The Gredos Mountain Range : the origin of Bernard Hinault’s extraordinary 1983 Vuelta

August 11 th 2019 - 11:00

A Vuelta that took off from the Autonomous Community of Valencia, continuing to Catalonia, passing through the Pyrenees, brushing against Navarra, visiting Asturias, with a historical epilogue in the Gredos Mountain Range before the grand finale in Madrid. The 1983 and 2019 editions of La Vuelta have a lot in common. The extraordinary turn of events brought about by Bernard Hinault 36 years ago may serve as an inspiration to more than one in the next edition of La Vuelta.

In the final kilometres of the 20th, and second-last, stage of La Vuelta 19 (74th edition) – that will join the Arenas de San Pedro with the Gredos Platform -, the riders will climb the Serranillos Mountain Pass. When they do, they will come across the exact place where Bernard Hinault turned around the 38th edition of the Spanish Grand Tour in 1983.

It was during the 17th stage, which took off from the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca. The day’s route featured four climbs: Peña Negra (1st category’s final climb of La Vuelta 19), El Pico, Serranillos and La Paramera. That day, Hinault started 10” behind the leader, Julián Gorospe. The outcome of that stage was the French champion’s final hope. And it happened: Gorospe reached the velodrome finish-line in Ávila 20 minutes after the Breton imposed his top speed on Marino Lejarreta and Vicente Belda. He lost all hopes of winning under the unbeatable rhythm of a young Laurent Fignon, working hard for his leader, the “badger”.

In all historical debates about La Vuelta, the Ávila stage from the 6th of May 1983 is considered to be one of the race’s greatest feats since it came into existence in 1935. Maybe even the greatest. It stands out both from a geographical, as well as from a historical point of view. Beyond its borders, Spain is usually described like a round frying pan, with mountainous borders that flank its coastline: from the Baetic Mountains in the South, to the Pyrenean massif that separates Spain from France in the North. Besides Switzerland and Austria, both embedded in the Alps, and the microstates of Andorra and Liechtenstein, Spain is the most mountainous country in Europe, taking into account the proportion of its relief when compared to its surface area. The Central System is a plateau of average altitude which explains why, unlike the other two Grand Tours of the cycling calendar, La Vuelta can be determined 1500 metres above sea level and not necessarily at 2000 metres.

The Serranillos Mountain Pass peaks at an altitude of 1570 m. On paper, it was not the biggest attraction of La Vuelta 1983. But the Lagos de Covadonga, that made their first appearance in the race itinerary that year, was. (Thibaut Pinot was proclaimed the 21st winner on this mythical summit in 2018). There were high expectations for the Lagos. One of them, Lago Enol, pronounced almost like the “badger’s” last name, served as a hook to promote “Lagos de Hinault”, long before he ceded victory of that iconic mountain pass to Marino Lejarreta at the end of the 13th stage of that Vuelta. The Frenchman didn’t manage to take the yellow jersey over from the late Alberto Fernández whose name continues to be honoured year after year in one of La Vuelta’s climbs (this year it is La Cubilla, the finish-line of the 16th stage and winner of the “most viral high-altitude finale” contest).

Hinault was the favourite to win La Vuelta 1983, a race he had already won before. La Vuelta 1978 was the first victory among his ten Grand Tours, and also the last one organised by El Correo Español – El Pueblo Vasco, before the Royal Spanish Cycling Federation (REFC) handed the reigns over to Unipublic, its current organiser. In order to give La Vuelta back its prestige after being tarnished by a complicated 1982 edition (the first one in which the winner -Ángel Arroyo- was stripped of his title for doping), the organiser seduced the quadruple winner of the Tour de France and World Championship winner Giuseppe Saronni. Hinault, beaten in the prologue of Almussafes by his teammate Dominique Gaigne, had the wind in his favour at the start but suffered the consequences of a sudden change in the weather at the very moment that the favourites were taking off. The French rider only held onto the yellow jersey for one day, after winning it at Castellar de Nuch (Stage 5). He lost it the next day to Marino Lejarreta, who wore it for the first time, despite having been declared winner – a posteriori – of the previous edition. Things only got worse and the French rider lost 2’13” to his rival in the uphill I.T.T to Panticosa (Stage 8). Julián Gorospe, Alberto Fernández, Álvaro Pino and then Gorospe again took successive leadership of the general classification. Then, there was Ávila and it all came down to a duel between Hinault and Lejarreta. That is how the majority of fans remember it, also partly because it was the first edition to be broadcast live on TV with the soundtrack of “Me estoy volviendo loco”, by the techno-pop group Azul y Negro that marked a turning point in the history of La Vuelta’s songs.

La Vuelta 1983 paved the way for a new generation of Spanish cyclists such as ‘Perico’ Delgado and Miguel Indurain. Hinault remembers it as “the toughest victory to achieve” from all of the ten Grand Tours under his belt, especially because he did not expect such a high level from the national riders. His knee was so painful that he had to have an operation and miss the Tour de France, won by his best La Vuelta teammate. Laurent Fignon finished 7th in the general classification and confirmed that his legs were ready to win a Grand Tour.

The appearance of Fignon in La Vuelta 1983 marked the divorce between Hinault and his sporting director, Cyrille Guimard, which led to the creation of Bernard Tapie’s team La Vie Claire. The team was described at the start of this year by Dave Brailsford, principal of Team Ineos, as “the pioneer of current cycling”, for the resulting re-evaluation of cyclist salaries. This 14th of September 2019, maybe someone will have to explain to the riders that depart from Arenas de San Pedro just how much they owe the Gredos Mountain Range.

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