The Vuelta a Espana began on this day in 1966, when the 18 stages (four split) covered a total of 2,949.5km. The race suffered from a lack of top international names that year and only 90 riders - of whom 40 were Spanish - started; a mere 55 finished. While this was not good for the Vuelta, it was an opportunity for the less-well-known riders including winner Francisco Gabica; whose palmares, with the exception of this one race, really are not those of a Grand Tour contender.
Today is also the anniversary of the 31st edition of La Flèche Wallonne, which took place on this day in 1967. It was raced on a 223km route between Liège and Marcinelle for a second consecutive year and the winner was a relatively unknown Belgian rider named Eddy Merckx, who was precisely one day away from completing his second year as a professional cyclist. He would go on to win two more editions, adding them to his eventual total of 525 victories. The race has not been held this late ever since.
(image credit: Foto43
CC BY 2.0)
He turned professional with Ford-Gitane on 1965, and immediately made a sufficient impression on manager Raphael Géminiani and team leader Jacques Anquetil to be selected for the Tour that same season - an incredible achievement for any rider in his first professional year, through he abandoned on the Col de l'Aubisque during Stage 9. His success just one year later was, therefore, somewhat unexpected; but he wouldn't have managed it without the help of Anquetil who at that time was at the height of his war with Raymond Poulidor, a rivalry that split France into two equal and opposing sides. Realising that his fifth victory in 1964 was to be his last, he assisted Aimar instead to ensure Poulidor could not win and then retired. However, Aimar was not handed the victory on a plate and worked hard, pushing a high 55x13 gear ratio that was thought abnormal by most riders of the day.
Aimar has been called on of the forgettable Tour winners, but his career was not without controversy: just months before his Tour success he'd won second place at the Flèche Wallonne, then been stripped of his title after failing an anti-doping test (1966, incidentally, was the year the Tour was disrupted during Stage 9 when riders got off their bikes and pushed in protest at rumoured drugs tests. It was also, of course, the year before Tom Simpson died) and was then given his result back again due to a technicality arising from the arcane and messy anti-doping rules of the time. In 1967, he refused to wear the French National jersey during the Tour after being declared rightful winner of it when Désiré Letort was disqualified after he too failed a drugs test - for each day Amar refused, he was fined the equivalent of £50, but he stuck to his guns and insisted that Letort had beaten him fair and square (whether than is indication that he saw nothing wrong with doping, that he was also doping in the National Championships or both is anyone's guess). He retired in 1973, claiming that organiser Félix Lévitan had cooked up a nefarious scheme with the German rider Rudi Altig to ensure he would never win another Tour, then refused to have absolutely anything to do with the race for a quarter of a century.
In retirement, he became director of the Tour Méditerranéen and a very good example of what happens if a retired professional cyclist continues to eat like an active professional cyclist.
(image credit: Petit Brun CC BY-SA 2.0)
After switching to road cycling, he showed early potential as a time trial rider and roleur which earned him a contract with the Linda McCartney team shortly before it folded in 2001. He then moved on to FDJ, staying with them for two years before he was offered a place with Crédit Agricole for 2004, the year in which he became the first British athlete in any sport to win three medals in a single edition of the Olympic Games for forty years. He rode his first Grand Tour, the Giro d'Italia, in 2005 and the Tour de France a year later; not making much of an impact in either race but proving he could survive the harsh rigours of major stage races.
Then, in 2007, he won the prologue at the Critérium du Dauphiné and was fourth in the prologue at the Tour - held that year in London. At this point, the world began to pay attention - Britain had produced another rider who just might have the potential to finish what Tom Simpson had started four decades earlier. Two years later, now 6kg lighter and at the age when cyclists are at their strongest, he rode the Giro and the Tour again; taking second place in Stages 1 and 21 in Italy then third in Stage 1, second in Stage 4 and top ten in four other stages at the Tour - enough to propel him into fourth place in the overall General Classification, becoming the joint most successful British Tour de France rider in history (he shared it with the legendary Scotsman Robert Millar who had finished fourth 23 years earlier).
Having already signed a contract with Garmin-Cervelo for 2010, Wiggins announced late in 2009 that he would in fact be going to the new British outfit Team Sky for the next four years and began the new season with them as team leader. British fans wondered if, at long last, the year would bring them their first winner; but it was not to be - the new hero suffered badly on the cobbles in the first stages that had been designed to pay homage to cycling's toughest one-day race Paris-Roubaix. He learned fast and made up time in Stage 3, but was ultimately and entirely out-classed by Andy Schleck who would be declared race winner after Alberto Contador was banned for two years and stripped of the victory in 2012 after a long and - in the opinions of many - highly questionable doping investigation.
In 2011, he concentrated on the Tour after deciding not to compete in the Giro, taking part in smaller events to gain fitness. When July arrived, he appeared on the start line looking like an entirely different rider: his body apparently carried not a single gram of fat, looking as though it consisted entirely of bone, sinew and hard muscle. If he was ever going to win a Tour, fans reasoned, he'd never been in better shape for it that he was now. Unfortunately, it was once again not to be - Stage 7 brought a huge pile-up in which numerous riders crashed. It was immediately obvious from the way that Wiggins clutched his shoulder as he lay in agony on the road that he would not be continuing, as was confirmed when doctors discovered he'd broken his collarbone.
|In the leader's jersey at the Critérium du Dauphiné, 2011|
(image credit: Matthieu Riegler CC BY 3.0)
|Stage 19, Tour de France 2012|
That remarkable form lasted beyond the Tour and he won the Individual Time Trial at the Olympics, thus becoming the only cyclist to have won his sport's greatest prize and Olympic gold in a single season. Whether he can win a second Tour in 2013 remains to be seen - many British fans are convinced that he can, but Wiggins himself says he'll concentrate on the Giro d'Italia instead.
*British women had won the Tour de France Féminin three times - Nicole Cooke in 2006 and 2007 and Emma Pooley in 2009, the last time the race took place.
Pino Cerami was born in Sicily on this day in 1922 but tookBelgian citizenship in 1956. In 1960, he won Paris-Roubaix and La Flèche Wallonne. Three years later, he won Stage 9 at the Tour de France - as he was 41 at the time, he is the oldest Tour stage winner ever
Steven Wong, born in Belgium on this day in 1988, is a professional BMX rider with the Hong Kong team who also rides in road races with China's Champion Racing System team. He was offered a place with the national BMX team in Belgium, where his father owns a restaurant, but decided to represent Hong Kong instead.
José Adrián Bonilla, born in Costa Rica on this day in 1978, became involved in the Operación Puerto scandal of 2006 when a bag of blood labelled "Bonilla Alfredo," found in the laboratory of the notorious Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, was shown to be his. However, as the judge presiding over the case declined to share evidence with either the UCI or the World Anti-Doping Agency, he escaped athletic sanction.
Other cyclists born on this day: Walter Richli (Switzerland, 1913, died 1944); Mikhail Kolyushev (USSR, 1943); Olga Slyusareva (USSR, 1969); Carlo Rancati (Italy, 1940); Czeslaw Lukaszewicz (Canada, 1964); Rubén Pegorín (Argentina, 1965); Óscar Aquino (Guatemala, 1966); August Prosenik (Yugoslavia, 1916, died 1975); Hege Stendahl (Norway, 1967); Donald Ferguson (USA, 1931); Bernard Kręczyński (Poland, 1953); Arthur Mannsbarth (Austria, 1930).