Joaquim Agostinho. A soldier's story.

I live right smack in the middle of a Portugese-American community.  My wife is the proud granddaughter of hard-working Portugese emigrants, and I've been happily assimilated into a fantastic and very close Portugese family.

Soccer (Futbol) is embedded into the local sports culture in these parts... you see Sporting Lisbon stickers on cars, and green-white hooped replica shirts on the faithful of all ages.  A nice bonus is RTP International on cable TV.  In August, just when post-Tour withdrawl syndrome is at it's maximum, I can detox gradually by recording daily multi-hour live stage coverage of the Volta a Portugal - a perfect antidote for Post-Tour-TV hangover.    Portugal's national tour has some great classic climbs. The annual summit moutain stages finishes of Torre (Sierra Estrela) or the circular road up to the summit church at Santa Maria de Graca have had battles that sometimes rival the other national tours.

Portugal's greatest cyclist was Joaquim Agostinho.  Here in the states he's a 1970's footnote, a guy almost forgotten now.  Not in Portugal though.  There, and to many of my current neighbors of a certain age, the late, great Agostinho is a legend comparable to Fausto Coppi in Italy.  He's been voted Portugal's 4th greatest athlete of all time, only behind Soccer star Eusebio, and Olympic Marathon champions Rosa Mota and Carlos Lopes.   In Futbol crazy Portugal, that's saying something.  There are several monuments to his memory.

Agostinho.  "They don't make 'em like that anymore."

The one Eddy feared...
Back in 1993 or so, I once had a memorable dinner in Milan with my Portugese distrbutor, Nuno Calado of Bicigal and his friend, the Portugese professional Joachim Gomes.  At the time, the climbing specialist Gomes had already twice won the Volta Portugal. Today, he's the race director of Portugal's national Tour.  Much of the conversation over pizza quartro stagione and vino rosso di casa that night was about Joachim Agostinho, who came from the same region, Torres Vedras north of Lisbon as both of my companions.   "If Agostinho had been born in France," Joachim smiled, confidently wagging his finger at me, "Merckx would have won a lot fewer races."

His beginnings in the sport came later than most pros.
DiGribaldy happiest memory was
of his work with Agostinho.
(photo courtesy:
He was a guerilla fighter in Portugese Army for three years during the war in Angola in the 60's.  Unlike many of his comrades, Joachim luckily made it home, picked up the bike, and quickly found out he was pretty good.  The old story of the guy on the workman's bike dropping the local racers.   In this case, it was the Sporting Lisbon team, who snapped him up.  Tinho found cycling easier than farming arid Iberian soil.  And getting shot at daily in Africa for a few years tends to shift your perspectives on what qualifies as 'dangerous' a bit.

In 1968, he was discovered riding a stage race in Brazil by count Jean DiGribaldy, who had a penchant for discovering talents from distant lands and bringing them to his low budget French pro teams.  Like he did with Sean Kelly.  Agostinho learned the metier a-la-DiGri:  Get paid little.  Get fed less.  Ride lots.   The formula forged Agostinho into a leader for various, long-forgotten DiGribaldy teams like Frimatic, Hoover, Puch and SEM.

Agostinho was a bull of a man.  Pierre Chany said he was "a man of average height, but with the build of a rhinocerous."  He pedaled with the strength provided by a tree trunk thick torso.  It let him climb and TT like the best.  Warfare bred tenacity provided the rest.

Raging Bull
In the 1968 World Championships in Imola, Italy, the Portugese neo-pro attacked from the gun, precipitating the big break that made the race.  He pulled like a horse, the break lasting and providing the launching pad for home winner Vittorio Adorni.   I was once told by a guy who was there that the official race radio mysteriously stopped  working for a lot of that race, the result being a delay in organizing a serious chase until the gap was so big even Merckx couldn't bring them back.   Only in Italy.

In '69, he gave Merckx a scare in what was the first Tour for both of them.  That's not an exaggeration.  Merckx later admitted it was not Poulidor, Altig, Pingeon or Gimondi who worried him the most in that, his dominant, historic first Tour victory.   It was Agostinho he was most concerned about, the only one he feared.

Then there's the famous story of the cattle.  One year, a week or so before the Tour de France, rustlers had stolen his cattle from his farm back home in Torres Vedras.   He spent that final tune up time before the Tour not resting and training, but instead gathering a posse and hiking around the arid hills recovering his prized lost livestock, his real priority in life.   Not exactly the ideal preparation for the Tour.   Didn't seem to faze Agostinho much.  Like the soldier he was, he just got on with it, and did what he had to do.  No complaints.

