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Interview: Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell

Walk into any bookshop and - if they stock any cycling books - you'll find a selection of titles telling the history of the Tour de France. This year, the Giro d'Italia became the star of three different books telling its history. But the runt of the Grand Tour litter ... well the poor little Vuelta a España is somewhat neglected, except for one attempt to tell its history: Viva La Vuelta! Having reviewed the book back in January - and then borrowed somewhat from it for The Basque Issue and Dirty Deals Done Dirt Cheap - I took the opportunity to put a few questions to its authors - Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell.

Viva la Vuelta, by Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell

Podium Café: A book you mention early in Viva la Vuelta! is Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. That's set in the twenties, the days of Bottechia. Most people probably remember the novel for Hemingway's depiction of the running of the bulls in Pamplona. But he also touches lightly upon cycling when, late in the novel, Jake, Hemingway's narrator, crosses paths with the Tour du Pays Basque and we get a two-page portrait of the French and Belgian riders in their hotel at the end of a stage in San Sebastián, drinking wine and enjoying themselves. At one point Jake hears a comment about Spanish cyclists: "The Spaniards, they said, did not know how to pedal." Spanish cyclists, particularly in the early years of your history of the Vuelta, do seem to have lacked the full arsenal of riding talents: they were fantastic grimpeurs but dreadful rouleurs - their echelon riding was atrocious, they were timid sprinters and tactically they just didn't cut the mustard. Was that just down to a lack of international experience, not enough riding with the big boys in the European peloton, or was it something in the Spanish psyche, their insularity a national characteristic?

Lucy Fallon: Climbing was considered much more worthwhile in terms of how much money you could realistically expect to earn in a race. 

Adrian Bell: I have a recollection of that fine cycling journalist Geoffrey Nicholson remarking somewhere that it was hard to avoid the temptation of resorting to national stereotypes when writing about racing cyclists.

Hence: dramatic, uncontrollable Spanish climbers; taciturn hard men from the northern European flatlands; and elegant, stylish Italian Alpine descenders with (if I remember his phrase accurately) the scent of après ski after-shave wafting behind them.

But it was a temptation to be avoided: not only were there too many exceptions, he admitted, but the sociological explanation was more persuasive.

In the case of Spanish climbers - no Spaniard is going to reach the professional ranks without performing well, or well enough, to progress through the amateur and junior ranks, and given the topography of the country he's unlikely to do that unless he can climb adequately.

People talk about Miguel Poblet breaking the mould, but forget that he began life as a climber. Indeed he won the national mountain title three times in his professional career.

PdC: Spanish cycling seems to have blossomed in the 1950s. You had Jesús Loroño and Federico Bahamontes following in the wheel tracks of Julián Berrendero and winning the Tour de France's climbing jersey. You had Bernardo Ruiz reaching the Tour's podium and Bahamontes winning the Tour outright. And - perhaps most surprising of all - you had Miguel Poblet with his Milan-San Remo victories and podium finishes in other Classics. Was that a golden generation, hardened by the deprivations of post-Civil War Spain?

LF: It's true it was a golden generation, but I think it was coincidental rather than created by the tough life in post-war Spain.

Miguel Poblet was from a reasonably comfortably-off family by the standards of the times.

AB: I think you can speak of it as something of a Golden Age but I'm very suspicious of the notion that this was due to a hardening caused by post-war deprivation.

Those years were not called ‘the years of hunger' for nothing: Spain came close to famine; there were people who died of starvation; the few foreigners who rode in the Vueltas of the 40s were horrified at how little they were given to eat.

None of that seems to me to be conducive to developing strong athletes.

