Thursday, November 5, 2015

"Reckless, The Life and Times of Luis Ocaña," by AlasdairFotheringham--Another Merckx Biography

The career of Luis Ocaña was so intertwined with that of Eddy Merckx, Alasdair Fotheringham's recent biography on the Spanish Tour de France winner, "Reckless, The Life and Times of Luis Ocaña," is almost as much about Merckx as it is about Ocaña.

More than half of the book is devoted to their Tour de France battles in the early '70s.  They were born just eight days apart with Merckx being the junior, but Merckx's career took off much faster than did that of Ocaña.  They first raced against one another in 1968 at the Giro d'Italia, when Merckx was already a dominant force and Ocaña was somewhat of an unknown.  Merckx won the race, his first Grand Tour victory, while Ocana finished 34th.  They both rode The Tour de France for the first time in 1969.  Merckx won it while Ocaña lasted only eight stages.  Ocaña improved to 31st the next year as Merckx won again.  

But in 1971, Ocaña was able to challenge Merckx full throttle unlike anyone else at the time.  He gave him one of the worst defeats of his career on the Orcieres-Merlette stage in the Alps, winning by an unimaginable eight minutes and forty-two seconds.  He was poised to claim The Race title and topple Merckx from his throne, but he crashed several days later in the rain in the Pyrenees and had to abandon. He couldn't descend as well as Merckx and gave into his predisposition to recklessness as he chased after the Cannibal on a treacherous descent and wiped out and then was hit by two following riders.  Fotheringham maintains that his reckless streak was what defined him, thus the title of the book.  It was  what made him great, but also undid him, on and off the bike.

Ocaña's lone Tour win came in 1973 when Merckx skipped The Tour after winning it the previous four years.  Ocaña won The Race in convincing Merckxian fashion by over fifteen minutes over future Tour winner Bernard Thevenet, claiming six stages along the way.  But without Merckx in the field nor the Italian great Felice Gimondi, it was known as "The Tour of Absences," and Ocaña's victory was somewhat tainted.  Ocaña, though, would have none of it, and said that if Merckx had been there he would have made him suffer.

Fotheringham interviewed Merckx for the book, but not Ocaña, as he died in 1994 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of forty-eight, sixteen years after he retired from racing, distraught over his ill-health and struggling finances.  But he does interview his wife of twenty-seven years.  She feared her husband would do harm to himself and called his doctor to come and tend to him shortly before he shot himself.  Fotherringham cites his brother William's biography of Merckx several times and also that of Daniel Friebe. The emphasis on Merckx is reflected on the cover of the book, quoting Merckx as saying Ocaña was his "most dangerous rival."  Fotheringham also references many of the other books written about Ocaña, including his autobiography and another with the title "Merckx-Ocaña: Duel at the Summit."

What made Ocaña dangerous in the eyes of Merckx was his recklessness.  He was a rare cyclist who dared to attack him and with abandon. Usually it was to no avail, but he made Merckx wary.  When he humiliated Merckx in the 1971 Tour with his dramatic win on the Orcieres-Merlette stage, considered one of the most memorable stages in Tour history, Merckx responded the next day with an all-out attack with his teammates from the very start.  That too is a legendary stage.  Merckx was only able to gain back two minutes, but he pushed the pace so hard the racers arrived at the finish in Marseilles much earlier than anticipated and before many of the dignitaries had gathered.  The mayor of Marseilles was so incensed he didn't allow The Tour to return to Marseilles for several decades.

Ocaña was driven by an obsession to defeat Merckx.  He renamed his dog Merckx so he could have the command of at least one Merckx.  He took special delight in ordering Merckx to lie at his feet.  When he met the Queen of Belgium, he told her he was going to make Merckx eat his bike.  He told others he wanted to destroy him.  He attacked him many a time, but was only able to claim victory over him five times, two of which were time trials.

As prone as Ocaña was to impulsive and unpredictable behavior, Fotheringham doesn't cite a single instance of Ocaña being brought to tears, whether in defeat or victory, as is common in the peloton.  To contain such emotions was part of his heritage.  He said he only saw his carpenter father cry once--when he presented him with the Spanish national championship jersey for the 1968 time trial.  

Ocaña had an early career decision whether to declare himself Spanish or French.  His family moved to France when he was twelve. He was educated in France and married a French woman and spent most of his life in France.  His wife said he was clearly Spanish in character, but overall was more French than Spanish.  He rode for a Spanish team early in his career.  When he switched to the French Bic team of the pen company in 1970 for more money, he was lambasted by the Spanish press.  One writer said he would pay for it with "tears of blood."

Fotheringham's previous book on an earlier Spanish Tour de France winner, Federico Bahamontes, was also light on the mention of tears, in contrast to most cycling books.  He clearly understands the significance of tears though, as he uses the tears of Gimondo, after a snowy stage in the 1968 Giro, to demonstrate the severity of the conditions and to elevate Merckx's triumph on the stage.  Gimondo struggled and apologized to the nation afterwards in tears on television.

No cycling book is complete either without the intrusion of drugs.  Fotheringham attributes a  teammate as saying Ocaña was a very heavy user of "medication," though he only tested positive once --for pemoline, an amphetamine, in the 1976 Tour when his career was in decline.  He didn't deny taking the drug, but  said he was no more guilty than anyone else. Four others also failed the drug test in that Tour, but none were kicked out of The Race or given any kind of suspension.  They were all sanctioned with the standard penalty in effect then--a mere ten minutes added to their time.

Fotheringham offers other examples that the times have changed considerably in the decades since Merckx and Ocaña.  Teams during The Tour were often housed in dormitories.  The money they earned was also paltry compared to now.  Early in the 1971 Tour on a day when the riders had to ride three stages in one day, they went on strike in the first sector in protest that the prize money had not been increased since 1963.

Fotheringham inserts many such choice insights into the world of cycling, making this a valuable contribution to understanding not only Ocaña and his rivalry with Merckx but the sport in general.  Whether he next writes on another Spanish Tour winner or some other aspect of cycling, it will be a book to look forward to.  Hopefully he'll try to match the output of his brother, though he has a was to catch up.  With only two he is eight behind.

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