Books about the Tour de France are ten a penny. For the other Grand Tours though where do your turn to find out more about their histories? For the Giro d'Italia, your best bet is still Dino Buzzati's The Giro d'Italia and the hope that Benjo Maso's forthcoming book about the Giro's excursions beyond Italy will find an English-language publisher wise enough to translate it. For the Vuelta a España you have Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell's comprehensive Viva La Vuelta! With the Vuelta's 2011 parcours about to be unveiled, now's a good time to look at it.
Title: Viva La Vuelta! - The Story Of Spain's Great Bike Race
Authors: Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell
Publisher: Mousehold Press
Order: Mousehold Press
What it is: A history of the Vuelta a España, from its inception in 1935 through to 2005 (a separate update to the book is available bringing the story up to 2008).
Strengths: Comprehensive and rescues stories which have been lost in the shadow of the other two Grand Tours. As well as being a look at the history of the race and of the men who have won it, the book also looks at Spanish history and the race's place within that broader context.
Weakness: The usual problem that afflicts such books - sixty races, three hundred and thirty-five pages, do the math. That said it's not quite the sprint through the years that some books about the Tour de France tend to be.
The Vuelta a España often gets looked down upon as the runt of the Grand Tour litter. For a start, it's a lot younger than the other two Grand Tours. Henri Desgrange - as every schoolboy knows - started the wheels rolling in 1903. Six years later Armando Cougnet copied the formula in Italy. But it was 1935 before Juan Pujol brought the Grand Tour concept to Spain.
What followed was a stuttering start and over the next twenty years only nine editions of the race were run. It was only in 1955 - after four years without a race - that the Vuelta really began to establish itself as a firm fixture in the cycling calendar. That place in the calendar though has contributed to the race's low status. Up to the mid-nineties, the Vuelta preceded the Giro d'Italia, often ending only a few days before the Italian race began. This left the Vuelta either bereft of a lot of the continental stars - who preferred to ride the Spring Classics - or treated as little more than a tune-up for the Giro or the Tour by those who did venture South to Spain.
Its shift to the other end of the calendar has seen the race ignored by that portion of the peloton which thinks the Champs Elysées signals the end of the racing season and not just the end of the Tour de France. For those who ride on through the Worlds, the late-season selection of pygmy national tours and the Autumn Classics, the Vuelta is again often seen as just a training race - a tune-up for the Worlds - or (every four years) an inconvenience for those with Olympic dreams.
Normally I try to avoid stats but there's a couple or three useful Grand Tour-related stats which help show the low esteem with which the Vuelta has been held. While the Giro/Tour double has been done twelve times by seven men, the Vuelta has only ever been doubled with either the Giro or the Tour five times. And only five men have won all three Grand Tours, with only two of them winning all three within a twelve month period. You might want to believe that those stats just prove how difficult it is to double the Vuelta and another Grand Tour, or to win all three, but the reality is that a lot of riders simply haven't taken the race seriously. Even among those who have ridden it, many have openly said they were only riding the Vuelta for training purposes. Take Freddy Maertens. His response to his 1977 victory was to say that "the Vuelta has been perfect training for me and I'm going to the Giro in better shape than any of my rivals." Thirteen stages wins, the sprinters' jersey and overall victory. And he saw it all as just training for the Giro.
Despite not always treating the race competitively, foreign riders have always been important to the Vuelta's organisers. It was 1950 before a non-Italian won the Giro and in the thirty-two editions prior to that only a dozen foreign riders had even won a stage. Three of the first nine editions of the Vuelta were won by non-Spaniards. Of the next nine races, only three were won by Spanish riders. Out of the sixty-five Vueltas raced so far, Spaniards have won twenty-nine, with the other thirty-six races being shared among ten other countries.
Part of the reason for this is that the Vuelta organisers went out of their way to attract the cream of the continental peloton to Spain, offering financial inducements and bonification-laden, tailor-made routes. They wanted their race to be won by the best riders of the day, even if they weren't Spanish. Sometimes the best did win - Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault - but other times the foreign victors came from the second tier: Jean Dotto, Jean Stablinski, Rolf Wolfshohl.