PdC: The Basques have produced some of the best Iberian riders, even some of the best teams. Kas - a team I have a certain fondness for, given Louis Knorr's fruitful association with Sean Kelly - was based in Vitoria, the Basque provincial capital. Banesto, so associated with the Induráin years, was also a Basque company. Then there's Euskaltel-Euskadi, whose carrot-topped fans have done so much to brighten up the roadsides at races. And, of course, when the Vuelta was reborn in 1955, it was through the efforts of a Basque newspaper, El Correo Español-Pueblo Vasco. Even Basque politicians seem to have an affinity for the bike - you mention Juan José Ibarretxe, a former waiter who was the head of the Basque government in 1999 and rode up the Angliru carrying a tray of drinks when that climb was introduced to the Vuelta.  (I doubt that David Cameron or Boris Johnson would ever dare do something similar, even on a British climb.) Is the Basque Country the real heartland of Iberian cycling?

LF: I love the idea of Ibarretxe cycling up the Angliru with a tray of drinks, or even that an ex-waiter could become the Lehendakari.  Unfortunately, it's not the case, but I  think various waiters have managed this achievement. 

I know that Ibarretxe is a keen cyclist.  Back in the day, he was interviewed for Bicisport magazine, and one thing always stuck in my mind. He said a person's true character is blatantly revealed when they're cycling (in a non-professional scenario, he was talking about cicloturistas) - for instance, if they stop to help someone with a puncture, or with cramp, or they prefer to turn a blind eye and ride on to improve their personal time. 

Apparently, he did climb the Angliru - and his bodyguards had to do it too!

AB: Yes, I guess you could say that the Basque country is the real heartland of Iberian cycling, although Catalonia must run it fairly close (and perhaps would be closer still if it wasn't for Barcelona FC).

The Vuelta apart, the two Spanish races with greatest international prestige (and with the longest history) are the tours of these two regions.

As in so many aspects of life it is also these two regions that are closest to Western Europe.

PdC: The 2011 Vuelta will be the first since 1978 to officially visit the Basque Country - how do you think it will be received?

LF: After so long, it's difficult to imagine.  The security will be immense I suppose, even though EYA are largely a spent force. 

Maybe it will be accepted as nowadays all the national tours regularly cross borders, and the Basques can consider themselves as being visited, rather than co-opted into the Spanish nation by having the Vuelta pass through their territory. 

It's a historical moment though.

AB: It will be received pretty well, I think, given the enthusiasm for cycling there, and the fact that Euskaltel is currently Spain's major pro team.

I certainly hope so, not just for the cycling but also because Unipublic's response to the attempt by ETA to negotiate a settlement seems to me to have been rather more imaginative than the Government's.

PdC: The Vuelta developed a rather distinctive form of racing, not far different from amateur races, with the going getting heavy from the gun and local rivalries tending to overshadow the bigger picture. Because the continental peloton only ever sent a handful of representatives at a time, they could never really stamp their authority on the race, control the way stages were raced. Even when Bernard Hinault tried to take the Vuelta by the scruff of the neck he almost came a-cropper. This led some of the continental riders - including Hinault himself - to declare the Vuelta the toughest of the three grand Tours. A bit of hyperbole on their part, or did they have a point?

LF: Those were different days when Hinault won the Vuelta - the top riders had various targets in one year. 

I think when Hinault won his second Vuelta, he was taken aback by the Spanish competition, because his previous win came easily during the late ‘70s doldrums of Spanish cycling.  By 1983, he was in time to confront a new rising generation.  So it obviously made a big impression on him. 

And you have to take your hat off to him for rising to the challenge. His attitude and character made the 1983 race one of the best ever.

Also he raced the Vuelta in spring, when the weather conditions made the race tougher than it is now in late summer.  For instance, that year they had snow in the Pyrenees.

AB: I'm not sure that local rivalries ever really "overshadowed the bigger picture" but they certainly spiced up the racing, and gave the race an extra dimension. Local team rivalries in the other two grand Tours didn't seem to have the same effect.

That apart, I'm not sure how easy it is to generalise: Anquetil's failure to control the race was down to his team-mate, Altig, rather than any Spanish opposition; the following year he controlled it from start to finish. Rominger showed he could, too. Yet Induráin couldn't. 

I imagine there are years when it is especially tough and years when it isn't, without there being any obvious pattern. 

