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Vuelta Fables: The Basque Issue

The 2011 Vuelta a España will be the first Vuelta in thirty-three years to visit the Basque Country. When I first realised this a few months back I wondered what had happened the last time the race had visited the region to cause such a long period of estrangement. Had the Basques suggested that everyone toss their car keys in a bowl on the table? Was the Vuelta overheard criticising the wallpaper? Did their parents catch them doing something they shouldn't be doing and ban them from ever seeing one and other again?

Viva la Vuelta!Now, a few months on and having read Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell's Viva la Vuelta! I can answer my own question. And - believe it or not - it was actually the last option: the parents caught them doing something they shouldn't be doing and banned them from seeing one and other again. Sort of.  A little explaining is necessary. Well, a lot of explaining.

The Vuelta was originally the brainchild of a former cyclist, Clemente López Dóriga, and a clever newspaperman, Juan Pujol, the director of a Madrid daily newspaper Informaciones. Over its first twenty years, it which only nine races were run, organisation of the Vuelta bounced around between Pujol's newspaper, the Ministry of Leisure and a Catholic daily newspaper, Ya.

It was only in 1955, when a new newspaper stepped up to the plate, that the Vuelta entered a period of stability. That newspaper was El Correo Español-El Pueblo Vasco and the man behind it was Alejandro Echevarría. The important thing you need to know is that Echevarría's was a Basque newspaper. And that for the next dozen years the Vuelta and the Basques had a harmonious relationship.

The Franco regime, which came to power after the Civil War, didn't much like the Basques. For that matter, the Basques didn't much like Franco. (And they say everyone loves a man in a spiffy uniform?) The Basque issue bubbled to the surface in 1959, with the formation of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Fatherland and Freedom). ETA to you and me.

If you want to know more about ETA, go read a book or do some Googling. I've no intention of trying to explain their aims or their motivations. I've seen too many others make total arses of themselves trying to explain the IRA to fall into that trap. What matters here is that the Vuelta was presented as a symbol of national identity and, consequently, ETA saw it as a legitimate target. And from 1967 onward, ETA began disrupting the Vuelta as it passed through or near to the Basque Country.

Let's step back to the idea of the Vuelta as a symbol of national unity. This is a trait shared by all three of the Grand Tours. Take the Tour de France. Look at the France that existed at the turn of the nineteenth century - it was still a collection of regions in which French was a foreign language to the majority of the population. The Tour alone did not unite those regions, but in passing through them each summer, it helped solidify in the citizens a notion of a single France. As Graham Robb notes in The Discovery of France, the Tour gave millions of people their first true sense of the shape and size of France.

Fa_mediumFor the Giro d'Italia, its rôle as a symbol of national unity was more explicit. Here's William Fotheringham, from his Fausto Coppi biography, Fallen Angel: "Since its foundation in 1909, the Giro had always been more than a bike race. That was inevitable for the national Tour of a country that had been unified for less than half a century. The race had embodied one message after another: the unification of the country on its fiftieth anniversary in 1911; inspiration for the impoverished south to follow the example of the richer north; patriotic rebirth after the First World War, when the route included the battlefields." La Gazzetta dello Sport called the 1946 race Il Giro della Rinascita, the Giro of Rebirth. For a country getting over its rôle in the Second World War, and its own Civil War, Italy needed rebirth in 1946. Italy needed the Giro.

As in Italy, Spain was divided economically. A prosperous, industrialised north and an impoverished, primitive south. By joining them together in a single bike race, the Vuelta, inevitably, demonstrated the unity of the country. Or at least the ideal of unity. Even before the fascists came to power, the old regime saw the propaganda value of the Vuelta. They intervened to ensure that the 1936 race went ahead. The Franco regime clearly saw the propaganda value of the Vuelta. That was why the Ministry of Leisure organised the 1941 edition. And why the Franco regime encouraged the continued organisation of the race in the years after that. Bearing in mind the state the country was in after the Civil War - and the Second World War - the Vuelta could not have continued without the support of the government.

