Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Throughout the Vuelta a España, VeloNews will be talking to some of the unsung heroes in the peloton – those riders who battle on each day without the recognition the major GC favorites or sprint stars receive.
Joan Bou is channeling a little of the energy of Alberto Contador into every move he makes at this year’s Vuelta a España.
Bou has been a key missile in Euskaltel-Euskadi’s breakaway assault in the past two weeks of this year’s Vuelta. After growing up revering the Spanish legend Contador, the attacking spirit of “El Pistolero” lives strong in the 24-year-old Bou.
Contador is more than just a distant star of TV screens and social media for Bou however. The Euskaltel-Euskadi climber spent four years with the three-time Vuelta champ’s development team, where he was able to experience the relentless racing instinct of his hero first-hand.
- How the Contador Foundation brings young talent to pro racing
- Vuelta unsung heroes: Lennard Hofstede on being half-wheeled to pro fitness
“I did four years with Contador’s team, some as a junior and some as U23. Before, I didn’t know Contador, I only saw him on TV at the races. But he used to ride with us a lot … it was amazing at first, ” Bou told VeloNews.
“When I got to know him, I realized he’s the most competitive person I’ve ever seen, on and off the bike, even now he’s retired. When he trained with us, he was always pushing, just like when he raced.”
After spending his childhood watching Contador light up the Vuelta on his family’s television before finding his way into the pro ranks through the Fundación Contador set-up, “El Pistolero” has had a formative influence in Bou’s racing career and mindset.
“He was one of the first cyclists I remember, I always saw him on the attack in the Vuelta, he was for sure one of my inspirations,” Bou said on a call last week. “He was what I wanted to be like when I raced as a kid.”
Home town hero when the Vuelta hit Valencia
Bou has successfully corked a little of Contador’s charisma and unleashed it in his Vuelta debut. The 24-year-old has been in the day’s escape a handful of times at this year’s race, most notably on the sixth stage through his hometown Valencia.
Bou was one of the last breakaway riders to succumb to Magnus Cort Nielson’s incredible ride to victory atop “the wall” of Cullera in the Vuelta’s first week. The Dane stole the headlines, but it was Bou that became hometown king of the day.
“I was hearing my name every 10 or 15 seconds, fans were cheering me, and there were many people because we were in Valencia, it’s busy,” he said. “I never imagined so many people knew me or that they support cycling, it was amazing.”
The city’s residents massed on the streets – many decked out in the orange supporter’s T-Shirts of team Euskaltel-Euskadi – and Bou’s name was daubed across the road.
“It was like the Tour de France in Valencia and Cullera on that day,” Bou said. “They painted the road with flags, our names on the asphalt, it was like being the patrones! And being at the front of the race, at home, attacking, it was special.”
Bou was awarded “most competitive rider” that day after battling with a break full of WorldTour stars. He was more than noticeable again on Tuesday’s 16th stage. Bou crashed heavily in the opening hours of the race, collecting a swathe of road rash. After being treated at the roadside, the semi-mummified Spaniard was on the attack when riders tried to dart from the peloton to the day’s escape group.
Bou explained that the Vuelta, and his team’s return to its home grand tour for the first time in eight years, is capable of inspiring greater things from a Spanish rider.
“The Vuelta is special. Every summer I saw the race on the TV, more than the Tour de France and Giro. Especially at the beginning of our career, the Vuelta is everything for Spanish riders. It’s a big drive for us,” he said.
Euskaltel-Euskadi is focused on promoting the Basque region, but the iconic orange team has more than just regional significance to Spanish sport. After previously only signing local riders, the squad more recently opened its doors to recruits from across the country – including Bou.
As the hotbed of pro and amateur cycling, the long-running Euskaltel-Euskadi and its riders have a special place in the souls of its nation’s cyclists. Bou explained that the riders are lifted by the zealous support of their passionate fans.
“The return of Euskaltel to the Vuelta after eight years, all the people support the team, they go to the roads with their orange T-shirts to every climb and town, its special. There’s so much support for us, all around Spain – not just in the Basque lands,” Bou explained. “It’s something special to hear your name and the name of the team. We all want to honor that, to represent it.”
Orange jerseys and orange trees
The color orange could be an ongoing trend in Bou’s life. After growing up on his parent’s orange farm in the groves outside Valencia, he’s dreaming of a return to the country life when he eventually hangs up his wheels.
“I’d like to live in the mountains in my village when I stop racing, maybe work in my family’s business in the orange fields. I love the mountains and agriculture,” he said.
“When I’m not racing, I just like to go to my village and relax in the mountains. I like driving my camper in the mountains, or riding my mountain bike – just thinking about things that are not road cycling.”
At just 24 years of age, Bou has a lot of racing, and a lot of Contador’s spirit, to work his way through until he heads out to pasture.