Vuelta a Espana - Re-Cycle: How Robert Millar lost the 'Stolen Vuelta' and finished second again one year later
In 1985 and 1986, mercurial climber Robert Millar twice came one step away from becoming Britain’s first Grand Tour winner – only for a combination of bad luck, mismanagement, Machiavellian machinations and team alliances to thwart him. Felix Lowe remembers how the Scot fell short of glory in controversial circumstances
“Who invents this sh*t?!” This is Philippa York’s reaction to the claim that Peugeot’s directeur sportif, Roland Berland, hid in his car so he would not have to confront his forlorn rider after losing the 1985 Vuelta a España on the penultimate day.
“I used to read journalists’ pieces about races and sometimes it felt like a totally different race to the one I did,” York continues, reminiscing over her topsy-turvy career as Robert Millar – one of pro cycling’s most recognisable and popular pure climbers.
“Things that didn’t happen at all and were invented. Absolute rubbish. I used to say: ‘I also have the right to judge you on what you do.’ Quite a lot of them got annoyed at that. Because I would say: ‘That was just crap – where did you make that up? Were you even at the race or just in the press room?’”
A lot has been written about the day Millar somehow lost the Vuelta, and while many myths and legends have emerged, the nuts and bolts of an extraordinary stage remain immovable.
Entering Stage 18, just one day away from what looked to be a certain overall victory, Millar held a six-minute gap over Spain’s Pedro Delgado, who was not even in the top five of the General Classification. Yet a combination of bad luck, misinformation and an impromptu Spanish alliance all conspired to produce what York describes as “a perfect storm” as Delgado took the yellow jersey in dramatic scenes that have never been matched since.
Millar was so embittered by the Machiavellian machinations of his Spanish-speaking rivals that the 26-year-old supposedly stated after the race that he would never race again in Spain after a controversial edition that has been known ever since – by British fans, at least – as ‘The Stolen Vuelta’.
“I didn’t say that,” York is quick to stress, some 36 years after the most devastating setback of her career. “I didn’t say that at all. I loved racing in Spain. Just a few months later, I won in Catalunya, which is their second biggest race. It’s like a rider saying they’re never going to ride in France again at the Tour, then going on to win the Dauphiné. It would have been pretty stupid for me to say something like that. I never knew where that rumour came from – it’s really poor.”
Indeed, Millar was back racing in Spain just over three months later in the Clásica Ciclista San Sebastian, following a troubled Tour de France that proved the death-knell for the Scot’s first stint at the French Peugeot team. Millar then won the Volta a Catalunya – beating Ireland’s Sean Kelly by three slender seconds – before returning to the Vuelta in 1986 for his new Panasonic team.
Another climb up the legendary Lagos de Covadonga gave Millar an early chance to bury his demons and take the Vuelta mountain stage win that had narrowly eluded him on three occasions the previous year. It also propelled the iconoclastic climber into the yellow jersey and set the wheels in motion for another ultimately fruitless quest to become Britain’s first ever Grand Tour winner.
This is the tale of how one of the best climbers of his generation had the Vuelta snatched from under his nose – only to return one year later and relive the entire experience again.
Setting the scene: Millar, the outsider with an earring
A whippet-thin uphill specialist, Robert Millar moved to France in 1979 after a promising spell on the amateur scene. Having signed with Peugeot, he came second to Greg LeMond in the Tour de l’Avenir in 1982. He then finished second – again behind the American – in 1983’s Critérium du Dauphiné.
Millar’s early promise shone through in his debut Tour de France that year, which he rode in support of fellow English-speaking riders Stephen Roche and Phil Anderson. The 24-year-old won a stage in the Pyrenees, finishing ahead of Pedro Delgado, his future nemesis, in a mammoth route that took in the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde.
A year later, Millar won again in the Pyrenees before securing the polka dot jersey in the Alps in the final week. That was en route to coming fourth overall as Frenchman Laurent Fignon secured back-to-back Tour victories. It was as Britain’s first King of the Mountains, then, that Millar arrived at the Vuelta in April 1985. He was also Peugeot’s team leader for a race that included four summit finishes and 37 climbs – 10 of which were first-category.
Here’s a description of Millar from Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell’s seminal book Viva La Vuelta:
“A prickly character, the Scot didn't court journalists, who found him rude and monosyllabic. Yet he was impeccably professional, earning respect in the peloton and among teammates.
“In Spain, this diminutive and sharp-faced cyclist cut a somewhat peculiar figure, with his pierced ear, long hair and vegetarian diet. He complained about the stir his earring caused, but it must have been a rather gratifying confirmation of his unconventionality.”
