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Over the course of a 12-year career, Pedro Delgado became one of the most successful Spanish Grand Tour riders of the 1980s and 1990s. Among his successes were four stages and an overall win at the Tour de France, and five stages and two overall titles at the Vuelta a Espana.
Two decades after Delgado hung up his wheels, CyclingTips reporter Dave Everett caught up with “Perico” to reflect on the rider’s career and what he’s been up to since.
He hasn’t turned a pedal stroke in competitive anger for more than 20 years, but Pedro Delgado still gets recognised in public. This is immediately clear when meeting the man himself in a restaurant in the Spanish city of Tolosa; a chance meeting that came about through Basque clothing manufacture Etxeondo.
In the first five minutes of the interview, Delgado is accosted three times. First it’s the chef of the restaurant, quickly followed by an overly ecstatic middle-aged waitress. She mutters something to the ex-pro in Spanish as her colleague snaps a few photos of the two of them together. It’s clear the woman’s day has been made.
These casual interruptions carry on throughout the interview. Delgado is asked by a young couple, seemingly on their first date, for a quick snap. And then a group of slightly drunk men spot Delgado and insist on buying him a drink. He declines and instead joins in their excited chatter for a moment.
All interruptions are taken in his stride and without fuss. There’s no ego; it’s as if he hasn’t got anywhere else to be. It’s pleasing to see.
In between the interruptions there’s time for a conversation about Delgado’s racing life, where he started and where he’s at now. Where better to start than at the beginning.
“I’ve always enjoyed cycling. I got into cycling because my family didn’t have a lot of money when we were growing up,” Delgado said. “So I worked to get a bicycle when I was 15 years old. I delivered newspapers as a job, I had a paper round. And with that, I bought my first bike, an Orbea.
“The first one was one without a top tube, you know what I mean.”
With a smile on his face, he carves the shape of the bike in the air. It’s clear he remembers it fondly.
“It was like a shopping bike. But the second one was a racing bike, again an Orbea. But it was very heavy, maybe 20kg. Later on, on that bike, I raced and won”.
Throughout his pro career, Delgado was a rider known for attacking with a flourish, gaining him many fans in the process. Among his standout results were overall victories at the 1985 and 1989 Vuelta a Espana. But it comes as a surprise to learn that his most treasured win wasn’t one taken on home turf.
“My victory at the Tour de France in 1988 is my most memorable win,” Delgado recalls. “It’s a pleasure to win in another country. The Spanish people knew me, they knew who Pedro Delgado was. But when you are in a different country there are a lot of foreigners who wonder who you are. ‘Where is this Pedro Delgado from? Who is he?’ It’s nice.
“In France, in Paris on the final day on the Champs Elysees, it is just at another level. You just fly at that moment. I feel that it was my best moment on the bike.”
[ct_highlight_box_start]Delgado, in the yellow jersey, defends his overall lead on stage 19 of the 1988 Tour de France. His overall win wasn’t without controversy though – Delgado tested positive for the masking agent probenecid during the race, but was allowed to continue racing and wasn’t charged with a doping offence.[ct_highlight_box_end]
Delgado returned to the Tour de France in 1989 as reigning champion, tackling what would become one of the most memorable editions of the race. Greg LeMond sealed victory over Frenchman Laurent Fignon in a thrilling final time trial stage, the final margin just eight seconds — the closest in Tour de France history. Delgado completed the podium in third place but it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
“In 1989 I lost the race in the first two days,” he recalls. “In the prologue I arrived late [2 minutes 40 seconds after his allocated start time – ed.] and lost around three minutes.”
In the end his actual time on the road was only 14 seconds slower than that of the stage winner, Erik Breukink.
“After the second stage, which was a team time trial, I lost another five minutes. This was because I lost focus,” Delgado admits. “I needed to recover all these eight minutes but it was too hard to do that.
“Though I feel it was the year I rode at my strongest. And I’m proud of it still.”
