by Christine Kahane
Cycling is not so popular in Spain anymore, not like soccer, tennis or Formula 1. So says Chechu Rubiera. "The people need a hero like the Real Madrid, the Barca, Rafael Nadal or Fernando Alonso."
Let’s hope young, extremely talented and strong-willed Alberto Contador will fill the gap left by champion Miguel Indurain, and become a hero in the Spanish people’s hearts. That’s what Chechu wishes and we do too.
PART ONE : Day 1
When I accepted Nicky’s suggestion to join her family for a four-day holiday in Asturias, Chechu Rubiera’s homeland, and totally unknown to us, I would never have believed how enthralled and enthusiastic, my husband Roger and I, would return.
In fact, we fell in love with Asturias at first sight, as soon as we crossed the border from the Basque Country, and although it was raining cats and dogs. All these green, winding perspectives and snow-capped mountains made us think of Switzerland or Austrian Tyrol where we often spent our holidays when our children were small.
We joined our Scottish friends, Nicky, Tom and their girls, Alice, Beth and Katy, at the rural gite run by a very welcoming Spanish-American couple, who own a little farm on the Novellana heights, along the Cantabrica sea.
There, we settled into a cosy studio where, apart from sleeping at night, we did not spend much time, and joined Nicky and family for dinner in their next door rural gite.
We discussed about going to Leon the next day, a three-hour drive across mountains and plains, to attend the arrival of the last stage of the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, where Chechu was expecting us.
Owing to the long, 6-hour drive, Nicky and Tom decided not to accompany us. Instead, they took advantage of the good weather to visit Gijón, second largest city in Asturias. So Roger and I headed off alone for Riaño, province of Leon.
The road taking us to Riaño had some breathtaking mountain scenery with snow-capped summits and winding roads overlooking frozen glittering lakes.
Riaño, the arrival point of the race, is a charming sleepy little Alpine style town perched above a large reservoir lake.
Our timing was perfect because we arrived precisely with the Astana support team group and buses, and spotted our friend, soigneur Valentin, with a new hairstyle, which makes him look very young.
He explained that the Discovery buses had been repainted with skill in Astana colours, a real work of art for they look beautiful.
We then saw Pedro, the Basque doctor team, who has been with Lance back from the Motorola years in 1996, and had a long chat with him.
He said the team morale was excellent, and they got over their disappointment for being excluded from some of the season top races. Their policy is to keep a low profile and to simply win as many races as possible so the public will understand it has been deprived unfairly from seeing one of the best, if not the best, team from competing in the major races.
Pedro added that Chechu is a great rider and a wonderful man who sets an example and inspires his young team mates.
He also said that Alberto Contador, winner of this edition of the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, aims for a victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné, 8-15 June, which is the usual preparation for the Tour de France.
Elvio, the Italian soigneur, was the next we talked to. He confided that he was hoping his Parisian fiancée, Alice, would move to Nice, where he has settled and opened a successful restaurant with two partners.
As it was lunch time and the riders were only expected two hours later, they all retired to the bus for a snack of bread, cheese and red wine, followed by a coffee in the only tiny local bar open.
Just before the final sprint of the bunched peloton, Johan appeared. He looked well, relaxed and happy to see us. He said that Chechu had the most faithful and active fans.
Meanwhile, Elvio had started dispatching the riders’ suitcases from the Astana bus to the various cars. Johan, Alberto and Levi would head back to Madrid, a four-and-a-half drive. Levi would return home to California the next day and get ready for the Tour of Georgia.
Another car was waiting to take the three Asturian riders: Benjamín Noval, Dani Navarro, and Chechu, back to Mieres, Gijón and Muño.
As to Valentin, he would drive the bus back to his home place near San Sebastian and drop Pedro on the way in Eliorrio near Bilbao where his Barcelona-born wife Beatriz and two daughters Ana and Maria were expecting him.
Around 4.30pm, the peloton arrived and there was a crash just in front of our eyes involving two riders.
Our attention was focused on that incident and after the fallen cyclists got up to finish the race it seemed it was all over and we started turning our backs to the road, when suddenly two Astana riders passed by and I recognised Chechu and Benjamín and shouted at them. Chechu turned round and waved at me smiling. They were just enjoying the successful end of the race for their team.
Soon Sean Yates appeared, nonchalantly as usual, and as I had promised his father (with whom I had struck up a correspondence on The Paceline forum), I transmitted him the “best wishes from Sweden from his old man”. That’s where Sean father’s lives.