York, now a TV pundit for ITV4 and an established cycling writer, remembers the fans referring to her as “el Pendientes” on account of that earring. “They were just coming out of the Franco era and people had only just stopped wearing green and beige cargo clothing,” she says. “Nobody had earrings back then, but I did. People used to shout abuse at me and call me a homosexual, and all the rest of the slurs that they could. You just dealt with it.”
In the deciding time trial in the third week, one prominent banner on the side of the road read: ‘Espanoles, valientes, Que no gane El Pendientes’. The translation: ‘Brave Spaniards, don't let the one with the earring win’. Despite this simmering cauldron of unease, York actually enjoyed racing in Spain.
“I liked the randomness of it,” she recalls. “You never knew what you were going to get. It was like 21 one-day races. Anything could happen. You could ride along easy at the start and then it could all kick off. Then it could be flat-out for an hour; then it will just stop and you’ll ask yourself: ‘What was that all about? Who’s in trouble? I don’t know.’ That’s what makes it more interesting than the other races – all this random stuff. The Giro is never like this, and the Tour is just too nervous and stressful.”
But it was this very randomness that proved Millar’s undoing on the penultimate stage of the race, on the rolling road to Palazuelos de Eresma on the outskirts of Segovia. Segovia also happened to be the hometown of Delgado, who started the day in sixth place, 6’13” down on the rider in yellow.
Was he too far behind to be a serious factor in the leader’s thinking? York admits: “I wasn’t racing against him,” on a fateful stage in which the yellow jersey would nevertheless end up on the shoulders of Delgado.
Victory at the 1985 Vuelta
Fourth the year before when Frenchman Éric Caritoux took a surprise win, Delgado was among the favourites for a Vuelta that started one week after his 25th birthday. Having been lured away from the Reynolds team, Delgado fronted a strong Seat-Orbea squad alongside compatriot Pello Ruíz Cabestany as the host nation looked to return to winning ways after back-to-back triumphs from Frenchmen Bernard Hinault and Caritoux.
Alberto Fernández, who had lost the Vuelta to Caritoux by just six seconds, had been killed in a car crash along with his wife the previous December. There was therefore a sense in which Spanish cycling was looking to rebound from this tragic loss. And the home fans had a new star to cheer when the unheralded 20-year-old Miguel Induráin finished second in the prologue.
Two days in, and the Spanish debutant swapped white for yellow to become the youngest leader of the Vuelta in the race’s history. The first week of a fairly tumultuous race, meanwhile, unravelled in chaotic fashion. Terrible weather in the northern region of Galicia made for frequent crashes, not helped by a sheep dog running into the peloton during Stage 4 on a crazy day that saw support cars get lost and two Belgians swinging punches at each other and their compatriot Eddy Planckaert take his second win.
The first big GC shake up came on Stage 6 to Lagos de Covadonga, the otherworldly climb in the mountainous region of Asturias, which was being used for the third year running. Here, Induráin cracked, the youngster conceding a whopping 13 minutes to his former Reynolds teammate Delgado on the first summit finish of the race.
It had been Millar who put in a dig on the steep section of La Huesera – but the Scot had gone too deep. Once Delgado battled back, the Spaniard attacked on the ramps ahead of the descent towards the lakes. Victory put Delgado in yellow with a seven-second lead over his Basque teammate Ruíz, and 13 seconds on Millar.
Ruíz then enjoyed three days in yellow before Millar left his mark on a 10th stage that featured five testing climbs. With the Seat-Orbea duo conceding 30 seconds, the Scotsman moved into yellow as Ireland’s Kelly took the win. Two days later, Millar again came in runner-up in the mountain time trial in Andorra to consolidate his overall lead.
“I came second three times,” York recalls. “I kept messing up stage wins – just through lack of experience, really. Sometimes I made the wrong assumption that I was stronger than the other guys, attacking into a headwind, chilly starts – that kind of stuff. It’s all things you learn from.”
He may have been leading the General Classification, but Millar’s bad luck continued. In what was, on paper, the final GC showdown – the Stage 17 time trial around Alcalá de Henares, north-east of Madrid – Millar punctured. Having already switched his climber’s bike for a heavier bike with a disc wheel at the back, a rear flat forced him to change back onto his original steed. He kept his cool to finish 40 seconds back in third place, and retain the yellow jersey – but things could have been very different going into what proved to be the decisive stage of the race.
“I still had the best time of the GC men – but without the puncture, I’d have won the time trial,” York recalls. “I would have been 30 to 40 seconds better off. Ruíz won the time trial by 37 seconds over the Colombian Pacho Rodríguez, who Millar led by a precarious 10 seconds on GC going into the penultimate stage. Ruíz was 1’15” back in third, with his teammate Delgado, who could only post the 13th-best time against the clock, seemingly out of the equation.
