In 2007, the Vuelta a España commenced in Vigo, with thousands of Spanish cycling fans lining the streets to cheer on the country’s GC hopefuls: Óscar Freire, Carlos Sastre, and Samuel Sánchez. Freire went on to win stage two of the race, catapulting himself into the yellow jersey and the lead for the points classification. However, it was Russia’s Denis Menchov who clinched that year’s victory, while Spanish riders Sastre and Sánchez completed the podium.
Laura Meseguer was among those fans, eagerly anticipating how the three-week Grand Tour would unfold. But she wasn’t there as the journalist and broadcaster fans of the sport have come to recognise today. She was there representing the construction company she worked for, which was sponsoring that year’s race – unaware of how those three weeks were destined to reshape her career.
Only a few months after that Vuelta, she left the construction company, and stepped into the unknown as a cycling journalist, heading to races with little knowledge, but a lot of willingness to learn. Sixteen years later, Meseguer has become one of the most esteemed journalists and is highly regarded in the professional peloton.
“I loved it,” Meseguer told Rouleur when asked about her first Grand Tour experience. “You had to be at the start village and the riders used to come there, and of course, as you don't know anything about the sport, you ask stupid questions, but they were patient to answer them. I was speaking to Paolo Bettini and I didn’t know him, so I’d ask questions like, ‘Oh, you are riding everyday?’ and ‘You are injured, why do you keep on riding?’ without understanding the sport. But there I discovered a sport, and a path in life.”
A path not planned
“He told me, do whatever you want, but don’t be a journalist,” she laughed. This was Laura’s dad’s advice when she left her job at the construction firm. Having been a journalist himself, albeit for a press agency, he comprehended the demands of the profession.
Growing up in Argentina and Chile, Laura fondly recalls memories of her dad’s office being under the house, requiring her to pass through the press room to reach home. She would say hello to all the other journalists on a daily basis, watching them write articles day-in, day-out, imitating them on the weekend when the room was free from people and it was just her and the room as her playground.
Once Meseguer started to gain more and more interest in cycling, her dad tried to steer her away from the sport, encouraging her to get a job in communications, as she had done previously. However, undeterred, she remained on a mission to make her own path in cycling.
Eventually, Laura's father recognised the opportunities unfolding for his daughter. Instead of encouraging her to explore other avenues, he evolved into her mentor. He meticulously read every article she crafted, offering corrections and imparting his knowledge. He even read and edited her entire book, Jostling for Position. “He didn’t like cycling, but he’s had to read everything about it now,” she smiled.
After leaving the construction company, her time was filled with going to the races and talking to all the people involved. This is how she began to understand the race’s nuances and strategies. Meseguer then became a regular at the Vuelta, attending year after year, learning about the generation of cyclists who were experiencing some of cycling’s highest highs, and lowest of lows.
Cycling today remains a male-dominated sport, but back when Meseguer started writing in 2008, it was even more pronounced. Coming from another male dominated industry like construction, Meseguer at the time never felt uncomfortable, but she mentioned that because she was a woman, people just assumed she was a hostess.
“The people at the Vuelta, we know each other very well, but they believe that I was a hostess and then I became a journalist,” she said. “But it’s not like that, I was working in communications and then I developed in journalism. But that was the only space we had as women, I mean, there were no women in the teams and only in the organisation as hostesses. And it’s interesting because when you speak to women who are 30 or 20 years older than me, they said it was the same situation.
“So, you see that it didn’t grow in that sense for two decades or something, and then at my first Tour de France in 2012, I think in the press room, it was just me and a photographer who were women and that’s all. Even the toilets were just for men. But I never felt uncomfortable. I had a lot of fun working with my colleagues on that Tour.”
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
This year’s Vuelta a España marks Meseguer's 22nd Grand Tour. Yet, she says no race is as special as your first experience with such legendary races. Even after many years mixing with the pro peloton, her passion for the sport and her integral role within it remains as fervent as ever. Now a mother to two, when Meseguer was pregnant with her second child, the Covid pandemic hit and stopped her from going to the Tour de France, and she didn’t return to a race in person until 2022 when she went to the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana.
