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A Life on the Pedals, by Pedro Delgado

Pedro Delgado, A Life on the Pedals
Pedro Delgado, A Life on the Pedals

Title: A Life on the Pedals
Author: Pedro Delgado (with Julián Redondo, translated by Toni Fernández and Adrian Bell)
Publisher: Mousehold Press
Year: 2019 (originally published in Spanish in 1995)
Pages: 225
Order: Mousehold
What it is: The 1995 autobiography of Pedro Delgado, one-time winner of the Tour de France, two-time victor at the Vuelta a España
Strengths: It offers a sometimes engaging glimpse into life in the eighties peloton
Weaknesses: Like most all chamoirs, it hides more than it shows

Seven Spanish riders have won the Tour de France: Federico Bahamontes 1959; Luis Ocaña 1973; Pedro Delgado 1988; Miguel Indurain 1991-1995; Óscar Pereiro 2006; Alberto Contador 2007, 2009, 2010; and Carlos Sastre 2008. Bahamontes, he has a workmanlike English-language biography, from Alasdair Fotheringham. Ocaña, he has a rather wonderful biographical novel from Carlos Arribas and a rather dull biography from Fotheringham. Indurain, he has biographies by Pablo Muñoz, Javier García Sánchez, Sam Abt, and Fotheringham. And now Pedro Delgado becomes the fourth Spanish Tour winner to have the story of his career made available for English-speaking cycling fans.

Originally published in 1995 shortly after his retirement from the professional ranks – and with a small update later to take in the retirement of Indurain – A Life on the Pedals is less an autobiography and more an authorised biography. Sort of like Cadel Evans’s Close to Flying, only without the rancour between the guy with his name on the cover and the guy who actually did the writing. Julián Redondo, a well known Spanish cycling journalist, tells the story in workmanlike fashion, with Delgado quoted extensively offering his take.

Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

Given Delgado’s rather barren palmarès – the Vuelta a España in 1985, the Tour de France in 1988, the Vuelta again in 1989, making his the Monument Valley of cycling careers, impressive but windswept – this is a book padded out a little, sort of like Geraint Thomas’s The World of Cycling According to G. Here, you get chapters about astrology (“We grab hold of things to give ourselves some necessary security or confidence in what we can do, especially in critical moments.”), journalists who’ve pissed Delgado off (he really doesn’t like José María García, going back to a perceived slight early in his career), and bonking (Delgado was known for his pájaras, physical collapses brought about by not eating when or what he should).

Tour de France 1989: from last in the prologue ITT to the bottom step of the podium.
Tour de France 1989: from last in the prologue ITT to the bottom step of the podium.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of A Life on the Pedals is the none too subtle stiletto Delgado sometimes wields. Here he is on Greg LeMond in the 1989 Tour:

“This year I proved what I had believed was impossible – that one can win the Tour without a team, purely by having the luck of the devil. I am talking about LeMond. First, there was the disastrous departure of one of the other a priori favourites; that’s to say, me. After that came the involuntary collaboration, of different riders, according to how the race demanded it. At one time it was the PDM; at other times it was me, and for sure there were others on more occasions than I remember. The result was that on the final stage, an individual time trial over 25 kilometres into Paris and with Laurent Fignon in the yellow jersey, the American pulled off the impossible: in one fell swoop he won the time trial and the race overall. It was the only day that Greg LeMond merited winning the Tour.”

Or take the 1987 Tour, the stage to La Plagne. The race was in its final stages and Delgado was in the maillot jaune. But with the penultimate day’s ITT favouring Stephen Roche, Delgado was seen as just keeping the jersey warm unless he could put some time into his rival on the final summit finish of the race. Here he is at the base of that climb:

“Roche has three domestiques de luxe at his disposal: [Eddy] Schepers, his Carrera team mate, [Luciano] Loro from Del Tongo and the Peugeot rider, [Denis] Roux, a Frenchman who just happened to be passing that way. Both Loro and Roux led for a good part of the climb – and not just on that day; they had worked for him some days earlier, and would do so again later. They did an important job in maintaining a strong pace without taking the Irishman beyond his limits.

“Schepers and the allies, Loro and Roux, were setting the pace for Roche, while ensuring that I didn’t get too far ahead. Many fans told me that they saw Roche being pulled up the climb. I obviously didn’t see it, nor do I know whether it was a momentary thing or something more. I am not going to get into that; there are race judges to deal with these things; even so, he must have done something, because he was given a small fine, for a feeding offence.

“However, what did me the most harm was the collaboration offered to him by riders from other teams. Because of them the time that I was so hoping to put into Roche almost went the other way. In the end I managed to take a miserable four seconds from him. That day, he won the Tour, in spite of the television images of him lying unconscious immediately after crossing the finish line.”

Talk about throwing shade. That’s almost Roche-like in its delivery.

