Like all sports, cycling needs its new blood (and I don’t mean the stuff that comes in bags from dodgy Spanish doctors). Every year there is an influx of new young stars into the peloton, even though expectations will usually exceed performance – how many youngsters have the French hyped as “the next Hinault” in their quest for another Tour winner? In ten years’ time many of them will have faded into obscurity but it seems to be that the older you get, the more affinity you have with the older riders who keep going, year after year. There was something gratifying about Chris Horner’s success in the 2013 Vuelta, just a month before his 42nd birthday; maybe it was because he looked like the sort of MAMIL you see scoffing cakes at your local cafe on a Saturday morning.
In 2018 we have already seen the Volta Valenciana won in convincing style by a resurgent Alejandro Valverde, who will be 38 by the time he tackles this year’s Grand Tours. Valverde has never been out of the news (sometimes for the wrong reasons) but a forgotten name was just below the headlines in Argentina’s Vuelta a San Juan at the end of last month. The race was won by their national champion Gonzalo Najar, who launched a bold attack on the queen stage, winning by nearly two minutes to seal overall victory but the runner-up on the day, and in the final standings, was Oscar Sevilla, who in September had celebrated his 41st birthday.
Remember Oscar Sevilla? He turned pro back in 1998, riding in the famous Kelme stripes and, after showing promise with a stage win in the 1999 Tour of Romandie and 2nd place in the 2000 Vuelta a Catalunya, he burst into the limelight at the 2001 Tour De France, finishing 7th and claiming the white jersey for the best young rider. Although he was only just eligible for competition (Sevilla would turn 25 that September) he looked so young that it was possible to believe that he was riding the Tour in his school holidays. Sevilla finished 5th on l’Alpe d’Huez on the first mountain stage (won by Lance Armstrong) to propel himself up the GC and gained further top 6 placings in the Pyrenees.
Two months later Sevilla’s climbing prowess paid dividends at the Vuelta. He took the leader’s gold jersey (as it was then) after a bold 2nd place on the climb to Lagos de Covadonga, then regained it after Joseba Beloki spectacularly blew on the Envalira climb on stage 11, and held it until the final time trial in Madrid – a broken arm-rest on his tri-bars didn’t help his cause, but he never had enough lead to hold off the TT specialist Angel Casero who took overall victory by 47 seconds. Casero never challenged for major honours again but Sevilla was seen as the future of Spanish cycling.
What happened? In 2002 Sevilla finished 4th in the Vuelta after internal team rivalries meant he was forced to ride for Aitor Gonzalez. In 2003 he suffered a bad crash in the World Championships and struggled to regain his form. In a December 2005 interview with cyclingnews.com Sevilla said , “My dream is to get on the podium at the Tour and to win the Vuelta. But also to win a mythical stage in the Tour or the Vuelta. I hope I can achieve that before my retirement and I hope I can do it soon”. His decisions to ride for Phonak in 2004 and T Mobile from 2005 – with hindsight these could hardly be seen as career moves destined to fulfil that lofty ambition, neither was the news that Sevilla was named in the investigations of Operacion Puerto. He had won the Tour of Asturias and was lined up as a super domestique for Jan Ullrich at the Tour de France, only for the team to be banned. Sevilla was never charged but the riders implicated in the investigations were like unexploded hand grenades that no team managers wanted to handle. He rode on for a couple of years in lower grade teams, winning the 2007 Route du Sud for Relax-GAM, but after another season at the infamous Rock Racing, which was little more than a Rehab facility for dopers, he faded from the view of European cycling fans.
So how did Sevilla end up in South America? The answer, it appears, is love. Riding in the 2008 Vuelta a Colombia, Oscar was so smitten with one of the ‘podium girls’ that he was encouraged to go all out for a stage win and the chance to meet her, which he did. That girl, Ivonne, became his wife and they now have two daughters. In an October 2017 interview on cyclingnews.com Sevilla reflected that Operacion Puerto was actually the best thing had happened to him and that he was happier riding in South America. He has kept getting the results – three wins in the Vuelta a Colombia, two in the Tour do Rio, the Vuelta Mexico and the RCN Clasico (Colombia), plus a win in the Vuelta a la Comunidad de Madrid on a rare return to Europe last year. There was also a year’s ban after a positive test in 2010 for H.E.S., a plasma volume expander said to act as a masking agent for blood doping. Sevilla claimed it had been administered to him in hospital after a crash but the ban was upheld on appeal. It is tempting to say that maybe he never outran his past, but it could be that he is simply a man who is able to keep doing what he loves, away from the intensity of Europe. He will never fulfil the ambitions of that 2005 interview but he may keep riding his bike for several more years.