Author: Carlos Arribas (translated by Antonio Cuadrado-Fernández and Adrian Bell
Publisher: Mousehold Press
What it is: The English translation of Carlos Arribas's 2013 biographical novel based on the life of Luis Ocaña, winner of the 1973 Tour de France and the moral victor of the 1971 edition
Strengths: An impassioned, poetic telling of the life of a rider who is too often celebrated for what he lost and not for what he won
Weaknesses: A bit more time proof-reading the manuscript would have helped
In the Winter of 1967 a twenty-two-year-old Luis Ocaña won the amateur version of the Grand Prix des Nations, the unofficial time trial world championships. Ocaña at this point was riding for his local Stade Montois squad, which operated as a feeder club for the Mercier team bossed by Antonin Magne, where Raymond Poulidor was winning the adoration of the French public by losing to Jacques Anquetil. Ocaña's victory in the GP des Nations was enough to make the Spaniard realise that he was ready to become a professional. Accordingly, it was only logical that he should do so with Magne's Mercier squad. But Ocaña's mentor in Stade Montois, Pierre Cescutti, didn't believe that Magne was the manger who would get the best out of the Spaniard. He felt that Ocaña was more like Anquetil than Poulidor and tried to explain that to his young protégé:
"There would be no Anquetil without Géminiani, and no Poulidor without Magne. You are and will be Anquetil, my friend. You will be Anquetil's hunchback slipping undisturbed through the wind; you will be his gaze fixed on the low horizon, with your head stuck and protected between the shoulders; you will be a natural meteor, Luis. And when spectators see you going past, immobile like Anquetil, like his profile of a flying Caravelle jet; when they see your brown face and the pain you despise concealed in your guts, when they see you like him, with your eyes of pain and pleasure inflicting upon yourself a torture that only you can resist, when they see you taking the corners on the roads from which engineers will learn road design because you can teach them the ideal curve, all those who see you pass, like Anquetil passed by, announced by the light touch of the smooth silk tubulars on the uneven tarmac and the whistle of the wind playing between the spokes, all of them will want to become cyclists. They will want to be born again as cyclists, so they can be Anquetil, so they can be Ocaña, so they can be beauty."
Cescutti added more, explaining to Ocaña why Géminiani was the genius he was, how he was a larger than life character who "drinks wine and whisky on long and sleepless nights" and "talks and swears and he befriends the artists with whom he gets drunk and smokes and loves women." Most importantly, Cescutti explained, Géminiani "knows that the best way to persuade Anquetil is to provoke him." Magne and Poulidor, on the other hand, Cescutti told Ocaña that they were just like "two small property owners who are more afraid of losing the little they have than of risking it to get a bit more."
"That is what they are like, two small, proud farmers clinging on to the little plot of land they fought so hard to get hold of. And so proud of it. Supporters love Poulidor because he loses, because he is just like what they are; they don't dream of what they might become, which is what Anquetil's supporters do. Supporters love Anquetil, that blond, intense Anquetil. They forgive the fact that he hardly ever attacks and they forgive his accidents, which always happen at the worst moment. But none of them would want to be like Poulidor. They might love him because they see themselves reflected in his cunning; he is the card player who never takes any risks, who saves all his trumps for the end, when he makes the final, inevitable yet inglorious move. Poulidor loves playing poker, he often wins, but only one cent at a time. That is the only thing at which he beats Anquetil, because Anquetil, like you, Luis, is one of those who are so impatient and even at the second round they're already putting on some miserable bluff which ruins them, or they ruin a good hand by not being able to hide it. You are Anquetil, Luis."
The whole conversation - most all of it an intense monologue delivered by Cescutti, Ocaña barely getting a word in - fills six pages in Carlos Arribas's Ocaña. The passion of it, the rhythm of it, it makes for a beautiful six pages. But... well... did it actually happen, did Cescutti really say those words to Ocaña as the two drove through the night? The answer to that is just a little bit complicated.
* * * * *
Carlos Arribas introduces the reader to Ocaña with the following words:
"It is customary in works of fiction to warn readers that any resemblance to reality that they might encounter in the lines they are about to read is pure coincidence. I would like to warn readers that in this particular book any resemblance to reality is not coincidental. It is just that - reality. The warning is necessary because instead of the academic biography one might have expected of a book about Ocaña, what I finally produced is a book that resembles more a fictionalised life, or a biographical novel, whichever you prefer to call it. It is a book in which the facts of the cyclist's life, those things that really did occur and are duly corroborated form what one might call a solid skeleton, to which a good deal of licence and a certain exercise of imagination, I have added 'muscle', 'flesh and blood'.
"Most of the situations narrated and described in the book, as well as the dialogues guiding such narrations (except the most strictly sport-related) are like scenes from a film. They represent the emotional recreation of the memories of the people who lived with him, the people who coped with him. This does not mean these events could not have happened exactly as they are narrated; they are not in any way implausible."
* * * * *
Why turn a biography into a docudrama? Artistic licence is the most obvious answer, the ability to add beauty to the words of others, to make language sing and words dance. And, in many places, Arribas does just that in Ocaña, granting his characters a passionate and poetic way of expressing their thoughts on the world around them. At times this is more than a little bit overblown and unreal - too passionate, too poetic, sometimes too much explaining things that shouldn't need explanation - but even at these moments you are sucked it to the alternative reality Arribas has created, swept along by the heightened emotions. You buy into the alternative reality Arribas has crafted out of reality.