Most people believed the race was over. With just three lower-category climbs on the menu in Stage 18 and the best climber in yellow, surely Millar had one foot on the podium? Even the cautious Scot was reportedly confident of closing the deal. “The Vuelta’s over. I’ve won,” he claimed. ‘I just have to stick to Pacho Rodríguez’s wheel and it’s done.”
While York claims this was something else that she never said, hindsight shows that Rodríguez was nevertheless not the rider Millar needed to fear most…
Losing the 1985 Vuelta
On a cold, damp day, the 200km-long penultimate stage featured the climbs of Morcuera, Cotos and Los Leones ahead of a 43km run to the finish. While it looked an unlikely task, Domingo Perurena, Orbea-Seat’s sporting director, instructed his riders to attack Millar at any opportunity, given his slender lead and the tricky conditions.
And so it happened. When the yellow jersey punctured on the second climb, a flurry of attacks rained down. Kelme’s stage-hunter José Recio went clear with Delgado, and they had a small gap by the time Millar had been brought back to the front group by his remaining teammates, who quickly dropped back to leave the yellow jersey isolated.
Delgado had momentarily come back to the main group before zipping clear once again on the descent in pursuit of Recio. With Millar sticking to his main rivals like glue, the Basque rider Ruíz had cut Delgado loose in search of a win in his own back yard. He soon rejoined Recio, who had himself won in Segovia the previous year, and the pair started to build up a solid lead as a chase group formed including Sean Kelly and two Zor teammates of the Colombian Rodríguez.
Millar appeared to be unaware of the mounting danger as he rode alongside his two most direct rivals, oblivious to the growing threat posed by Delgado up the road. TV images of the yellow jersey group ahead of the final climb of Los Leones show Millar chatting to his prospective podium companions with, what Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell describe in Viva La Vuelta as, “a mixture of cockiness and sportsmanship”. According to them, he even commiserated with his rivals, saying: “It wasn’t to be. I’m sorry. You tried, but it wasn’t to be.”
“No, never said that either,” York insists. But it would have been understandable for Millar to feel this way in a time before race radios existed, and the timing information on the blackboards was often patchy at best. The Scot probably noticed that Perurena, Ruíz’s directeur sportif at Seat-Orbea, was following his own group, so he took it for granted that Delgado was not too far up the road.
“There wasn’t any time checks,” York confirms. “I mean, there were some, but sporadic is probably the right word. And I didn’t know who it was [up the road]. Did you see the women’s road race in the Olympics where they all didn’t know what was happening? It was a bit like that.” And just as Anna Kiesenhofer would ride to an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, Pedro Delgado was on his way to snatching the unlikeliest of yellow jerseys.
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The peseta dropped for Millar once his own directeur sportif, Roland Berland, drove up and told him that Delgado and Recio had a five-minute cushion with just 40km remaining. But by now, it was too late.
“What happened the year before was still fresh in the mind, and they didn’t want another foreigner winning their race,” York says. “Nobody wanted to ride, and all the options were taken. You can’t ride on the front yourself, because they won’t help and in the end you’ll be nowhere. You get done over. It’s just how it is. I’d see other races where that happened, and you just accept it. But then it happens to you.”
The Spanish teams and riders seemed happier to let a homegrown hero take the spoils rather than an outsider like Millar – especially after the previous victories for Hinault and Caritoux. As such, the Zor sporting director, Javier Minguez, did not order his two riders to drop back from the Kelly chase group to help pace Rodríguez back into contention – because that would only hand the overall win back to Millar, even if the Colombian’s second place on the podium was in jeopardy.
Rodríguez and Ruíz, meanwhile, sat on Millar’s wheel and refused to collaborate – sacrificing their own chances of the overall win. Without any teammates, Millar was wary of going for broke on the final climb because it opened himself up for potential annihilation. And on the run into Palazuelos de Eresma, he was wary of doing too much work and then getting dropped by his fresher rivals near the finish.
On the front, meanwhile, Delgado had come to an arrangement with Recio: he would let him take the stage win provided they rode together to ensure he took the yellow jersey. At the time, the humiliated Millar spoke of this sudden show of Spanish unity as “so blatant, so scandalous” and he felt like a laughing-stock. But over time, York has become more accepting and stoic about what went down.
“The whole lack of communication, the conspiracy thing and Spanish team alliances – it all adds up to the perfect storm,” she says. “It’s one of those things where you get done over, and you see it happening, but there was nothing I could do about it because that’s the way it is. You learn to accept it. It’s nothing personal. It’s not because they don’t like you, it’s because they don’t like the situation.”
