Tour de France 2023
The start in Euskadi of the Tour de France

The limits of Cabestany

author: Ander Izagirre, 

Cabestany had never seen the images of his 1986 Tour victory again. When they were shown to him in a room full of people, twenty-five years later, he let out a cry of amusement and anguish:

- I'm not going to make it, I'm not going to make it!

The Pello Ruiz Cabestany of 1986, wearing the blue and white jersey of Seat-Orbea, had attacked on a climb with seven kilometres to go to the finish in Evreux, had broken the train of the Panasonic team that was preparing the sprint for the very fast Eric Vanderaerden, had caught up with Federico Etxabe, had left him on the slight climb of the last kilometre and was already sprinting uphill, standing up, until he suffocated and sat down in the saddle. He had miscalculated his strength.

- ¡I cannot make it!

A peloton was bearing down on him at a much faster pace than his own, with the green jersey of Vanderaerden sprinting at the front with all his might. Cabestany got to his feet again....

- I don't understand this. I don't know how I was able to sprint again.

...and prolonged the dance in agony until he crossed the finish line first. He didn't even have time to raise his hands. He stopped pedalling and his head sank into his chest as if he had been pulled out of the socket at a stroke. Vanderaerden overtook him fast, furious, late.

- I've gone beyond my limits," Cabestany declared after his victory.

The limit of Tourmalet

A year earlier, at 23, the San Sebastian-born Pello Ruiz Cabestany crossed another limit. In the queen stage of the Pyrenees, he attacked on the col d'Aspin, caught up with his team-mate Pepe del Ramo and took advantage of his wheel for a few kilometres. On the first ramps of the Tourmalet he continued alone.

When they asked him how he felt to climb the Tourmalet alone during the Tour de France, Cabestany shakes his head, remains silent for a while and lets out a "buaaaah" under his breath.

- It's funny: I was suffering like a dog but I wasn't suffering. I was enjoying myself, savouring such a moment, escaping on the mythical pass that I used to see as a child in the magazine Miroir du Cyclisme, the scene of the champions in the history of cycling... The fog rolled in and I was climbing up a corridor of screaming people. There were my parents, my friends, a lot of Basque fans cheering me on, I felt like I was floating. I climbed the Tourmalet like a child, playing.

He reached a lead of about three minutes and the situation favoured him. The leader, Bernard Hinault, was injured because he had broken his nose a few days earlier; the second, Greg Lemond, belonged to his team and was not going to move; the most explosive climber, Lucho Herrera, climbed calmly because of the pact that the Colombians had with Hinault: they undertook not to attack from afar, not to revolutionise the race, and in exchange Hinault's team would lend them a hand to achieve partial victories. Herrera won two stages and the mountains, Fabio Parra won a stage and the white jersey, Hinault won the Tour.

So the group of favourites climbed at a steady pace until Pedro Delgado attacked. The rider from Segovia came second over the Tourmalet, a minute and a half behind his team-mate Cabestany. The favourites reached the top almost three minutes behind.

This stage of the 1985 Tour went down in history as an example of perfect strategy, played with a slate, with three big passes and three Seat-Orbea riders who launched their staggered attacks to help each other and finish off with Perico Delgado's triumph in Luz Ardiden. Cabestany smiles.

- It's funny how that stage was told, because it wasn't planned. I saw that Del Ramo had very little advantage on the Aspin, he didn't get more than a minute and we were catching him, so I decided to attack on my own. At that time there were no earpieces or anything.  I caught up with Del Ramo, he took me a stretch towards the Tourmalet but I was very exhausted, I was soon alone in the lead and I took three minutes. I attacked to win the stage. And nobody told Delgado to attack, it was his decision.

Seat-Orbea director Txomin Perurena applied the orthodoxy: you can't have one rider from your team escaping and another chasing him. You have to stop one of them.

Cabestany crowned the Tourmalet euphoric, thinking that he was going to recover his strength on the descent and that he would then climb to the finish at Luz Ardiden. But up there, in the mists of the Tourmalet, he crossed a dividing line. Cabestany was a talented 23-year-old who until then had enjoyed cycling by attacking, setting up ambushes, devising surprises, playing games. He had won the 1985 Tour of the Basque Country, at home, with his home team, against the best in the world, with an attack on a descent; he had fought for the 1985 Tour of Spain in which he won a stage, wore the yellow jersey for several days, disputed the victory with Robert Millar until the penultimate stage and was a key player in throwing the Scotsman off the scent while Delgado escaped for the most unexpected victory in the Vuelta. But on the Tourmalet, Cabestany went from such carefree cycling to a much more serious one. The second team manager rolled down the car window and gave him an order like a sledgehammer.

- He gave me a rain jacket to keep me warm on the descent and said: "Pello, you have to wait for Perico, he's coming alone". "What? "Yes, Perico is coming, stand up". I started to cry terribly. I went down very slowly, looking back, sobbing. I was the first one over the Tourmalet and I went down crying.

Cabestany says that that moment was as if someone had turned off the lights.

- I felt like I was on centre stage, escaping on the Tourmalet during the Tour, and suddenly someone flicked the switch and the party was over. I went from being a star to a cyclist who is paid to obey. I was suddenly brought down to earth.

Cabestany waited for Delgado, guided him on the descent and pulled him up the first ramps of Luz Ardiden.

- I gave everything. Because it was clear to me: the important thing was the team, the director's orders had to be obeyed and Perico was my friend. I don't know how many kilometres I pulled with him, but I remember perfectly the corner where I burst. If I'm taken there now, I recognise it.

That work by Cabestany probably made the difference between defeat and victory: Delgado won the stage by a handful of seconds against a Lucho Herrera who climbed the last pass, closing the gap at full throttle. The Seat-Orbea celebrated his first Tour victory, Cabestany received one of the bitter lessons of professional cycling and persevered until the following year he achieved his most memorable victory: the one in which he could not even raise his hands.

Author: Ander Izagirre