I saw my first mountain range when I rode my first Tour de France. I grew up in East Africa and we had had mountains but they seemed far, far away in a distant place at the end of the plains. Seeing the mountains for the first time was a shock.
I got an inkling pretty early on in my career that the mountains weren’t for me. Those first experiences in the Alps and Pyrenees were terrible, soul destroying; I couldn’t stay in the pack, or even stay in touch, I was on my own. But I realised that needed to find a way of coping, I still had to make it to the line.
I’d been to university and I was good at maths, which meant that I could calculate the elimination times down to the second. The night before a mountain stage I’d work out how fast I had to ride and for how long. I’d write it down on a piece of card and then lodge the numbers in my head. It was critical for me to know exactly how hard I had to ride and for how far I had to climb and it’s still that critical for many of the guys in the Tour de France now.
There were days when there were 20 or 30 riders in the autobus at the back of the race but the stages the stages that stand out, the ones that I’ll never forget are the times when I was alone, off the back, struggling to breath, struggling to turn the pedals, struggling to stay in the race. On days like those I had a vision in my mind – I’d see a railway barrier slowly closing down on the finish line. I had to make it to the line and duck my head under the barrier to be safe, and I usually did.
Despite the struggle I knew that the mountains were part of the job. You have to ride them even if you loathe them because they are such an important part of the Grand Tours. There were times when the mountains broke me; during the 1983 Tour de France I was climbing the Col de Madeleine. I had bronchitis and was sick. I remember looking up at this 2000m-high mountain and feeling crushed, so I climbed off. I was beaten.
My nickname was The Climber. It was a joke because I was always the first one to get dropped but I was a good guy to be with because the other riders knew that it was pretty certain I’d make it inside the time limit. If we were off the back the team car would come past us and hand us a pump and a spare tyre and it was ‘good luck mate’.
The memories from some of those stages are hazy but others are still fresh in my mind. In the 1984 Tour we were climbing Alpe d’Huez. I was riding with Allan Peiper; he was riding for Peugeot and I was riding for La Redoute. We were both on the limit of our physical capabilities. When you’re in that state you can be irrational, do stupid stuff, it pushes you. In the 80s there were Dutch supporters all the way up the climb, not just at Dutch Corner – they took the place over, they owned it and they would push the Dutch riders. One guy pushed a rider and then stopped in the road Allan couldn’t go anywhere and rode into him and then he just lost it.
There’s a brick wall on the left hand side of the climb. I looked over and saw Allan with this guy pinned up against the wall. He was beating the shit out of him. I dragged him off and urged him to get back on the bike, so we could make the cut. At the point he just snapped, he was crying, sobbing, I had to talk him all the way up the climb to avoid elimination.
We weren’t even on the same team – he was riding for Peugeot and I was riding for La Redoute. Herrara, the Colombian won that day but I doubt he experienced the Alpe like we did, we just got inside the time limit.
The next day we started at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez in Bourg-d’Oisans and went straight over the Galibier. It’s a horrible, long, brutal climb of nearly 20km. The Colombian’s – Delgado, Herrera – came out of the starting blocks and went ballistic from the gun. The group was lined out and going crazy. At one point Sean Yates sat up and shouted, “you’re all bleedin’ idiots.” The guys at the front couldn’t hear that but at least he got it off his chest. Then Yates, who was riding next to Peiper, looked across to him and said, “Don’t worry. The Climber’s behind you.” And I was…
It was one of those days when I had real doubts about whether we going to make it. The stage finished at the top of La Plagne, another long climb. To get to the line on days like that you have to take risks; there were six of us at the back taking turns on the flat and taking serious risks on the descent, we took the corners tight, rode too fast. In those days the spectators listened to the race on radios at the side of the road. We could hear who had won the stage, it was Fignon but there was still 34km to the end of this stage and I knew we had 27 minutes to get there. Peiper and I were together – the d’Huez stage had bonded us – but it was one of those days when I could see the barrier coming down. We rode as harder and harder and just ducked our heads under.