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Interview: Marino Lejarreta, the real king of the grand tours

Does Adam Hansen's streak of grand tour finishes compare over the generations? We talk to Marino Lejarreta, who finished 24 in his career

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There’s been a lot of media attention given to Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol) and his remarkable grand tour streak, now at 10.

The Australian has tied a historical mark of starting and finishing 10 consecutive grand tours, an impressive run that is a testament to his durability and tenacity. Two stage victories during that run are his just reward.

Should Hansen start and finish the 2015 Giro d’Italia, he will make cycling history. And who is the man he would beat? Marino Lejarreta, a spindly Basque climber who raced during the 1980s and 1990s.

Now 57, Lejarreta set an impressive standard during his day. At a time when the peloton was starting to specialize, with the major stars singling out the Tour de France, Lejarreta remained a road warrior.

During his career that spanned from 1979 to 1991, he started 27 grand tours, finishing all but three of them. More importantly, he was a GC rider, who won the 1982 Vuelta a España, and finished among the top five some 10 other times.

Lejarreta is the only rider in cycling history to start and finish all three grand tours in one season no less than four times. And he did it at a time when the Vuelta a España was held in April, meaning that he would race three grand tours in a four-month span.

VeloNews recently chatted with Lejarreta about Hansen’s threat to his record. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: Adam Hansen has equaled your record of 10 straight grand tours, how do you think that stacks up to when you were racing?
Marino Lejarreta: Well, there are a few differences to when I was racing. Most importantly, the Vuelta and Giro were separated by just a week. And the grand tours in those days were sometimes as much as 4,000km each. We had a lot more stages with double sectors, longer time trials, fewer rest days, and longer stages. Today, the grand tours are 1,000km shorter, and there’s an extra rest day.

In the end, those details are not important. The big difference is whether or not you’re disputing the race, riding for GC, or just riding to finish. To start and finish a grand is not that complicated if you’re a top pro. Of course, you have to have mentality to get through it, and not have any bad luck or crashes, or fall sick, but to ride three grand tours in one season is not that hard. It’s something else if you’re racing for GC.

VN: You were always racing for GC in every grand tour you started?
ML: Every year I raced three grand tours in one season, I always contested at least two of the three grand tours for GC. To contest in all three simply isn’t possible. The first year I raced all three [1989] I had my best Tour ever [fifth]. Then I realized it was just too hard to contest all three for GC. I tried to dispute all three once, and it wasn’t realistic.

VN: Back in your day, the Vuelta and Giro were held back to back. How difficult was that?
ML: Yes, the Vuelta started in mid-April, and ended in early May, then you would go right into the Giro the next weekend. There would be five or six days, but you had to travel to Italy, and in those days, it wasn’t so easy to get around, so the transfer took a couple of days. It was like a continuation of the race, so you would almost be racing continuously from the Vuelta all the way to the end of the Giro in late May. And then after that, I would head to altitude to prepare for the Tour de France, and maybe race in the Basque Country in June. So from April to July, I would literally be home four or five nights during that period of racing.

VN: There have been suggestions from Tinkoff-Saxo owner Oleg Tinkov that the big stars should race all three grand tours to win. So you don’t think that’s realistic?
ML: You can obviously race all three, but to contest them for victory, that’s very complicated. It’s true there is more time now between all three grand tours, and that gives you more chance to recover, but I have my doubts. Perhaps it’s a question of a rider to try it now to see if it’s realistic. Cycling today is more demanding than in my day. Each stage is much harder than it used to be. There are no easy days in the grand tours anymore. We used to have transition stages that were relatively easy, and the peloton was a bit smaller, too. There were only a few big riders who could win. Things have changed. In my day, there were stages that were almost like ‘active rest.’ Today, there are no stages that are taken with calmness in the peloton. Every team wants a result. That would make contesting all three grand tours a real test.

VN: Have you ever spoken to Hansen about the grand tour streak?
ML: To tell the truth, I didn’t even know he was riding all three grand tours. I am the first to admit that I am not following every fine detail of the sport. I am not a journalist nor do I work in cycling now. I follow the headlines, and watch the top riders, but I didn’t even know he was doing this until I heard the TV commentators mention it during the Tour de France this summer. I don’t even know exactly what he is doing. Is he is trying to help his captains, or just riding to finish in the peloton? It’s one thing just to finish a race, and quite something else to work for a team captain. Of course, everyone makes their own choices.

VN: If Hansen breaks your record, in your view, would it have the same merit as your achievement?
ML: Well, there’s a big difference between riding to place well in GC, than to just finish in the gruppetto every day in the mountains.