Recio indeed took the win ahead of Delgado with the Kelly chase group coming home three-and-a-half minutes down. The Millar group was 6’50” down, which put the Scot 36 seconds adrift ahead of the final flat stage into Salamanca. The race was over. Delgado later captured the national mood by declaring: “My victory is Spain’s.”
The blame game begins
Tellingly, Delgado also admitted: “I didn’t win this Vuelta, the Peugeot team lost it.” And that seems a very fair takeaway – for the Spaniard would clearly never have taken the yellow jersey without all the circumstances coming together to help him, not least Millar’s complete lack of team support.
In the documentary The High Life, which charts Millar’s ultimately frustrating final season at Peugeot in 1985, the Scot is blunt in his assessment of where things went wrong for him in the Vuelta. While admitting that he “probably rode too many races” that spring, and that his failure to win at the Vuelta “cracked me up a bit”, he also hits out at his directeur sportif Berland.
“It was Berland’s fault – the team manager’s fault – that I lost,” Millar says on film with remarkable candour. “Everybody there all knew that I should have won. Berland knows that I should have won, when he thinks about it... Can’t do anything about it now.”
Quizzed on the same subject three-and-a-half decades later, York remains convinced that the blame lies at Berland’s door. “Well, yeah, he was the manager of the team,” she says. “It was his responsibility. He wanted to win the team prize so the day before that stage, the time trial, he made everyone ride flat out when they could have had a rest day. Then the next day they all got blasted because they were knackered.”
Indeed, as Millar successfully defended his yellow jersey that day despite a puncture, his French teammate Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle – who had no GC aspirations – rode full gas to take fifth place in the TT, while Pascal Simon came in 10th. And this the day before the French duo should have helping their man weather the storm.
Then there was the question of whether Berland had done enough to pull the strings in the background to ensure Millar had extra allies on the road. Alliances are woven into the fabric of any event and it was not particularly rum to see the Spanish teams come together to stop an irascible Scot from winning their national race. But by the same token, arrangements – particularly, financial ones – are often made as an extra safety blanket for riders in the GC mix. It does seem like Berland had completely fudged his attempts to buy friends and influence people on the road to Segovia.
“This was my first Vuelta and I was still a young rider,” York explains. “It wasn’t my job to seek out arrangements or alliances. That was the manager’s job.” She feels that the financial approaches to other riders and teams were not made early enough, which contributed to her loss. Over time, York has become a little bit more accepting of the situation than the visibly irate Millar in The High Life, for whom the taste of defeat clearly remained bitter.
Berland, York believes, was obviously out of his depth. A former sprinter who had beaten Hinault to the French national title in 1979, the 40-year-old was still learning his trade as a DS at the time.
“Is he to blame? I don’t know. He certainly took a lot of the blame,” she says. “I didn’t really like his style of management. It’s always easy to blame somebody else or to put the blame on somebody who should be in charge. To give him some kind of credit, he was completely new to that kind of situation as well. He wasn’t a GC rider and he hadn’t been part of teams riding for GC. He probably didn’t have the experience to manage a team at a Grand Tour.”
For his part, Berland says in The High Life that he was always against Millar’s decision to ride the Vuelta that year and that the Peugeot team was “betrayed” by “people who should have helped us”. While not elaborating on this, Berland adds, somewhat enigmatically: “It certainly wasn’t a team failure or any fault of mine because we took every precaution. We knew it would be very difficult but everything was arranged so that Robert could win and there were people who didn’t behave properly. That’s all.”
It has been claimed that Sean Kelly was the subject of Berland’s scorn, for the Irishman’s inability to neutralise the two riders out ahead. This seems fanciful. Also, if true, Berland did not exactly facilitate matters following a run-in with Kelly’s manager, Jean De Gribaldy, in a hotel lobby a few days earlier.
Kelly might have later laid into Peugeot for not being on their guard for an ambush, but he also stressed how he and his two French Skil-Sem teammates, Caritoux and Dominique Garde, buried themselves in the hope that he could still pick up a fourth stage win. But despite their best efforts, the gap still grew – with Kelly at the time alluding to foul play and drafting.
“Kelly had teammates, but they still lost time to two riders who’d be going flat out for much longer than they had been riding,” York says. “You heard stories about motorbikes and stuff. The gap got bigger and bigger, and he couldn’t understand how that was.” According to York, there was another possible dynamic to explore: “Recio won the stage and Delgado took the jersey. But there was no doping control that day. And Recio didn’t start the next stage…”
While Millar might not have received the same time checks as his Spanish rivals, however, and while there might have been a fair amount of skulduggery at play, abetted by Berland’s failure to secure any financial deals, Millar’s Peugeot team were certainly found lacking.
