The Stolen Vuelta a Espana / How Robert Millar Never Won A Grand Tour

This article originally appeared here in 2013 but I’ve added new information that has since come to lightLR.

The Vuelta a Espana is almost upon us, for which I am deeply thankful for. Although the English Premier League has started up again (my other big sporting habit), there is nothing like a daily fix of Grand Tour stage racing. I prefer to mainline my Grand Tours, get that belt tight and sit down to watch every available minute of the stuff. Or at least have it on in the background, some of it is a bit like watching fish in a tank, which I don’t mind for I am also quite partial to watching fish.

The third Grand Tour of the year is kind of the runt of the Grand Tour litter, harsh to say but there is some truth in that, but there’s something eternally alluring about the Vuelta for many a cycling fan.

Known for its fierce climbs and hard stages, there’ s a ‘Wild West’ feel to the Vuelta that the Tour, with all its glamour, and the Giro, with its romance, often lack. The Tour is a Hollywood blockbuster, the Giro a handsome film noir, and the Vuelta a Spaghetti Western.

And no year was wilder and meaner than 1985, when a Scottish rider had the Vuelta ‘stolen’ from him on the penultimate day by a cabal of Spanish riders who united to defeat him, with Pedro Delgado of Spain overturning a huge deficit to win. 

Robert Millar (now Philippa York) was the Scot in question. He lost despite having a six minute lead over Delgado at the start of the day, losing over 7 minutes to Delgado. Yet no one quite agrees on exactly how he lost, or how Delgado won. Intrigue and no little mystery still shrouds the day in question, almost 40 years ago…

Millar in 1990.

The year was 1985. The starring characters were Spain’s Pedro Delgado and Scotland’s Robert Millar. Delgado would contend that he won the Vuelta fair and square. 

Millar behind Delgado at the Tour.

Millar made his thoughts clear when he said: “They preferred to see me lose and a Spaniard win. I’m disgusted with it all. The crowds throw things at you and spit at you because they want a Spaniard to win. But I don’t let them affect me…. I haven’t lost this race because I cracked up. You can’t compete against the whole peloton.”

Jose Recio, a Spanish pro on the Kelme team, won the fateful stage: ‘It was one of the weirdest things that ever happened during my cycling career: seeing somebody win the race who was more than six minutes behind on general classification the day before.’

Robert Millar was, in 1985, by far the greatest climber Britain had ever produced, and he’d proved it just a year before the1985 Vuelta with victory in the King of the Mountains competition in the Tour de France, securing 4th place on the GC in the process. He also achieved the highest ever finish in the Giro by a Briton, with 2nd in 1987, securing another KOM jersey there.

A mural of Robert Millar in Lennoxtown, Scotland. Millar remains a hero in Scotland.

One thing he never won though was a Grand Tour, but he and every Scottish cycling fan will tell you that he should have…

Before the start of the penultimate day of the 1985 Vuelta, Millar had a 6 minute lead over Spain’s Pedro Delgado. Delgado was furthest from Millar’s mind, however, not even considered a threat. His closest competitor was the Colombian Pacho Rodriguez, just 10 seconds behind. But with just this stage to go and then the procession of the last stage, Millar was confident of the victory and sure that his rivals had all but given up hope.

Quizzed by the media before the stage start, Millar made his plan for the day clear: “I just have to stick to Pacho Rodríguez’s wheel and I win the Vuelta.”

But when Millar punctured in the rain and fog on the second of the day’s three difficult climbs, Delgado attacked with Jose Recio. The pair managed to build a lead of over 3 minutes, unbeknownst to Millar, who still thought he was with the lead group.

 In the days before ear-piece radios, riders had to rely on their team managers, driving in cars sometimes far behind, to inform them of the gaps. Millar’s Peugeot team directeur – Roland Berland, a Frenchman – states that he was never given enough information over the car radio, and that when it did come it was only in Spanish.

However, the Spaniard Ramon Mendiburu, the technical director and official timekeeper of the Vuelta, states that he was in the first car following Millar and Rodriguez and that time checks were given “every two to three kilometres of the time between Delgado and the race leader. I knew that the the Vuelta was up for grabs that day. How could I not remember that?”

