Abraham Olano is a name that will always be associated with time-trialing. He’s a multiple time national champion and Grand Tour stage winner, world champion, Olympic medalist, and the winner of the 1998 Vuelta a España. Most of his (long list of) achievements were due to his outstanding time trialing ability. He is undoubtedly one of the best ever in this discipline.
Because of that, I always thought of the Spaniard as dominating figure in the world of cycling. Hence, to me, the fact that he only won one Grand Tour (GT) doesn’t make sense. Being seen as the next Miguel Indurain contributed to aggrandize his image beyond reason. Still, despite not being able to emulate his compatriot’s feats, Abraham Olano achieved a whole lot in a relatively short career.
He turned pro in 1992, at 22 years of age, with Spanish team CHCS – Ciemar – Paternina, which disbanded soon after he joined. He moved to Lotus–Festina still during that season, where he coincided with Irish legend Sean Kelly. It was while representing the latter team that he claimed his first win as pro: the GP Villafranca de Ordizia, a Spanish classic that will celebrate 100 years in 2022. It was most recently won by fellow Spaniard Luis León Sánchez. The following year he rode the Tour de France for the first time. This wasn’t a success, and Olano abandoned only 3 days into the race.
For the 1994 season he switched moved to the Mapei team, and started to showcase his abilities. In the Vuelta (at the time the first GT of the season), Olano showed a lot of promise, finishing all three time trials in the top-10. He finished the general classification (GC) in the 20th spot. On the way to that season’s Tour de France he won the Vuelta a Asturias as well as both races of the Spanish national championships: the time trial and the road race. In the Tour, the Spaniard was relatively anonymous, finishing 30th, despite placing 8th on the longest time trial of the race. Still a great year, in my opinion, especially considering we are talking about a 24-year-old.
1995 was when Abraham Olano became one of the best in the world. He arrived at the Spanish GT (which had moved to early September) after placing in the top-10 of several shorter stage races throughout the season (Paris Nice, Vuelta a Comunidad Valenciana, Setimana-Catalana, and Euskal Bizikleta). This was a good sign for his chances at the Vuelta, and the Spaniard did not disappoint. He won all three time trials en route to a 2nd place in the overall standings, only behind French all-rounder Laurent Jalabert.
This incredible start to his career was confirmed in 1996. In the first half of the season he won the Tour of Romandie in preparation for that year’s Giro d’Italia. He was one of the pre-race favorites along with Russians Evgeni Berzin and Pavel Tonkov. The Spaniard would go on to own the pink jersey with just one mountain stage to go before the finish in Milan. Everything seemed ready for the crowing of the world champion as a GT winner. That stage, though, proved too much for Olano, with him losing almost 3 minutes to eventual winner, Pavel Tonkov. Nonetheless, he secured his second podium place in a GT: 3rd in the GC, a mere 3 seconds in front of 4th, Latvian Piotr Ugrumov.
He started that year’s Tour in support of Swiss Tony Rominger, Mapei’s leader but would finish ahead of him (9th for Olano vs 10th for Rominger). In a repeat of the previous year’s time trial event of the world championships, Olano would once again take home the silver medal in the Olympic Games. Miguel Indurain was the strongest once again, winning the gold medal by 12 seconds.
During his tenure at Mapei, his most high profile teammates were GT specialist Tony Rominger and classics superstar Johan Museeuw.
In 1997, following a move to Banesto he focused solely on the Tour de France. He achieved several podium places in Spanish week-long stage races (including a win in the Euskal Bizikleta). Right before the French GT he was 2nd in the Dauphiné Libéré, only behind Team Telekom domestique, Udo Bolts. This 2nd place came at a cost though. Olano crashed in the Dauphiné, and suffered injuries that he didn’t completely recover from before the Tour.
Nevertheless, this would be the best Tour of the Spaniard’s career. He won his first (and only) Tour stage, unsurprisingly in the form of a long time trial that finished in Disneyland-Paris. His bid for the yellow jersey, though, would fall more than 15 minutes short of German prodigy Jan Ullrich, which was good enough for 4th place. Olano said that he wasn’t able to follow the main favorites in the mountains after a certain point, as a consequence of his crash in the Dauphiné. He admitted it was his best participation in the Tour despite being the one he arrived at in the worst condition.
As a curiosity, in that year’s Vuelta bronze medalist José María Jiménez lost 6 minutes and 55 seconds to Olano in the time trials. Second placed Escartín fared a bit better, “only” losing 4 minutes and 19 seconds. This illustrates how dominant the yellow jersey was in the time trials and how good Jiménez and Escartín were in the mountains.
Another interesting fact is that Swiss rider Marcus Zberg only has two GT stage wins in his career. Both at the 1998 Vuelta – the first and last stages.
Not everything was perfect, though. Despite his Vuelta win, he did not like teammate Jose María Jiménez’s actions during the race. He considered that his teammate often rode for himself instead of defending the interests of the team. Jiménez was accused of leaving his team leader behind in the mountains to look for stage wins and the king of the mountain’s jersey. This prompted Olano to change teams, from Banesto to Spanish rivals Once.
Despite just now entering what today would be considered his prime, the Spaniard would never again reach the heights of late 1998, when he looked like the best in the world. During the next two years he did manage some important wins like the Vuelta a Burgos, Tirreno Adriatico, Criterium Internacional, and the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. Plus, two more Vuelta stage wins (you guessed it, time trials) and a 6th place in the 1999 Tour. Sadly, Olano crashed during the 1999 Vuelta, when he considered himself to be stronger than eventual race winner Jan Ullrich.
For extra disappointment, in the 2000 Olympics he barely missed out on a medal, taking 4th in the time trial event won by Russian Viacheslav Ekimov.
Finally, already in the twilight of his career despite being only 31, a 2nd place in the 2001 Giro d’Italia was his last big result. Several former GT winners, including reigning champion Stefano Garzelli, Marco Pantani, and Jan Ullrich lined up at the start of the race. Francesco Casagrande and Gilberto Simoni, 2nd and 3rd behind Garzelli the year before, were also contenders. In the end, though, all but Simoni and Ullrich abandoned the race (the latter was 52nd). As a result, the pink jersey was easy pickings for the only remaining Italian favorite. Simoni won the Giro, 7m31s in front of Olano. The Spaniard rode very consistently, with just three top-10 stage finishes but he also never finished outside of the top-30, not even in bunch sprints.
That was his last Giro and the fourth and final GT podium of his career, matching Italian legend Gastone Nencini. His final participations in the other two Grand Tours didn’t have such happy endings: 64th in the 2001 Vuelta and 78th in the 2002 Tour, his final GT.
At Once, Olano had as teammates former Vuelta foe Laurent Jalabert, and eventual Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre, as well as plenty of top names from the 2000s. In fact, at the time of his retirement Once had one of the best teams in the world, with rider like: Joaquin Rodriguez, Joseba Beloki, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, José Azevedo, and a young Alberto Contador.
He retired at just 32 years of age, at the end of the 2002 season. He then became technical director in the Vuelta from 2003 to 2014. As of 2018 he was working with the Gabonese national team and in the cycling school where he started out (Escuela de Ciclismo Oria).
The comparisons to Miguel Indurain didn’t help Olano. The pressure put by the Spanish on GT performances didn’t help either. None of this was his fault. If anybody is disappointed with the career of Abraham Olano they need to get acquainted with his achievements. An all-around champion.