Riders who put the “V” in Diva: Federico Bahamontes

Adios Jacques y Raymond

Cyclists can be a twitchy lot.  Able to both endure and dish out pain for weeks on end in a grand tour takes considerable fortitude, or what we call The V.  The cyclist must know their body and measure out its effort carefully.  The pros we look to as the Giants of the Road, the Flahute, or even the Unsung Hardmen are able to win while maintaining a Casually Deliberate air about them.  In some circles this is known as a poker face.

Yet there are other successful riders we admire that, shall we say, can be BIG FUCKING BABIES.  I mean this with all due respect but we’ve all seen riders crack off the bike mentally just as hard as we’ve seen them crack on the bike.  The months, no years, of training, pressures of competition, team and race politics, restricted diets, distance from the VMH, and complicated doping programs would all but sour the hardest of psyches.   Can you really blame them?  As a fellow human being who likes to think of himself as compassionate on most days, I can’t.  However, as a fan of cycling, all compassionate bets are off.

Many things got me started ruminating on good, and even great, riders who, on occasion, take up the role of Peloton Diva.  Primarily what got me thinking about this idea are all the off season reports of training camp dramas, contract negotiations, and intra-team squabbles.  Thank you Bjarne for much of this fodder.  As fans, we post about this sort of thing all the time.  Mark Cavenwhatsgoingtocomeoutofmymouthnextdish being the prime example currently.

Enter The Eagle of Toledo, Federico Bahamontes.  Certainly a rider before my, and probably everyone here’s, time, Bahamontes was no Unsung Hardman.  Quite the contrary, his praises have been sung in the annals of cycling  since he baffled everybody en route to his first KOM victory at le Tour in 1954.  Only Reeshard Verenique has captured the dotty jumper more times in le Tour than The Eagle.   When you look at the rest of Bahamontes’ palmares, however, it’s easy to imagine how he is arguably the best pure climber in the history of cycling.  Simply put, the dude laid down The V when the road pointed up.  And we’re not talking about a protected rider being pulled up to the last few K’s of a climb only to finish with a few strong kicks to the finish.  We’re talking about a dude that regularly, in fact usually, went from the bottom only to be seen at the start of the following day’s stage.

But alas, his fiery temper and seemingly fickle nature may have impeded further success (again, not that he was unsuccessful to begin with).  He let pelo-politics get the best of him in both the ’63 and ’64 editions of le Tour stating that the other riders were conspiring against him.  Not having been there (or born yet), it’s impossible for me to know the scene, but isn’t that called bicycle racing?

Whats more is when riders let their emotions get the best of them in their dealings with fans.   After being angered by comments directed at him by a fan, The Eagle removed his bicycle pump and chased the fan around for an hour or so probably screaming Spanish euphemisms and disparaging the fan’s madre .  Imagine playing a game of catch-is-catch-can with your favorite Peloton Diva.  Who would that Peloton Diva be? Would you handicap the Peloton Diva by arming him with bidons to throw at you or would you level the playing field by wearing cycling shoes as well?  But I digress.  The true Velominatus would not be so brash as to egg a rider on, because on some level, all pros deserve respect for their efforts.

The truly perplexing part about Bahamontes’ proclivity to mood swings, or many other Peloton Divas, is that it actually led him to quit both le Tour and la Vuelta.  Why did he quit?  It wasn’t a result of injury or illness.   He quit the Tour in his swan song year because he was struggling in the mountains where he once soared.  He dropped out of the Vuelta under more auspicious circumstances when six riders were allowed back in after not making the time limit, a limit which was established by The Eagle’s blistering pace.  That may be one way to protest crooked officiating.  Yet another would be to bury the chaps even further on the next mountain stage.  Perhaps Federico not only set the standard of performance for a pure climber, but he also foretold of the fragile mental states of so many climbers who followed.

Don’t get me wrong here.  Federico Bahamontes is a Giant of the Road.   He rode in a bygone era which saw longer Grand Tours on rougher roads ridden on heavier bikes and when grinta played a much bigger role in tactics.  Now in his eighties, he still looks like he could rip my spindly legs off on a climb.  What puzzles me is when riders seem to cut their own noses off to spite their faces.   Somebody get me a sports psychologist.

