GAP, France (VN) — Sixteen years ago, this town at the foot of the French Alps produced the images that would come to define the 2003 Tour de France.
Spanish rider Joseba Beloki crashed in the closing kilometers of stage 9 on a winding stretch of road on a hillside just outside the town limits. Moments before the crash, Beloki had raced in pursuit of Alexander Vinokourov, just ahead of Lance Armstrong and the group of overall favorites.
Adrenaline surged and there was a sense of fearlessness. Despite the conditions, the pair were racing furiously, taking risks that simply should never have been considered. But this contest seemed to be something more personal.
Yes, it was a sporting rivalry but it extended beyond that.
It was a showcase of ego, between the U.S. Postal rider and the infamous sports director of Beloki’s team, Manolo Saiz.
Flying down the descent of the Côte de la Rochette on the outskirts of Gap, it all took a turn for the worse for the challenger. Meanwhile, it seemed, Armstrong was untouchable.
The Texan miraculously escaped injury and, somehow, wove his way across a field, cut a corner of the course, and dismounted his bike and jumped over the stormwater drain at the other side of the patch of grass.
He got back on. Started racing again – with a tap on the back from his former teammate, Tyler Hamilton, and onward he went.
Yes, Lance rejoined the race. Yes, he avoided mishap. And yes, he would arrive in Paris – victorious (for a few years at least).
Meanwhile, back on the hot asphalt lay Beloki in agony. His screams were so loud, so desperate that it was clear this was a particularly nasty incident. It was, according to some who saw it from up close, a completely avoidable accident.
In an instant, it was apparent that Beloki’s injuries were severe. He broke his femur, elbow and wrist. And he never raced at the same level again.
An avoidable catastrophe
In September 2016 I interviewed Beloki’s German teammate Jörg Jaksche, who was one of the first men on the scene after the crash. A few kilometers before the crash Jaksche had been at the front of the stage, on the attack, with his best chance ever to win a stage of the Tour.
Yes, Armstrong, Beloki, Vinokourov and Jaksche all have colorful histories with doping. Today’s story, however, isn’t about blood bags and needles. Instead, it’s an opportunity to hear, first-hand, what the circumstances were that led to what ultimately became a career-ending accident for Beloki.
And, sadly, much of it is to do with the orders issued by Saiz who refused to hear feedback from his riders; instead, he demanded that his instructions be adhered to, and to hell with the consequences if his tactics weren’t employed.
I asked if Jaksche could explain the circumstances behind the Beloki incident on the approach to Gap in stage nine of the 90th Tour. Jaksche smiled, adjusted himself in the seat and proceeded to relay his memories of that remarkable day, 14 July 2003.
[NOTE: This particular story starts at 21:17 in the clip above]
By way of an introduction to my question about that day, I stated to Jaksche: your life would have been different had Beloki not crashed. “Yeah, yeah,” he replied.
And then I asked: can you just tell me your recall of that day?
“Sometimes directeurs sportifs are bored in their car, bored of the race,” began Jaksche with his explanation.
“Manolo was one of these guys who thought he must decide – on a non-spectacular stage – that he must decide who is going to be the winner [of] the Tour de France,” Jaksche said. “With Manolo Saiz as our team manager, he decided, effectively, that Beloki was not going to win the Tour [because] of his tactical maneuvers.”
Jaksche paused, drew from deep into his memory and continued his story.
“So, I was on my own and it was still, like, 10 kilometers to go to Gap. I think I like a minute and a half. Manolo was my team director and Beloki was my teammate, and the leader of my team – and a potential winner of the Tour de France.
“So, [Manolo] said on the radio, ‘Now, on the last two climbs, Joseba, you attack. You attack!
“Beloki was already on the radio asking, ‘Why?’
“And Manolo was on the radio and he replied, ‘I pay you for pedaling and not for thinking!’
“Then Beloki had to attack but by attacking behind me he kind of brought a lot of energy into the whole situation because there already was a lot of tension.
“There was Beloki. There was Vinokourov. There was Ullrich. There was Lance Armstrong.
“So, what happened is: Beloki attacked. Armstrong followed him and Vinokourov attacked.
“Vinokourov went away on his own and all the rest, the [others in] the bunch were looking at each other.
“So, Beloki, with this attack – ordered by Manolo – was brought into a shitty position because Armstrong knew that Beloki had to pull because Vinokourov was behind Beloki in the GC. So, the first one that [had] to pull was, obviously, Beloki.
“What happened is that, suddenly, Manolo said to the guys who remained with Beloki in the main group, ‘Pull!’
“So, Beloki attacked and then [Manolo] made [the others] pull. And I was off the front which, on the television, must have been a hilarious picture.”
Nonetheless, the chase by Jaksche’s teammates continued. He was eventually caught and passed and was therefore one of the first on the scene of the accident that seemed destined to happen when the road was so hot that the asphalt bubbled.
Jaksche continued his telling, dismissing the fact that his chance of personal glory was over because of the tactics Saiz employed – but not ignoring the impact that this instruction by the manager had on his rider.
“Manolo said, ‘Jörg, wait for Beloki.
“So, I had to wait. Vinokourov passed me, and then we did the last downhill. And it was five or six kilometers to Gap.
“Then I said to Joseba, ‘Hey, on the downhill, don’t go so fast. Like, ‘Easy.’
“How much were we going to win on the downhill? Ten seconds? So, ‘Don’t go too fast.’
“And Manolo was on the radio the whole time: ‘Venga, venga, venga!’ The whole time.
“I was in seventh or eighth position and I could see that Armstrong – who is a fast downhiller – had already left a gap because it was even too fast for him.
“Then it was like, ‘Tusushh, tooosh, tuoohsh!’”
Jaksche sounded out what the vision shows: Beloki’s rear wheel begins to skid, it then grabs the hot tarmac, and he high-sides with devastating effect, slamming onto the ground in a violent way. His race was over. And, although he’d race again, he’d never reach the same level as he was at before that crash near Gap.
“I was [a little way] behind,” Jaksche continued. “The whole leading group was [around] 10 people. And there was José Azevedo and me (from ONCE-Eroski).
“And so, by just a small attack, that he ordered, Manolo [messed] up everything.
“It was not the brightest tactical maneuver.”
He concluded his tale by admitting his shock at the scene. “I did not know how to continue,” Jaksche said. “I was like, ‘Get up, get up, get up.’
“We had trained for all that and then you don’t want to realize that it’s over.
“I was really debating what to do: ‘Come on, get up…’
“You can see me standing there.
“I think Azevedo was with me, down close to [Joseba] and the Manolo came and it was pretty obvious that he was not going to get back on the bike that day.”
When Jaksche retold that story, it was over 13 years after the incident. But he finished the story, took a deep breath, and shook his head.
Sometimes pro cycling can be beautiful. Sometimes it can be stupid. Sometimes it’s dangerous. Sometimes it is just cruel.