Ranking athletes in terms of their luck – or lack of it – is always a subjective business. But if one name among professional cyclists is indelibly associated with misfortune it is surely that of Spain's Luis Ocaña, who died 20 years ago this week when he committed suicide, aged 49.
More than for his Tour de France win in 1973, Ocaña is remembered both as the diehard rival of Eddy Merckx – universally acclaimed as the sport's greatest rider – and his insistence that, as double Tour de France winner and contemporary Bernard Thévenet puts it, "if Luis wanted to win a race, it had to be with an hour's advance, that was what counted. It was all [about] panache and how he won." He added: "He was a real torero. And until he'd killed the bull and it was good and dead, he wasn't happy."
Ocaña's ability to create some of cycling's most dramatic racing reached its zenith in the 1971 Tour when, in a memorable 60km solo breakaway to the Alpine ski resort of Orcières-Merlette, he single-handedly destroyed Merckx's stranglehold on cycling's blue-riband event. Ocaña claimed the yellow jersey and stage win by a massive eight minutes. To win by that margin over any rider in the Tour is impressive enough. To do so against Merckx was nothing short of revolution.
Ocaña managed to fend off Merckx's ferocious counter-attacks for three days, so successfully that the Belgian later said he had been on the point of throwing in the towel. But on the descent of the Col de Mente in the Pyrenees, when Merckx darted away from him, Ocaña's bad luck kicked in with a vengeance.
A summer thunderstorm turned the dangerous downhill road into a skating rink and on a corner the Spaniard lost control of his bike when a tyre punctured, skidded and crashed. Merckx, who also fell on the same treacherous hairpin, was able to haul himself up and continue to victory. But Ocaña was hit by two or three riders descending at full speed and his injuries – so bad that some initial reports claimed he had died – forced him to quit on the spot.
Ocaña's retirement while leading the Tour after besting the seemingly unbeatable Merckx was unfortunate enough. But the Spaniard's luck was worse than that. When a black cat ran out into the road at the start of the 1973 Tour, he was the only top rider to hit it and crashed. When a group of riders went for a beach swim while racing in the West Indies, Ocaña stood on a sharp rock, partly cutting a tendon. In June 1974, in a mass crash during a small race, one rider was injured, wrecking his Tour chances – no prizes for guessing who.
"It reached a point," said Thévenet, "that you didn't have to ask which rider had come off the worst in a crash. It seemed like it was always Luis." "He was almost cursed," said Ocaña's British team-mate Michael Wright.
No matter the circumstances, the Spaniard's bad luck never seemed to leave him. When sharing a fondue savoyarde with his team-mates Ocaña was the only one to swallow a lump of cheese big enough to cause him nearly to choke to death. In a car rally in 1980, he made a last-minute decision to co-pilot a vehicle – which crashed and fell nearly 300m, causing him terrible head injuries.
Ocaña's bad luck pursued him long after he retired from racing in 1977. After the rally accident, a faulty blood transfusion is said to have been responsible for his contracting a series of illnesses that plagued him for years. And his wine and brandy-making business got into serious difficulties when poor weather ruined successive harvests.
Ocaña's predilection for rash attacking – and overestimation of his own natural limits – led to the blurring of the lines between bad luck and a tendency to race himself into a box. Some blame his loss of the 1971 Tour on his insistence on following Merckx on a very risky downhill despite being a poor descender. He lost numerous top races by failing to calculate his own strength – or the opposition's – and riding himself into the ground.
One notorious case is the 1969 Tour of Spain, when he blew the entire field apart in one rainy stage in Catalonia except the Frenchman Roger Pingeon, who stayed on the Spaniard's back wheel. He then dropped Ocaña on the last climb to take the lead. Ocaña clawed back time later in the race, but finally had to settle for second.
Oca☺a's constant miscalculations provoked exasperation among his team directors at the legendary French squad BIC. But his refusal to accept Merckx's domination drew universal admiration. "He was a total idealist," says Thévenet, "unable to accept the reality of Merckx's winning regime."
Ocaña's obsession with beating the "Cannibal" even went to the point where he named one of his dogs Merckx – purely for the pleasure of giving it orders. And if Ocaña beat the Belgian on only five occasions in his entire career, his win at Orcières-Merlette and subsequent loss of the yellow jersey surely place him in a class of his own when it comes to stubbornness, courage and extreme misfortune.
'Reckless', Alasdair Fotheringham's biography of Luis Ocaña, is published by Bloomsbury
Name Luis Ocaña
Born 19 June 1945, Priego, Spain
Died 19 May 1994, Caupenne d'Armagnac, France
Turned professional 1968
Career highlights Tour of Spain 1970, Tour de France 1973, Dauphiné Libéré 1970, 1972, 1973
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