“That for me was huge,” she exclaimed. “It was a small race but going back there, it felt like there was a new generation and I didn’t know them. There I met Remco Evenepoel and then I had the opportunity to go to the Vuelta.
“In the Vuelta, I really realised that I love it [cycling] so much! I enjoyed every second, I didn’t want the race to end, I wanted another week. Everything, the stories, the adrenaline, the emotions, the big champions, it’s something unique and you have it all there. Sometimes you take it for granted after so many years, but once you miss it, it’s like, oh my god, this is such a unique job.”
Being a mother, however, introduces its own set of complexities. With Grand Tours being three-weeks long and many of them being overseas, Meseguer acknowledges the occasional pang of “mum guilt” she feels when leaving her children for long periods of time. Nonetheless, she reminds herself that being a mother isn’t her only identity. “I don’t know how much it’s going to last,” she mused about her career as a cycling journalist. “I’m always scared that it’s going to be the last time or someone else is going to be working there, but if I still have the opportunity, I will take it because it’s really, really special for me.”
A few years running she completed all three Grand Tours for Eurosport, away from her family. Luckily, one of those races is on home soil. Hailing from Spain, Meseguer admits that she does love the Vuelta because it’s her home race. However, she also speaks highly of the Giro d’Italia, saying what a unique race it is, and the Tour, “it's stressful but we all want to be there,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
Bad timing, or the perfect opportunity?
During the year Meseguer was on maternity leave with her first child, a wave of Spain's celebrated cyclists, who had been integral to the country's golden era in the sport, chose to retire. “The guys I met from this generation were all retiring,” Meseguer said, putting her head into her hands. “It was a kind of grief.”
Not knowing whether she’d go back to her career after having a baby, she felt that it could also be over like those retiring pros. Amidst this swirling doubt, an unexpected opportunity emerged – an opportunity to write a book. Initially, she confessed that she considered it the worst possible timing. Her mind, preoccupied with pregnancy, didn't appear conducive to the task. Nonetheless, Meseguer is not one to let opportunities slip through her fingers, and grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
“It took me some time to find a rhythm, but then I remember, I went pregnant for a week to País Vasco and Cantabria for a week to visit these guys in their homes. Then, I had to go to Asturias to visit Samuel Sánchez, Murcia for Valverde, and Ávila for Carlos Sastre. All the conversations were so interesting and I really enjoyed doing the interviews but then also writing them,” Meseguer said.
In her new book, she focuses on the past two decades, capturing what she believes was the golden era of the sport in Spain. Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodríguez, Óscar Freire, Pedro Horrillo, and Juan Antonio Flecha were at the forefront of this generation, and this is who Meseguer spoke to for the book. But she notes that she could have interviewed so many more, adding: “It’s a big, big generation because not only were there big stars, but the domestiques played a significant part in the many teams.”
Meseguer couldn’t write about this generation of Spanish cyclists without mentioning the big black spot which resides over this period – doping. In the past two decades, doping has been a vexed subject, especially with Spanish cyclists. In 2006, Operación Puerto exposed a sports doping network linked to Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, with some of the world’s most high-profile cyclists involved. On the list was Contador (later cleared) and Valverde (later banned). “I told them I have to speak about this,” Meseguer said, calmly. “It’s something that we have spoken about already in the past, so it was not something new and they have spoken a lot about it, so I had to tell that story.”
However, this shadow of doping and the scandals that marred the sport's early years didn't solely envelop this particular generation. While delving into research for this chapter, Meseguer found herself transported back to what she describes as the "dark, very dark years" of 2001 and 2002 – years she herself was initially oblivious to as she was unfamiliar with the sport and its dishonourable secrets. Meseguer started the book’s chapter around doping like a movie script, because she couldn’t quite believe what was happening during those years with police raids at the Giro d’Italia and cancelled stages.
Meseguer personally attended Contador's press conference in 2010 when he was linked to the Operación Puerto case. Even with a few years now within the cycling industry, the book has provided her with the platform to unearth not only the hidden truths from some of these riders, but also the profound impact of doping on non-doping riders. She said, "Freire spoke about the numerous races he lost due to the advantage others gained through doping."
