There’s just hours until the start of this year’s Vuelta a Espana and across the country cycling fans young and old will be getting ready to cheer on their heroes from the roadside or the armchair.
Spain is a country with a rich cycling past, though since the retirement of Alberto Contador in 2017, there hasn’t been one notably dominant Spanish racer.
However, with Mikel Landa always there or thereabouts and Enric Mas waiting in the wings, you can be sure the nation’s next hero will rise up soon.
While we wait for that rider to emerge, let’s celebrate some of the Spanish greats of the past 30 years…
Active: 1984 – 1996
5 x Tour de France, 2 x Giro d’Italia, 3 x Volta a Catalunya, 2 x Criterium du Dauphine, Olympic Games ITT, World Championships ITT, Hour record
Indurain is not just one of the greatest Spanish racers of all time, but simply one of the best of all time. His dominance of the mid 90’s Grand Tours led to him becoming the only man to win five successive Tours de France, and one of just four riders to take that many yellow jerseys through his career.Embed from Getty Images
Despite being big of stature at 6’2” tall and 80kg, farmer’s son ‘Big Mig’ was small of nature. Indurain was humble and quiet, a reluctant hero for Spain in a time when the country was stepping out from behind the dictatorship of General Franco. It’s ironic that despite gaining such iconic status amongst his countrymen, he never actually won his home Grand Tour.
Indurain was almost a prototype of the modern-day Grand Tour winner. He raced with a defensive style, following attacks rather than initiating them, keeping his powder dry at all times. He would then pound time into his rivals with his unmatchable time trial abilities.Embed from Getty Images
It was his prowess against the clock that gained him such notoriety, not only winning him Olympic medals, rainbow bands, and the Hour Record, but enabling him to win so many Grand Tours.
Racing at a time when time trials could be up to 70-80km as opposed to the modern-day staple of 30-40km, he was able to take handfuls of minutes at a time on his opponents.
However, despite weighing 20kg more than many of the grimpeurs he battled with, Indurain’s measured tactics and huge physiological capacity (including a freakishly low resting heart rate and equally astounding lung capacity and Vo2 max) meant that he was able to always limit losses in the high peaks.Embed from Getty Images
Tom Dumoulin was around three years old when Indurain was in his prime. I can imagine young Tom in the Netherlands scrawling some very careful notes as he watched Big Mig from his high chair.
Active: 2002- 2017
3 x Vuelta a Espana, 2 x Tour de France, 2 x Giro d’Italia, 4 x Vuelta a Pais Vasco, 2 x Paris-Nice, 1 x Tirreno Adriatico
The retirement of ‘El Pistolero’ in 2017 left a gap in Grand Tour racing. He was undoubtedly one of the riders of his generation. A rider that was perhaps able to define an era, with his peak falling between the end of Lance Armstrong’s reign and the ride of Team Sky.Embed from Getty Images
Contador stood out from other GC contenders thanks to his attacking, aggressive style, displaying bravado and passion that contrasted the defensive, regimented style that came with the early years of Team Sky. Contador was ruthless in his quest for victories.
He’d never go into a Grand Tour without ambitions of overall victory, and if overall success fell out of reach during the course of a race, he instead went for the all-or-nothing pursuit of stage wins.
El Pistolero has been involved in some of the most legendary attacking moves of all time, such as his 50km move on Joaquim Rodriguez in 2012’s Fuente De stage in the Vuelta, or the ambush of Froome in the 2016 Vuelta at Formigal.Embed from Getty Images
It was fitting that Contador bowed out of racing with a stage win at his home Grand Tour, on the most Spanish of climbs, the Alto de L’Angliru.
Rising out of the Contador era unfortunately also carries the doping era burden that will forever be linked with the Texan. Contador’s career is blighted with doping scandal, though not to the extent of Armstrong’s. Contador was linked to Operacion Peurto, however, he was never definitively proven to be a part of the widespread doping it revealed.Embed from Getty Images
However, in 2010, he was tested positive for clenbuterol, something Contador blamed on contaminated steak. As a result, he was later stripped of two of his Grand Tour titles.
For me, though, Contador can eat what he likes. Whether he doped or not, he was one of the most exciting racers the sport has seen in decades, and I think many join me in overlooking his sins in favour of celebrating his wins.