Were one of a Romantic nature, one might imagine Delgado to have been a rider cursed by the Fates: a man allowed to taste victory but not enjoy it. His 1985 Vuelta win, that came in controversial circumstances on the penultimate day’s racing, when a Spanish alliance put Philippa York (née Robert Millar) to the sword, the Scot leading the race and looking like the certain victor until things went awry and Delgado pulled off a come back from the dead comparable to that of Lazarus. Then there was the 1988 Tour and the ‘positive’ for probenecid, a drug banned by the IOC but not the UCI. Or the 1989 Vuelta and the envelope exchanged with Alfa Lum’s Sergei Ivanov the day after the Russian had helped Delgado see off an attack from Colombian rival Fabio Parra. Every win, a controversy.

While those three wins are the high points of A Life on the Pedals, the real delight of the book is in the other stories told. Often forgotten, for instance, is that Delgado rode the 1988 Giro d’Italia, the one with Andy Hampsten’s victory and the snow on the Gavia:

“On the way down I witnessed scenes that I could never have imagined: there were riders who had left their bike at the roadside and were running on foot in the opposite direction, simply to get some warmth into their bodies; others were stamping on the road, or beating themselves all over with their hands to fight off the terrible cold. As for me, I was almost fainting, and I didn’t know whether what I was seeing while I shivered violently was real, or a product of my imagination. I came out of one curve and I found a French rider coming in the opposite direction: he was going up while we were going down. I tried to bring myself round because I was starting to have hallucinations, I was so cold. Did I take the right crossing? It was Dantesque!

“The scene didn’t seem real, but anything goes when you are fighting such cold. Some just poured the can of hot tea all over themselves. Others sought to lessen the effects of the cold by peeing on themselves. In an extreme situation – and this certainly was – it’s a case of anything that helps...”

In the two decades that have passed since this book was originally published, the world of cycling has changed. Today, reading about riders pissing themselves to keep warm, that feels like another world, way, way way back in the past. But consider this: Delgado’s mishap at the 1989 Tour, when he lost more than two and a half minutes in the opening prologue before he’d even started, that was down to him warming up before the ride, something modern cycling journalism tells us wasn’t invented until Team Sky came along. Or consider the fact that the team that Delgado turned professional with, and won the Tour with, is still going strong today: it was Reynolds then, and later became Banesto, and after that Caisse d’Epargne, today it’s Movistar. This may well be history, but its actually quite recent history.

Delgado’s descending position led to some calling him ‘la fou du Pryénées’, the fool of the Pyrénées
Delgado’s descending position led to some calling him ‘la fou du Pryénées’, the fool of the Pyrénées
Pedro Delgado, A Life on the Pedals

One should also consider that, back then, riders were a bit more open, a lot more critical. Delgado, like Freddy Maertens, he’s not shy about complaining about how much he had to pay in taxes (“you are left with the feeling they have taken away our money and our sacrifices, all at the same time”). Today’s globe-trotting tax dodgers, they won’t even go there (with the notable exception of David Millar, who used his tax woes as a way of getting you to feel sorry for him): Lizzie Deignan, Chris Froome, they tell you they’re living in tax exile cause the training is better. Delgado, in a lot of areas, he’s a lot less guarded than many modern chamoirs. This is a lot less polished than most recent autobiographies, and a lot better for that fact.

That said, let’s be honest about something: there’s a lot not being told here. Take Delgado’s first Grand Tour, the 1982 Vuelta. It gets mentioned several times. But if Delgado mentioned the fact that his team leader Ángel Arroyo was stripped of victory within days of the race end, having tested positive, then it must have been when I was blinking. Or how about Delgado’s time with PDM? A decent biography of Delgado – a proper one, not a fawning affair like Fotheringham’s recent Indurain hagiography – would talk about what the Spaniard really learned there, would talk about the role blood transfusions were playing in the sport at that time and the possibility that Delgado’s 1988 probenecid positive was what Tyler Hamilton has referred to as an echo positive, a tainted blood bag. But here ... well, like so many others from that era, Delgado is hiding a lot behind his enjoyable anecdotes.

The anecdotes, they are enjoyable: there’s team-mate Javier Lukin being stripped naked by the Giro’s podium girls, there’s a story about waking up in a panic in a car and thinking the driver had nodded off only to find he’s parked up, there’s a tale about losing a yellow jersey at a post Tour party. Many of the more serious stories told by Delgado have already been mined by others over the years and will be familiar from books like Viva la Vuelta and Slaying the Badger, the less familiar stories, the ones that offer a glimpse behind the curtain of 1980’s cycling, they’re now the real joy of A Life on the Pedals.

Spanish and English covers
A Life on the Pedals, by Pedro Delgado, was originally published in Spanish in 1995 as ‘A golpe de pedal’ and is now published in translation by Mousehold Press