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68 Replies to “Riders who put the “V” in Diva: Federico Bahamontes”

  1. Terrific stuff, Marko. And this guy ripping apart a peloton that included a number of the titans of our sport! This whole notion of mind over matter in sport is fascinating to me. As much as we put Louison Bobet in the casually deliberate camp, his brother Jean paints a rather different picture in Tomorrow, We Ride. Jean Bobet’s career as domestique seems to have concentrated heavily on keeping his brother calm, collected, and confident.

  2. @Steampunk
    Il Campionissimo had very similar demons, apparently. Fallen Angel recounts a number of episodes wherein Coppi sat blubbering on the side of the road after untimely mechanicals, made wild accusations of conspiracies against him, complained that the Bartaliani were in league against him, etc., etc. He also relied heavily on his brother Serse until his death. There seems to be a fine line in a number of The Giants of The Road between absolute confidence and shattering self-doubt. Interesting psychology.

    Great article, Marko, the Spanish climbers are an interesting subset of the peloton, and don’t always get the glory they deserve.

  3. I love Raphael Geminiani’s insights into Louison Bobet’s fragile ego! The Jacques Anquetil biography “Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape” has a few good ones too…

    Great stuff, Frank. Interesting slant.

  4. Awesome piece Marko. I love the whole Diva angle; the pressure off the bike is a side we really don’t see as clearly as the rest. We forget that the night a rider takes the leaders jersey, they they are up all evening talking to the media. We forget that all of us are staring at them for the whole of the next day.

    Perhaps Federico not only set the standard of performance for a pure climber, but he also foretold of the fragile mental states of so many climbers who followed.

    That is so true; the best climbers seem to be the most fragile minds. It’s so hard for me to reconcile that with how badass they are.

  5. I really just wanted to somehow use that photo on the site. It’s a great photo, eh? Bahamontes with his head down, bike close to vertical, bars straight, clearly hammering it. The likes of Paulidor, Anquetil, Gaul behind him, torsos up, bikes all akimbo. Then the two chase cars looking like they’re about to peel off the side of that off-camber road into the foggy abyss. And The Eagle’s kit/bike combo is totally put together. Nice balance of color in the pic I think. At first I thought it’d be a good Anatomy of a Photo piece but the more I started finding out about Bahamontes the more I liked. He’s still a regular at pro-races taking time to chat with current riders and podium photo ops.

  6. @Marko
    It’s an awesome photo; looks almost like a painting. It’s not a painting is it?? Seems like a signature in the bottom right.

    Awesome article too mate.

  7. Wow, maybe it is a painting!?! I hadn’t noticed the signature at the bottom. There certainly are aspects of the colors that seem painted but then the detail seems so crisp on his bike. I wonder if it’s a photo that was touched up or highlighted in some way. Fascinating.

  8. @Brett
    Okay it is a painting indeed. Originally I had grabbed it off the goolge as a basic search but when I searched ‘Federico Bahamontes painting’ this came up. It’s a Pat Cleary, who’s stuff I’ve seen before but nothing that looks as real (at least on a computer screen) as this. It reminded me of the first pic of Adorni in frank’s Unsung Hardmen piece which is of the same vintage so I attributed it to the style and photo equipment of the time. Very cool it’s a painting.

  9. Once it’s pointed out it’s kind obvious. But I stared at it for ages and didn’t pick it at all. Most excellent. Great find, Marko – and well spotted, Brett.

  10. Excellent article, Marko. There’s a PhD dissertation in there somewhere about the fragile minds of the exceptionally gifted, whether we’re talking about sports, performing arts, law, business, medicine, academics. I’m not talking gifted compared to the rest of the high school class. I’m talking third standard deviation, Merckx, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Mark Twain, Bill Gates, off the charts pros.

