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4 August 2017 - 16:08

Chopi

The warm, engaging welcome on the finish line. A cold drink, a kind word, the smile. Joaquín González has been honing his finish line presence for 27 years. A native of the Asturias region in northern Spain, he started his career in cycling having sampled life in other sectors.

"For a couple of years, I was a lifeguard on a beach near Gijón. I saved two lives in all that time, both on the same day. Saving people's lives is not easy.  When people are afraid of drowning, they panic and drag you down, so you have to subdue them, even punch them, so that you can help them."

The curious and sometimes contradictory art of caring has been his concern ever since. Growing up in Candás, he was a sport crazy child, playing and watching everything, from volleyball to athletics. On the soccer field, he was a solid central defender.

"In those days there was a famous Basque goalkeeper called Iribar. Everyone called him El Chopo – the poplar, a big, robust tree. One year when I was playing for the kids' team of my village, our goalkeeper was injured, and I replaced him in goal. I played pretty well, and they said, 'You're just like El Chopo.' They started calling me Chopi, and the name has stayed with me through life."

In those years, a major regional employer, the Central Lechera Asturiana – the milk marketing board of Asturias, based in the town of Oviedo – was supporting cycling in the region by sponsoring an amateur team. Its most celebrated product was José Manuel Fuente, the winner of the 1972 and 1974 Vuelta a España.

In 1988, Fuentes returned to direct a professional team with the same sponsor, whose name was abbreviated to CLAS. Three years later, when Chopi had finished school, a friend who had worked for the amateur CLAS team suggested Chopi work with the pro team. The team leaders were Federico Echave, Pello Ruiz Cabestany, and a generation of youngsters that included Fernando Escartín and Abraham Olano.

"The wins that mean the most to me were with Tony Rominger: three consecutive Vuelta a España wins starting in 1992, and a beautiful win at the '95 Giro d'Italia, when he wore the maglia rosa from start to finish."

By 1994 CLAS had fused with Mapei to form the team Mapei-Clas. Escartín, Olano, and Rominger joined newly signed riders like Franco Ballerini, Gianluca Bortolami, Andrea Tafi and Mauro Gianetti. After four years with the team, Chopi moved to Festina in 1998. On 8 July 1998, Chopi was waiting at the French port of Calais for his colleague Willy Voet before proceeding to Dublin for the start of the Tour de France. He had no idea that Voet had been stopped by French Customs agents as he tried to cross the French-Belgian border close to Neuville-en-Ferrain, near Lille in northern France. It was the opening move of the so-called Festina Affair.

You have to find happiness, be content with what you have, and make the most of this life. It's the only thing you have.

During his time in cycling, Chopi has seen the sport go through several transformations.

"I've been in the sport 27 years. When I started, there were no buses. There were campers and small trucks that you could drive with a car license. The larger trucks came in 1991 or 1992, then in about 1994, teams started using buses. When I started, you brought two cars and a camper to the finish line.

"There were no washing machines in the vehicles. The masseur brought detergent to the room, and the riders washed their own kit, either in the basin or while they were under the shower, then hung it out to dry."

Chopi is not alone in his longevity in the sport, but two experiences set him apart. At the 1997 Vuelta, on the stage from Granada to Córdoba, Chopi was in the passenger seat of a team car heading along winding roads towards the feed zone. On a left-hand bend there were a number of potholes, and the driver didn't brake in time.

The car left the road and rolled something of the order of eight times before coming to a halt.

"I was full of adrenaline. I pulled the driver out of the car, then climbed up the slope. My knee had all the skin lifted off, and I could see the bone. I put the skin back and held it in place, and they sewed me up later. My only thought was that I needed to get the bidons and give them to the riders. But then I lay down, and I couldn't get up again."

"Other team cars stopped to help. I whispered, 'Take the bags with the bottles and hand them out to my riders!'"

Chopi had fractured the 5th cervical vertebra in his neck.  "The doctor said that I was a millimeter away from being paraplegic. I was about 12 days in hospital at Córdoba. They operated through the front of my neck, going in past the vocal cords and inserting a titanium plate to join together the vertebra. I went home the day the Vuelta finished, after a week in traction, looking at the ceiling, with a 20kg weight pulling my spine straight."

Fifteen years later, when the 2012 Vuelta a España was in Galicia, in north eastern Spain, Chopi went to bed as he did every night, but woke up semi-paralyzed.

"There was no pain at all, but I felt groggy, my upper body was numb, and I didn't even have the strength in my hands to tie my shoe laces. I couldn't feel heat or cold in the left side of my body. I said to the doctor, 'Tell me how it is.' He said there was a good chance I would never walk again.

"I thought, 'He doesn't know me!'" I had a seven-month-old daughter and a two-year-old son, and that makes you even more determined."

Chopi stayed in the hospital in Galicia for four days, before he could be moved to Gijón, closer to home. "Ten days after the stroke, I was walking, and in December I was at the team training camp working."

Those two accidents have shaped Chopi's approach to life. "We have to prize what we have, and give no importance to small problems. At Trek-Segafredo I am closest to Markel Irizar. For me, he is like a brother. After I had the stroke, Markel helped me a lot. He has suffered cancer, and where you see a problem, he sees nothing at all: he says, 'If I have had to overcome cancer, other problems are small bear...''

"It's stupid getting into a mood or getting angry. Of course, you do for a moment, but then you have to ask yourself, 'What am I getting so upset about?' You have to find happiness, be content with what you have, and make the most of this life. It's the only thing you have."