But even here, there is room for a little conjecture and controversy. Pascal Simon had done some good work at the foot of the final climb and both he and Ronan Pensec were doing their best to return to the yellow jersey group after the final climb when they were held up at a level crossing for a train that never came – sparking claims that even RENFE (the Spanish equivalent of British Rail) was involved.
“I don’t know if it definitely happened, but the barriers came down and no train came,” York says. “Perhaps that’s normal in Spain. But how would you organise that? It’s not like they had mobile phones then. And how would they know who was in which groups and what time gaps there were? It all adds to the perfect crazy story.”
Peugeot to Panasonic
Berland’s decision to push for the Team Classification in the previous day’s time trial might have come back to haunt him, but it’s easy to exaggerate the discord in the Peugeot camp – at least, at that early stage of the season. In truth, Millar, while eccentric and a bit of a lone wolf to many of his French teammates, was still quite a popular figure at Peugeot, where he’d started his pro career in 1980.
Pensec idolised the Scotsman as he rose through the ranks, while Simon even shared a loose family connection with his leader: the wife of his brother, Jérôme, was the sister of Millar’s then-wife, Sylvie. Both Frenchmen were devastated when they discovered Millar had lost the yellow jersey, while L’Equipe journalist Philippe Brunel reported how Duclos-Lassalle, who came home in the gruppetto, was totally disgusted when he learned about the outcome.
If the bottles had been left out in the Spanish sun, it wasn’t until later in the year that the milk went sour. The High Life captures the breakdown in relations between the French riders and Millar with his English-speaking contingent, which included Britain’s Sean Yates, the Australian Allan Peiper, and Norway’s Dag Otto Lauritzen.
“Nobody was going well, and there was no spirit in the team anymore,” Millar said in the documentary in an interview after a frustrating Tour de France, in which he finished 11th and more than 15 minutes behind the winner, Bernard Hinault.
“They were all fighting for their lives every day when they got to the hills. Nobody could help anybody else. They realised that they weren’t doing their job, and they realised that I wasn’t doing what I should be doing. When I told them they weren’t doing their job, they weren’t very happy about it. So, they didn’t want to help me anymore.”
Not only was Millar younger than most of his teammates, he also wasn’t French not did he have the form to back up his criticism. This only increased a divide that Peiper, the frank Australian, was only too happy to discuss with the cameras rolling:
“A lot of them don’t like that we speak English. But I can’t talk to Robert or Sean in French – it’s just ridiculous. We speak as much French to them as we can, but sometimes you’ve just got to speak in your own language. But they don’t seem to understand that because the French are so one-track minded. They’ve never been outside France, they can’t speak a word of another language. All they think is their chauvinistic ways.”
When quizzed about Berland, Peiper didn’t mince his words. “I think you’ve got to have some respect from the riders and on our team he has none. He hasn’t got the strength of character that it takes to be a good leader of a team. He’s a nice bloke because every time I ask him for something he does it for me. But that’s not what being a leader is about.
“A team leader, when you have bad form, comes in and shakes you by the throat and says: ‘What’s going on? Haven’t you been training or looking after yourself?’ A team leader, after 20 days and you haven’t won a stage, doesn’t say: ‘I’ll give you more money if you win a stage.’ He says: ‘If youse don’t win a stage then you’ll be going home tonight,’ – like what [Peter] Post said to his [Panasonic] team in Bordeaux. And they won… It’s the wrong mentality offering more money. I don’t care about more money. You got to have that killer [instinct] – it’s got to be winning, not money. The money comes after the winning.”
Unsurprisingly, Millar and Peiper jumped ship that winter and joined the mighty Belgian Panasonic team run by that man Post.
“Things went a little sour with Peugeot in the Vuelta and then the Tour in 1985 where it turned a bit nasty,” York confirms. “There was a bit of resentment between the French half of the team and the rest of us, especially when we had success. They didn’t like it when we spoke English. It was just one of those resistance-to-change things.
“I’d had enough of them by then. I wasn’t learning enough. It was kind of by mutual consent and I started listening to offers. A lot of us English-speaking guys left one after the other. Basically we got better offers from somewhere else and I didn’t think we were going to progress at Peugeot within the structure that existed at the time.”
Redemption at Lagos de Covadonga
After a reduced classics campaign, Millar returned to the Vuelta a España the following April with fire in his belly, determined to put things right. Wiser to the ways of racing in Spain and with a better team around him, the Scot entered the race – unlike the year before – with genuine GC ambitions. It was on Stage 6 to Lagos de Covadonga where Millar finally picked up a maiden Vuelta stage win while also taking the yellow jersey. And to make it all the sweeter, the man he beat to the line was Pedro Delgado.
