1987: HERRERA’S YEAR
In '87 Café De Colombia sent Herrera to the Vuelta as team leader. It was a powerful team stacked with strong climbers, but with the Tour as their main target for the year, the team went to Spain without any real expectations.
The favorites that year were Pedro “Perico” Delgado racing for the Dutch PDM team, Laurent Fignon on the Systeme U team and Sean Kelly with the Spanish KAS outfit.
After the first week (and 2 ITT’s), things were going pretty well for the Colombians. Herrera had lost less than 3 minutes to the provisional leader Sean Kelly, despite his well-known time-trial shortcomings.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA
The sixth stage took place on April 29. 220 kilometers took the riders from Barcelona to the ski resort of Grau Roig in Andorra. Jesús Ibañez Loyo, the veteran Spaniard racing for Zahor, attacked only 82 kilometers into the stage. The current leader, Italian Roberto Pagnin, and the rest of his Gewiss/Bianchi team knew that they couldn't defend the Jersey that day. Pagnin wasn’t a climber, and they weren’t interested in chasing. Neither was anyone else, so the lead grew to over 14 minutes to the main field.
With just under 10k to go, the road turned up and pretty soon the attacks started in the main field. Vicente Belda, the tiny Spanish climber in Kelme, Henry Cárdenas, and Patrocinio Jiménez of Café de Colombia all jumped and quickly gained 20 seconds on the peloton.
With 8k to go Ibañez Loyo’s advantage was a healthy 5:20, but he was visibly exhausted and was pedaling squares; very slow squares. The trio of Jiménez, Cárdenas and Belda had 30 seconds over a second chasing group containing Delgado, Laudelino Cubino (Team BH), Angel Arroyo (Reynolds/Seur) and Herrera. Another 20 seconds back was what was left of the peloton, including Kelly, Fignon, Potuguese super domestique Acácio da Silva and the German Raimund Dietzen, racing for the Teka squad.
Herrera, who started the stage on 42nd spot at 3:46 of the leader, took advantage of the gap to the favorites and accelerated. No one could follow. Lucho, proudly wearing number 111, quickly caught his two teammates up the road and passed them without even giving them a look. The only one who could keep up with Herrera was Vicente Belda. Barely. After about a kilometer it was obvious that Herrera was on a different level. Belda was struggling on a 21 gear, while Herrera looked comfortable on a 19, which was his favorite gear to climb on.
Ibañez Loyo went under the red kite with Herrera (dragging Belda along) just over 2 minutes behind. The Colombian didn’t care about the stage win. All he wanted was to gain as much time on the favorites as possible.
After over well over 130 kilometers alone Ibañez Loyo deservedly won the stage. Belda snuck up on Herrera and took second place. But as far as Herrera was concerned the stage had been a success. He’d gained 37 seconds on Delgado, over a minute on Kelly and over two on Fignon. As anticipated Pagin, who had taken the yellow jersey from Kelly on the 5th stage, had to give it back to the Irishman, who, without being a pure climber, had been able to stay up there with the best. Herrera’s audacious attack reduced his gap to the yellow jersey to 2:38. Delgado was at 1:46 and Fignon at 3:59.
The next day the race would finish in another ski resort. This time Estacion de Cerler. The 186kms stage had 5 classified climbs, including a 1st category and the finish, which was a HC climb.
By the time the peloton reached the last climb, there was already a Colombian in the front. Pedro Saul Morales of the Ryalcao Postobón team had 30 seconds over a select group with all the favorites. Well, all the favorites, except for Sean Kelly, who had been caught out during the beginning of the climb and was now over a minute behind Morales with only 6k to go. His teammate Acácio da Silva was pacing him up the climb, but Kelly’s yellow jersey was slowly, but surely falling into the shoulders of Dietzen.
Herrera, Cubino and Belda went up front of their group and turned up the tempo. Delgado, and the rest of the favorites tried to keep up, but couldn’t. The three broke free and set off to chase down Morales. Cubino was doing most of the work and Herrera found himself, once again with Vicente Belda riding his wheel.
With 4k to go Herrera, Belda and Cubino caught and passed Morales. The gap back to the Dietzen/Delgado group was about 40 seconds. Fignon started to hurt and started to go backwards towards Kelly’s group, which was now almost 2 minutes behind.
Within the last 2k, Laudelino Cubino surprised Belda and Herrera and went on to win the stage. Herrera came in second and Belda third. 35 seconds later the Dietzen and Delgado group came in. 1:15 later Fignon and 1:50 after that Kelly. Dietzen was officially in yellow by 2 seconds over Kelly. Delgado went up to 3rd, 27 seconds back and Herrera was 4th with a 48 second deficit. Fignon’s terrible day put him a long way down on the overall classification at over 5 minutes back.
