Re-Cycle: When Lucho Herrera won the 1987 Vuelta a España
The opener of our historical Re-Cycle series during this year's Vuelta a España looks back at the first South American to win a Grand Tour – the Colombian Luis 'Lucho' Herrera. Felix Lowe talks saddle sores, kidnappings and race fixing to Herrera's main rival for the golden jersey in the 1987 Vuelta, Sean Kelly.
Colombia's Luis 'Lucho' Herrera - the first South American to win a Grand Tour (La Vuelta a Espana 1987)
Published 23/08/2019 at 14:53 GMT | Updated 31/10/2020 at 17:47 GMT
Known as El Jardinerito – the Little Gardener – the green-fingered Luis Herrera certainly achieved more success on his bike than he did working as he did on a flower plantation in his native Fusagasugá.
A mainstay in the distinctive red, blue, yellow and white Café de Colombia jersey during the Eighties, "Lucho" Herrera would rack up a total of five King of the Mountains wins across all three Grand Tours, claiming eight stage wins in the process. He became only the second rider in history to win the KoM jersey in all three of cycling's main stage races – after the Spaniard Federico Bahamontes.
Described by Colombian cycling specialist Matt Rendell as "a slender god" with "tiny, extruded glass limbs," Herrera was a shy and reserved man who used the bike to express himself. This he did primarily whenever the road went uphill, the pint-sized Colombian possessing an ability to outclimb his peers in an era that included legends like Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon, Greg LeMond, Pedro Delgado, Robert Millar, Sean Kelly, Andy Hampsten and Stephen Roche.
Colombian cycling was on a high in 1984 when Martin Ramirez won the Dauphine Libéré ahead of big-hitters Hinault and LeMond. Weeks later, Herrera danced clear to win on the legendary Alpe d'Huez in the Tour to become the first Colombian stage winner on the world's biggest bike race.
Luis 'Lucho' Herrera and Pedro Delgado battle it out on Alpe d'Huez during the 1987 Tour de France
Image credit: Getty Images
In the words of Rendell in his acclaimed book Kings of the Mountains:
His countrymen felt feted: a Colombian would surely win the Tour, cycling's biggest prize, before the decade was out. Herrera had carried Colombia to the threshold.
Three years later, Herrera won the Vuelta a España to become the first South American to win a Grand Tour. But while Nairo Quintana would become the first to win the Giro in 2014 before emulating his countryman Herrera in the Vuelta two years later, it was not until this July that a South American would uphold the prophecy and win the Tour.
The yellow jersey triumph of Colombian 22-year-old Egan Bernal came two months after Ecuador's Richard Carapaz, Quintana's Movistar team-mate and Bernal's future colleague at Team Ineos, won the Giro – a race Bernal would have ridden had he not broken a collarbone in training.
With Quintana among the favourites for the 2019 Vuelta alongside fellow Colombians Rigoberto Uran, Miguel Angel Lopez and Esteban Chaves, there's a real chance that South American could make it a full house of Grand Tours this year much like Great Britain did last year (through Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Simon Yates).
Now is as good a time as any to commemorate the win which got the ball rolling – Herrera's historic 1987 Vuelta victory.
Setting the scene
With defending champion Alvaro Pino ruled out of the race because of illness, the favourites entering the 42nd edition of the Vuelta that April were Irishman Kelly, the Frenchman Fignon and the Spanish 1985 winner Delgado.
Kelly was the form rider having won Paris-Nice (for the sixth time) and the Critérium International before finishing runner-up in the Tour of Flanders. And his legs responded well to the challenge as he came second behind Belgian team-mate Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke in the prologue before taking the golden jersey a day later after winning the opening road stage.
Kelly traded the jersey de oro with the Italian Roberto Pagnin a couple of times in the opening week as Herrera tried his best to make up lost time from the ITT in stage 3.
In his early twenties, Herrera had made his name as a brilliant climber off the back of that win on Alpe d'Huez in 1984. He followed it up with a top 10 finish in the Tour and the polka dot jersey as well as stage wins at Morzine and Saint-Etienne.
If Herrera was hardly wet behind the ears despite his tender years, he still wasn't expected to be a factor in the general classification – largely thanks to his rotten riding against the clock (think of him as a latter-day Quintana in that respect).