Then, immediately upon ending the race, all the Astana riders arrived, one by one, grimy with mud all over, because they had raced on roads covered with melted snow, and we took some candid photos.
Chechu posed for us dirty, before entering the bus to shower and change. We hung around while more people arrived waiting for the winner Alberto Contador, who was going through the podium ceremony and the mandatory anti-doping control.
Chechu, Benjamín and Dani Navarro, who were all showered, came out of the bus and we could witness how the three Asturian riders, and specially the veteran Chechu, were adulated and loved by the public, and surrounded by riders from other teams, fans and friends.
Chechu was in great shape, very slim, handsome, happy and smiling, posing for photos and making jokes with their buddies.
The three Asturians headed home, a two-and-a-half drive across a fairy tale scenery of snow and sun, which Chechu told us is his usual training circuit, which we could experience too since we took the same road – and lost our way twice!
Before leaving, Chechu kissed me and we decided to meet the following day at his parents’ bar in Baldornón at 6pm, since the morning and early afternoon are devoted to training and siesta.
One thing that has always struck us is the marvelous relationship that exist since ever within the team, between the various riders and all the staff. I think this friendship, quite unique among the pro-cycling teams is owed to a great extent to Johan’s charisma and skills as a manager – Johan who does not hesitate, when needed, to give a hand to Elvio at carrying the numerous riders’ suitcases, as we could witness in Riaño.
We woke up with a beautiful blue sky, lots of sun, no clouds and Tom and Nicky decided to take the girls to the beach. Although it was quite chilly and windy, the three girls went in the water (in bikinis) under the amazed gaze of the local people.
During that time, Roger and I visited Cudillero, a lovely village perched on the mountain side along the sea, overlooking steeply on a little harbour.
After a light lunch at home, followed by a short nap, we all headed for Baldornón, where we had a date with Chechu at 6pm at his parent’s bar.
When Chechu had fixed with me this appointment, he was a bit sceptical whether we could find the way. But I said that Tom and Nicky, who had been there before, would certainly remember it and we could rely on them not to get lost.
But when we arrived in Baldornon, we found ourselves in a maze, and went round and round this tiny village for half and hour, and kept passing the different places on different angles without finding a way out.
Nicky got the giggles while I called Chechu, who sensed our state of nervousness and told us, as he had told Lance on the Luz Ardiden 2003 epic stage: “tranquila”. This is the only world I heard for the connection was very bad because we were in a valley surrounded by hills, so I did not get a word of what Chechu was explaining to me in Spanish about how to get there.
Eventually, after asking half a dozen people, who all said something different, we arrived at Bar Rubiera to find a handsome Chechu, dressed in an orange sweatshirt, with a huge grin spread across his face, patiently waiting for us.
Finally arrived. Chechu with Nicky and Katy outside Bar Rubiera
After the welcoming hugs and embraces, we were introduced to Laura, who I had met two years ago at the arrival in Paris of the Tour de France, and Chechu’s parents, Loli and Pepe.
Chechu and Laura
Chechu's parents, Loli and Pepe, with Laura
Around the walls of this little café were displayed photos, cups and trophies won by Chechu since his childhood, and Chechu brought ten photo albums containing newpapers articles gathered by his mother over the years.
Chechu, very relaxed, was a perfect host, worked the coffee machine himself, preparing our drinks, and poured Coke for the girls.
He started by giving us lots of presents: his own homemade (by himself) apple jam and fig compote (ed. recipe coming soon), two bottles each of Asturian sidra, a specialty of the province, and a few Astana caps.
Nicky had commissioned a graphic artist to produce a special Chechu poster as a surprise for the family, and they were all very admiring of the result which captured perfectly Chechu’s likeliness.
It was the first time we had the chance to have a prolonged chat with Chechu and were surprised how well and easily he expresses himself in English, without any hesitation.
Normally, Chechu and I speak Spanish together because it’s good practice for me. Laura can also express herself very well in English, although she does not have to use it as much as Chechu.
After an hour or so, Chechu invited us to his home, 8 kilometres away. Thankfully, he lead the way because we would never have found the place in an isolated location on a tiny country lane.
It’s an old farm house that has been in the family for several generations and that Chechu and Laura have restored beautifully. While maintaining all the rustic charm, they have converted it into a luxurious, tastefully decorated place, warm, cosy and comfortable, a mixture of modern comfort and ancient charm.
Chechu lead us to his very pretty landscaped garden and introduced us to his dog, Boris (a female despite the name), and cat Lola, who get on very well and sleep side by side. He obviously loves animals and recounted that Boris had nine puppies in one litter. That was enough for Chechu who had a very hard time finding homes for them, so he had Boris dressed.
