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By Andrew Hood
Enrique Franco, the man who saved the Vuelta a España in the late 1970s, died Wednesday in Spain after a long illness. He was 74 years old.
Franco was the former director Unipublic, the sports organizing company who bought the troubled Vuelta in 1979 and helped turn the struggling three-week stage race into a world force.
The Vuelta was floundering from a lack of cycling stars and threats from the Basque terrorist group ETA when Franco’s Unipublic agreed to take over Spain’s top stage race.
The 1979 Vuelta was seen as a turning point in Spanish cycling. Although hobbled with a budget of just $60,000, the race was given strong support by the media-savvy Unipublic group, which was also heavily involved in bull fighting.
Following a few lean years, including a doping positive by 1982 winner Ángel Arroyo, Spanish television agreed to broadcast the race in 1983, the same year French star Bernard Hinault came to the Vuelta to win.
The participation of such stars as Pedro Delgado, Laurent Jalabert and Tony Rominger helped pump new life into the Vuelta in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
By 1995, France was a strong proponent of moving the Vuelta from its April date on the calendar to September to give the race a more equal footing with the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia.
Franco sold Unipublic to Spanish television channel Antena 3 in 2005, two years after Franco had retired as race director.
Today, the Vuelta is once again struggling with diminishing fan interest following a string of doping scandals. Some are questioning the wisdom of holding the Vuelta in the final half of the season when fans are more interested in soccer and Formula 1.
Antena 3 and ASO, the owners of the Tour de France and other major races, are reportedly in discussions to sell the race.