By now everyone in Colombia (and everywhere else) could see that Herrera was in great form and with 2 teams of excellent climbers at his disposal. He had a real chance to fight for the overall. I was getting excited. Lucho had gone from 49th to 4th is just a couple of days and there was plenty of climbing yet to go. Once again, Herrera was a national hero.
With another stage finishing on a climb (to Alto Campoo) we all expected fireworks; Colombian fireworks. With 10k to go, in snowy and cold weather, the man up front was a Spaniard: Enrique Aja of the Teka team. Aja's advantage to the field was an ample 7 minutes. But as soon as the climb to Campoo started, Café de Colombia and their compatriots Ryalcao-Postobón sent all their men up front to set tempo. They pulled so hard that more than once they detached themselves from the group, only to be forced to slow down. Going off the front wasn't part of the strategy. The idea was to pull the group and break legs for what was coming the next day: Lagos de Covadonga.
May 4, 1987: Luis Alberto Herrera turned 26 years old and what a birthday it was. The day before, on the stage to Altos Campos, Café de Colombia and Ryalcao Postobón had set such an intense tempo that legs were burning up and down the peloton. It was all in preparation for today’s 179km Queen Stage: four category 2 climbs and the HC mountain-top finish at the famous Lagos de Covadonga.
Argemiro “El Polaco” Bohorques, who was back in Café de Colombia after a year with the French team Fagor, was in charge of pulling the peloton up the first slopes of the last climb up to the Lagos. And did he ever. “El Polaco (The Polack)”, who got his nickname because of his blonde hair, destroyed the field for 5 or 6k, until his leader, Lucho Herrera, attacked with 10k to go. Herrera, wearing the red KoM Jersey left the rest of the leading group behind and built a 30 second gap very quickly.
Herrera only needed 48 seconds over his biggest rivals in order to be wearing yellow by the end of the day. My brother and I screamed at the TV. We pretended to push the image of Herrera on the screen. We pushed him with our hearts, with our screams, with our souls. All 28 million Colombians did, and it worked.
With 5k to go Herrera’s lead was up to a minute over the main group with Dietzen and Kelly and another 45 seconds to the group containing Delgado.
This was really happening. A Colombian was actually going to wear a leader’s jersey at a Grand Tour. And I was watching it on TV. My legs were trembling and my heart was racing. I couldn’t believe it. In true pseudo-Catholic hyper-superstitious Colombian fashion I got down on my knees and prayed that the gap remained over 48 seconds.
With 3k to go Herrera had 1:30 on Dietzen and over 2 minutes on the group with Kelly.
I’m not religious, and while very superstitious, neither is the rest of my family. Still, my mom and sister had joined us watching attentively and asking God for a miracle. 500 meters to go, 250... 100... Herrera barely lifted his arms in victory. Ho got the stage, but the Yellow Jersey?
The clock started ticking for the Yellow Jersey. 20 seconds, then 30, then 40... 41, 42, 43... 47, 48. My whole family was screaming. My sister didn't understand or care about cycling at all, but she did understand how big of a deal this was. Sean Kelly’s group came in 1:25 later. Delgado came in 3:10 behind and Fignon lost 3:45.
Ryalcao Postobón’s Oscar de Jesús Vargas was fourth and Vicente Belda rounded up the top 5.
“[Herrera] has demonstrated today that he is the best climber in the world, and by a long shot.” Said Faustino Ruperez, Sean Kelly’s DS, after the stage.
“We never thought someone could climb this mountain so fast,” confessed Raimund Dietzen to Spanish TV after the stage. “But I don’t think Lucho can win the Vuelta…because the TT. He’s going to lose a lot of time and doesn’t really have a solid team.”
I wish I would have payed attention to what Dietzen said.
Stage 18 brought yet another ITT, this one 24 kilometers in Valladolid. Kelly, obviously the stronger time-trialist, came in second behind Jesús Blanco Villar and beat Herrera by a long shot, recapturing the Yellow Jersey.
My heart was broken. I cried. I was a kid, I didn’t understand cycling strategy. I should have known that Kelly was too close to Lucho on the GC and that he didn’t have the TT skills to hold the Irishman at bay. There was no way Herrera could have held the lead. The Vuelta was almost over. Herrera had been so close. Colombia had been so close.
The next day I didn’t wake up early to hear the race. I didn’t care enough. I waited until later in the morning when the TV broadcast started. The mountain stages were pretty much all done and there was no way Herrera, or anyone else, could take this Vuelta from Kelly.
Cycling is a crazy sport and you really never know what’s going to happen. As soon as I turned the TV on, I heard the commentator say Kelly had retired. I couldn’t believe it. He repeated it, after only 14 kilometers of the 19th stage the KAS team announced Kelly had to retire because of an infected saddle sore. He’d had surgery for it on the Sunday prior, before the TT in Valladolid. He later stated that he’d ridden that stage in agonizing pain. I have grown to admire Kelly as a cyclist and as a man, and the fact that he rode the TT after having surgery the night before is yet another reason to admire him.
