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The Spanish Climbers

From issue 56 (Aug 2016) • Words by John Wilcockson with images from Horton Collection

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In cycling’s long and illustrious history, the words “Spanish” and “climber” have become inextricably connected. In fact, when a Spanish rider turns out to be better at sprinting than climbing, such as three-time world champion Oscar Freire, he’s considered a rare exception. But why are racers from Spain expected to shine in the mountains rather than on the plains? After all, not all Spanish cyclists are built to climb. So how did that “Spanish climber” term get coined?

It dates back to the 1930s, when Spain was still a backwater of international cycling. One of the first Spanish riders to compete at the Tour de France was Salvador Cardona, who also became the first Iberian to win a Tour stage, when he took a marathon 363-kilometer stage from Bayonne to Luchon in 1929. He went on to place fourth overall in that Tour, the best yet by a Spaniard. The only Spanish rider in the race, he was riding for a French trade team and later became a French citizen.

The year after Cardona’s breakthrough, in 1930, Tour organizer Henri Desgrange did away with trade teams because of the manner in which the largest teams controlled the racing, along with their being accused of collusion. The new formula comprised five eight-man national teams—including one from Spain, led by Cardona. On that team, finishing 24th overall, eight places and more than an hour behind Cardona, was a talented young climber named Vicente Trueba.

One of four brothers who’d compete professionally, Trueba was from Cantabria in northwest Spain. Raised in the small town of Sierrapando, near Torrelavega, the 5-foot-7 Trueba weighed only 112 pounds. He soon showed himself to be the best climber in the hilly Cantabrian races, even better than his twin brother José. He started riding pro races at age 20 and was 24 when he got his chance to ride the Tour with the national team.

But Spanish cycling wasn’t strong enough to field a national team for the next two Tours. The only Spanish starter in 1932 was Trueba. He competed as a touriste-routier—a category of starter who rode the Tour without team support, doing everything himself, including making bike repairs, searching for food and drink and finding accommodations. Despite such privations, Trueba was clearly the best climber in the ’32 Tour, but any gains he made on the climbs were negated by his pathetic descending skills. He finished that Tour in 27th, some two hours behind the winner.

Climbing high mountain passes back then was far different from what it’s like today. Bikes were almost twice as heavy, riders had only a single gear and they had to stop before a climb to remove the rear wheel and turn it around to utilize a bigger back sprocket. On those far larger gear ratios, Trueba developed a labored style, forced to ride out of the saddle for long periods to get up the steeper pitches.

But the mountain climbs, most of them still not paved, were becoming the most spectacular features of the Tour. Seeing an opportunity to create a new competition (and give exciting newcomers such as Trueba a chance to get some recognition), race director Desgrange created the Grand Prix de la Montagne (King of the Mountains) in 1933. Though still fending for himself as a solo rider and conceding time on the flat stages, Trueba came through big time on the climbs in the Alps and Pyrénées to win the inaugural KOM classification. He broke the climbing record for the Col du Galibier, consistently finished with the race favorites on the mountain stages, and put a smile on the face of the dour Desgrange.

From his director’s car behind the peloton, Desgrange had a perfect view of Trueba on the giant ascents. This is how the Frenchman, in his column as editor of the sports newspaper L’Auto, described the Spanish climber’s efforts on the Galibier: “Like a flea, he jumps away from the peloton, which slaps him back. Returning to the attack a third, fourth, fifth and sixth time, the flea continues to skip clear.” The press was fast to pick up on Desgrange’s words to dub Trueba the Flea of Torrelavega, a moniker that stuck.

Besides winning the Tour’s first-ever KOM title, Trueba picked up a bucket-load of mountaintop prizes and ended the race in sixth overall. His time gap behind overall winner Georges Speicher of the French national team was 27:27—a relatively modest loss considering Trueba conceded 20 minutes on the opening stage across the cobblestone roads of northern France. On his return home, the people of Cantabria gave Trueba a hero’s welcome in their capital city of Santander. The first truly great “Spanish climber” had emerged….

Trueba’s sixth-place finish was the best by a Spaniard after Cardona’s fourth overall, four years earlier; but another two decades passed before a Spanish rider finally reached the Tour podium. That rider was Bernardo Ruiz, racing for a French team, La Perle-Hutchinson, who finished third in 1952, albeit more than half an hour behind runaway winner Fausto Coppi. Though he could hold his own in the mountains, Ruiz was no winged climber. He could win time trials and his chief strength was endurance—he would finish 12 consecutive grand tours between 1954 and ’58.

In the same era, the quintessential Spanish climber emerged: Federico Bahamontes. By the ’50s, riders had access to a wider range of gears, and Baha’ made full use of the lower ratios—even though they were still far higher than today’s choices. Few could follow his fierce accelerations, and once clear of the opposition he could gain two or three minutes in a single climb. In his first Tour de France, in 1954, after dropping everyone on the Galibier, he famously stopped at the summit and bought an ice cream from a roadside vendor. Bahamontes later said that he stopped to wait for his team car, to get a spare wheel after breaking a spoke halfway up the climb. But asked by the press after the stage why he stopped and waited, he replied: “I didn’t come to the Tour to win overall, I just came to win the climbers’ classification.”