There is another advantage and, when you consider a life like Ocaña's, it is an important reason: there is a better opportunity to show the negative aspects of your subject, to paint a picture that balances the beauty of the myth with the ugliness of reality. For Arribas, there is more - a lot, lot more - to Jesús Luis Ocaña Pernía than those two Tours de France, the one he lost and the one he won, there is more to Ocaña than that one glorious season (1973) when things clicked into place and even bad luck (he collided with a dog on the opening kilometres of the Tour, the sort of accident which other times might have cost him dear but this time had no real effect) could not hold him back. That more seen by Arribas encompasses a wife he loved but could not be true to, a son who grew to hate him and a self destructive streak the root of which no one really understands.
The self destructive streak is actually why Ocaña is so beloved, it is that self destructive streak that drove him to ride with the panache that fans adore so much. Not that Ocaña thought he was self destructive, quite the reverse, it was others he thought he sought to destroy. Arribas has him explain his raison d'être thusly:
"My aim and the reason why I am a cyclist, is to attack, to see fear in the eyes of my competitors and after fear, defeat. And I feel joy when I see them screwed and defeated. The rest is secondary: riding alone, winning a stage, victories, honours...these are just consequences of my rivals' defeat. For me, the moment that marks me is when I look into their eyes and see the reflection of defeat in them."
What was it that drove Ocaña to want to destroy others, to wallow in their defeat? Arribas offers this judgement, delivered by Cyrille Guimard;
"I know too why you defied Merckx, just you and nobody else. You did it because you were, because you are, an arrogant, anarchic little bugger who won't accept authority and won't submit to anybody. And you're like that because your father was an authoritarian who used to harass you, Luis, and when you attacked Merckx in the Alps, really you were going for your father. That's how I see it, and how I used to see it and I can say that to you fearlessly because you yourself have told me how hard your childhood was."
There are many, particularly in cycling, who cannot accept authority, rebels without a pause who, if told to go right, will go left, if told to go easy will go hard. Sometimes they burn gloriously for a season or two, sometimes they get lucky and find someone who understands them and who they can trust and respect and who can temper their rage and extend their career. Anquetil, he was blessed throughout his career with managers like Francis Pélissier, Raymond Louviot and - most especially - Raphaël Géminiani, managers who understood him. Ocaña, though, was not so lucky. At the outset, in the amateur years, Cescutti was to him what Pélissier was to Anquetil, and Cescutti actually stayed there throughout Ocaña's career, a mentor he could turn to for advice. But for all that Ocaña became more and more like Anquetil - and he did, on and off the bike - he never found his own Géminiani. At Bic, in his best years, he did have Maurice de Muer - "a Northerner, a man from Lille, [...] a man from a city where the sky is always grey, and you can only smell the smoke of the blast furnaces and only hear the sirens of the mines" - and while De Muer was great team manager, he simply wasn't the sort of man manager a rider of Ocaña's personality (a Southerner, a man seeped in the light and wine and life of the Mediterranean) most needed. And perhaps that is the real tragedy of Ocaña's life, that he became so like Anquetil in all the other ways except in the one way that was crucial, the way that kept Anquetil winning.
"I was like Jacques, Julio, I was like Anquetil. I had his shape, my upper body as immobile as his, hands gripping the handlebar as tightly, my chin on my chest and my gaze fixed on the horizon. I was just like Jacques, Julio, and I went through the same pain he did in the time trials, and pulling on the bars my body hurt all over, I reached my limit just as he did and then we went into another dimension. We were body and strength and vigour and we believed we could overcome our own destiny. Nothing was impossible for us, nor was it for you, Julio, when the road got steeper. After you put up with the initial pain you went looking for more until in the end you thought you were flying. And I was an Anquetil: I bolted food down like him, I drank like him, I boozed like him, I liked beautiful women who smelt of expensive Parisian perfume just like he did, and speed and convertibles and sport cars..."
And the end too. The cancer that took Anquetil also gripped Ocaña's insides, rotted away his strength and vigour and passion until all he felt he could do was take up a gun and end it all early.
* * * * *
While Ocaña is the story of Spain's second winner of the Tour de France, it also tells a story about the world of cycling in those years, offers titbits about others, from the portraits of Magne, Poulidor, Anquetil and Géminiani through Ocaña's involvement with Pedro Celaya (who he recruited from the Vuelta a España's medical staff to become a doctor with Fagor in 1985) and on past Ocaña's attempt to sign Bernard Hinault after he and Guimard fell out. Such gems are one reason to bother with biographies and autobiographies, the colour they add to the broader picture of the cycling world.
But the true strength of Ocaña is Carlos Arribas's passion for the story he is telling and the fact that he tries to tell it as a warts and all story, the darkness as well as the light. That darkness, it may make Ocaña a book that will not be too everyone's taste, Ocaña's suicide hangs over the story like a cloud, is long on the horizon, Arribas painting a picture of a man who could not escape destiny. But there is a balance between the two. And the reality is that the darkest moments, the Col de Menté and the suicide, are probably as well known as the brightest of the light, Ocaña's win in the 1973 Tour de France. What Arribas really does achieve by such a heavy contrast is show that there is more light in Ocaña's story than you might otherwise have realised.