One of Franco's many obsessions was the unity of Spain. During the Civil War, when his forces took Bilbao, he declared: "Here is the end of separatism, and from here on, there is nothing more than Spain, which is eternal, immortal." Franco's way of dealing with expressions of regional identity was to suppress them, ruthlessly. Particularly in the Basque Country. He really should have read his Machiavelli. He might have learned that such suppression is always counter-productive.

Let's jump forward to 1967. ETA's first attempt to disrupt the Vuelta's show of national unity. I know you're not supposed to laugh at paramilitary attacks, but having grown up with nationalist and loyalist paramilitaries making the news most every other day, the seriousness kind of gets kicked out of you. And, in all honesty, ETA's attack on the 1967 Vuelta was kind of comical: as the race passed through the Basque Country, heading for Bilbao on its final stage, ETA covered a section of road with oil and nails, causing havoc as the peloton attempted to pass. I'm sorry, but trying not to think of it like a scene in a Buster Keaton comedy isn't easy.

Sweat-of-gods_mediumTack attacks are old hat. They came in with the pneumatic tyre and - surprisingly - still haven't gone out of fashion. In The Sweat of the Gods, Benjo Maso tells a tale of race organisers sabotaging their own course with tacks. That was the 1892 Course Michelin, a four hundred-kilometre haul between Paris and Clermont-Ferrand, where the Michelin tyre factory was. The Michelin brothers were promoting their new replaceable inner tube which (they claimed anyway) could be swapped out in five minutes, compared with the half hour it took to change rival products. Before the race, twenty-five kilos of tacks were strewn along a section of the Course Michelin which would be ridden at night. Now that's what I call a marketing wheeze.

We all know the stories of tack attacks from the early Tours. Here in Ireland, when the two rival cycling associations were going at one and other, sabotaging each other's races with tack attacks was not unusual. Similar stunts took place in the UK, when their rival cycling associations were going at one and other too. There was even a touring event a few years ago, up in Scotland I think, in which locals vented their anger at the lycra louts taking over their roads by strewing sections of the route with tacks. Some of you probably wish Floyd Landis had thought to use tacks to disrupt the 2010 Tour of California, instead of letting Jeff Novitsky in on a few dirty little secrets.

We laugh at all those stories of tack attacks. And so I laugh at ETA's tack attack on the 1967 Vuelta. Especially with the added oil. That was just comedy gold.

Nobody was laughing in 1968.

ETA got their act together as the race passed through the Basque Country, on the road from Vitoria to Pamplona. On the descent of the Puerto de Urbasa, only a few minutes before the race passed, a roadside bomb exploded.

There were no casualties. But the mood for racing was taken out of the peloton. Even though the organisers asked them to continue there was no more racing that day. That night, the future of the race hung in the balance. The directeurs sportifs were in favour of continuing but decided to leave the decision to the riders. The Spanish cycling federation clearly didn't have much faith in democracy - a concept Spain itself had given up on at that stage - and threatened to confiscate the licence of any Spanish rider who refused to take the start. Eventually it was realised that the carrot beats the stick: security was beefed up and the riders agreed to race on.

I'm not going to go through all of ETA's attacks on the Vuelta. You've got the general picture - ETA were not pissing about. There's important stuff that goes on between 1968 and our next stop, both in the Vuelta and the wider world of Spain and ETA, stuff which has a bearing on what happened next. Read Fallon and Bell's book. Or Google it.

Let's instead jump forward a few years. 1977 is important for us. Not - this time around - for Freddy Maertens' thirteen stage wins, which you're probably bored of hearing about at this stage. This time 1977 is important for the disruption that hit the end of the Vuelta. When the race was in the Basque Country.

At this stage in Spain's history Franco was dead and Spain was going through a period of transition. To demonstrate how much Spain was changing, the Basque flag, the ikurriña, had recently been legalised. Franco must have been spinning in his grave. Some of his former army colleagues were certainly unhappy. Even the pigeons knew what they were planning: coup, coup, coup. (A Bill Hicks joke - who woulda thunk it?)

