Enrique Franco, a key figure in the history of the Tour of Spain, has died aged 74 after a long illness.
Franco was responsible for re-organising and revitalizing the race when it was on the point of complete collapse in 1979. Basque separatists had forced the race?s cancellation of its final stage in 1978 after littering the route with tree trunks and nails, and the newspaper responsible for organising the Vuelta, El Correo Vasco, pulled out.
Cue a phone call from the then Spanish Federation boss Luis Puig to Franco, saying ?if your company [Unipublic] doesn?t run it, the race will die.?
Unipublic at the time was an impoverished company organising sporting events on a shoestring. But Franco took over the Vuelta nonetheless, mortgaging all his property and organising the start in the southern city of Jerez because Pedro Pacheco, the mayor, was a friend of his. He used his own car as race director?s vehicle, with his brother Tito at the wheel.
Slowly but surely conditions improved. In 1980 more sponsors – like the Spanish post office – started backing the race, and in 1983 Spanish state television TVE agreed to show live images of the race for the first time. Some of his decisions could be considered mistaken – such as changing the dates of the race to September – but overall Franco?s influence was more than beneficial.
After 25 years, in 2004, and with Unipublic running the race at a healthy profit, Franco sold his company and the Vuelta to television company Antena 3. At the time, he said his retirement, following the departure of the life-long directors of the Giro and Tour Rafael Torriani and Felix Levitan, was like the end of Jurassic Park 3 – ?because I?m the last dinosaur to go.?
?He?s one of the people Spanish cycling owe the most to.? Vuelta director Victor Cordero said on hearing the news of Franco?s death. ?He turned the Vuelta from being a second class race into one that, in certain aspects, was on a par with the Tour de France.? claimed double winner Pedro Delgado.
Franco?s funeral will take place on Thursday afternoon, in Madrid.