Nowadays, the 56-year-old is a cycling commentator for Spanish TV station Television Espanola. It’s kept his profile high, which explains the many people still asking for a few moments of his time. The commentary job has also kept him involved in the sport he clearly loves.
“The commentating’s not as stressful [as racing],” he says. “It’s a pleasure because I enjoy cycling, I enjoy the riding and talking about it.”
Commentating on the big races has also kept him close to ex-teammates and friends he made while racing. In a sense, it’s also given him a greater appreciation for his time as a rider.
“[Doing a Grand Tour] is easier when you’re a cyclist,” Delgado says with a laugh. “You cross the finish line and go straight to the hotel, you have dinner and stay all night in the hotel. Now when I finish my commentating on Spanish TV, we go to the hotel but then go out for dinner with people, ex-teammates, and friends, we stay up talking till late and people come up to me ‘Hey Pedro, how are you?’, wanting photos and to talk.
“It’s a lot harder”.
Being so close to the racing even after retirement, Delgado has plenty of time to reflect on modern cycling and how it compares to his era.
“I feel that the cyclists are too hesitant to break away now,” he says. “I think that preparation rules now for the cyclist. They are all very good now, but it’s very boring to watch a race.
“Years ago you had no devices to know how your body worked, how you were riding. You rode by how you felt. If I was feeling well I broke away.”
To Delgado it’s not just the advent of powermeters and heartrate monitors that have changed racing; race radios have to take some of the blame too.
“I don’t like them at all, I think it’s a bad thing for the spectacle of a race. For the professionals and directors, it’s useful and nice. But for the spectators at home, it’s not — it forces the race to become blocked.
“Now maybe the last hour is exciting, the last mountain, or the last 5km. There are a few exceptions — Alberto Contador and [Vincenzo] Nibali, they try to race differently. But I think it’s the Anglo-Saxon system that has changed it.
“It’s too calculated, it’s too scientific. The riders are now more concentrated on the level of their heartrate or power — they look more to the machines than the race.”
Delgado would love to see racing go back to its spontaneous, more-aggressive roots, but admits such a change is unlikely.
“It’s difficult to return to the style of racing [of old] now,” Delgado says. “I think the first step is not to forbid the race radio because I think it’s a good thing for race security. But it should be limited to one channel for all.
“There can be warnings of dangerous places, they can say who is on the attack. But the whole race should be on the same radio frequency — it would allow a bit more freedom in the race.”
Despite his dislike of modern technology in racing Delgado also sees the benefits of certain technology, including some that were introduced in his era.
“The best thing that arrived into the cycling world was the clipless pedals, that and the STI/Ergo shifters. That changed the sport, that was a very good invention,” he says. “That was 1985 for the pedals, and the gears were 1992 or something like that. It made things more secure, safer.”
The Spaniard has praise for other, more recent inventions too, including compact cranks, electronic shifting, and other electronics.
“I like a vintage bike, I also like a bike with, how do you say it, electric (motor) inside it,” he says with a chuckle.
Not that Delgado needs an electric motor. Unlike some ex-pros he’s keeping in good shape, riding between 60 and 80km twice a week.
“I like it for my health, to feel good. I still enjoy riding.”
Before too long the interview comes to a close. It’s getting late and the Etxeondo Grand Fondo starts early the next morning — a 206km event with 4,000 meters of climbing through the picturesque hills of the Basque region.
Delgado quickly points out he won’t be riding — he has a wedding to attend in Barcelona. The following day he’s spotted at the start though, not kitted up but hanging from the side of one of the Etxeondo cars, zooming up and down the 500-strong peloton, shouting at the participants.
In the driver’s seat is one of the friends he’s kept from his racing days, Txomin Perurena, his old team director at the Seat-Orbea team. The two hover about the peloton for the first 8km or so, before shooting up the road, never to be seen again. Not unlike Delgado did back in his racing days.