Active: 1998 – 2012
3 x World Championships, 3 x Milano-Sanremo, 1 x Tirreno Adriatico
Freire stands out amongst the other greats on this list, and indeed many current Spanish pros, for being a classics rider and sprinter rather than a climber.Embed from Getty Images
Freire is one of only five riders to take three world championships, along with Eddy Merckx, Alfredo Bina, Rik van Steenbergen and Peter Sagan.
Freire was a relative unknown when he sprinted from the breakaway to take his first World Championship victory in 1999, something that decisively put his thoughts of quitting to sport to bed.
Unlike so many sprinters, Freire was a diminutive figure at just a little over 5’6” and only 64kg. However, this is what enabled him to take many of his wins – while the heavyweights were unable to punch over climbs, Freire was able to hang on through the hills for a sprint.Embed from Getty Images
Freire was able to repeatedly win the marathon-length Milano-San Remo and typically equally long World Championships off the back of relatively little training.
He was known to almost pride himself on training at a lower volume than the rest of the peloton – indeed, he’s rumoured to have won races off the back of a week of no training whatsoever.
If only we could all do that…
2 x Vuelta a Espana, 1 x Tour de France, 1 x Vuelta a Burgos, 1 x Setmana-Catalana
Delgado was a typical Spanish rider, full of attacking panache in the mountains but lacking full firepower in the time trial. Like so many of his generation, his career was mired in controversy around doping – something that also seemed very typically Spanish.Embed from Getty Images
Although Delgado’s palmares is deep and weighty, it’s the stories behind some of the races that shoots him into our conscience. After his first two Tours, where he found himself in promising situations in the overall only to lose time to illness or injury, it looked like he may finally take yellow in 1987.
He went toe-to-toe with Stephen Roche in the final week, holding the yellow jersey for four consecutive stages, however, he was pipped of the prize in the penultimate stage time trial.
Delgado’s contribution to the 1989 Tour de France – the edition often dubbed ‘the greatest in history’ – was even more dramatic. After a poor sleep, he started the opening prologue time trial nearly three minutes late, and after two stages, found himself seven minutes down on race leader Laurent Fignon.Embed from Getty Images
He attacked relentlessly through the rest of the race, taking large chunks of time in several stages, and fought his way to third in the overall going into stage 18. However, he failed to make any further impact on the race as the historic battle between Fignon and Greg Lemond that we all know too well played itself out.
Although Delgado’s Tour win in 1988 made him the first Spaniard to take the yellow jersey in 20 years, his victory goes down in memory for the wrong reasons. Blood tests revealed that he had Probenecid in his system, a drug that masks the use of steroids. Delgado denied even knowing what the substance was. As the substance wasn’t on the UCI’s banned lists, race director Jean-Pierre Courcol let him continue, a decision he later admitted he regretted.
1 x World Championship road race, 1 x Vuelta a Espana, 3 x Volta a Calalunya, 1 x Criterium du Dauphine, 5 x Vuelta a Andalucia, 4x Liege-Bastogne-Liege, 5 x Fleche Wallonne
It was a tough call as to whether include Valverde or Carlos Sastre as ‘Spaniard number 5’, but Valverde gets the prize as he’s still active and, like Contador, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for him.Embed from Getty Images
Love him or hate him, you’ve got to respect Valverde’s palmares and his ability to win at any age, taking his world championship victory in Innsbruck after 16 years of racing, and getting in the top ten of the Tour de France at the age of 39.
Through a career that’s reportedly due to continue to 2021, he’s been on World Championship podiums seven times and been in the top ten of 17 Grand Tours – that’s a consistency few can rival, and a reason why you can never rule him out of a race he starts.Embed from Getty Images
In an age of increasing specialisation in the upper echelons of the sport, Valverde stands out from the bunch – along with Vincenzo Nibali – as being able to win stage races and one-day classics.
Valverde’s reputation is perhaps founded in his dominance of the Ardennes classics. He took ownership of the brutal wall of the Mur de Huuy – the decisive climb of the Fleche Wallonne – when he won the race for four years in succession from 2014-2017, also going on to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege twice in those years.Embed from Getty Images
Valverde is in a lot of people’s bad books for failing to ever confess to, or show any remorse for, his involvement in the Operacion Puerto doping scandal. When the controversy kicked off in 2006, he initially dodged the bullet as blood bags couldn’t be matched to him, but he was eventually nailed in 2008, and served a two-year ban for the violation.
Valverde is also criticised for doing the minimal work possible in races, hiding amongst the wheels in the decisive moments of the action, only to spring a surprise in the dying moments with his powerful acceleration. However, if that’s what it takes to keep winning races into your late 30s, then so be it.