Inducements can only go so far in building up a race's reputation. While the Vuelta did attract the cream of the continental peloton it was usually only a handful of star riders at a time. Without the inducements, a lot of riders weren't all that keen to ride the Spanish Tour. This was particularly true in the years after Franco's death, as Spain slowly dragged itself into being a first-world economy. If you've read Laurent Fignon's We Were Young And Carefree, you'll recall his take on the race from when he rode it in 1983:
"Everyone has forgotten what it was like back then. Spain had only just emerged from the Franco era. It was like the third world; anyone who went over there at the start of the 1980s would know what I mean. For cyclists like us, the accommodation and the way we were looked after were not easy to deal with. Sometimes it was barely acceptable. Professional cyclists of today cannot imagine what it was like in the 1980s in a hotel in the backside of beyond in Asturias or the Pyrenees. The food was rubbish and sometimes there was no hot water, morning or evening."
I'm not trying to do down the Vuelta here. It may not have always had the depth of talent the other two Grand Tours had, but even that and the deprivations visited upon the riders who did venture South of the Pyrenees hasn't stopped it from producing some classic races. Normally, this is where I go off on one and blather on about one or two of those races. Maybe the 1962 edition, when Anquetil lost out to his own team-mate, Rudi Altig. Or the following year's race, when Maître Jacques became the first man to have won all three Grand Tours.
Alternatively, we could look at Hinault's victories, in 1978 and 1983. The latter in particular is worth the retelling, as any of you who've read Fignon's autobiography will agree. Or there's 1985, when Robert Millar got done over by the Spanish riders and an incompetent Peugeot directeur sportif, a tale you'll also find covered in Richard Moore's rather good book about the Scot.
There's also the Jean de Gribaldy years, which you may have noticed I have a grá for. 1984, when Eric Caritoux was parachuted into the race at the last minute, expected to do no more than put on a good show and maybe bag a stage or two. Instead, he grabbed the lead in the last week, defended it for the final few days and arrived at the finish with the tiniest winning margin in Grand Tour history - six seconds. 1987 saw saddle sores force Sean Kelly to abandon just days from the finish and with his first Grand Tour victory well within his grasp. The following year he finally broke his Grand Tour duck. As the man from Carrick-on-Suir says in a foreword to Viva La Vuelta!: "It was a special feeling. I also took the points jersey for the fourth time, and had a couple of stage wins. It still remains the high-point of my career."
There are many more such tales. Particularly from more recent years, when the race has begun to carve out a new and exciting identity for itself, with the parcours becoming the real star as the organisers add climbs like the Alto de El Angliru. But I'm not going to give you one of those stories, not this time. Instead, I want to look at one rider from early in the race's history, a Spanish rider I'd only come across in passing, Julián Berrendero.
Picking a story from the Vuelta's earliest years is probably not the best way to sell you on wanting to read Viva La Vuelta! - and this is one of those rare cycling books that I do want to sell you on wanting to read. Probably I should pick something of more recent vintage. Probably this is a book I'll return to in future months to do just that. But in some ways I think Berrendero's story shows best something I really enjoyed about Bell and Fallon's book: there's a lot in it that was new to me, about the race and its riders and also about Spain itself. Having got to the end of the book, I found I had a lot more respect for the runt of the Grand Tour litter than when I started the book.
What fascinates me about Berrendero's story is how it joins together the story of the Vuelta itself and the wider story of Spain's history, which is something Viva La Vuelta! is especially good at doing. And Berrendero's time was one of the most explosive in Spanish history: the Spanish Civil War.
A cold stat for you: Fallon and Bell claim that half a million people died during the Civil War and in the years after. Of those, probably less than half died on the battlefield: "The others were the result of summary executions or reprisals and, of those, perhaps half took place in the decade after the war was concluded." After the war ended, an estimated three-hundred thousand Spaniards went into exile rather than live under the thumb of the coalition of the fascist Falange party, the Church, the army and various monarchist groups, presided over by el generalissimo, Francisco Franco.