Looking back, York remembers the climb as little more than “a goat track”. The road was “really poorly surfaced” and “really rough once you got to where the hardest bit was”. It was not knowing the severity of the mountain the year before that had proved Millar’s undoing, and he was determined not to make the same mistake.
“Covadonga is fine – it’s just a matter of learning how to ride it,” York explains. “I should have won the year before – I was the strongest one there – but I rode the start of climb quite poorly, because I didn’t know it. When I came back the next year I had a better idea of where the hard bits were, so I could put the other guys into difficulty. I went there thinking: ‘I should have won there last year.’ I figured out exactly what I had to do.”
Being used for the fourth time running since its introduction in 1983, Lagos de Covadonga was touted as Spain’s answer to Alpe d’Huez, and quickly became an iconic climb in the Vuelta. With its two lakes beneath the summit and stunning views over the Picos de Europa range, it was a climb of unspoilt natural beauty that boasted a stinging double-digit ramp, La Huesera, seven kilometres from the summit.
Marino Lejarreta, the climb’s inaugural winner four years earlier, made the first move from the GC group after his Seat-Orbea team set a tempo to whittle things down. By now, Marc Gomez of Reynolds, the French race leader, had been distanced – putting his compatriot Laurent Fignon in the virtual yellow jersey, although the Système U leader was beginning to feel the pinch.
Delgado then showed his hand on the toughest part of the climb at La Huesera. But while the Spaniard pedalled furiously as if he had something to prove, Millar climbed in a calculated fashion, dodging the potholes, cracks and fissures in the weather-beaten road, before throwing down the hammer where it mattered most. With the gradient peaking at more than 15 per cent on this section, the trick, according to York, is to measure your effort to avoid going into the red in the final third of the climb:
“It’s a long and steep straight where you have to control what you do,” she says. “You don’t ride that at your absolute limit. After that it eases up a little bit, then there’s another little hard bit just before the descent down towards the lakes – and Delgado broke me here in ’85. Then in ’86 I dropped them all there.”
York says she had gone a “bit too hard on the steepest part” at La Huesera in ’85 and dropped everyone but a couple of guys.
“Delgado was dropped, but he came back and attacked on the next bit – because I never really recovered after my attack,” she explains. “So the next year, I didn’t ride as hard as I could and I let the guys go in front of me. Then, I caught them again – just like they caught me the year before. Then I rode as hard as I could from there to the finish, and I dropped them all after about a kilometre riding on the front with them all swinging on the wheel.”
York admits that another factor in her tactics was the fact that she rode each day as it came in 1985 whereas, a year later, she was very much thinking of the GC at the outset.
“In ’86 I was riding a GC race so it was a different way of riding from just trying to win the stage,” she says. “You don’t expose yourself as much to stupid big accelerations and putting yourself in the red. I also wanted to put them in difficulty, so they never recovered and lost more time on the way to the finish. I rode a really nasty tempo, so they all went into the red for a really long time and never recovered. So, when they were dropped, it would go a lot slower than if I had just attacked and left them to go at their own speed.”
At the summit, Millar was unable to even raise his arms in celebration as he crossed the poor excuse for a finish line – amid a chaotic mass of fans who had jumped the barriers – nine seconds clear of Delgado to take the yellow jersey. The German Reimund Dietzen, who’d finished third in the Vuelta in 1984 and would twice finish runner-up in Spain, was next to arrive alongside the Spaniard Álvaro Pino, who’d battled to limit his losses to just 23 seconds on the Scot after an outstanding late surge.
While the time gains on his rivals were not huge, Millar had come through this early test with flying colours. He’d put to rest his demons, opened up his Vuelta account after those three second-place finishes the previous year, and, above all, underlined that he had improved both mentally and physically from his setback in 1985.
The pasta fiasco
The Scot held the maillot amarillo for five days before everything came undone on Stage 11, a 29km time trial around Valladolid. Pino, who became the leader at Zor after the Colombian José Rodríguez suffered a fall, had already narrowly beaten Millar in the short 9.7km TT up the Alto de Naranco, but this time the 56-second swing saw the Spaniard assume the race lead.
“He did a better time trial than expected [on Stage 8], and I didn’t go very well [coming in fourth],” York recalls. “Then there were a couple of days when I was exposed to sidewinds and I’d be just hanging in there. And then I didn’t do a good time trial [on Stage 11]. For whatever reasons I was knackered, and I lost the jersey.”
Off the bike, things were not going much better. Four days later, after the 15th stage to Albacete, Millar finally lost his cool at the hotel dinner table after being served pasta that York recalls as being “inedible” and comparable to “dog food”.