But in yet another version, Dutch journalist Jeff Van Looy says disagrees with Mendiburu. “In those days I can remember the time checks were irregular. How could they not be, given that the race had split up completely over the last climb? There were little groups of riders in twos and threes all over the place. And they didn’t let the cars through to talk”.

Whatever happened it is clear that at the very least Millar had no idea that Delgado was riding into the leader’s jersey. Watching the YouTube footage (see end of article), at 2 minutes 28 seconds you can see Millar relaxed and talking to the other riders around him – he clearly has no idea that Delgado and Recio are flying away up ahead. Millar was still watching the man in second place, Rodriguez, who was next to him. 

When Millar finally did hear that the gap was several minutes, there were only 20 kilometres left of the stage. Is it possible that Millar alone wasn’t receiving time checks whilst the others were? Was there a conspiracy?

Millar riding a hill climb event in the UK, circa 1985. Image courtesy Alastair Schouten

Another rider alongside Millar was Spaniard Ruiz Cabestany, only a minute behind Millar on the GC. It seems that somehow he was receiving time checks, as he later said that he knew all along that Millar was losing the Vuelta but that he been ordered to say nothing to the Scot. And just as Millar was receiving no information, Delgado and Reico were given time updates constantly, encouraging them to keep driving hard

There were some question about Millar’s Peugeot teammates, none of whom appeared able to help the race leader. Some have suggested that this was in part due to jealousy. Millar was not an easy man to get along with and as something of a lone wolf he often irritated others with his eccentric ways. He was also not French – there have been rumors over the years that the French riders did not want to see a foreign rider, and certainly not a haughty one, as Millar was viewed, to win the race and steal the glory. 

However, other have countered these arguments. Millar after all wass was teammate Ronan Pensec’s cycling hero and Pascal Simon’s brother in law. They appeared devastated when they realized Robert had lost the jersey and the way he had lost it. Also, it was reported by L’Equipe journalist Philippe Brunel that teammate Duclos-Lassalle was totally disgusted when having made it to the finish he learned about the race outcome.

Millar for his part blames team manager Roland Berland, whereas Berland shifts the blame to pther teams not helping Peugeot. Yet there is an argument that Berland lost bis composure as a result of being angered by the the Spanish teams and media actions during the race, and that he wasted his riders’ energy as a result.

“Berland was really pissed off with the Spanish teams the Spanish fans and the race organizers at that point,” writes Matthieu France. “There had been a lot of tension in that Vuelta right from the beginning. The French journalists from l’Equipe would tell stories of ”blatant Spanish unsportmanship” on an almost daily basis. Berland made the whole Peugeot team ride at the start of that ill-fated stage to try and win the team prize. He wanted Peugeot to win the team prize as the cherry on the cake. Of course the Peugeot guys were burnt and nowhere to be found when Robert needed them badly at the end of the stage save for Simon and Pensec who almost managed to rejoin the Millar group but found themselves stopped at a railway crossing. Of course they waited there a couple of minutes for a train that never came.’

Berland in his racing days, in Bic jersey, alongside Eddy Merckx and Patrick Sercu. Image: Walter Vermeulen

The situation on the road as the race topped the last mountain was Delgado and Recio in the lead, with a small group containing Sean Kelly behind them, then Millar and Rodriguez’s group. Kelly later said that despite the fact that he was going full gas with a strong group of 5, they could not even take a little time off Delgado and Reico. In fact, they lost a further 2 minutes on the pair by the end.

But how could Delgado and Reico’s lead over the hard-riding peloton still continue to grow – and to 7 minutes? 

Millar suspected the two were aided by the Spanish press, riding on motorbikes:

“I don’t know if [Delgado] was really flying or riding on a motorbike’s slipstream. That’s what it’s like in Spain when you’re Spanish and behind a motorbike.”