VN: Did you target all three grand tours?
ML: I never started out with the goal of riding all three grand tours, or making some sort of record, even less so. The story began when I heard a rider from my village talking about riding all three grand tours in one season, and how everyone made such a big deal about it. That always stayed in the back of my mind when I turned pro. I later proposed it to my team, and I managed to finish all three grand tours in one season four times, but not all in a row. One year I missed it because my team didn’t want me to do it. The first time I did it, I had my best ever Tour with 10th [in 1989]. The next time I did it in 1991, I again had my best-ever Tour, with fifth. I did it again, and I once again had great results. After that, I just realized that was simply the best way for me to get the best results.

Some riders need a lot of recovery time, or perhaps they do not like racing. I always preferred racing to training. I was more comfortable racing in a grand tour for three weeks than traveling between smaller races. After that, I really wanted to race all three grand tours. It was an extra motivation, and it came naturally to me, but I never started out thinking about some sort of record or anything like that.

VN: Since your racing days, the Vuelta is now in September. Is that better?
ML: I think the Vuelta has lost a little bit of its importance. Before, the peloton would look to the Vuelta as a major goal. Today, it seems as if the race is almost viewed as a leftover. It’s become more of a national race. This year we had [Chris] Froome, and [Vincenzo] Nibali before that, but they raced simply because they had misfortune in the Tour. If you take that away, the Vuelta has become a race among Spanish riders. By September, there are not a lot of riders left in top condition to dispute the Vuelta. It seems as if everyone waits to see how the rest of their season works out before committing to race the Vuelta. Before, it used to be the first grand tour of the season, and everyone was very excited about it, and everyone was in good form to race. Maybe not in top form, like for the Tour, but they were fresh, and motivated to race hard.

VN: There is also a discussion to reduce race days in the Giro and Vuelta. Do you like that idea?
ML: I’ve heard a few things. What? They want to reduce the Giro and Vuelta, and have the Tour the only grand tour? Of course! That suits the French just fine. All the other races would be second category. If they’re going to do that, it would be fair to reduce all grand tours equally, but the French are not going to accept that. The Tour de France is the big engine of the sport, so perhaps it would be in their interest to have the Giro and the Vuelta a step down, and make the Tour even more singular than it already is. The Giro is an important race, and it should be respected. It has a very important history, and it would be a huge loss for cycling if they reduced it. For many reasons, the Giro is the most beautiful race in cycling. And we’ve seen the Giro improving their race over the past few years to the point that it is rivaling the Tour. The Tour is all about promotion, marketing, and money, but it doesn’t have a soul. At today’s Tour, it is impossible to get close to the riders unless you have a credential or a VIP pass. You have to stay behind the barriers all day. That goes against what makes cycling such a great sport. The Giro remains open, it’s closer to the fans, and it’s more emotional.

VN: Many consider your time of racing with Lemond, Hinault, Delgado, Kelly, and Roche as the golden years of cycling; how did you view your era?
ML: Ha! For me, the golden years were the generation before me. I regret that I never had the chance to race against Eddy Merckx. Once you turn professional, you see the sport in a different light. When you’re a protagonist, you’re inside the beast, you’re a player, you’re doing your job, making a living. It’s not the same as when you are young, full of imagination, watching the sport from the sidelines. I looked on in admiration to riders like De Vlaemick, Maertens, Merckx. To me, they were my heroes. When you’re inside the sport, riders like Hinault, they were just another rival whom you had to try to beat. To become professional was a dream, but it quickly becomes a job, and you don’t see it the same way as when you saw it from the outside.

VN: Today’s riders are making millions of euros per year — were you born a generation too early?!
ML: It’s just how it is today. It’s better for the sport that the salaries are higher. When I first started to race, I was making $200 a month for only 10 months of the year. But the sport hasn’t changed that much. There are a few top riders making a lot of money, but the rest are not so much different from my day. There are only a few riders who can retire from cycling and never have to work again. And it seems there are always people who make a lot of money in cycling, but it’s not always the riders. It’s good that the GC captains are making good salaries, but you still see the workers not getting paid very well or losing their contracts. It remains a sport that exploits the riders.

VN: There is talk of a new project in the Basque Country. Do you have a role in that?
ML: I do some consulting with some of the smaller teams around the Basque Country, but I am retired now. There are younger people who are coming up, who have the illusion and motivation to work hard. It’s not my place to try work day-in, day-out with cycling. Everyone has their “past-due” date, and you need to know when to move on, otherwise they will kick you in the ass out the door. It’s always better to leave on your own terms.