But in Stage 6 to Andorra, Herrera and the Colombians fought back. He finished third on the stage but took 22 seconds on Delgado, a minute on Kelly and even more on Fignon as five Colombian riders finished in the top 10. Kelly may have moved back into the golden jersey, but Herrera was up to eighth and the scene was set for the fireworks which followed…
Birthday triumph puts Herrera in gold
Kelly conceded the race lead the next day after the Colombians had set an infernal pace ahead of the first of five climbs. The intention was to nullify the threat of a breakaway which could pose questions to the GC men, while attempting to isolate the favourites by landing blows on their team-mates.
With 35 riders eliminated that day for finishing outside the limit, the strategy clearly worked. Indeed, the organisers had to extend the limit to keep a further 27 riders in the race. Herrera took time on his rivals as the German Reimund Deitzen moved into the lead. Now only 49 seconds behind and in fifth, Herrera was in the red climbers' jersey, too.
There followed a lull in proceedings ahead of stage 11 to the misty Lagos de Covadonga in the Asturias. On his 26th birthday, Herrera put in an attack for which no one had the answer. The Colombian took a minute and a half on Kelly as he wrested the golden jersey from Deitzen's shoulders, with Delgado and Fignon finishing over three minutes down.
And yet, his rivals still did not consider Herrera a threat – largely thanks to his inability to race against the clock, and the perceived weakness of his inexperienced team-mates to control the race. What's more, while the Colombians made light work or riding uphill, matters were very difficult when assisted by gravity.
"They were very difficult to live with in the mountains," Kelly tells Eurosport, "but in the time trials they would lose a lot of time and also on the descending, where they were really bad.
The Colombians would take a minute on the climb then, on the other side, going down 10 or 12km, you could take that time back. A lot of times they crashed, as well. I remember that very clearly. The Café de Colombia guys would go away on the climbs and you'd pick them up on the other side after they'd hit the deck hard.
Faustino Rupérez, Kelly's directeur sportif at Kas, the team sponsored by the Spanish soft drinks company, was satisfied with the state of play after Stage 11. His rider was just 40 seconds down and, in his eyes, the clear favourite because the approaching stages – including the second time trial – suited his strengths far better.
Kelly may have failed to make any significant inroads on Herrera's lead over the coming days, but he did manage to ride back into gold in the 24km Stage 18 time trial in Valladolid. The Irishman ended the day with a 42-second advantage over the Colombian with three competitive stages left.
Although his lead was slender, Kelly was confident of holding on – provided he could get over one small (albeit growing) obstacle.
Herrera victorious… thanks to Kelly KO
Kelly's small problem was indeed getting bigger. He'd had a saddle sore which was becoming increasingly painful in the week leading up to the time trial.
"It was just a lump on the patch where you sit on the saddle," Kelly says. "You get them from an ingrown hair and when you're on the bike all the time, sweating, it gets infected."
It was like a pigeon's egg with a build-up of fluid and it was getting more irritating and more sore as the days went on.
On the evening before the time trial, Kelly had two options: grit his teeth and try and bear it, or have the team doctor perform a little operation. He opted for the latter.
The night before the time trial the doctor decided to lance it to drain it a little bit, and put a couple of stitches in. I did the time trial and took the jersey. But it was very painful. That evening he looked at it again and re-stitched it because the effort on the time trial bike had moved me all the time.
Kelly started Stage 19 to Avila but lasted only 20km. "I couldn't bear the pain anymore and had to pull out."
Would he have won the 1987 Vuelta were it not for his injury?
I had it won. It was three days from the finish, and I'd got through all the big stages. There were mountains but nothing big time left. I think I had a really big chance of winning it because I was feeling good.
With his nearest rival out of the picture, Herrera moved back into the overall lead after Fignon's stage win in Avila. He kept the jersey de oro for the next two days before riding into Madrid to become the first South American to win a Grand Tour – by 1'04" over Deitzen and 3'13" over Fignon.
Twelve Colombians finished the 1987 Vuelta in the top 30, including six from Herrera's Café de Colombia team and six from the Manzana Postobón team, who won the team classification. This was a sign of just how strong a grip the South Americans had on the peloton in the late 80s.
In his autobiography We Were Young and Carefree, however, the late Laurent Fignon alleged that Luis Herrera's team manager at Café de Colombia bribed the Frenchman and his Système U team into not attacking the Colombian on the decisive final stage of the race.