    Writing as an Armchair Psychologist, the kind of relentless pursuit of dominance over one’s profession probably doesn’t come from greed, but from fear. I suspect there’s massive insecurity in there as the main motivator. It’s one thing to want to win. It’s another to be afraid that you can’t win when you’re expected to win. And once the wheels start to come off the rails regarding one’s performance, the fear manifests itself in some pretty erratic behavior. But I’m just guessing. I’ve never been that successful!

    As for the painting, I first thought it looked like a photo that I’d seen before. So I looked at it really closely. Then I saw that it was a painting.

    So then I looked at the cars. They seemed too modern to be from Bahamontes’ era. And the rider in the breakaway had on a Miko purple team jersey with Adidas stripes on the shoulders. That looked like a jersey from the time I started to pay attention to racing in the very late ’70s and early ’80s.

    So I did what I always do when I want to find a recipe, buy a car, get directions, or stare at bike porn. I Googled it.

    That’s the Miko-Mercier-Vivagel jersey from 1980.


    Then I found the owner of the painting.


    Scroll down to January 10. Turns out Winning Bicycle Racing Illustrated described this painting by Cleary as being Bahamontes in 1963. But the owner says the receipt references Sven Ake Nilsson, 1980. Cleary says the same.

    Turns out that’s a painting of the guy who finished 7th in the Tour de France in 1980. Since Cleary usually takes his cycling subject matter from photos, there’s got to be a photo of Nilsson speeding away from the chase group. If anyone can find it, please let me know. I love how Nilsson has his head down, probably looking at his front hub, deep in the red, just killing it.

  11. @brett
    Ah, shit. I didn’t intend to. It’s Winning’s fault.

    Marko’s position about certain Big Fucking Babies struck a chord with me. Look at COTHO, LeMelvis, il Pirato, Bahamontes, Coppi, Anquetil. Pretty amazing on the bikes and pretty amazingly difficult and kinda bizarro off them.

    In music, movies, and politics, there are lots of them.

    What drives me nuts, though, are the CEOs that are such divas. Not naming names (this is a global website), my wife told me a story about a now jailed CEO who used to come to work with two rottweilers. The rottweilers made sure you didn’t get in his way, nor did you get on the same elevator, or, if you were on the elevator first, you got out. A mutual friend told us that his CEO (now also incarcerated) required employees to avert their eyes and not speak to him unless he spoke to them first. (Strangely pharaoh like)

    These are not dumb guys. However, they are completely batshit crazy.

    Genius, or unequaled brilliant talent, frequently seems to pair up with a touch of bipolar disorder.

  12. @Jeff in PetroMetro

    Nicely done old chap. The story on the Cleary painting is worthy of an article alone. That’s honest to goodness research right there. Interesting how an inaccuracy from Winning magazine way back when lives on in the internet and gets propagated by a lazy fuck like myself. I got as far as the owner’s blog in my post above to Brett but the team jersey and trading card piece is great. For all I know now, The Eagle was mentally stable as a rock, shot opponents down with a thousand yard stare, and thrashed Kissinger in debate club.

    I wonder how Nilsson’s psyche worked?

  13. @G’phant

    Thank you for the kind words.

    As for Bahamontes, he might be a nice old man now, but he was a strange bird (pun intended) during his racing years. Here’s a Wiki quote about how he fired off a Millarcopter as a means to quit the Tour:

    “He was also temperamental, throwing his bike down a ravine to stop any pressure to continue riding when he dropped out of the 1956 Tour de France on the col de Luitel. The following year he dropped out again when the retirement of his team-mate, Miguel Poblet, left him without support. He held on to his bike but took off his shoes.”

    As for Nilsson’s psyche, I found one Swedish blog that, translated, said he had a good sense of humor. I didn’t know the Swedes had humor. (No offense intended to the Swedish Velominati.)

  14. @Jeff in PetroMetro
    I read that about Bahamontes as well. That’s what I was getting at by cutting off his nose to spite his face. Say what you will about COTHO for example, he is not a quitter. He certainly held true to his “quitting is forever” quote. I also think you’re onto something about the greed vs. fear piece. As long as we’re armchairing psych. COTHO, again as example, may have approached things from a greed perspective.