“It was utterly disgusting,” she says. “The other guys were eating it, but I had better standards than that. It was sh*t. Overcooked and covered in oil. So I told them to take it back. But they just washed it in cold water and brought it out again. It was cold. So they went back and heated it up. And it was just a big mush.”
Frustrated after another testing day in the saddle, Millar blew a fuse. “That’s when I took it and I flung it in the air. I completely lost the plot,” York admits. “I chucked the plate up and it stuck to the ceiling. It was a really good shot and everyone suddenly looked up from the table. Everybody’s mouth fell open.
“We were in one of those hotel conference rooms with no windows, with four or five teams all there. And my plate was stuck to the ceiling. All the guys had stopped eating because of the noise. But this plate of mushy pasta wasn’t going to stay there forever. When it came down, everyone jumped out the way – and then their knees hit the underside of the table and this sent things everywhere. All the glasses, plates and water and so on. And I got up and said: ‘I’ve had enough of this sh*t,’ and I left.”
Millar went across the road to another hotel, where two more teams were based. He sat down and ordered some food in the restaurant but the waiter refused to serve him.
“He told me I had to go back to eat in the other hotel with my team,” York says. “I had my credit card with me and I said: ‘Look, I’m a f***ing customer! I’ll order and if you’ve got it, give me a table – what’s the problem?’” The manager was summoned and, after another argument – which played out in full view of his rival teams – finally Millar was served. Not trusting the kitchens, he ordered “two or three desserts”.
Word got round of the Scot’s meltdown before the inevitable happened. “The next day, everyone attacked me right from the start because they thought I hadn’t eaten the night before,” York recalls. “It was the sidewind stage that day, and they all went like maniacs. That year I just wasn’t strong enough on the really windy days. I’d finish on the front, but it would cost me a lot.”
It was clearly time for Millar’s new Panasonic team to learn from Peugeot’s mistakes and ring in some favours ahead of the crucial final week. Roland Berland had failed miserably in making the necessary arrangements, but did the Scot’s new DS Walter Planckaert fare any better?
“There were still a couple of situations where we needed some friends and didn’t have any,” York admits. “They’d probably done a deal first and talked about it days before you’d even thought about it. But that’s racing. Sometimes you have friends, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes the friends you have one day aren’t friends the next.”
Falling short of glory again
Millar still held one trump card, though, in the form of the 17th stage to Sierra Nevada, where he felt his superior climbing ability could make up the difference. Unlike at Lagos de Covadonga, however, Millar made a tactical gamble by attacking too soon.
“I let the emotions take over my thinking and I went too early,” York explains. “If you’re riding a GC race and want to take two minutes off people, you’re not going to go four kilometres from the finish. You’re going to have to commit to something 10 to 15km out and hope it works out. But on the stage to Sierra Nevada, I went with, like, 30km to go.
“It made good television, because there were teams behind trying to pull me back – and one by one they dropped off. Then I was going head-to-head with Pino. And it could have worked out. If Pino had blown, he could have lost two minutes.”
Indeed, it might have paid off had Pino’s Zor team not done a deal with Fignon’s Système U, who helped lead the chase on Millar after he’d successfully managed to ride clear.
“Fignon was riding behind with Eric Boyer,” York recalls. “And when our guys approached them for help, they were told that a deal had already been done. That was nothing personal. I would have counted Fignon as one of the people I was friendly enough with to talk about other sh*t. It was just one of those things – like the year before, but maybe not as apparent. That was blatant.”
When the Colombian Fabio Parra bridged over to Millar, instead of combining with the Scot, he rode straight past in pursuit of the last two men further up the road.
“F***ing dickhead,” laughs York. “I told him to wait. ‘You’re not going to attack me?’ But he did after I’d been riding 15km on my own. He could have waited for 50m, and given me a rest. Because he didn’t take out that much time out of me, so I could have ridden to the finish with him and I could have given the stage to him, and I might have moved further up on GC – who knows? But he jumped me, and that was the end of it.”
Behind, Pino had rallied – thanks in no small part to some pacing from Lejarreta, who put his wheel at his countryman’s disposal after another inter-team alliance. That’s not to downplay the efforts of Pino, an athlete in the form of his life and one described by Fallon and Bell in Viva La Vuelta as “a modest rider with a great capacity for suffering, ready to die on his bicycle, as well as liable to burst into floods of tears at emotional moments”.
“Pino caught me and tried to drop me,” says York. “And that annoyed me as well, because I knew he’d done another deal with the other guys. He hadn’t been in the chase when he was meant to be doing it. So then I beat him in the sprint because I made myself do it.”