Operación Puerto commanded Spain's golden era, dominating the headlines for many years. Even today Spanish riders are penalised for others doing in the past, despite the sport being widely considered much more ‘clean’ compared to its history.
A generation like no other
Alberto Contador is certainly one of the greatest Grand Tour riders in the sport’s history, and this saw his popularity skyrocket in Spain. But despite everything this generation experienced and the shadows cast over portions of their careers, fans still flock to them with admiration.
“The love that people have for him, I mean, I work with him on Eurosport and I go with him to La Vuelta and I always tell him, I’m not going to walk with you because it is just crazy! It takes him about 15 minutes to walk 100 metres. So you see the passion that everyone has for him because in Spain, and what this book tries to prove is that, the cycling culture has always been around Grand Tours because it’s a country mainly of climbers. That is why Alberto is the big star.”
Although Spain’s most celebrated cyclists have been victors of the three Grand Tours, Freire gained popularity, not for his Grand Tour riding, but for his abilities as a sprinter. He went on to win three World Championships, then the green jersey at the Tour de France and Milan-Sanremo three times, when people didn’t really know him, Meseguer noted. Joaquím Rodríguez then celebrated victories in two editions of Il Lombardia, as well as Flèche Wallonne. Then Valverde proved to be one of the most versatile riders Spain has ever had, winning many difficult races over his career. Despite their respective glittering palmarès, Contador remained the country’s most cherished rider.
“If Valverde was Belgian, he’d be a king in his country,” Meseguer joked. “But as he is Spanish and the culture has been so much around Grand Tours, he’s not as popular as Contador.”
Of the many things that characterised this generation, there is one in particular that stands out, with this being their knack to make history by continuously pushing the limits of what had been thought possible. But slowly one by one, the riders retired, and when Valverde retired last year at the age of 42, he was the last of Spain’s golden generation call time. Having raced from 2002 until 2022, participating in 32 Grand Tours and adding 133 professional victories to his palmarès, including the Vuelta a España in 2009, nine Ardennes Classics, and the World Championship road race title in 2018.
“He has been a very unique rider, and this is not said just by Spanish journalists. I mean, if you go inside the peloton and ask about this, you’ll hear the respect they have because no one better than a cyclist understands how much it takes to race and win this or that,” she said. “He’s a unique rider, not only because of his achievements, but the way he sees and enjoys cycling. He loves his bike so much, he doesn’t understand his life without it.
“There must have been tough moments, but he’s so humble, a normal guy. Of course, we will miss that. We miss that already.”
A new generation
As with everything, there is a moment in time when the older generation clears a path for those younger to fill its gap, and over the past few years there has been a changing of the guard for Spain’s professional cyclists. While there are riders such as Mikel Landa and Enric Mas stepping in for the now-retired golden era, they haven't yet replicated the winning streak that defined their legendary predecessors. However, two riders have been catching the attention of the Spanish fans – Juan Ayuso and Carlos Rodríguez. Aged 22, Rodríguez came fifth in this year’s Tour de France as well as taking a prestigious stage win. And Ayuso, only 20 years old, came third in last year’s Vuelta and second in this year’s Tour de Suisse.
“It’s super exciting,” Meseguer said. “Because when these guys, like Alberto, were this young, they were not as good as Juan Ayuso and Carlos Rodríguez.”
Ayuso will be the GC hopeful for Spain in the Vuelta this year, coming third last year in his debut at just 19. On home soil, he’ll have the whole country cheering for him as he takes on the gruelling lap around Spain that’s entrenched in dark secrets, triumphs, rivalry and admiration. As the curtain falls on the golden era of Spanish cycling, a fresh chapter unfurls for the nation. Simultaneously, Meseguer anticipates a new phase in her career, delving into the world of emerging cyclists—exploring their formative years, their attributes, their traits, and their strategic approaches. But despite this, she added, “It’s nice to live a story from the beginning.”