    I’m Swedish btw. No offense taken.

  15. I love how Bahomeillisson appears to be climbing in his 55×2. Look how low his shoulders are. Talk about laying down the v!

  16. @Marko, @Jeff in PetroMetro

    Say what you will about COTHO for example, he is not a quitter. He certainly held true to his “quitting is forever” quote.

    He wasn’t a quitter until this Tour. At the Tour he became Huevos with Sour Cream.

    On the other hand, I would also venture (airplane sardine chair phyching) that COTHO was completely terrified of being beaten; I think @Jeff’s assessment is dead-on. The more you gain, the more you’ve got to lose.

    I also read this interesting piece in the NYTimes a few months back on the types of personalities that found successful companies; they have this tendency to be very driven internally, but also completely centered on themselves. (There a name for it and it’s not “narcissistic” although it’s close.) In some cases it becomes this thing around beating themselves, or – often – proving others wrong. And, for my money, as soon as you start worrying about that whole “proving others wrong” bit, you’re just riding on fear. Because why else should you give a shit?

    If you’re driven internally, all that external shit doesn’t matter. I don’t know the man, but I think Merckx wasn’t riding on fear of losing; I think he was a fucking dominator and loved to ride his bike fast. I don’t think you win that many races out of fear. Smallest race – a little Kermesse – and he’d do the same bit.

    But fear can fuck with you completely. There was a ski race in Ely MN; I was still just on the highschool and junior circuit, but I was racing the marathon citizens races; I’d gotten a pass to do the 50k even though I was under-age. But there I was, skiing in the lead group, holding my own. Then I started looking around at the guys I’m with and start thinking, “Man, I don’t belong here.” Which was bullshit because I was there, but my stupid brain started getting in the way and after a few laps, I intentionally crashed just so I’d be rid of the pressure of being in that group. Idiot. I regret that to this day, and I remember the feeling…the heavy feeling I had every time I told someone I’d crashed while in the lead group and pretended to be really disappointed about it. I never minded losing if I’d done everything I could but lost. I couldn’t stand losing if my head got in the way. Lesson learned, and never again.

  17. @frank

    Yes, this tour there was something different about him, that’s for sure. I don’t know if he just didn’t have it in him or what (well obviously now he didn’t), but it seemed like he just didn’t *care*, like the passion was gone. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he was just riding as a marketing tool and not because he wanted to be there.

    Athletes in general seem to be overpaid divas these days… I don’t know how it is in other countries, but at least that is how it seems here in the states. If you watch any pro basketball at all you know what I’m talking about. It drives me nuts and makes me not want to watch the sport at all.

    Marko, good article! And great detective work on figuring out it was a painting and its source. I sort of thought it was a painting too, based on how the cars, road, and cliff wall looked, but I was also thinking perhaps it was just a manipulated photo, or one that had been subjected to some bad jpg compression or something…

  18. @Marko
    Regarding Lance, I don’t have any concrete insight into his motivation, as I didn’t know him personally. But I know/knew people who either work for him or are friends. I’m pretty sure, when he was young, his motivation was a hybrid of teenage anger and a growing self-awareness that he possessed leg breaking, lung exploding, spirit crushing natural talent.

    I think there was some serious insecurity that manifested itself in his need to defeat others in competition. That’s not quite the same as trying to win.

    Some people are “ready-aim-fire”. Based on what I saw and what I heard, he was “fire-ready-aim” and still is to some degree. It’s worked for him.

    Some useless background: He’s a few years younger than I. We grew up a few miles apart. We frequented the same LBS, Richardson Bike Mart. We were in a couple of races together in Austin, not that I did anything more than give the race promoter my money. (I had about a fifth of the talent that resided in the snot of Lance’s left nostril.) I witnessed a roadside conversation where Eddie B., the former U.S. national coach, suggested he ride the road in something more than a banana hammock and Sharpie ink. (This after Lance crushed in a hilly time trial as a fucking 15 or 16 year old, then put on his running shoes.) I’m also pretty sure he was the subject of a chat I had with a professor/researcher at the University of Texas (my alma mater) that went something like, “Jeff, thank you for being a dependable lab rat. Just so you know, based on your values and your biopsies, you’re never going to win the Tour de France, but you probably already guessed that. However, we just had a teenager in the lab who actually could win the Tour based on his values.” For reasons of confidentiality, no names were mentioned, so it’s possible there was yet another teenager from Texas who should have gone on to road greatness, but I doubt it.