To make matters worse, the Panasonic team had been forced to switch hotels the night before at the last minute over another restaurant-related mishap in the city of Jaén, while, during the stage, the team car was not allowed through to support Millar with water and information. Once again, the Scott smelt conspiracy all around.
The final straw came on the final day in the 22km time trial around Jerez de la Frontera, where Millar, as York recalls, “buried myself and still lost half a minute to someone who can’t time trial”. Incredibly, the diminutive climber from Galicia won the flattish TT ahead of Fignon and Kelly, with a speechless Millar able to take only fourth place, at 33 seconds.
“I changed gear just once in that time trial – on a motorway bridge or something like that,” York recalls. “I was flat out in the big ring. And I didn’t do a bad time trial. I did pretty well. But then you watch the TV shots and you see the motorbike a few metres in front of Pino… But that’s just how racing in Spain was.”
For the second year running, Millar had finished second at the Vuelta. This time, his losing margin was 66 seconds to Pino, with Ireland’s Kelly completing the podium in a distant third place more than five minutes back. “These things happen,” says York. “Sometimes you’re the best, but you don’t win. And sometimes the winner is not the best. That’s how it is.”
What happened next: Peugeot return
A month later, Millar went on to finish runner-up in the Tour of Switzerland behind Andy Hampsten. The Scot then withdrew from the Tour just two days from Paris, having dropped to 15th place after the decisive time trial. Millar was once again the bridesmaid in 1987 when he finished runner-up to Stephen Roche in his only ever Giro d’Italia, winning a stage and the King of the Mountains jersey in the process.
After aiding former teammate Roche to the first part of his historic triple crown in Italy, Millar then joined forces with him again at the Fagor team in 1988 – a year the Irishman sat out almost entirely with a knee injury. In Roche’s absence, Millar came sixth in the Vuelta when another Irishman, Kelly, emerged victorious. Millar then returned to the Peugeot team in 1989 with the eye-catching new lead-sponsor, the Z clothing company. It was, Millar said at the time, like “going back home”.
A L'alpe d'Huez, Ronan Pensec, tracté par Robert Millar, sauve son maillot jaune. Il l'abandonnera le lendemain.
Image credit: Getty Images
After a win in the Pyrenees at Superbagnères – ahead of defending champion Delgado, no less – Millar took 10th place in the final classification as Greg LeMond recorded that fabled eight-second win over Fignon. It would be the last time the Scot cracked the top 10 of a Grand Tour.
Millar rode up Lagos de Covadonga two further times – in 1992 and 1993 – but to little fanfare, with that man Delgado taking the victory on the first occasion. “I got dropped really early,” York recalls. “That’s what happens towards the end of your career, and things just start to go really badly.”
With the Spanish powerhouse Miguel Induráin ruling the roost in the early to mid-90s, the slight Millar, with his ponytail, headband and trademark earring, looked increasingly like a relic of a bygone era. After winning the British national championships on the Isle of Man in 1995 at the age of 36 and in the last race of his career, Millar bowed out with an unintentional bang: he’d hoped to ride one final Tour that summer, but instead his Le Groupement team folded.
Millar’s victory above the mythical Covadonga lakes in the Asturias remains one of the most satisfying of a long and illustrious career. “When I was dropped at La Huesera, I wasn’t worried because I knew I could come back and then kick on,” says York. “And it worked out. It’s not often that that happens – what you plan works out well. It was all about being in the right position and doing the right things that time.
“It was probably my most satisfying win, because it went the way I was hoping it was going to go – and what happened afterwards doesn’t change that.”
Looking back at those two editions of the Vuelta, when she came so close to winning, would – or could – York have done anything differently?
“In ’85? No. I couldn’t have changed the outcome,” she says. “In ’86 – maybe better equipment choices, because we came only with a low-profile time trial bike. I could probably have done better with my positioning on the flat days, and I made some bad tactical decisions. But if you’re a bike rider that’s just one of those things you have to learn to deal with.”
York certainly doesn’t begrudge either Delgado or Pino their Vuelta victories, despite the pain they inflicted upon her at the time.
“I’ve read that I hate Pedro Delgado,” says York. “What rubbish! I never held a grudge against him. It wasn’t his fault. He’s a perfectly likable person. I liked him. People never talk about the fact that we got on. Okay, he won better races than me, but it doesn’t mean I disliked him. I might try my best to beat him during a race, but it doesn’t mean we don’t get on once the race has finished. People think you take home that level of aggression and nastiness that you have in a race, but that’s crazy. That’s not what happens. That goes about half an hour after a race.”
Provided, of course, you’re not served a dog’s dinner at the team hotel.