Herrera was back in yellow, but the race wasn’t over. He still had Dietzen breathing down his neck and Fignon just behind him. The bespectacled Frenchman saw Kelly’s retirement as an opportunity and attacked on the descent after the penultimate climb to Serranillos. The small chase group, containing Herrera, Omár Hernández and Delgado chased, but could not cut the distance to Fignon before they started up the Alto de Navalmoral. This was the last climb of the stage. But Herrera had just gotten the Jersey back and he wasn’t about to let it go again. He had to attack and try to catch the Frenchman. He left the group behind and mounted an all-out chase. Fignon was too fast and remained upfront all the way to the top. There was no way Herrera, or anyone else, could catch him now.
Fignon crossed the finish line in the Avila velodrome first. 1:10 after, Herrera finished and 2:08 after that came the chasing group of sixteen, including Dietzen, Cubino, Delgado and Madiot. Fignon had won the stage, but hadn’t made up enough time on Herrera, who went up to the podium to receive the Yellow Jersey. On the GC, Dietzen was second at 1:04 and Fignon was third over three minutes back.
Colombia was wearing Yellow again. I will never forget the graffiti on a wall near my parent’s house in the north of Bogota: “Herrera, que berraquera. Kelly, puro beriberi.” Roughly translated: “Herrera, lots bravery (balls). Kelly only beriberi.”
Delgado tried to attack during the next two days, but the Colombian teams controlled the race and Herrera rode easy. Stage 20 was won, in great fashion, by Omar “El Zorro” Hernandez, for Team Ryalcao-Postobón. Yet another Colombian, Francisco “Pacho” Rodriguez, of the BH Team, took stage 21. The last stage into Madrid was the expected formality. A Colombian had won the 1987 Vuelta a España. “That victory is now a part of history and the best memory of my life.” Herrera said later.
The 1987 Vuelta was a “Colombian festival,” as described by a Spanish TV announcer. Herrera had also won the KoM, and there were 4 Colombians in the top ten final GC: Oscar Vargas in 5th, Henry Cardenas, who was Herrera’s main "escudero," in 9th and “El Zorro” in 10th. To top it off, Ryalcao-Postobón won the team classification. Colombia had taken over Spain, cycling had taken over Colombia. Herrera-mania was in full effect and the season was just starting.
THE 1987 TOUR
Of course, Herrera went as the leader for the Café de Colombia Team for the Tour later that year. After a very hard Vuelta no one expected him to do much, but the resilient climber had different plans.
The ’87 Tour was a four way battle between Delgado, Mottet, Bernard and eventual winner Stephen Roche. Herrera took advantage of the in-fighting and went on to have a great race. He didn’t win any stages, but was 4th on the stage to Pau, 2nd at Luz Ardiden, 2nd at the Mount Ventoux TT, and 5th at L’Alpe d’Huez.
Herrera, and his lieutenant Parra finished 5th and 6th, respectively. Herrera won the KoM for the second time in his career and this time by a massive 138 points over Spanish climber Anselmo Fuerte. Café Colombia also finished second in the team classification behind Système U. “El Jardinerito” had become an absolute idol in Colombia and one of the most feared climbers in the world. Stephen Roche plainly stated: “When Herrera wants to go, there’s nothing any of us can do about it. On the climbs he’s in a class of his own.” (Uphill Battle by Owen Mulholland - Velo press)
THE BULL INCIDENT
Some of the stories that I heard as a kid about cyclists were pretty outrageous. Europeans, and Colombians alike. You’d hear a lot of tales and without the internet, or much information in the mainstream media, we never knew what was true. One such tale was that Herrera had received a bull from the French government as a prize for winning a stage in the tour. Now, why would the government be involved with the Tour? Why would anyone give a bull as a prize? What would a cyclist who lived on the other side of the planet do with a 4000 pound bull? All these questions that I ask today, didn’t occur to my 13 year old self. All I knew (or cared to know) was that the French gave Herrera a huge bull. As outrageous as it seems, the tale was half right. “[The Tour organizers] promised me the bull in ‘85 after winning a stage, but they kept me waiting. I never got it. It wasn’t until I won the Vuelta a Espana, two years later. They called me from Colombia to tell me that a bull had been delivered for me and they didn’t know what to do with it. They held it in El Dorado [International Airport] for like two months. I think after I won [the Vuelta] and was in the newspapers, the French remembered about [the bull], and finally sent it.” So, there was a bull, it was a prize for winning a stage and the bull was huge. And what happened to the bull? “He died of a virus in 1993.” Sad.
To be continued...