    As far as his personality, Lance came on strong back then and a lot of people didn’t like him for it. I guess that’s still the case among pro bike racing fans and some members of the peloton. Cavendish kind of reminds me of him.

    He is a Jesus figure in Texas (we are the buckle in the Bible Belt). He just about died, then he rose from all but death to win the only bike race that soccer MILFs have ever heard of. Y’all know the rest.

    I wish I had his talent. I’d like to think I would have been a little less harsh. But whose to say. One thing’s for sure: he never quit, and he’s not going away from the public eye anytime soon.

  19. @frank
    I don’t think he actually quit. I think he didn’t have the engine anymore and I think it surprised him. Also, he’s way over committed to things outside of bike racing. He’s the CEO of the brand LANCE. He’s become a one-named star like Madonna, Cher, and A-Rod.

    He stayed for one more dance than he should have, and I agree with McSqueak about why he did it. There was one more paycheck and one more chance to sell yellow wristbands.

  20. @Jeff in PetroMetro

    Yes, to sell yellow wristbands and be “the” guy behind the Shack brand/team. He was very heavily marketed during this last tour – ads for Radioshack, ads for cars, ads for gross pisswater beer. Then Versus hyped up the whole “CONTADOR vs. ARMSTRONG ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN 5000!!” until Lance crashed too many times to be a factor in the race and they had to give that angle up.

    They were pushing brand Lance very hard, and I’m sure it was worth his while, as well as the ad company behind it.

    All that being said, I use to enjoy watching him quite a bit. He certainly had the fire in him for a while.

  21. Dare I suggest that the histrionics and temperamental behaviour of Bahamontes, Coppi et al might have had something to do with regular intake of amphetamines and god knows what else.

    Coming down from some of their little cocktails would be the chemical equivalent of descending the Tourmalet.

  22. great article Marko, absolutely spot on.

    Of course, I have never thought of the Diva’s in the sport, but don’t you think there are more of them now?? Sure, Italians have always been dramatic, but the younger riders who are really good seem nowdays as much ‘Diva’ as they are ‘Hard as Nails’. Take as Sarge mentions, they whinning Contador, or Cav’ and the like.

    Great point!

  23. @Jeff in PetroMetro
    I lived in Plano/Richardson in 1977-1979 when I was in 1st, 2nd and part of 3rd grade. Lance is a few months younger than I am but I’ve wondered if our boyhood paths ever crossed riding bikes around the neighborhood.

  24. @mcsqueak
    I understand Lance is going back to triathlon, Iron Man Hawaii, top of the food chain stuff.

    Triathlon is super hot again. Here in Houston, the handful of professionals who aren’t morbidly obese are all taking up triathlon. P3’s and P4’s are flying out the door to the Audi crowd (no offense to Audi owners).

    VeloNews is now a pretty small part of a venture capital group that focuses more on triathlon and running.

    Triathletes are willing to pay $200 entry fees. Marketers really like Type A personalities who pay that kind of money to participate in something. That is almost equivalent to greens fees at big time golf courses. And triathlon is really a race against yourself, like golf.

    Triathlon is the New Golf. And it fights obesity. And young Type A’s look sexy doing it shirtless (dudes) or in tight running bras (hopefully not dudes). And Hollywood is all about it. And you can do it like a fun run. And there isn’t an official to pull you off the course before you get lapped. And you probably won’t potato chip your $2000 wheels and break your collarbone like you probably will at your first Cat. 5 race.

    Hence, Lance returns to triathlon, raises money for Livestrong (not such a bad thing) and sells yellow wristbands (fucking annoying) and Treks out of the box and Nikes and Oakleys and Michelob Ultra.

