José Manuel Fuente: Greatest climber in pro cycling history?

Pete Cossins remembers Spanish climber José Manuel Fuente.

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Throughout the 2021 Giro d’Italia we will be running columns from La Course En Tête.  

The steep hills in the finale of Tuesday’s fourth stage of the Giro d’Italia produced the first little shake-up between the GC favorites, Mikel Landa, Egan Bernal and Hugh Carthy gaining a little ground, while George Bennett and, particularly, João Almeida proved to be the day’s most significant losers. The frantic finish into Sestola also saw Joe Dombrowski finally take the stage win that his talent had long suggested, the American’s debut success in a Grand Tour echoing a similar triumph achieved 50 years ago this month by another magnificent climber, perhaps even the best of all time, José Manuel Fuente.

Like Dombrowski, the Spaniard’s victory in the 1971 edition of the corsa rosa came after he had dropped the last remaining member of the breakaway – Lino Farisato playing the Alessandro Di Marchi role – on the final slopes of the rise up to the finish, which was located at the Pian del Falco ski station above Sestola rather than in the town itself. That success also put Fuente into the green points jersey, which, bar a one-day interlude, he retained to the finish in Milan.

Fuente’s victory at Sestola proved to be a pivotal point in his career. During his teenage years in his native Asturias, Fuente had had to combine racing and training with his work in a metal fabrication shop, which slowed his progress through the ranks. When he turned pro in 1970, he was already 24, but, finally able to focus on his racing thanks to a decent contract with the Karpy team that enabled him to quit his metal-working job, he quickly made an impact. On his debut at the Vuelta a España that spring, he not only took the blue-and-yellow “tiger” jersey that had just been introduced for the leading first-year professional, but held it to Madrid, where he finished 16th on GC.

Fuente stood out for other reasons too. Small in stature but comparatively long in the leg, one of which featured an ugly tangle of varicose veins, he was a smoker and would often be puffing away just before a race start. He also opted for bar-end gear shifters rather than the almost universal downtube shifters used in the peloton at that time, and for a 54-tooth big ring that, according to Kas teammate José Antonio González Linares, he would always attack in, “even when the road was going uphill”.

That Vuelta success, combined with four stage in the Tour of Guatemala as well as stage victories at the Tour of Asturias, the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta a La Rioja, earned him a contract with Spain’s premier team, Kas in 1971. He went to that year’s Vuelta as one of the favorites for victory but his performance was catastrophically poor, as he finished 54th of 68 riders, the Kas team doctor describing as racing like “a truck driver”.

Kas team boss Dalmacio Langarica was so livid with his performance that he not only pulled Fuente from the Spanish squad’s lineup for the Giro, but also made it clear that the Spaniard had no future on the team. However, a late injury to Gabriel Mascaró forced Langarica to backpedal. Fuente was the only rider available to take Mascaró’s place, so Kas headed for Italy with a team that Langarica described as having “nine racers and a cyclo-tourist”.

That assessment seemed well proven when Fuente was the last rider home on stage two into Bari, losing half an hour in the process and finishing outside the time limit. Fortunately, there were 16 other riders in that group and they were reinstated the next day, partly thanks to the pressure that Langarica put on the organizers. Fuente finished dead last again the next day, this time on his own, and in penultimate position on stage four, by which point he was already close to an hour down on Giro leader Enrico Paolini.

Yet, his results then began to pick up. He finished in the top half of the field on the stage five finish on the Gran Sasso, won by his Kas teammate Vicente López Carril, and kept improving until he came good on stage 10 at Sestola. On the final climb, he made full use of that 54 ring, which when employed was, according to teammate Paco Galdós, “like using a garrotte on a rival”. On stage 13, he was so strong on the Fugazze pass, the only categorized climb of the day, that he was able to stop and have a can of soft drink at the summit while waiting for the peloton to catch up.

Fuente went on to complete a grand tour set by making his Tour de France debut that summer. On the stage to Orcières-Merlette, he launched the attack on the Côte de Laffrey that triggered Luis Ocaña’s epic raid, when the Spaniard finished nine minutes clear of Eddy Merckx and most of the field, Fuente included, finished outside the time limit and had to be reinstated.

In the Pyrenees, Ocaña overshadowed his compatriot once again, this time by crashing out of the race in the yellow jersey in a squall on the Col de Menté as Fuente was riding to an epic solo victory of his own at Luchon. Underlining his form, Fuente won the short hillclimb the next day to Supernbagnères, throttling Merckx with that 54 ring on the final bends up to the finish.

That rivalry with the Belgian super-champion continued over the next three years, particularly at the Giro, where Fuente won the king of the mountains jersey between 1971 and 1974. Unlike most other climbers, the Spaniard took on Merckx directly, racing him for the maglia rosa whenever the opportunity arose, even on the flat final stage into Milan during of the 1974 edition.

In 1972, on the 48km morning stage from the coast to the summit of the legendary Block Haus, Kas and Fuente had “the Cannibal” and the rest of the field for breakfast, the Spaniard finishing two-and-a-half minutes ahead of Merckx as he rode into the maglia rosa. But, just as he could be brilliantly good, Fuente could be terribly bad, attacking when he didn’t need to, affected, insisted his teammates, by the movements of the moon.

By the time that kidney disease forced his premature retirement in 1976 at the age of just 30, Fuente had won the Vuelta twice (1972 and 1974), finished second at the Giro (1972) and third at the Tour (1973), winning 14 mountain stages in the process.

Following the 1972 Giro, when he won five stages and finished second to Merckx, the Belgian said of him: “Fuente is the greatest climber in the modern history of cycling. He’s the climber that world cycling has needed since the departures of Bahamontes and Gaul and, as far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the legendary true climbers, of the same stature as the greatest we’ve ever seen.”

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