Marino Lejarreta and Monte Oiz #3
Marino Lejarreta’s career was ended in sight of Monte Oiz, the fateful mountain above his childhood home, with a dreadful crash in the one-day classic at Amorebieta, in April 1992. The mountain, always capricious, was by now synonymous with tragedy, ever since a dark February morning in 1985 when an Iberia Airlines flight from Madrid to Bilbao had smeared into the TV antenna on its summit, killing all 148 people aboard.
The sad, peculiar end to Lejarreta’s racing life was in some ways fittingly paradoxical; a dramatic denouement to the tale of a man with a gift for social theatre, whose greatest win meant nothing to him and whose most coveted prizes – the Giro’s pink jersey, a stage of Itzulia – stayed cruelly elusive through a fourteen-season career.
The greatest myth in sport holds that athletes are defined by their trophies. The opposite is true: medals are for drawers; the only way to be remembered is for your passion and artistry to spear the consciousness of the masses. Michael Jordan lives on not through his championship rings or even his sneakers, but through his slow-motion slam dunk; Roger Federer is not the eight-time Wimbledon champion, but Rembrandt on a court.
There was something in Lejarreta’s world championship performance of 1982 – attacking, being caught, attacking again, being caught, sprinting manically and finishing fifth – that sticks in the mind. The man they called the Reed of Berriz was a serious rider: fifteen grand tour top-tens, a Vuelta, three Clásicas de San Sebastián. But winning was not his thing. Lejarreta’s legacy is defined by yearning, fire, blissful naivety; by an endearing lack of guile. When fans pack their bags each summer and head for the high Alps or Pyrenees, they still have in mind riders like him.
Shortly after Lejarreta’s retirement, a brave Basque cycling project began, not least designed to save the image of a region bruised once more by terror. The former champion helped to set up the Fundación Euskadi, the unique institution which has now promoted cycling within Basque culture for a quarter of a century, and of which the Movistar rider Mikel Landa – who is from the southerly Basque province of Álava – now serves as president. The seeds of the fabled Euskaltel-Euskadi cycling team were sown at the same time, with Lejarreta’s guidance.
Basque culture prizes a house built to face the rising sun, and from the fading of Euskaltel, a new cycling dawn is breaking over the Bay of Biscay. Suddenly, there are two Basque teams on the road: Euskadi-Murias, racing their first ever grand tour at the Vuelta, and the Fundación squad evocatively attired in the corporate orange of their forebears. Lejarreta, as the guardian of Basque cycling dreams, calls for unity among politicians, administrators and fans to support their rise.
Peace in the Basquelands is infant, fragile, a tabula rasa. A new identity must be carved from the old, and it will bear the imprint of a generation which, while rejecting violence, speaks more Euskera than its parents ever did. The Vuelta stage from Getxo to Gernika to Monte Oiz – based on a bold proposal from Biscay’s provincial council – was a symbol of progress and potential that meant more than just sport. On the faces of the Basque fans by the roadside you did not see a desire to be on TV, to show off to friends, to interfere with the race. You saw only joy. Cycling is simply different here to anywhere else: it’s a breathing, bleeding, weeping part of life.
The spectacle of Oiz this week will not soon be forgotten. Like the ancient horns that once echoed from its summit, it may even have heralded a new beginning for this race. And among the pros with their power meters, their earpieces and their measured intensity, among the swathes of once-banned ikurriñas and heartfelt cries of ‘Aupa!’, there rode the ghost of a tall, mop-haired wizard, clad in blue; a reed, swaying to and fro but never toppling, swept onward by the breeze.
The images in this trilogy were provided, in part, bij Basque bicycle manufacturers Orbea. The Basque cycling icon rode for team Seat-Orbea in 1986 and Caja Rural – Orbea in 1987/88. Orbea recently published an interview with Marino Lejarreta.
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