Sean Kelly had his suspicions too: 

“From the start it was obvious that the race was receiving greater media coverage that year than in any previous year. This meant that there were more TV cameras and more photographers riding on motorcycles at the front of the peloton. If a Spanish rider or small groups of riders made a break near the finish they were given a sheltered escort to the finish.”

The Millar group was now about 20 riders strong, with 20km to go, with many Spanish in the group. All of them refused to help Millar, and he had to chase alone at the front. 

Rodriguez, only 10 secs behind Millar on the GC, was seeing his second place go too, but he offered to do no work. Some of the Spanish media had been unkind to Millar, commenting on his appearance ( he had an earring at a time when they were very uncommon), and Spanish cycling was desperate for a homegrown hero.

Rodriguez, who was Colombian but rode for a Spanish team, ‘ZOR’, was ordered by his manager Javier Minguez not to work with Millar. 

“As things stood, Rodrguez was destined for second place and Millar for the title. Anything was preferable to allowing Millar the victory. It pained me to hold Rodriguez back during the last kilometres, but it was necessary to prevent Millar from reaching becoming champion. Have no doubt: I was the architect of Delgado’s victory, and I don’t regret my decision.”

After the race, Delgado even thanked ZOR.

“I want to thank all the Spanish, especially Javier Mínguez, the team manager of Zor, who deprived Rodríguez of an attractive 2nd place finish in the GC to help boost the chances of a victory for a Spanish rider.”

Up front, Delgado was said to have ‘gifted’ the stage to Reico for helping him gain time on Millar.

Kelme’s directeur sportif in the race, Rafael Carrasco, said that: “I wanted Recio to take the stage, and if we could help a Spanish rider win the Vuelta, well, so much the better. In terms of publicity for the team, it was just what we needed. The stage and the Spanish helping the Spanish. But Delgado never even so much as took Recio out to supper to thank him.”

Recio claims that “I could have won that day without any help but my directeur sportif made me wait for Delgado.” 

Delgado, a fierce descender and a very good climber, finally had won the Vuelta – but could he really have won without all the circumstances coming together to help him?

Millar stated that he was naiive in not paying some other teams to help him, before the stage started, though traditionally this would have been the job of his DS, Berland. “I was new to being leader in a stage race. It wasn’t like I was the Boss or anything like that. If I’d known then what I do now I would have reached some agreements.”

By ‘agreements’ Millar means that he should have offered other riders and teams money to ride for him, common practise in professional cycling. Often in local races in Europe riders in a breakaway will bargain over the last few kilometres to ‘buy’ the victory. Millar and Berland’s problem was that they left it too late, and that most in the peloton wanted a Spaniard to win.

The journalist Van Looy says that “Nobody sat down at the beginning of the stage and said, ‘Right, today we hurt Millar.’ It was a combination of mistakes made by his directeur sportif and unfavourable circumstances. You can find that combination any day in cycling, even though it doesn’t normally have such a dramatic effect”.

Millar blames Berland. Berland says that Millar was ‘betrayed’, but won’t say by who. Rumours suggest Berland had paid the Panasonic team before the stage but that once the money was in their pockets, they refused to help the Scotsman.

Millar himself states that “The other pros can’t make you win a race, but they can help you to lose one. Delgado didn’t win. I lost. This was mainly thanks to circumstances which shouldn’t have happened. I didn’t begrudge Delgado at all because he wasn’t to blame, but the other Spaniards didn’t get gold stars in my notebook”.

At the end of the day, nothing that happened on that last stage twenty-six years ago was particularly unusual. Teams had bought help from other teams before, certain riders of one nationality had helped others on different teams before too. In the Giro d’Italia, a race helicopter had deliberately flown so close to Frenchman Laurent Fignon that he could barely pedal up a hill, and lost the race to an Italian. 

What is so intriguing about this story is that no one seems to know exactly the factors that went  into the victory. Millar says he was cheated, robbed. Delgado says he won fairly. 

With that, the allure of the story of the Stolen Vuelta, the most controversial edition ever, will live on. 

LINK to YT video.

Author: Lee Rodgers

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist and the original CrankPunk.

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