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A 50-something cyclist, 40-year-old bike and 2,760-mile challenge Tim Moore saddles up
TAKE A 50-SOMETHING CYCLIST, A 40-YEAR-OLD BIKE AND A 2,760-MILE CHALLENGE (IN LOCKDOWN) Tim Moore,
‘BIKES HAD GOT AN AWFUL LOT BETTER IN THE LAST 40 YEARS – I HADN’T’
In 1941, Julián Berrendero won the Vuelta a España, one of the world’s biggest cycling races, after spending 18 months in Franco’s concentration camps. Captivated by his extraordinary tale, travel writer 57, set out to retrace the epic route. In a heatwave. During a pandemic…
It was 4 July 2020, and there we were outside Biketown, a shop in Madrid’s northern suburbs. Three 40-something Spaniards and me, all in shorts and face masks, sunglasses steaming up in the monstrous midday heat. And a 40-something road bicycle, thin and silver, leaning against the sunscorched wall behind us, which they were lending to me.
Two months had passed since I’d chanced upon a photo of this graceful old machine online. I had made contact, asking if it might be for sale. Gerardo, the stubbled one, gently replied that it wasn’t, on account of a deep sentimental attachment: he had inherited the bike from an elderly cycling companion who had passed away the previous year. He said he would confer with Javier, the tall one, Biketown’s manager and the silver bike’s co-owner. Gerardo’s next email, composed like all of our correspondence via Google Translate, had pricked my eyes with tears of emotion and gratitude. ‘I have spoken to Javier and we are happy to lend you the bike free of charge.’ And I was here to collect it.
Antonio, the one who spoke English, flicked a finger towards Gerardo, who had taken off his sunglasses and was drawing a bare forearm across his eyes. ‘See? Now he cries. He has thoughts of envy for you.’ Throwing Covid caution to the wind, Gerardo strode over and gave me a great big hug.
I straddled the bike, which wasn’t a graceful procedure with a big saddlebag in the way. Looking from face to covered face, I tried hard to convey appropriate emotions with the small visible parts of my own visage: a welter of sadness, pride and affection for these three masked benefactors, and above all for the extraordinary cyclist whose name was plastered all over the bike beneath me: Julián Berrendero.
Before I hold down the rewind button and spool way back into monochrome history, let’s return briefly to those balmy, barmy days of that first Covid lockdown, when the sun burned bright in a cloudless sky and time went all wrong. Afternoons that seemed to stretch out for a week; weeks that shot by in a flash. This would be an adventure born of stir-crazy, weapons-grade boredom.
My first task under house arrest was to settle down and watch a career in travel journalism die before my eyes. That took care of half an hour. Then I drank cider in the garden. Three days in, my wife came down with a fairly apparent dose of what my daughters called ‘’rona’ – headache, leaden fatigue and a total loss of smell. It dragged on, but got no worse than that. I took my son’s bedroom window out of its frame, carried it on to the patio and somehow spent five days doing stuff to it with brushes and spatulas. I drank more cider; I drank stronger cider. I eradicated every last buttercup from my flower beds. Just after my wife started feeling better, I started feeling worse. But I was lucky, too: a couple of days in bed and another week mired in a kind of jet-lagged hangover. Still, what a relief it was when I recovered, and could at last restring our rotary washing line and pickle seven kilograms of carrots.
Towards the end of April, I had scraped the bottom of my barrel of projects and pastimes. Then it came to me: I braved the horrid, spidery depths of my shed and effortfully
Berrendero finished the Tour winner of the climbing contest, King of the Mountains
extracted the bike I had ridden round France two decades previously (for my book French Revolutions , when I took on the route of the Tour de France). What a terrible state it was in, poor old ZR3000. Cracked and airless tyres, great coils of detached handlebar tape that spooled down to the floor. The front derailleur had broken off and everything was covered with rust, dust or both.
Resurrecting this forlorn machine to its proud, factory-fresh glory was more than a project – it was a duty of care, a moral obligation I had been postponing for 15 shameful years. I flicked off the biggest insects, pumped up the tyres, and went for a ride.
Most of us developed a lockdown obsession, and mine now took hold in earnest. There weren’t any bike races to watch that summer, so after my daily ride I read about old ones. In due course, Viva la Vuelta ,the story of Spain’s great bike race, worked its way to the top of my bedside book pile. The Vuelta a España is comfortably the least grand grand tour. It didn’t get going until 1935, 26 years after the Giro d’italia joined the Tour de France on the cycling calendar. And whereas the other grand tours have only ever been cancelled due to global conflict, Spain went four years without a Vuelta in the 1950s because nobody could be bothered.
Still, I finished the book in a single sitting. By page 25 I had absorbed a potted account of the 1941 Vuelta a España, focused on the man who won it, Julián Berrendero, and on how he had spent the previous five years of his life. By page 25 I knew how I would be spending the next few months of mine.
The story of the 1941 Vuelta a España actually begins at the 1936 Tour de France. Berrendero, a 24-year-old Spanish cyclist, was competing in only the second stage race of his career, and initially found himself overwhelmed by the event’s glamour, clamour and sheer relentlessness. Furthermore, he had left a homeland in worrisome turmoil. Spain’s Popular Front coalition – narrowly elected at the start of the year in what would be the country’s last free vote for 40 years – was starting to unravel, with street battles between Left- and Rightwing extremists turning murderous. On 18 July, Berrendero and his four fellow Spanish riders heard the dramatic news: General Francisco Franco had launched a coup.
The Spanish cyclists, anti-franco Republicans to a man, were grilled by journalists. Berrendero’s parents, and his fiancée Pilar, lived in Madrid, where the following day over a thousand people would die in a battle between rebel troops and civilian militias. He delivered ‘an impetuous declaration of Republicanism’, condemning ‘the fascist aggression in my homeland’.