PdC: The 1985 Vuelta is best remembered for the Spanish finally getting their act together and combining to beat a foreigner, instead of letting the foreigners divide and conquer them. With that foreigner being Robert Millar it's a race that tends to figure in the memories of Anglosphere cycling fans. But the 1985 Vuelta was also notable for being truly international and for its Spanish riders. There was a team of Soviet amateurs, the Colombian contingent was strong and there was Robin Morton, following-up bringing the first American team to a Grand Tour the previous year - when she brought a team to the Giro d'Italia - by bringing the first American team to the Vuelta. Flying the flag for Spain, you had Pedro Delgado and Miguel Induráin. Was that the year both the Vuelta and Spanish cycling finally came of age?

LF: The changes you mention reflect changes in cycling internationally, not just in the Vuelta. 

Rather than coming of age, the 1985 Vuelta marked the recovery of Spanish cycling from its virtual collapse in the late 70s. 

The post-Franco Transition period was tough, marked by a severe economic recession.  Cycling felt the consequences - the Vuelta had to be completely reorganised with new sponsors.  New teams had to be created from zero - there was a break with the past politically and sportingly. 

Since this recovery, Spanish cycling hasn't looked back. Though the future doesn't look as promising as it should.

AB: I think rather too much is made of the 1985 Vuelta by British cycling fans. Sure, Millar was beaten by a combine, but combines happened every day; they were the rule rather than the exception even then. The principle cause of his defeat was the incompetence of his own French team and its manager.

What's the opposite of "coming of age" - going into decline? You might just as well ask if the 1985 Vuelta didn't mark the decline of French cycling (with Hinault within a year of retirement).

PdC: Though the Vuelta was late to the party with mountaintop finishes - the ski-station at Formigal in the Pyrenees didn't arrive until 1972 - in the last decade or so the race organisers have really discovered epic climbing, unearthing the likes of the Alto de El Angliru, with its ramps that vary between one-in-four and one-in-five. The climb became an overnight success and has helped the race carve out a new identity for itself, one in which the parcours itself is the star of the Vuelta. The legend of the Angliru - and of the Vuelta itself - is helped by the tantrum David Millar threw in 2002, ripping off his race-number when he crossed the line and crying "We're not animals and this is inhuman." It seems like a return to the epic days of racing, when l'Auto proudly quoted the likes of Lucien Petit-Breton and Octave Lapize comparing the race organisers to murderers. Are you fans of these new, super-tough climbs?

LF: Yes, and not of cyclists who whinge about them. 

Having a climb like the Angliru is incredibly exciting for the spectator and for the cycling fans who go there to ride it themselves, and feel like heroes for the day. Today's cycling is not over-blessed with epic moments. 

I don't know if they've managed to control the pushing that goes on though, which lets the bulk of the peloton get to the top without any effort! 

AB: Yes. I watched the Angliru stage in 2008 and it was stunning.

And I'm a fan of new courses like the Eroica.

And I would be in favour of a ban on radios.

PdC: In recent years, partly through much greater depth to the coverage of the cycling season the internet allows but also through books like your own, the Tour's status has begun to be challenged by both the Giro and the Vuelta. The Tour will probably be the pre-eminent race in the calendar for quite a few years yet, but fans are finding the Giro and the Vuelta are offering more exciting racing. What do you think it will it take for the Vuelta to attract a Tour winner in the year of his victory and throw up the possibility of an historic double?

LF: I think it's within reach of Contador - he did a Giro-Vuelta double, after all. 

The problem seems to be that these days a Tour winner cannot psyche himself up for much more in the season once the Tour is in the bag.  The attempts to pressurise Induráin to ride it were disastrous.

Essentially the Vuelta depends on the intense rivalry of home riders to generate excitement.  And since Operacion Puerto shattered Spanish cycling, the race has suffered.

AB: It will take a miracle. For all kinds of commercial reasons the Tour has become so dominant.