But at the borders, not everyone was fleeing Spain. Among those travelling in the opposite direction was Julián Berrendero, who had spent the Civil War years in France. Upon his return to Spain, he became one of an estimated two million people who, by 1942, had passed through Franco's gaols and concentration camps.
Berrendero's journey to those camps starts in the 1936 Vuelta. The first Vuelta, in 1935, had been won by the Belgian Gustaaf Deloor. He looked set to repeat that feat in the 1936 race. So the Spanish riders agreed to form a coalition against the foreign riders. Unfortunately, the Spaniards backed the wrong rider, Antonio Escuriet. Rather than attacking, they tried to defend Escuriet's position - he was sandwiched between the two Deloor brothers, Gustaaf in first, Alphonse in third - but all that resulted in was Gustaaf extending his lead bit by bit while Alphonse drew closer and closer to second place.
On the penultimate day's racing, the Spanish coalition was fractured by the actions of Berrendero and another Spanish climber, Fermín Trueba. In their hotel the previous night they had fallen into conversation with a retired Spanish champion, Oscar Leblanc. He had complained bitterly about the poor performance of the Spanish riders in the race and how timidly they had ridden. Berrendero and Trueba explained the Spanish coalition to him. Leblanc urged them to break it, to ride for themselves.
On the first climb the next day the two escaladors attacked and shook the race up. Both Deloor brothers made it to the front of the race with them. Escuriet didn't. Come the finish and the best Berrendero could do was second place on the stage. Escuriet lost more than a quarter of an hour that day and slipped back to fifth place overall. Berrendero was now one place ahead of him, in fourth. First and second were the Deloor brothers, with third taken by an Italian rider.
The next day - the last day of the race - it was Berrendero and Trueba who were put under attack by the rest of the Spanish riders. "Those who two days before were our friends attacked us," Berrendero wrote in his autobiography. "Now they were all against Fermín and me; but we responded to all their attacks and dominated them to the point where, in the end, we were the attackers." Only one Spaniard rode in support of Berrendero and Trueba, Emiliano Alvarez, and he was allowed to win the stage, with the other two taking second and third. The two Belgians held on to first and second place overall, the Italian was third and Berrendero was the best-placed Spanish rider, in fourth. Berrendoro's treason lived long in the memories of some of his compatriots.
Henri Desgrange was impressed with Berrendero's riding in the Vuelta, and found a place for him on the Luxembourg/International team of that year's Tour de France, alongside several other Spanish riders. Berrendero took the climbers' prize in the Tour, and finished eleventh overall. It was during this Tour that the generals made their pronunciamiento and Spain was plunged into Civil War. And it was during this Tour that Berrendero dared to publicly criticise Franco's attack on the Republic. Words which were not quickly forgotten.
At the end of the Tour, Berrendero, along with other Spanish riders, elected to stay on in France rather than return to a war-torn Spain. He rode in the 1937 Tour, where he won the etapa reina from Luchon to Pau (where he set up home and ran a bike shop). He also rode the 1938 Tour. In September 1939, with the Civil War ended, Berrendero decided to return home. He had family and a girlfriend in Madrid he wished to go back to. He was arrested before reuniting with them.
The next eighteen months were spent in one concentration camp after another. In his autobiography, published in 1949, when Franco was at the height of his power, Berrendero simply described those eighteen months as being the period when he was denied a racing licence. It was only after the dictator's death that he could publicly recall what really happened to him.
One incident from those eighteen months stands out. In some ways it mirrors what happened to Fausto Coppi, when he was interned by the British in North Africa and one of his guards recognised him. But, compared to Berrendero's time in Franco's camps, Coppi had an easy life as a prisoner of war. Life in Franco's camps was a far more fraught affair. Disease ran rampant, food was in short supply and the prisoners were at the mercy of capricious camp commanders.
