fotheringham's picture of the impoverished, war-torn, politically repressed country Spain was back then is another reason to read The Eagle of Toledo. The book is rightly subtitled The Life and Times of Federico Bahamontes for Fotheringham tries to place the life in the context of its times. Why does this matter? Because Bahamontes was shaped by his environment as much as by his genes. Growing up during the Civil War, and in the Years of Hunger that followed, Bahamontes had to grow up fast, learn to be self-sufficient. And that, perhaps, was a lesson he learned too well, for had Bahamontes been able to work with others better, well perhaps he'd have achieved more fame.

But at what cost? Would a tactically astute Bahamontes, a rider who conserved his energy and picked his battles with more care, have been as exciting as the impetuous individualist who rode riders off his wheel, stormed up hills and stopped at the top for ice cream? As Fotheringham notes toward the end of his biography of Bahamontes, "unfulfilled potential is far more romantic than a series of brilliant results." If you feel like indulging the romantic in you, you really should read The Eagle of Toledo.