"The Colombians are offering us money not to attack," Cyrille Guimard allegedly said. "We didn't have any intention of attacking because they offered us 30,000 francs (around £3,500) per rider not to," Fignon added.
On the final stage, when Herrera led Dietzen by just over a minute, Fignon wrote: "There was a hell of a wind blowing and you could sense the fear of the Colombians. In fact, if we had wanted to, we could have taken the initiative and blown them all apart without any problem."
In the event, Fignon, despite the agreement, increased the tempo because he was "bored" and eager to fly home.
So we tried to speed things up. You should have seen Herrera's gestures when we were on the front. Filled with panic, he said we were playing a dirty trick. 'Why are you riding if we've paid you?' he shouted at me. I quickly told him that my intention was just to get out of Spain as fast as possible.
Herrera denied this, of course. Following publication of the book in 2010, he told Colombian media:
What he says in his book is total rubbish. We had a good team and we didn't need any outside help to win. In addition, there were three teams there with Colombian riders who could have helped me out. If things were as Fignon says, why didn't he say so at the time?
For his part, Kelly is unconvinced about Fignon's allegation, claiming the Frenchman "was definitely fighting to win the Vuelta".
I don't know what happened afterwards when I left the race, but I doubt it. I'm sure the allegations were just to add a bit of spice to his book. I didn't see anything and never heard anything from my teammates.
What happened next
The Little Gardener finished fifth in that year's Tour and won the polka dot jersey. But Herrera slumped to 20th place in the defence of his Vuelta crown in 1988 as Kelly put things right with the only Grand Tour victory of his career.
Herrera would win the Dauphiné twice and top the mountains standings in the 1989 Giro and 1991 Vuelta, but he would never reach the same lofty heights as he did in May 1987 in Spain.
"It was unbelievable how dominant the guys from Café de Colombia were in the mountains," Kelly recalls. "They were a force which had us thinking, 'Well, these guys are going to be around for a long time'. When Lucho won the Vuelta we thought they'd win the Tour within a couple of years. But then the team folded because of domestic issues and they disappeared."
Compatriot Fabio Parra would finish third in the 1988 Tour, but the huge promise shown by Colombian riders never fully materialised.
The bubble burst as Colombia's pathological political instability led to the rise of the cocaine cartels, and cycling became inextricably linked with the world of drug smuggling, political instability and domestic violence – all of which is covered with aplomb by Rendell in Kings of the Mountains.
There were always a spattering of Colombians around some of the domestic European teams, but not the domination we expected," Kelly says. "Now the surprising thing is that you have super climbers like Bernal and Quintana, but also sprinters like Fernando Gaviria who are among the best in the world. They have everybody now – a really dominant force.
As for South America's first Grand Tour winner, he would find himself as a pawn in his nation's civil strife when, in January 2000, he was kidnapped just months after his fellow cyclist, Oliverio Rincon, suffered the same fate.
Colombia's Luis 'Lucho' Herrera - the first South American to win a Grand Tour (La Vuelta a Espana 1987)
Image credit: Getty Images
Visiting his mother in Fusagasugá, Herrera was carried off by seven masked men from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla group as he was entering her house. The message was clear from the People's Army at FARC: no one was out of reach, even beloved icons.
And yet, those carrying out the crime did not realise who they had abducted. When they did, they made Herrera recount his victories from his windowless cell. As Herrera recalled:
The whole time they asked me endless questions about Alpe d'Huez, Lagos de Covadonga, and La Linea [a famed Colombian climb], as though this was a perfectly good time to have a pleasant conversation on the matter. Sitting there talking to them only made me more nervous, because they were purposefully trying to intimidate, and terrorize me as well.
After one day in captivity, he was told he could leave. But as it was night-time, he decided to stay until the morning. When the FARC members demanded more stories, he told them about his Vuelta win in 1987.
"With this act, our country has hit an all-time low. They are now kidnapping our beloved heroes," said Jorge Humberto Tenjo Porras, President of Colombia's Cycling Federation, following Herrera's release.
At the subsequent trial of the two men who led the group of kidnappers, one of the two men made the following statement:
I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise to Mr Lucho Herrera for the very uncomfortable position that he was put in as a result of the kidnapping, particularly keeping in mind that he's a great figure of Colombian cycling. One that instead of being harmed, should be protected. Thank you.