Hinault on Agostinho
"A great racer, very combative, a real warrior"
His palmares was as impressive as his strength and longevity.  His talent, robust health and love of the sport saw him last as a pro for about 16 years, until 1984.  He won the Tour of Portugal three times.  He was twice third in the Tour de France, in 1978-1979 behind Hinault and Zoetemelk.  In 1979, riding for Flandria, he won solo on the stage to Alpe d'Huez (watch it here).   In shades of Fignon, he lost the 1974 Vuelta in the final TT by a heartbreaking 11 seconds to Miguel Maria Lasa.   He was part of the elite of the Tour, well liked and respected.  Kelly and Maertens all counted him as a friend.  Good guy, Tinho.  Soldiering is good training for getting along in the peloton.

Gluing tires helps prevent falls Ago...
Victory at Alpe d'Huez, 1979
Agostinho had two Achilles heels though.  One of them was an absence of tactical sense.   My old D.S. John Ireland used to say "Tihno never tried to attack when it was slow, he'd only try to go away when it was 30+MPH."  It was a commentary corroborated by Raphael Geminiani: "Joaquim Agostinho didn't know his own strength. He was a ball of muscles of out-of-the-ordinary power. He was built like a cast-iron founder. Having come to cycling fairly late, he had trouble integrating with it. It's a shame he didn't want to dedicate himself 100 per cent to being a professional cyclist. Now and then he showed his very great physical powers, but no more often than that. He didn't want to do more. The peloton scared him, which is why he fell so often. More than that, Tinho was never aggressive enough to impose himself totally. He had a legendary kindness and his only ambition was to be good, gentle Tinho. If he'd been ambitious, he would easily have written his name into the records of the Tour de France."

His other weakness was that he was a crasher.  Or as Samuel Abt once perfectly put it it.. "a world champion faller among fallers."  

The stories of Agostinho's falls are legendary.  Don't try this at home.  In the 1969 Tour a crash on a cinder track left him with a concussion and the kind of road rash you don't want to have to clean.  He shrugged it off, started the next day and soldiered to an 8th place finish in Paris in his debut Tour.

In 1971 during that famous rainstorm crash on the col de Mente that lost Luis Ocana the Tour, it was Ago who plowed into Luis as he was trying to get up and back on his bike, taking the yellow jersey out of the Tour.  Getting hit by a moose like Agostinhno moving at about 40mph would get your attention.

In the 1972 Vuelta d'Espana, he collided with a milestone trying to avoid overhanging branches.  His heart momentarily stopped, he needed mouth-to-mouth to be revived, was taken away by ambulance, and ended up in a coma.

Fatal fall in Volta Algarve, 1984
His final crash came while wearing the leaders camisola amarela in the early season Volta Algarve in 1984.  Agostinho has just left the DeGribaldy clan to lead a new Sporting Lisbon team, hoping to end his career by riding his beloved Tour de France at the head of an all-Portugese team with which he'd already scored many of his domestic victories.  He hit a dog in a final sprint, and was helped over the line with teammates on either side.   He collapsed holding his head, and was taken by car to hospital, where it was decided to drive him some 400km to Lisbon.  He lapsed into a coma and died en route, sending the nation into mourning.   Again, that's not an exaggeration.  The crowd lining his national funeral cortege stretched for miles.

Later that summer, the Sporting team did make it to the Tour, if without their intended, spiritual leader.  Somewhat miraculously, and against all the smart money, the young Sporting rider Paulo Ferreira won the big early breakaway stage in the tour, the stage where Renault's Vincent Barteau took a Maillot Jaune he kept warmed up for his teammate Fignon for a week.  I remember Paulo Ferreira breaking down in tears on the podium, dedicating his win to the memory of Joachim Agostinho.

RTP aired a documentary on the career of Joaquim Agostinho a few years ago.  A link to the intro is here.  Another great film segment on his career is here.

My Portugese may be a little weak, but I did clearly understand the narrator when he ended that RTP film with simple words to describe a simply magnificent and humble champion.  Words that say it all.

Joaquim Agostinho.  Soldier.


  1. Having only recently began following pro racing I enjoy learning about the history and heroes of the sport.Thank you for sharing Agostinho's story.

  2. I note World Champ bands (collars and cuffs) on Agho's jersey in the top shot, despite him never winning the Worlds. I remember this being a cycling fashion back then (I've got old woolen kit with this trim - it seemed a way of denoting the item of clothing as being 'for cycling use', especially black, woolen longs), but I thought it interesting: when did the UCI deem this the preserve of former rainbow-jersey holders, rather than just a design element?

  3. The picture with Jean de Gribaldy belongs to Thanks to mention it.

  4. Joaquim Agostinho was one of the strongest riders in the peloton in the 70s and it was not his origin and his humility would have inscribed his name on the winners of the Tour de France.

    It was a rough diamond that was never well cut.

    Note that you robbed a Tour of Spain for errors in timekeeping for 11 seconds. Stole is the correct word because he never missed one time in the time trial ... that he was one of the best time-trialist's in this Tour of Spain.

    When reporters asked what he expected from his first Tour of Portugal he replied: I do not think going too far, I have no experience ...
    Finished 2nd place overall and was still amateur ...

    Best Regards


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