One day, while the camp's inmates were being stood to attention for inspection, a captain stopped in front of Berrendero, staring at him. Finally he ordered Berrendero to follow him. Berrendero obeyed. What choice had he? But in the captain's office, he was taken by surprise by what happened next. The captain embraced him and, with tears in his eyes, asked: "You don't recognise me?" The two were cyclists before the Civil War and had raced together. Now they were on opposite sides in a country still divided by the fallout of Civil War.
It was 1941 before Berrendero was released from the camps - or, as he euphemistically put it in his autobiography, regained his racing licence. The Vuelta was back on the calendar, the Ministry of Education and Leisure seeing propaganda value in running it, an attempt to show the citizens that things were returning to normal. Normality probably depends upon your point of view. Here's what Fallon and Bell have to say of this period of Spanish history: "Divorce and civil marriage were outlawed, kissing in public was punishable by a fine, and prostitutes and homosexuals were sent to concentration camps. They got around to making adultery illegal in May 1942, shortly before the next Vuelta was due to start."
Berrendero won that 1941 Vuelta, and the 1942 edition, that latter race by leading from first stage to last. I won't recount the stories of those two races here but Fallon and Bell make them sound exciting, even if the conditions the riders endured were horrendous.
The war meant there were no Vueltas in the next two years. But within three days of hostilities in Europe ending in 1945, the Vuelta was back on the road, this time organised by the Catholic daily paper, Ya. Berrendero rode strong, finishing second and claiming the climbers' jersey. He again finished second the next year. Fourth in the second Vuelta, first in the third and fourth editions, second in the fifth and sixth. Five races spread out over a period of eleven years. What could he have achieved without those gaps in the race's history?
For a taste of what the racing in Spain was like at this time, here's the Basque rider Máximo Dermit, who abandoned the 1945 race: "It's too horrible to imagine. There's nothing comparable, not even the Alpine stages of the Tour de France; there are moments when it seems like you're in another world - not a living soul, or a single house for kilometre after kilometre. Just huge bare, rocky mountains. And water! That's an expensive liquid. In some places, like in Totana, if we asked for water they preferred to give us wine. There was no water to waste on the like of us."
The riders though had a propaganda value for Franco. Life for the ordinary citizen was much worse. Mussolini was gone, Hitler was gone, but Spain still had a fascist dictator. The country was ostracised diplomatically - denied a seat at the United Nations, excluded from the Marshall Aid Plan and subjected to trade embargos. Argentina, where General Perón held sway, was one of Spain's few international allies. It was 1953 before this period of isolation began to end, with Franco presenting Spain as a bulwark against Communism and allowing US military bases to be opened in return for a fistful of dollars. And the US petitioning which finally brought Spain into the UN in 1955.
The isolation also affected Spanish cycling. Two foreign riders who had made it to the 1942 Vuelta were Pierre Brambilla and René Vietto. Berrendero had beaten them with ease. When the Tour de France returned to the sporting calendar in 1947 Brambilla and Vietto were two of its stars, Vietto holding the maillot jaune for fifteen days and Brambilla losing out on the final stage. But for Berrendero it was 1949 before he got a chance to return to the Tour, aged thirty-seven, his career on the wane.
As well as inviting a Spanish team, Jacques Goddet's route for the 1949 Tour included a stage ending in San Sebastián. The Spanish team were ill-prepared and ill-equipped and lasted barely a week in the Tour, not even getting a far as the Franco-Spanish border. Their team leader's gear mechanism broke on one stage and the whole team was ordered to wait with him. It was thirty-eight minutes before their team car arrived and the Spaniards had no hope of making the day's time cut. As a punishment for bringing dishonour on Spain, the Spanish federation revoked their racing licences. Berrendero's racing career was over.
So often we hear about champions like Philippe Thys and Fausto Coppi losing their best years to war. We engage in what-iffery about what they could have achieved without the gaps in their careers, the missed Tours and Giri they could have won. We ought think of men like Julián Berrendero too. And the men like him whose stories never get retold.