1983-1986 CONQUERING FRANCE
Cycling headlines were crawling up the sports pages in Colombian newspapers. Alfonso Flores won the Tour de l'Avenir in 1980 and Patrocinio Jimenez and Cristobal Pérez were in the podium in ‘81 and ‘82 respectively. Jimenez also won the Coors Classic that year. Cycling was becoming a source of pride in our country and as a sports nut, it was entering my life. It wouldn’t be long before I heard the name “Luis Herrera” for the first time. But before that happened, “El Jardinerito” needed to learn a few lessons.
In 1983 the Colombian team went to the Coors Classic, looking to defend the title Jimenez had given them the year prior. This time Herrera was the team leader. On the toughest stage of the race, with over 6,500 feet of climbing, Herrera and fellow Colombian Israel “Pinocho” Corredor easily left the field behind on the last climb. The descent was another story. They went down during a hail storm so heavy, they had to ride on the tracks left by the cars ahead of them. They held the gap to the chasers, Lucho won the stage, and took the overall lead. The Colombians’ inexperience, however, showed on the last stage to Cheyenne, Wyoming. “We had that race in the pocket,” remembers Herrera, “but we lost it because of our lack of experience. We didn’t control the race in the last stage. Of course, all the other teams ganged up on us and I went from first [in the GC], to third.” The Colombians were not only faced with all the opposing teams' attacks, but with cross winds they had never experienced before. Herrera lost over seven minutes.
This would be a much better year for Herrera (and for Colombian cycling). Lucho beat Fignon, Simon, Lemond, Madiot and Millar at The Clasico RCN, and he won his first Vuelta a Colombia. Martín Ramírez, a young Colombian riding for Systeme U, won the Dauphiné Libéré beating Hainault (2nd) and defending champ Greg Lemond (3rd).
Varta, a German battery company, sponsored an all Colombian amateur team to participate in the Tour in 1984, as they had done the previous year. Herrera was the team leader and the goal was to win a stage. A stage in the Tour of France was a lofty goal, but with the year Herrera was having, he had a chance of achieving the seemingly impossible. “I was very nervous. I was about to participate in the most important race in the world, and to top it off no one respected us. We had been labeled amateurs, while everyone else was a pro. We suffered a lot, especially at the end of stages.” These were young amateur kids from a country most French couldn’t even find on a map (and probably still can’t). But Herrera was about to show all the pros what a tiny Colombian with a huge heart could do; in the Alpe d’Huez no less. “It was a very tough stage. Two climbs from the end we were five minutes behind the peloton, but [Rafael] Acevedo and I chased hard. We caught the main field in a feeding zone. The group was beginning to come apart. I ended up with Fignon and Hinault, but I left them behind [on the slopes of the final climb], and went on to win the stage. The last few kilometers I did all-out. It meant a lot to me, to Latin America and to Colombia.” What an understatement.
"[The next day] I was overcome with abdominal pain, but it was good that we had a good climb to start the stage and it was really cold.” Who, in their right mind, says it’s a good thing that the stage starts with a cold climb? Luis Herrera. “I never thought about abandoning the race.” Herrera finished a respectable 27th in his first Grand Tour.
In the spring of 1985, the Varta Team, with Herrera as a captain, were going back to France. At the beginning of part 1, I told the story of how my brother and I lived Lucho's victory in Avoriaz that year. I can honestly say that that day changed my life. As the years have passed, I often look back to that July morning in 1985 as the moment I fell in love with the sport. It was a magic moment for me, almost sacred. That is why I have always taken it personally when people suggest that Hinault “gave” that stage to Herrera. In Herrera’s own words: “[Hinault] told me that he wanted the stage. I told him no, that we’d have to race for it. He was angry, so I attacked him and he asked me to wait, to climb at a steady pace. We did. After a while I almost lost his wheel, but I kept up. The last 2 kilometers were calm, but a few meters from the line I left him behind and won. The satisfaction was immense, I had just beat the leader of the Tour.”
The next day (July 10, 1985), my brother and I screamed louder than ever before. I’m sure we woke up our mom, and the whole neighborhood that morning. Herrera’s number two, Fabio Parra, attacked on the slopes of Vercors. “I knew Parra had attacked and I thought I could be good support, so I caught up with him.” Herrera makes it sounds easy. Two Colombians were leading a Tour de France stage, the day after Herrera won his first one. We screamed and jumped and yelled and probably ran as my mom chased us around the house. “We managed to get a good gap and [Parra] won the stage.” A Colombian one-two. The country was besides itself, and the Café de Colombia/Varta wasn’t done yet.
Just 2 days after the impressive display on the climb to Lans-en-Vercors, Lucho gave Colombia more on the stage to Saint-Étienne. “[On that stage] I had to chase the break, and caught them, but on the descent [from Croix de Chaubouret] there was mud everywhere. I tried to avoid it, but couldn’t and I crashed.” That crash gave us the now famous images of a bloodied Herrera winning the stage, wearing the polka dot jersey. “[After the crash] I didn’t notice the blood. I was in a hurry to grab my bike. [It ended up] about 8 or 10 meters from were I fell.” There’s no TV footage or any images of the infamous crash. “I was alone. I got up alone and I continued alone. The team car couldn’t get past the group that was chasing me and the TV motorcycle was in the back. I’ll never forget that crash.” Neither will the rest of us. He wasn’t the only one who crashed on that treacherous descent. “I didn’t see Hinault crash. I just ran into him in the hospital.” Hinault, of course went on to win that Tour. Herrera won two stages, was second in one, finished 7th and won the Polka Dot Jersey. Parra was 8th won the White Jersey.
It’s impossible to describe how electrifying the mood in Colombia was during that Tour. Everyone was talking about cycling and the Tour. Kids all over the country were winning imaginary stages of the Tour in their BMX bikes, myself included. It was a very special time and it will forever remain as one of the happiest memories I have of my childhood.
Soccer occupied our lives that summer as Argentina (Maradona, actually) won the World Cup in Mexico. The release of Metallica's Master of Puppets was a pretty big deal, too. That’s an awesome record. Anyway, Herrera had an up-and-down season that year.
He started off winning the Clasico RCN at home. He'd won it before, but this one was special. The Badger himself was racing. “It was very rewarding… to beat Hinault both, in the prologue and in the ITT. I won the overall, the KOM and the Combination Jersey. [Hinault] had a tough time, but finished in style winning the final ITT.” Illness kept Herrera from having a good season in Europe, but, in retrospect, it wouldn’t matter. 1987 was to be the best year of his career.
to be continued...