The girls meet Boris the dog
We entered the house and Chechu showed us the exercise room where he keeps fit and gathers a lot of jerseys from his various races and teams, as well as memorabilia signed by his friends, team-mates, and sports friends like Fernando Alonso.
On a mezzanine, overlooking his large bedroom and walk-in closet, under the eaves, stands Chechu’s office with his computer and cycling and road books.
Nicky dares to sit in Chechu's chair, but resists rummaging in his desk
It was already 8pm and to our utter surprise, Chechu had not had enough of us and suggested we all have dinner in a restaurant run by a member of his family, where he invited us to a typical local original seafood meal with several different dishes.
We noticed that Chechu takes care of his body for he only drinks water and eats light food such as salads and all in small quantities. Nevertheless, to celebrate our visit, he indulged himself to a tiramisu, a specialty of the house.
While enjoying his dessert, Chechu told us that during a race, when all the riders meet at the breakfast table, the team doctor is adamant that they should only eat low calorie fat-free cereals. But as Chechu and some of his team mates have a sweet tooth, as soon as the doctor turns his back, they all stuff themselves with Nutela. The funny thing is that Roger and I witnessed this fact once when we were staying at the same hotel as the Discovery team in Belgium, during the 2006 Giro, eating breakfast next to the riders’ table.
All the riders eat together while the management and the staff have separate tables.
Laura is delightful. She and Chechu obviously have a very good and close relationship. They have known each other from university days and married seven years ago on December 31, 2000.
Laura has her own profession as a pleading lawyer, which she enjoys very much, and does not get involved in Chechu’s career. She thinks it’s very good since they don’t get into each other’s way and have their separate professional lives.
Chechu and Laura were very kind with the girls, specially little Katy aged 6, and I am sure they would be excellent parents.
At 11pm, we said good bye and reminded one another that the clock would change to summer time and go one hour forward that night.
But Chechu still had not had enough of us and gave us a date for the following day in Oviedo, capital of Asturias, for a coffee, and to lend Tom, who is a skilled rider, one of his mountain bikes for a few days.
It was a very showery day altogether when we reached the Oviedo Cathedral at 6pm, which was the time of the appointment set by Chechu. But it was around 6.30pm that Chechu and Laura, hand in hand and smiling as usual, arrived. We thought they had missed the change of time but in fact they had been expecting our phone call to let them know we had finished our tour of Oviedo and were waiting for them. They had been visiting the museum of mineralogy, one of Chechu’s interests.
Chechu (with Laura in background) in Oviedo.
Laura explained we were very close to her parents' home where she has lunch every day since her law practice is located nearby.
We all went for a coffee in a bar on the Cathedral square and Tom started a conversation with Chechu on how he trains. Chechu said that the team training expert, Pepe Marti, sends all the riders their individual training schedule each week, and they each get a weekly check-up from Pepe so he can adapt the schedule depending on the race they are preparing for. Tom was very interested by all these details.
Chechu told us about his contacts with the cycling world and we noticed that, on top of all his other qualities, he only had nice, kind things to say about other riders, team members and staff.
He also said that the morning before, he had had an unexpected visit from the UCI inspectors for a random blood test.
Both Chechu and Laura regret not having enough time to enjoy traveling together, each having his own professional life set on a totally different schedule.
Chechu told us that once, when Laura had accompanied him to the United States where he was competing with Lance Armstrong, the couple had decided to take a week cultural vacation in New York after the race. Hotels there are very expensive, and they were offered by Sheryl Crowe, then Lance’s fiancée, the free use of her apartment located in a posh district and a top class building with a doorman.
Chechu added that Sheryl is a lovely woman and although a famous star, she would share their table at meals and remember the first name of each one of the numerous riders and staff members.
Beth doesn't seem a bit overawed
Then Chechu went off to get one of his own bikes which he lent to Tom while Nicky and I kept on chatting with Laura for half an hour.
Around 8.30pm we all said our final good-byes.
Although Nicky teases me with my photo mania, calling me a “paparazzi”, I am sure she now enjoys having so many first hands souvenirs of this wonderful trip we shared to Chechu’s homeland. A photo for me is the way to capture the rare precious moments offered by life.
And Chechu understands my purpose. He has seen me around, supporting him and the various teams he and Lance were part of for many years and in many different places because this gave me the motivation to once fight a serious illness.
And in the course of all these years, I got attached to Chechu and his team-mates as if they were all part of my own family.
Photographs by Christine and Roger Kahane, and Pepe Rubiera