Earlier today CyclingNews did a little mind meld on me and ran an excellent piece tying the past of Colombian Tour de France forerunners Luis "Lucho" Herrera and Fabio Parra to the golden age of Colombian cycling that is rapidly unfolding before our eyes. I'd been thinking about just such a piece, and was happy to read them connect the dots from the Colombian stars of the 1980s to Nairo Quintana and the other emerging talents. It almost made me stop writing about one of the most unforgettable Tour riders of my lifetime, until I decided that there was, in fact, more to say. So today I give you Tour de France Hero Luis Herrera!
[Are these hero pieces a bit 80s heavy? Yes. Believe me, I've thought a lot about the period from 1992 to 2005, and I'm sad to say, there aren't a ton of heroes from those years. But I promise to keep trying. Gianni Bugno? Anyway...]
Herrera occupies a place in Tour de France imaginations that probably outstrips his performance as a cyclist, but it's a big deal anyway. For the best Tour de France performance, his countryman and contemporary Fabio Parra climbed all the way to third in the Tour, racing for Kelme, thanks to an all-around ability that Herrera lacked. Parra won a couple stages as well, but his achievements can't top the mystique of Herrera's.
For background, the Tour de France in the early 1980s was almost completely European, but organizers Felix Levitan and Jacques Goddet were looking for ways to increase cycling's popularity beyond the continent. A trickle of riders had come from the English speaking world outside Europe, but until the Colombians arrived in 1983 (as an amateur team), nothing so exotic had ever hit the race. They looked different, at least in some cases (Colombian ethnicity is a mix of Spanish and other European, African and a heavy dose of indigenous people, particularly in the higher altitudes), and hailed from regions whose valleys were higher in elevation than the Alpine summits that define the Tour. There are outsiders, and then there are people who seem like they come from another world -- one whose thin air might make them powerful players in cycling. Very quickly.
And that's essentially what happened, all things considered. In that 1983 Tour, the Colombia-Varta squad placed riders second and eighth in the KOM competition -- amateurs Jose Patrocinio Jimenez and Edgar Corredor. The pair were regularly in the top ten of mountain stages, with Corredor third at Alpe d'Huez and Morzine-Avoriaz on consecutive stages. That was the table setting for 1984, when Herrera stepped up, and made history.
Herrera came from a rural village, the awesomely-named Fusagasuga, in the region around Bogota. He started cycling as a way to get back and forth from his crop-tending duties (earning the nickname the Gardener of Fusagasuga) (cycling nicknames are pretty straightforward), and began competing as a 14-year-old in 1980. By 1982 Herrera had made a name for himself as a promising amateur at home winning the RCN Classic that had begun to draw European competitors, and went abroad to the Tour de l'Avenir for the first time, winning the tenth stage and taking fourth in GC. In 1983 22-year-old Lucho went to America and won a couple stages of the Red Zinger Race ahead of Andy Hampsten. By 1984 he was ready for Europe, and though it sounds impossible nowadays, the still-Amateur Herrera and his Colombia-Varta team went straight to the Tour de France.
OK, maybe it was Colombia-Varta's second walk around the block, but Herrera's debut at the Tour is one of the great shocking events of the last 30+ years or so. On the 11th stage he served notice by coming second to established mountain goat Robert Millar on a stage to Guzet-Neige. Then he came second again, this time to maillot jaune Laurent Fignon, on the 16th stage to La Ruchere. Granted, by now he was well back on GC, so the yellow jersey combatants didn't need to worry about him. But a day later he up and won the 151-km stage to Alpe d'Huez, 49 seconds ahead of Fignon and more than two minutes up on anyone else, including no less than five Colombians in the top 20 (and Patrocinio Jimenez in 37th). Herrera had made history not only for South American cycling with his trail-blazing stage win, but had become the first amateur to win a Tour stage. On Alpe-goddam-d'Huez.
From then on, it's hard to find a photo of Herrera not wearing the polka-dot jersey of the King of the Mountains competition, which he won in 1985 and '87. His team evolved into the more powerful Cafe de Colombia squad of professionals for the start of the '85 Tour, adding Parra to the mix. They would create such an impression by the time it was over that Rafael Geminiani would come on board as Directeur Sportif for 1986. The Colombians were kicking it up a notch, and Herrera was their standard bearer.
Herrera and company were coasting along OK until the eighth stage, where a 75km time trial (yup) blew the lid off the general classification, with Bernard Hinault installing himself in yellow by more than two minutes. Herrera finished 60th, a full 7.22 behind. His general classification hopes couldn't have existed in the first place, at that age, but if they did they were rapidly dwindling. Three days later, however, the Tour hit the mountains, and Lucho took off.
The climb to Morzine isn't exactly a Tour legend, but Herrera, already in polka dots, cemented his place as the KOM leader, a climber of true note, and now a second stage winner.
A day later, things got even more exciting as Herrera took off again, this time with Fabio Parra, who won the stage with Herrera, seconds ahead of the rest of the GC types. After a transitional stage (where Hinault remarkably forged a deadly breakaway that put him five minutes up on Greg LeMond), Herrera got loose once more, winning in Saint-Etienne, on a day people remember for other reasons. That day, Hinault crashed coming into the home stretch, and it put his entire Tour in jeopardy. Overlooked is that Herrera himself had crashed after overcooking a turn, and could be seen with two black eyes for the rest of the week, to the extent anyone was looking at him. Hinault's condition was the story, and Herrera quietly recovered as the race approached the Pyrenees.
On the queen stage, the race ascended the Tourmalet before climbing to Luz Ardiden. Another famous stage, Hinault would encounter difficulty and LeMond would be forced to wait by his team, a decision people still argue about. Herrera didn't feature in the battle... he was too far ahead on the stage, taking second behind Pedro Delgado. Herrera continued to shine, finishing fifth in the final mountain stage to the Col d'Aubisque, and up to seventh overall. His 440 points in the KOM competition outdistanced Delgado by 175, and he became the first Colombian to wear the polka dots in Paris.
After a quiet 1986 campaign, Herrera reached a new height by winning the Vuelta a Espana in 1987, taking the lead at the Lagos de Covadonga stage, 126 ahead of his chief rivals Vicente Belda and Sean Kelly. Kelly regained the lead but retired with saddle sores. In the Tour, Herrera was once more not an overall contender most of the way, but was outstanding at Luz Ardiden (second), the Mont Ventoux time trial (!) (second again) and led the attacks the next day at Alpe d'Huez, though he couldn't finish the job. It was more than enough for another polka dot jersey and fifth overall in the Tour, his high water mark. Things tailed off a bit from there, but not before he added KOM titles at the Giro (1989) and Vuelta (1991) to make him the second rider after Federico Bahamontes to win the troika of Mountain Titles.
And really, that's the most fitting description of his career. Herrera was not a challenger to the champions' titles per se, but he was a devastating climber whenever things got really hard. He rode in a way that causes the imagination to soar. That he did so as a Colombian trail blazer, under such non-traditional circumstances, made him one of the most memorable riders of his age.