Bahamontes did easily win the KOM title at that Tour, and he’d take it five more times in the following decade, along with two such prizes at the Vuelta a España and one at the Giro d’Italia. In his Tour career, he would take first place on KOM climbs a record 41 times. Because of the ease with which he could fly away from the peloton, Bahamontes acquired a noble nickname, the Eagle of Toledo—named for the city in Spain where he still lives today at age 88. It seemed inevitable that one day, because of his stunning climbing skills, he’d aspire to more than just winning another KOM title.

That process began in 1958. At age 30, Bahamontes took his first-ever Tour stage wins—one over the Pyrenean climbs of Aspin and Peyresourde to Luchon (winning by two minutes), the other over the alpine climbs of Vars and Izoard to Briançon (winning by a minute). By sustaining these long breakaway efforts, the Spanish climber proved that he could indeed aim higher at the Tour.

In 1959—in a Tour still contested by national teams—Bahamontes led a 12-man Spanish squad that contained a number of strong, experienced domestiques. They helped him stay in contention on the flat stages of the opening week, and he was able to move up the standings when the climbing days began. On the key stage 13 through the hills of the Massif Central from Albi to Aurillac, Bahamontes matched the top contenders in a seven-man breakaway that split apart the field. Defending champion Charly Gaul, suffering on that stage of heat-wave temperatures, lost 20 minutes and any chance of a repeat victory.

Two days later, Bahamontes scored a brilliant stage win in a time trial up the Puy de Dôme peak. In 12.5 kilometers of climbing, he put 90 seconds into a revived Gaul, who was runner-up, and almost four minutes into fifth-place Jacques Anquetil, the 1957 winner. The Tour had never seen a climber of such ability—when Coppi won on the Puy de Dôme in 1952 six riders finished within 90 seconds of him, not just one.

The coup de grâce for Bahamontes came on stage 17, the first in the Alps, when he sped clear on the slopes of the Col de Romeyère, a 12.7-kilometer ascent with 8- and 9-percent grades. It was a climb he knew well from winning the KOM there in his 1954 debut Tour. Five years later he had a different goal.

Describing Bahamontes’ Romeyère attack, L’Équipe reporter Michel Clare wrote: “Here, in this home of eagles, the Eagle of Toledo took flight toward conquering the maillot jaune. The closer the prodigious Spaniard approached the sun above the summit, Bahamontes’ shadow grew larger and seemed to paralyze the peloton. To the metronomic rhythm of his shoulders, he accomplished his ascension at a sprint. Perhaps the most admirable aspect, even more than the alternating play of his legs and their bulging muscles, was the movement of his body at the waist. He has the suppleness of a flamenco dancer, and, if truth be told, his cante jondo (his “deep song”) is for the mountains where, with frenzy, he can fully express himself.”

The only rider who could match Bahamontes that afternoon was Gaul, the Angel of the Mountains, who chased after the Spaniard for 15 kilometers on the descent and caught him with 55 kilometers remaining. The two climbers then worked together like blood brothers on the tricky terrain that followed the Romeyère, and they sailed into Grenoble almost four minutes before the pack. The yellow jersey now belonged to Bahamontes, who five days later was crowned champion of the Tour, its first Spanish winner.

Spain’s lineage of great climbers in the 1960s continued with Julio Jiménez, from Ávila, who picked up two Tour KOM titles and three at the Vuelta. At only 5-foot-4, he didn’t have the same all-around power as Bahamontes, and he often rode in the service of his regular team leader, Anquetil. But when the French star lost time on the opening stage of the 1966 Giro, Jiménez was able to take the leader’s pink jersey and he ended up in fourth overall. As for the Tour, Jiménez became a true contender when the race was again contested by national teams in 1967. He lost time in the opening week, but powerful rides on Mont Ventoux and in the Pyrénées saw him move up to finish second overall behind Roger Pingeon of the French national team.

The next outstanding “pure” climber produced by Spain was José Manuel Fuente, from Asturias, who had a golden period with the famous Kas team in the early-1970s. He twice won the Vuelta and took four consecutive KOM titles at the Giro. After winning the 1972 Vuelta, he started the Giro d’Italia a week later to fight a race-long battle with Eddy Merckx and finished second overall to the Belgian prodigy.

At the Tour, Fuente first showed his climbing skills in 1971 by winning consecutive stages in the Pyrénées, including the day that race leader Luis Ocaña crashed out of the race. Then, in 1973, he was the only rider to match overall winner Ocaña in the giant alpine stage from Moutiers to Les Orres. That stage was 237.5 kilometers long, took eight hours to complete and included the iconic Madeleine, Galibier and Izoard passes before the mountaintop finish. Ocaña and Fuente finished the stage some seven minutes clear of the first chasers and two weeks later Fuente became only the fifth Spanish rider to finish on the Tour podium.

In later decades, riders such as Pedro Delgado, José Maria Jimenez and Roberto Heras continued the lineage of great Spanish climbers; but Spain’s current stars, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodríguez and Alejandro Valverde, have all had to add more diverse skills to succeed today—when scientific training methods and lighter bikes have greatly increased the number of riders who can go fast up mountains. Besides their outstanding records in the grand tours, Contador, Rodriguez and Valverde have all done well in one-day races, including the world championships. Perhaps their experience marks the end of an era—the era of the Spanish climber that was begun in the ’30s by a skinny young man known as the Flea of Torrelavega, Vicente Trueba.

From issue 56. Buy it here.