Several minutes often differentiate the leading riders in cycling’s three Grand Tours, which also include the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia. But the ’84 Vuelta wasn’t so straightforward.
After 19 stages, comprising of three time trials and 13 gut-busting mountain climbs, France’s Eric Caritoux and home favorite Alberto Fernandez were practically inseparable. On the final day of racing, the stage was set for the closest ever finish in a major cycling race.
An unlikely leader, Caritoux held a 36-second lead over the Spaniard ahead of the final time trial. The Frenchman rode first and waited on as Fernandez ate away at his advantage.
In an era before sophisticated timing systems, a nail-biting delay ensued.
It proved to be too little too late for Fernandez. Caritoux, phenomenal over the climbs throughout the race, held on to claim an historic victory — the only Grand Tour win of his career.
“It was raining at the end of the stage and, had I known I had such little margin, I would have taken more risks and I could have fallen.
“Luck was on my side.”
An unlikely victor
If the race was extraordinary, the circumstances around Caritoux’s victory are equally remarkable.
Just two years into his professional cycling career, Caritoux had no intentions of entering La Vuelta that year. After late pressure from organizers, however, his Skil team entered. Caritoux abandoned a break with his family in the south of France and had a matter of days to get race-ready.
“Four days before the start, while I was working in the vineyard, my grandmother told me that the sports manager, Christian Rumeau, was on the phone,” the Frenchman recalls.
“I had to catch a train to join the team in Geneva, and then a plane to get to Malaga.”
Riding without support from team members in the mountains, Caritoux defied all expectations — including his own.
“I participated in 12 Tours de France (my 12th was in 1989), but La Vuelta is the best memory of my career as I didn’t win it with a surprise escape, but in the mountains.
“For me, finishing second in La Vuelta a Espana when I had just become a professional [would have been] a huge victory.”
An untimely tragedy
Fernandez’s life took a tragic turn later that year. The Spaniard and and his wife were killed in a car accident that December. A month short of his 30th birthday, the 1984 La Vuelta proved to be the last major race of Fernandez’s career and the closest he came to winning a Grand Tour.
“That deeply affected me,” says Caritoux.
“I never had any problems with him. He was a loyal rival and even congratulated me at the finish-line. I had more problems with the spectators who preferred a Spanish rider to win.”
Since 1985, the highest part of La Vuelta has been dedicated to Fernandez, which this year was the finish line of the 15th stage in Sierra Nevada.
Life out the saddle
For Caritoux, the 1984 Vuelta was the only Grand Tour victory of his career, although he did win the French road race championships in 1988 and 1989.
Since retiring from cycling in 1994, his life is less about seconds and enjoying more leisurely pursuits.
Nowadays, the 57-year-old can be found cultivating a small patch of land in the shadows of Mont Ventoux — one of cycling’s most iconic climbs in the south of France.
Here he helps grow the grapes for his own wine label — “Cuvee Eric Caritoux” is described as “a dark red with a spicy finish” — and also rents out a villa to holiday goers.
Bikes are available for guests to hire, and Caritoux is happy taking holiday-goers on tours of the local area.
No doubt he has a cycling story or two to share on the way.