Demonstrations and strikes calling for freedom for political prisoners were on going throughout the Basque Country as the Vuelta passed through it in 1977. Franco had created quite a few political prisoners. One estimate has the figure at six thousand in the Basque Country alone during his final two years. These demonstrations were met by a Civil Guard that was armed and willing to shoot. Real bullets. Fired from machine guns. And with nearly a quarter of the Civil Guard garrisoned in the Basque Country, there were a lot of machine guns about.

The 1977 Vuelta was due to end in San Sebastián. But before that was the penultimate day's racing, which included the climb of the Urkiola, where the stage ended with a summit finish. The peloton had to skirt barricades and scattered nails at the base of the climb. When the Basque fans at the summit unveiled their ikurriñas and banners calling for amnesty, the Civil Guard responded with shooting. Not exactly a proportionate response. But flags can be bloody dangerous things.

Panic ensued. The planned San Sebastián finish was abandoned. It was decided to get the race out of the Basque Country lickety-spit. If Maertens hadn't been on the edge of setting a new record for stage wins in a Grand Tour, you wonder if a final stage would have been held. Miranda del Ebro, in the province of Burgos, was chosen as a last minute replacement for San Sebastián. Maertens won. The record was his. But some real damage had been done to the Vuelta.

And so we come to 1978. The year the Vuelta last visited the Basque Country. The year of Bernard Hinault's first Vuelta victory. Oh to be able to talk about the latter instead of the former. Hinault in all his pomp and glory. Another day.

Once again the Vuelta was scheduled to finish in San Sebastián. Once again the Basque Country was in uproar as the race passed through. The penultimate stage would take the riders into San Sebastián, and then the final stage would be a time trial. Fifty kilometres into the penultimate stage the peloton found a road strewn with rocks and nails and wooden planks. The race was halted. The riders were bussed to Zarauz, a little more than thirty kilometres from San Sebastián. The racing resumed, all thirty-something kilometres of it.

The organisers went ahead with the planned final time trial. This too was disrupted, with the crowd pelting riders as they passed, sometimes even forcing them from their bikes. The organisers were forced to admit defeat and annul the stage. Riots stopped play.

As a consequence of the continued disruptions to the Vuelta as it passed through the Basque Country, the Spanish cycling federation made a decision that had far-reaching consequences: they banned the race from the region.

For El Correo Español-El Pueblo Vasco this was an impossible situation. How could a Basque newspaper continue to run a race that was no longer allowed visit the Basque Country? In January 1979 they announced there would be no more Vueltas.

At which point the Vuelta found a new saviour. A man called Luis Puig. He sourced sponsors and contracted a sports event company, Unipublic, into pulling together a new Vuelta. On 24th April the Vuelta once again set off on its journey around Spain. A journey that, for the next thirty-three years, would studiously avoid the Basque Country. Sort of the way you pretend not to notice your ex when you're both walking down the street toward each other.

This, of course, didn't stop ETA attacking the Vuelta. Somehow, even when it wasn't passing through the Basque Country, it was still a legitimate target.

Before we close, a question: how many of you recognise the name of Luis Puig? Maybe you know him as Hein Verbruggen's predecessor at the UCI? Or maybe you remember him for the rôle he played in the Pedro Delgado affaire in 1988? But what do you think his job was at the end of the seventies?

He was the president of the Spanish cycling federation.

The way I see it, there's two choices here: either he definitely read his Machiavelli, and came up with a clever plan to unseat El Correo Español-El Pueblo Vasco and enrich himself; or the Spanish cycling federation were dumber than dumb and hadn't considered the consequences of their actions when they banned the Vuelta from entering the Basque Country.

Which one are you leaning most toward?

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Most of the facts above are drawn from Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell's Viva la Vuelta! It really is a book you should read for yourself.