  25. @Jeff in PetroMetro

    Interesting about Lance moving on to triathlons. Since his days in the peloton are over, it would give him a way to be competitive (and probably win), as well as continue to raise awareness and money for his causes.

    I’d agree with your assessment if triathlons being the new golf. I live in Portland, and they are plenty popular here as well, with all sorts of events running from spring into fall. Sometimes I’ll see people out with their aero bars while I’m out on one of my rides.

    However, if you’ve ever seen video of the “swim to bike” transfer station at some of these events, you’d wonder why there aren’t more serious injuries. Seriously, it gives real meaning to the idea that triathletes have no bike handling skills and are mediocre at three sports rather than excelling at one.

  26. However, if you’ve ever seen video of the “swim to bike” transfer station at some of these events, you’d wonder why there aren’t more serious injuries. Seriously, it gives real meaning to the idea that triathletes have no bike handling skills and are mediocre at three sports rather than excelling at one.

    I’ma big proponent of “Singleness of Focus”, meaning I like to concentrate on sucking at one sport completely.

  27. frank:
    I’ma big proponent of “Singleness of Focus”, meaning I like to concentrate on sucking at one sport completely.

    Indeed. With all the hours I poured into cycling from the early spring through October, I still felt like I was not nearly where I could be given more time, even though I was in the best cycling shape I’ve ever been in (which again isn’t saying much, I’ve not been cycling nearly as long as most of you).

    I can’t imaging trying to also be a competent swimmer AND runner, working with the limited amount of free time I have. No thank you.

  28. I swim well for my weight, but I hate cold water. I hate running, period. Just give me my road bike, some sit ups, some push ups, some stretches, the occasional massage, and I am golden.

  29. @Marko
    Based on what I know about Lance’s early childhood, his mom could not afford Montessori.

  30. Who is a seriously Big Time Diva in the peloton these days? Bad Cadel? Hadn’t heard him whine since before he got the rainbow jersey. McEwen? Cavendish? Greipel?

    Spartacus leaving the Vuelta and Riis at the side of the road was pretty Diva-esque, but that was a contract negotiation tactic, and everyone knew he was leaving early for the Worlds anyway. Just not that early.

    Who am I missing?

  31. Jeff in PetroMetro :

    Hence, Lance returns to triathlon, raises money for Livestrong (not such a bad thing) and sells yellow wristbands (fucking annoying) and Treks out of the box and Nikes and Oakleys and Michelob Ultra.

    Don’t forget book deals. Lance 4.0 – “It’s Not About the Shoes, the Bike or the Budgie Smugglers” … ?

  32. So let me set the record straight by adding some photos of Federico Bahamontes

    [album: http://filemanager.dutchmonkey.com/photoalbums.php?currdir=/velominati.com/content/Photo Galleries/[email protected]/Bahamontes/]

  33. I think you Lance bashers are forgetting how hard he was trying before he hit the deck at over 50kph. That was a very hard crash and with the bunch moving fast, and he fought tooth and nail to get back on and succeeded until there was another surge and he popped. I’d like to see how any of you 38/39 year olds would handle a crash that bad. Also, he was fair hauling on the cobbles to Arenberg before his puncture caused him to lose a minute, and he wasn’t mucking about when he was chasing back then either…

    I firmly believe he had top 5 GC form, but his luck finally ran out. Good on him for hanging in there until Paris when all hope had gone (although I did think he could have worked harder for Horner at times).

  34. @Oli Brooke-White
    At the risk of going down another Langent, I’m with you here Oli. The guy threw everything he had at it this year and just had a bad run, straight up.

  35. @G’phant, @Jeff in PetroMetro
    Cavendouche takes it, hands-down:

    I think Sastre is the most under-rated Diva; ever since winning the Tour, he’s always leaving teams because they “don’t give him the respect he deserves.”

    Although he’s not racing, Riis is quite the bitcher, too, albeit for fairly good reason.

    Cadel was a diva before he contracted a case of Cadelephantitis.

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