Juan Manuel Gárate has achieved things in just three years as a professional that many veterans of the peloton would have been proud of achieving in a full career. Unusually, the Spanish rider has never ridden for a Spanish team. He has ridden throughout his pro career with the Italian team of Lampre. This has meant he is often over looked by the Spanish Press because he is based in Italy and likewise forgotten by the Italian press because he is Spanish. However, those who have been watching him over the last three years (of course including his many home fans in the region of Irun in northern Spain) have seen “Juamma” progress through the ranks in an impressive manner.
An impressive 2001 season riding for Gilberto Simoni saw him support his Captains charge for the pink jersey and also saw Garate finish 20th overall, a tremendous result for a domestique riding only his second major Tour (he had finished 62nd in the 2000 Vuelta a Espana). He again rode in support of Simoni in the Tour de Suisse 2001, and his support and attacking riding on stage 5 on the notorious St Gotthard pass was enough to make Armstrong sit up in wonderment for a few minutes.
Eventually all domestiques have their day and in the 2001 Vuelta, with Simoni out of GC contention, Garate was at last allowed a free hand in front of his own fans. On a rain soaked and cold stage 14 between Tarragona and Vinarós Garate got into a break containing no one of any threat, and he gained a nine minute advantage on the bedraggled peloton. In no mood for a bunch sprint, Garate broke clear with Juan Carlos Dominguez (iBanesto) and proved the stronger man of the two to take the stage victory.
El Pistolero and Juamma in action.
The 2002 season saw Garate continue his good form; on stage 4 of the Giro del Trentino he got into the race winning break with fellow Lampre rider Mariano Piccoli. Indeed it was "El Pistolero" ("the Gunman"), who made the early attack and with just 6 kilometres to go Piccoli had 40 seconds. Cardenas and Garate were chasing while behind, the Casagrande-led peloton were closing rapidly. Piccoli could not keep up the momentum on the final Cat 2 listed hill, but Garate managed to drop Cardenas and hold off the charging peloton to win with 28 seconds to spare.
Victory in Córedo
So clearly in good form for the Giro, Garate entered the race as a gregario once again, although this time riding for Tonkov. It was to be an unfortunate pairing. Tonkov, still a force to be reckoned with, was not the rider of former years. Garate through honour and loyalty and the natural "pecking order" would ride for his Captain once again. As early as stage 4 Garate was up 9 seconds on Tonkov. Stage 5, between Fossano and Limone Piemonte was short, sharp and more like a classic day. Hamilton crashed, Sastre gave him his bike, Perez started a season long career as the “so close man”, Garzelli won the stage but when the dust had settled Juan Manuel Garate still led his Captain, Pavel Tonkov, by 6 seconds.
Stage 11 saw the Spanish rider forced to leave his Captain behind on the windy mountain top finish of Campitello Matese. Simoni and Casagrande (who, of course, has joined the Lampre squad for the 2003 season) fought out a classic duel on the slopes. Simoni’s deserved his victory (for Casagrande had done little work), meanwhile Garate again put time into Tonkov.
Garate in the mountains
Of course as the race continued riders were moving up the General Classification by default, the “retirements” of Garzelli, Simoni and eventually Casagrande, removed the key players from the race. Nevertheless when the magic Mexican Julio Perez Cuapio won stage 13 into San Giacomo, once again Juamma was the best placed Lampre man.
The time trial on Stage 14 should have re-established the pecking order of the Lampre team. Tyler Hamilton hammered round the course to take the victory in the typical USA style - small gears and high cadence, meanwhile in his wake Garate finished an excellent 8th place a full 1’26’’ ahead of Tonkov. It was surprising that at this point the Lampre DS Saronni did not make tactical changes to the Lampre squad.
Stage 16, finishing in Corvara Badia, was 163 kilometres of ascent and descent with the emphasis on ascent. Once again “Lucky” Julio Perez Cuapio swooped to stage glory.
Paolo Savoldelli was second while Dario Frigo, Juan Manuel Garate and Aitor Gonzalez Jimenez were the next three riders over the line. Tonkov again lost over two minutes to his teammate. However, Garate’s progression up the GC rankings was almost unnoticed as the Wizard of Oz, Cadel Evans, took the pink jersey from brave Heppner.
Drama in the Dolomites
Of course Pavel Tonkov’s famous victory on Stage 17 his escape with "Lucky" Perez, who when his legs finally ran out said a cheerful "goodbye and good luck," is the stuff of legends. As was the agony of Cadel Evans as he desperately hit the wall, and indeed "the Falcon" Savoldelli’s great ride to ensure his Maglia Rosa. However, Tonkov’s attack left Garate’s hands tied. Clearly in tremendous form on the day, he could do little but follow the main chasing group until Tonkov’s victory was secured. The Lampre team had traded in a possible podium place for a stage victory. Such is cycle racing.
Garate moved up into fourth place overall, a position he held until the end of the race.
It was a major triumph, particularly for a rider who had spent the race as gregario for Tonkov. Certainly his Spanish fans were delighted - Garate returned home to a hero's welcome at the airport with around 400 fans in attendance and was received by the local mayor and civic leaders.
The Tour de Suisse again saw Garate riding for Tonkov - doing enough work to finish second in the mountains classification. On the penultimate stage the “Iron man from Irun” was finally allowed the freedom to go stage hunting. An 18 man group broke clear at around 14 kilometres and made it to sprint out the finale. Bortolami jumped first but Garate seemed to have read the move and was easily going to overtake him when the Italian impeded his progress. Even Bortolami didn’t look too convincing when he raised his hands in “triumph”.
The judges ruled with Garate who was, quite rightly awarded the stage.
Cross winds made the Vuelta a hard race
So for the final Tour of the season for Garate the Vuelta Espana. Preparations had not gone well. A painful wisdom tooth and illness had hampered training plans, Garate came to the Vuelta with no great hopes other than to use the first few days to ride himself into some form and hope for the best. Sadly it was not to work out. Brutal crosswinds made the early stages like a battlefield. Indeed these climatic conditions probably made the Vuelta the hardest of the three major tours this season. Stage 14 saw the major pile-up which caused many injuries and abandons. A badly gashed leg and other injuries saw the doctors advise The “Iron Man” to retire. Bravely, and understanding the nature of a three week Tours, Garate refused and limped home with a pack of pedalling wounded (including no less than three U S Postal riders Christian Vandevelde, Matthew White, Victor Hugo Peña) who finished 14.14 down. Brave Raffaele Ferrara of Alessio came in alone 18.01 - what a desperate ride that must have been. 8 men did not make it to the finish, including Steffen Kjaergaard of the US Postal Service. Heras did not lose the Vuelta that day - but he certainly lost his team.
Had the following day been even moderately hard Garate would have continued. The next day ended with the Angliru. Following medical advice Garate, wisely chose not to risk further injury and did not start the following day.
Garate will have Casagrande and Belli with him in the Giro this year - he will certainly ride for those esteemed Captains. But surely it is about time they named Juamma as Captain of their Vuelta Team?
Cadel Evans stole the glory in the Giro this year. Garate finished higher up the GC. Well come to the next generation Tour contenders. I look forward to their battles in future years.