That may or may not have been good for cycle racing (personally I think it isn't), but that's the way it currently is and I cannot see much likelihood of it changing in the foreseeable future. 

Given that, it doesn't seem likely that a Tour winner will go for the double unless he wants to set some kind of record.

Having said that, I think you might be right in that some fans are finding the Giro and Vuelta more interesting and exciting than the Tour.

But some don't. A few years ago one commentator in a British cycling magazine dismissed a really absorbing Vuelta with the crass comment: "The trouble with the Vuelta is that it is - well - so brown."

It reminded me of President Mitterrand's comment when asked which colour he associated with France. He said, "grey". I'm sure he wasn't thinking of his nation's cycle race, but if he had been that wouldn't have been an inaccurate reflection that particular year.

PdC: Obviously putting together a book like this took a lot of research - not just reading race reports but also consulting autobiographies and interviewing riders. And as well as the cycling research, you've set the story of the race against the backdrop of Spanish history itself. How long were you working on the book?

LF: A very intense year and a half - lots of hours buried in old newspapers. 

AB: It was a couple of years from start to finish, as I remember.

PdC: [To Adrian Bell] You've also written books about the Spanish Civil War and about Basque refugees who found a home in the UK. What started your interest in things Spanish?

AB: Reading Orwell. Then meeting at university a Gibraltarian who had a vast knowledge of Spanish history and literature, and enthusiasm for talking about both.

PdC: [To Lucy Fallon] Cyclists have very colourful plumage, the peloton is such a whirl of colour. But your own background is plumage of a different kind, the ornithological kind. How did you interest n cycling come about?

LF: I learnt to ride a bike when I came to live in Spain, as a way of exploring the country, got persuaded to change from a mountain bike to road and never looked back. 

There's a huge cycling scene in Spain, with lots of brilliant marchas to participate in. 

Traffic has increased in recent years, but there are still plenty of long empty roads to cycle on in astonishing scenery. It's a very under-populated country away from the coasts.

Cycling for me was a way of discovering the country in a way you could never do in a car. 

And then you couldn't help but get interested in professional cycling if you lived in Spain during the Induráin era. Long after he retired people would still yell "Induráin" at you as you cycled past, or "Induráina" in my case.

PdC: You published Viva la Vuelta! in 2005, before Roberto Heras' positive was made known. It must have been pretty soul destroying when that news broke.

LF: Yes, very frustrating. And an eye-opener.

It seems we live in an age of disclosures, thinking of Wikileaks, which has shown the reality behind the scenes of diplomacy. The busts, positives and confessions have done the same for professional cycling.  We've been shown what happens behind the scenes.

Heras' positive was shocking at the time - it feels like another age, when hardly anyone had ever heard of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes and his claims to control the outcome of the Vuelta. 

Winners testing positive seems absolutely normal now. Cycling fans have become experts on doping.

But I can't drum up any interest in how clembuterol might improve performance, the pros and cons of blood passports, new forms of epo, etc. all the stuff that seems to take up so much space in cycling coverage and discussions these days. 

AB: It was such a shock and so inexplicable (it still is), given his position in the race.

Nowadays that kind of news comes as less of a surprise, but familiarity doesn't makes it any less depressing.

Back in 2005 there was also the business of the book. It had just gone from the printers to the binders when the news broke.

PdC: The years between 2005 and 2008 you cover in a separate update to the book - will you eventually get around to putting out a single updated version of Viva la Vuelta!, bringing in the most recent races too?

AB: The 2005-08 Supplement came about because AmstelSport offered to bring out a Dutch edition to coincide with the Vuelta starting in Holland in 2009. One of their conditions for the deal was that the book be brought up to date. So, having written the extra material (and corrected 2005) for the Dutch edition of the book it made sense to publish it in English in the form of a supplement. 

Yes, it would be nice to bring out a single updated version later this year but previous experience would advise us to wait to hear the final outcome of Contador's and Mosquera's brushes with the drug testers.

