Vuelta 2004: Joseba Beloki’s DNF and my white Nikes
Over the five years I was editorial director at ROAD Magazine I went on some really amazing trips. I rode in the VIP car at Paris-Roubaix, and I’ve seen the Vuelta as well as the Giro. And then there were the product launches that were held all over the world. Often I would come home with a story that wasn’t suitable for the magazine and were best told over a few beers. These stories range from hanging out with pros and journalists and seeing what goes on when the stage is over, to staying out late at night and crawling back to the room, getting into a bar fight, rally racing rental cars, and just stupid stuff that goes on at the after-parties. When I told these stories to people they asked why didn’t I write about them. For one it would get me, and possibly the people I was with, in trouble. However, every once in awhile I’ll dig up a story from the past and post it. Like this one…
In 2004 I was a guest of the Saunier-Duval cycling team for the Vuelta. To be more exact, I was the guest of Scott Bicycles who were sponsoring the team. This was the beginning of Scott’s entry into ProTour cycling, so they were looking for some publicity and I was there to write a story about the team. Saunier-Duval, in a Hail Mary attempt for GC success, signed Joseba Beloki during the mid-season. He was attempting to come back from his horrific crash during the 2003 Tour de France. Clearly he was damaged goods and with hindsight his stage 9 crash in the Tour was a career ender, not to mention later being linked to Operation Puerto, which put his cycling career into a death spiral which he never pulled out from. But hey, that was Spanish cycling…
I was in the Saunier-Duval team car following Beloki during stage 15’s individual time trial. The course started off flat, but for only for a short distance, and then kicked up. In theory, Beloki could do well here. However theory is a lot different than practice. We clicked along at a reasonable pace, but the director was doing a lot of communicating with Beloki, which was surprising. I thought Beloki would be going too hard to carry on any type of conversation, but he obviously decided to make this a rolling rest day. As the hill steepened the directors yells of “Venga, venga!!” became less demanding to almost pleading. With my limited Spanish it became clear that Beloki wanted to drop out. At one point we pulled up along side him and the director told him to just finish the stage. We dropped behind Beloki as he begrudgingly continued.
The mood in the car became tense. I could only imagine the thoughts for the directors at that moment, “What the hell! We bring this guy onto the team and he can’t finish the time trial!” I decided to keep my mouth shut, not ask any questions or try to impress them with my limited Spanish. Up ahead I could see a Postal team rider. Beloki passed him and as we approached I could see that it was fellow Long Beach resident, Tony Cruz. As we passed him I leaned out the window and yelled at the top of my lungs, “Do it for Long Beach!” His head snapped toward me and he had a stunned look on his face like, “What the fuck?” Here he was, time trialing up this slope in the Vuelta, and out of the no where someone in the Saunier-Duval car is yelling in English something about Long Beach. I thought I had screwed up and had ruined his time trial concentration. We continued past Tony to the finish where, thankfully, Beloki finished. I found Tony the next day to apologize for yelling at him. Luckily, he didn’t care and he was just surprised to hear me yelling. For him the time trial was just something to get through.
The following day the mood was a little tense. Beloki kept hinting he wasn’t feeling good. I was back in the team car for stage 16 and about 30 miles into the stage Beloki coasted back to the car. There’s a lot of discussion going on between him and the director. I can’t understand any of it, but I know it isn’t good. He rides away and I think, “Okay, he’s going to continue.” Nope. He swings off to the side of the road and gets off his bike. We pull over, Beloki opens the car door and gets in beside me. It is awkward because what do you say at this point? “Hey, nice try.” At this level of racing there is no “nice try”. There was conversation between him and the directors in the front seat, but I’m just sitting next to him thinking, “Man, this was the guy who had Armstrong on the ropes last year at the Tour.” Then, out of the blue Beloki comments that he likes my white Nike running shoes. I didn’t know what to say other than, “Thanks.” I’m not sure if he said that to just break the silence in the car as we drive alongside the peloton. Riders look into the car and seem surprised. Beloki sheepishly waves to his fellow racers as we drive by. We drive ahead of the peloton and our car pulls over. Beloki transfers to another team car that was going to take him to the finish line hotel rather than being stuck in our car for the entire stage. I’m relieved. The tension was thick and no one was happy in that car. If I could have I would have sat in the trunk. Plus, he stank.
The next day Beloki was gone and the team continued like he had never been there. To pull the Vuelta out of the crapper for Saunier-Duval, Constantino Zaballa won stage 19. However for Beloki, that was it for him at Saunier-Duval. David Millar was the next big hope for the Saunier-Duval team and for Millar, Saunier-Duval was his entry back into professional cycling. Maybe my next post will be a Millar story.