Bono at the Vuelta a Espana

In what year did Bono stand atop the winner’s podium at what was a great day for Ireland at the Vuelta a Espana?

The answer is 1962. Bono, Paul Hewson, of U2 fame, was but a 2 year old drawing on the walls in his house in Glasnevin in 1962. But, the Bono who made it on to the winner’s podium of the Vuelta 48 years ago was the little known Italian rider Ernesto Bono who claimed the biggest victory of his career by winning Stage 12 of that year’s race into the city of Logrono. The reason Ireland had cause to celebrate was that Seamus Elliott had retained the Vuelta race leader’s jersey. Elliott would go on to wear the jersey for a total of nine days that year only losing the jersey three stages from the end to eventual winner Rudi Altig of Germany.

Ernesto Bono, winner of a stage in the 1962 Vuelta a Espana.

In that 1962 Vuelta a Espana Seamus Elliott marked a number of milestones for Irish cycling. He won Ireland’s first ever stage of the Vuelta a Espana, he was the first Irishman to lead any of the three Grand Tours and he also finished the race in 3rd place, which meant he was the first Irishman to finish on the podium of a Grand Tour. This Irish presence at the Vuelta, established by Elliott, faded (as did the Irish presence in professional cycling in general) until Seán Kelly arrived on the scene in the late seventies.

Kelly won the race overall in 1988 taking the leader’s jersey from the Spaniard Anselmo Fuerte in the final time trial. But Kelly’s success at the Vuelta spanned much further than the year of his overall success. In total, Kelly won 16 stages of the Vuelta, the 5th highest tally of any rider, winning the points classification four times along the way, a record shared with Laurent Jalabert that still stands. Kelly is one of six riders who have won two Grand Tour points jerseys in the one year, the others are Rudi Altig (in that 1962 race), Jan Janssen, Eddy Merckx, Djamolidin Abdoujaparov and Laurent Jalabert. Kelly is also the only man to have won the points jersey four times in two of the Grand Tours, as he also won the Tour de France green jersey four times.

Kelly would have won the Vuelta in 1987 too if it weren’t for a saddle boil which forced him out of the race with three stages to go, whilst wearing the leader’s jersey. This would have led to the remarkable feat of Irish riders winning all three of cycling’s Grand Tours in 1987, as Stephen Roche went on to win the Giro and the Tour that year. Alas, it wasn’t to be, however, because the Vuelta took place in April back then, Kelly’s Vuelta victory the following year ensured Irish riders were indeed the reigning champions of all three Grand Tours.

Seán Kelly en route to taking over the leader's jersey in the 1988 Vuelta

Roche for his part, never focused on the Vuelta a Espana, usually preferring to ride the Giro d’Italia if a 2nd Grand Tour was in his race plans for the year. He only rode the Spanish Grand Tour once towards the end of his career in 1992 where he to took a top 20 placing by finishing 14th. Martin Earley finished the Vuelta twice during his career, also taking a top 20 place when he finished 19th whilst riding in support of his victorious team mate Seán Kelly in 1988.

Again, the Irish presence at the Vuelta was put on hiatus for a number of years until the current crop of Irish riders emerged. Dan Martin, Nicolas Roche and Philip Deignan have all completed the Vuelta at least once. The most successful of which has of course been Deignan who brilliantly won a stage and finished 9th in the 2009 edition. The year previous, in 2008, Roche also managed a fantastic 13th place overall in what was only his 2nd ever Grand Tour.

Roche and Deignan are currently competing at this year’s Vuelta. Deignan is recovering from an injury stricken season and is riding in support of his team leader Carlos Sastre. With the break up of team Cervelo, Deignan now finds himself without a team for next year and he will be hoping to prove his worth as a valuable team mate for the remainder of this year’s race in order to impress potential suitors. Roche on the other hand has been handed the leadership role of his AG2R team. So far, he has not shied away from the responsibility. Before the mountainous eighth stage he lies in 11th place on G.C. less than a minute behind race leader Philippe Gilbert.

While Roche is putting in a great performance he still finds himself in that G.C. purgatory of not being quite capable of pushing for a podium place, but also considered too much of a threat to be allowed up the road to battle for a stage win. Today will be a true test of his form and a gauge of his ability to challenge for the podium or even the top 10. Come this evening, if he has slipped down the G.C., I feel he should allow himself slip a little further. In two weeks time, would he prefer a 15th place on G.C. or a 45th place along with a stage win? His recent comments about his frustrations about his lack of wins in his career so far suggest he would prefer the latter, as would most Irish cycling fans I would imagine!

The recent death of Laurent Fignon has come as a blow to the whole cycling community. I have only recently finished reading his autobiography which was hugely entertaining, but scarcely revealing. The entire book is a narrative of his cycling career with barely a whisper of his personal life and relationships. From the many obituaries I have read it seems that he was indeed a thoroughly private man, but an animal of a competitor. As Jean-Marie Leblanc described him “Fignon was the precursor of the modern champions with…panache and impertinence”. He’ll be sorely missed.

There is no escaping the infamy of the eight seconds by which Fignon lost the Tour de France to Greg LeMond in 1989. But if I was to ask you, which is the smallest ever overall winning margin in any of the three Grand Tours? The answer, surprisingly is not eight seconds in the 1989 Tour de France, it is six seconds in the 1984 Vuelta a Espana, when the Frenchman Eric Caritoux beat the Spaniard Alberto Fernández by the slenderest of margins. Fernández entered the final time trial in the 1984 Vuelta with a 32 second deficit to make up on Caritoux over 33 kilometres. LeMond’s task was twice as difficult with only 25 kilometres to make up 50 seconds. The ‘real’ Bono once said ‘sometimes you can’t make it on your own’. Fernández as it turned out, couldn’t. Unfortunately for Fignon, LeMond could. However, influenced by the cover of his own book, I for one will choose not to remember Fignon as the rider who lost the Tour by eight seconds, but as the rider who won the Tour twice.

Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond during the 1989 Tour de France

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  1. Stephen Salmon - September 11, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

    Thoroughly interesting…keep forgetting Ireland held all 3 GT’s! for such a small country and compared to cycling’s popularity in Europe that is some achievement!

    I’m afraid to say I’m a fan who would rather see a rider of Roche’s ability keep the tricolor flying high on GC rather than a stage win. I am of the thinking it is a 3 week 18-20 stage race and the object is to finish as high up GC as possible, that is of course if your team standing and ability allow it. Keeps my interest in the race on a more exiting keel for the duration of the tour. Otherwise, if you have a more ‘domestique’ role then trying for a stage win is the way to go then. That’s just me though.



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