PdC: Out of all the stories you tell in the book, Julián Berrendero's story was the one that stuck out for me when I reviewed the book. Do you each have a favourite one?

LF: I love the story of Jose Manuel Fuente, the indomitable Tarangu. 

I love Asturias, where he was from, and its landscape, which is both awe-inspiringly beautiful and melancholy. The past is brought to life when you go into a bar where they still have framed newspaper articles about his victories.  Or a small cycling shop, where there's a photo of Tarangu in flared trousers standing next to the owner as a boy.   

His story is of someone who made good, rose against the odds.  I love the way he was the antithesis of the radio-controlled modern cyclist, achieving heroic victories one day, losing it all the next. 

He had so much character and expressed it in his racing. The 1974 Vuelta is a classic - he won it by a handful of seconds.

AB: Like you, I am very struck by the Berrendero story, too. And also the linked stories of Luis Ocaña and José Manuel Fuente.

When we were writing the book we naturally divided up the periods between us.

I was keen on writing about Ocaña because he'd been something of a hero of mine. Like being able to remember exactly where you were when you heard of President Kennedy's death, I can remember exactly where I was when I read of Ocaña's demolition of Merckx in the Alps during the 1971 Tour.

But Lucy wanted that period too, primarily because of Fuente. I'm not sorry; she did such a great job on that chapter.

That quote we used, about everything Ocaña did being "tinged with heroism and tragedy" could have been applied equally to Fuente. They were contemporaries and their lives ran so much in parallel, except that their backgrounds represented the two opposite ways in which poor Spaniards at the time could respond: you traipsed off abroad in search of work (as Ocaña's parents did) or you stoically suffered even worse deprivations at home (as in Fuente's case).

PdC: Let's talk about the doping issue. The Vuelta has some impressive records - smallest winning margin in a Grand Tour and most stage wins in a single Grand Tour - but it's got one it would probably sooner forget: the first Grand Tour winner to lose his victory because of doping. That's Angel Arroyo in 1982. In the nineties Spanish cycling developed a serious doping problem, took over Italy's seat at the top of the table. Over the last few years, even the UCI has been critical of the Spanish federation's attitude to doping. How would you describe the Spanish public's attitude to all these incidents, to doping in general, especially today with the Contador decision being bounced over to CAS?

LF: I think the doping scandals have made relatively little impact on the public.  This has been a long golden age for sport in Spain, and if cycling goes down the plug hole, it doesn't matter because there's Football and Formula one. 

But Contador is still a hero.  He's waged a very good publicity campaign, regardless of scepticism abroad.  I think there's a certain mentality that considers any accusation against him as an attempt to attack Spain, and stop them winning so many things.

AB: Yes, we discuss Operation Puerto in the Supplement. What the Spanish public's attitude is I really don't know.

PdC: [To Adrian Bell] As well as being one of the authors of Viva la Vuelta! you're also one of the owners of Mousehold Press, which has a pretty impressive catalogue of cycling-related books, especially Benjo Maso's The Sweat of the Gods. I know you've recently put out a new Brian Robinson biography from Graeme Fife - which I hope to get around to writing about in due course - but what's in the pipeline for the year ahead?

AB: I'm pleased you liked The Sweat of the Gods. I think it is a terrific book. It sold very slowly at first and then it took off. It seemed it was one of those books that sold by word of mouth.

Our latest book is a biography of Shay Elliott, a contemporary of Brian Robinson. He was the first Irishman to make an impact on the continent, and the first man to win stages in all three grand tours. It is also a story of repeated betrayal by team-mates and men he assumed to be his friends. It ends with the uncertainty of whether his self-inflicted death with the shotgun which had been his prize for a Vuelta stage-win was deliberate or accidental.

* * * * *

Viva La Vuelta! is published by Mousehold Press.

You'll find a review of Viva La Vuelta! - along with two related articles (The Basque Issue and Dirty Deals Done Dirt Cheap) on the Café Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell for taking the time to participate in this interview.