He is a bit off weight, but still maintains his young man figure. He holds the steering wheel of his truck gently and steps on the gas. The wind blows furiously through the window. In Fusagasugá (Colombia) lives a legend, a myth. Anyone who passes through here could wait for a man sitting on a sofa who from time to time takes a photo from the wall to explain more clearly some of his many exploits. In his place he will find a businessman in jeans and openwork with a baseball cap, rejuvenated, not melancholic, married for the second time to a woman much younger than him, with whom he has an eight-year-old son. “Love, I’m done soon,” he whispers over the phone, which he uses with one of the hands he has released from the wheel.
The man slows down and parks next to a roundabout topped by a statue, his. Lucho Herrera, 60, is considered one of the best climbers in cycling history. The King of the Mountain, they called him. It was in the eighties in the Tour, the Vuelta and the Giro. In the Colombia of that time, hit by the guerrillas, drug trafficking, the massacres of peasants at the hands of the military, their victories were a form of national affirmation. It was gold in the dark. People crowded in front of the appliance stores to watch their end of the stage, as if they had reached the moon. His town, next to Bogotá, pays tribute to him with a stone and metal sculpture placed in the central part of a busy highway, with the danger that one day a truck will take it ahead. It is the image of a cyclist with his arms raised, he is supposed to enter the finish line, dressed in a polka dot jersey. The wheels give off a trail of fire. “It looks like me, right?” Herrera asks.
The truth is that not much.
This act of vanity, that of contemplating himself in bronze, is not his own. Lucho lives detached from his memories, from his own past. Every now and then someone recognizes you in a restaurant and you have no choice but to shake a hand, take a picture, give a forced smile. He is delighted to return to his soup and anonymity.
“I don’t miss cycling.” They are stages of life.
Lucho stares at the horizon after the sentence, wrapped in silence. He’s sitting in an armchair in the hallway of a motel, his motel. A one-story little roadside hotel with a concrete pool and cable TV. The waitresses do the cleaning in the meantime. The land on which it is built was bought in the early nineties with the prizes of the races. Next door he built a restaurant that he managed for a while, until he got tired. Too many headaches. Now he’s rented it out to some guys who plan to keep it open 24 hours a day. The idea of the new administrators was to place a flying bicycle at the entrance, a giant jersey in the middle of the room and splash the walls with images of Lucho. The owner has not authorized it. In the motel there is hardly an old photo of him, in black and white, on a bicycle, advertising Café de Colombia. Outside of that, nothing. There is no visible cult of personality. “I don’t like it,” he says.
At the summits, he had a historic rivalry with Bernard Hinault, a French cyclist who won 10 Grand Tours. Lucho made himself known to the world when he defeated him in Alpe d’Huez, during a stage of the 1984 Tour. “That day was cold,” he recalls. “In Grenoble, in the feeding area, I reached the top. I took by a side and advanced. I started to go up with Fignon, Pedro Delgado … and when we caught up with Hinault, I kind of broke him. From there I go to the finish line ”.
“Have you seen Hinault again?”
-Never. When he came here to the classic RCN (a return to Colombia in stages) we had the opportunity to eat a pate with champagne, that pod that he ordered in a hotel.
“Do you know that in his autobiography he quotes you several times?”
-He did not know.
In person he is just as elusive as when he faced his rivals. Shy, reserved, he shows little. He recently participated in a talk with other ex-cyclists that journalist Sinar Alvarado moderated. Lucho excused himself in the middle of the conversation and left. “Lucho is still on the run,” Alvarado joked. His character comes from the countryside, where he grew up. His mother gave him a bicycle at the age of 15 to go to school. Five kilometers downhill one way, another five back up a steep hill. There the self-sacrificing athlete was forged. In the afternoons he took care of his garden, where he cultivated ornamental plants, the specialty of Fusagasugá. He was a peasant. Florists from all over Colombia come here today to buy them and sleep in Lucho’s motel. An old sportscaster, the Argentine Julio Arrastia, aptly nicknamed him the Gardener.
He grew up listening to the local deeds of Rafael Niño, José Patrocinio, Roberto Castro on the radio. Later he himself would be a pioneer in Colombian cycling in Europe. They arrived drinking aguapanela, a drink made from cane juice, and eating sandwiches, some sweets with guava pulp. They had to switch to energy bars. The rivals saw them over their shoulders as they were shorter, darker. They had to swallow their pride when they saw them climb the mountains. Nobody could, nobody could keep up with Lucho.
His promotions generated a strange consensus in a bankrupt country. In the Vuelta a Colombia, people gathered on the road to see him fleetingly pass by. The crews greeted the military on a plain, the guerrillas halfway there, and the paramilitaries at the top of the hill. The country’s biggest bandit, Pablo Escobar, sponsored a cycling team. His older brother, Roberto, was the director and he himself had been a meritorious athlete years ago. Lucho was flying over that corrupted world on the back of the Vitus 979.
Although the violence ended up reaching him, like almost all Colombians. In 2000, already retired, he was having coffee at his mother’s house when some men broke in and took him in a bad way in a van. They took him up a mountain that he had to cross on foot. When he arrived at a FARC camp, they locked him in a dark room. The news spread throughout the country. The guerrillas must have evaluated the repercussions of kidnapping one of the most beloved Colombians because within 24 hours they released him without payment. Shame on you, champ, excuse the misunderstanding.
He had earned that nickname by winning the Vuelta de España in 1997. Or in the Alps. “It was cold there motherfucker. It made me cramp. Once I came back after a Giro and I didn’t feel my hands for 20 days, because of the snow and all that sheath ”. At times it seems more animated.
“Now if I speak more, it will be because of age. Before it was all yes sir, no sir. A journalist invited me for a 30-minute program and in five we were finished. Indurain isn’t talkative either, is he? “
Do you have a thorn in for not having won the Tour? “The opportunity did not present itself to me. Do you know what killed me a lot? The time trials. I had 200 kilometers on the flat and there I lost everything. I could go well until I was 30-35, not afterwards ”.
Next, Lucho finishes the coffee, puts the cup on the floor and announces: “Let’s go.”
That’s when he gently grips the wheel. He engages the gears and heads for his bronze self. Below is a 10-line plaque, three referring to the Little Gardener, seven for the mayor who placed it. “This is going to stay for life,” says Lucho with his finger. It seems like a revealing moment of self-awareness for a legendary rider. Although it does not last long. At that moment a trailer crosses the roundabout. The driver honks his booming horn. You have recognized the champion! Lucho takes his hand out of his pocket for a second and returns the greeting without much enthusiasm.
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