In the space of a single bike race, the conflict would explode into nationwide fratricidal slaughter. Yet somehow Berrendero blotted this out, displaying the frankly terrifying competitive focus that came to define him, and would intimidate me throughout my attempt to emulate his 1941 ride. He finished the Tour as winner of the climbing contest, King of the Mountains, second only to the yellow jersey in prestige.
Earning more than he ever could in impoverished Spain, Berrendero stayed in France for three years. In September 1939, with another, huge war unfolding, he was compelled to return. The other Spanish cyclists who’d stayed on in France had received only cursory punishment from Franco’s new regime after coming home. But Berrendero, now the country’s best-known cyclist, had to be made an example of.
He was arrested after getting off a train at Irun, just inside the border. ‘From that moment,’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘a parenthesis opened, a silence. A silence that lasted 18 months.’
Euphemisms are inevitably rife in a book that came out in 1949, with Franco’s regime at the height of its censorious powers. Berrendero glosses over this year and a half hiatus as ‘the period when my racing licence was suspended’, which on balance was less likely to alert the censors than ‘the period when
I was imprisoned in concentration camps’.
Berrendero was eventually released in early 1941, following the miraculous intervention of a camp commander who had raced against him as an amateur and recognised the great champion lined up at morning roll-call. Just three months later, he would line up in Madrid for the start of the first Vuelta a España since 1936, and the first under Franco.
The 1941 Vuelta was billed by the nationalist press as ‘The Tour of a Nation Reborn’ and Berrendero was being offered a shot at atonement, to prove that his depuración –18 months of political re-education and purification – had been successful. ‘He has completed his military service,’ said race referee Manuel Serdan, smoothly mastering the regime’s odious doublespeak. ‘Of course he dreams of being reintegrated. He is in good physical shape; now let us see what has resulted from his depuración.’
In his autobiography, Berrendero freely admits that at 29, he never expected to ride professionally again: ‘I thought I had hung up my bike for good.’ But he would win that Vuelta, and the one that followed, and when he retired in 1949, he did so as his country’s most successful cyclist. Conforming to the post-professional tradition, in 1950 he opened an eponymous shop in the outskirts of Madrid, selling Berrendero-branded bikes. Few were as desirable as the bespoke mid’70s road racer that I had first spotted on Gerardo’s vintage-bike blog. To Gerardo this was no mere bicycle. In his words, and now by inheritance in mine, this was La Berrendero.
On the morning of 12 June 1941, a modest peloton gathered in front of officials and spectators on Madrid’s calle de Alfonso XII. On dutiful cue, every right arm was raised in fascist salute, and every voice joined a rendition of Cara al Sol (Face to the Sun), the Falangist anthem. Seventy-nine years and three weeks later, pedalling through the welcome shade of the plane trees that lined the calle de Alfonso XII, I set off in their ghostly wheel tracks. In the total absence of tourists, and with traffic dramatically thinned by the pandemic, it wasn’t too hard to imagine the scene. I rolled past the scabby, stunted Arc de Triomphe that is Franco’s Victory Arch, doing my best to process the absurd summer heat and the mindmelting scale of my undertaking: at 2,760 miles, the 1941 Vuelta was and remains the longest bicycle race in Spanish history.
La Berrendero was a dream machine in its day, a bike my teenage self would have vainly lusted after. Yet 40 years had passed since I experienced that vain lust. Yes, La Berrendero represented an intergalactic upgrade on the wooden-wheeled centenarian I’d ridden round Italy, and on the East German shopping bike that took me down the Iron Curtain, for my other books. But it was still an extremely old bicycle. Bikes had got an awful lot better over the last 40 years – whereas I hadn’t. Before setting off down the calle de Alfonso XII I was already slick with the sweat of effort and terror: the undulating ride from Biketown had demonstrated that a 1970s road bike with lots of bags and an old man on it didn’t like going up hills or down them.
Berrendero’s victory would be a triumph of bitter, bloody-minded ruthlessness, fuelled by hatred for the authorities who stole the prime of his sporting life, and for the fellow riders who had escaped the same fate. Making a mockery of the team tactics that traditionally dictate professional cycling, Berrendero routinely rode against his own colleagues, dragging one back by his jersey, punching another into the gutter. The roads were terrible – riders often suffered six punctures a day – and race referee Serdan nurtured a deranged fixation with ‘water drunkenness’ that saw him snatch bottles from thirsty riders in appalling heat: half the field would retire with dehydration. And in 1941, Spain was no place to source the 7,000 calories required to ride a bike all day. This was an era when cats and dogs were a rare sight on Spanish streets: they’d either died of hunger or gone into a casserole. One morning, the riders rode away on empty stomachs – their hotel simply couldn’t find any food.
My own more prosaic struggles coalesced in the weeks that followed. I discovered that whoever told me Spain was the second-mostmountainous country in Europe hadn’t been joking. I got lost in a desert. I developed the silliest tan lines of all time – when I took off my string-backed gloves, all those ochre stipples made it look as if someone had just slammed my hands in a waffle iron.
I foolishly attempted to finish every day with a balls-out, Berrendero-grade final sprint, fatefully draining my last reserves: the ones that allow me to enter a hotel without dropping my bike straight on to the reception floor, bags and all, and just staring at it. When at length I slowly raised my gaze to the desk, I saw those now-familiar emotions battling it out on the small visible parts of a masked face: thank you, Lord, for delivering us a paying guest in this time of crisis, but next time, could we have a nicer one?
Covid seemed even more oppressive in Spain, and so much sadder: all those dutiful mask-wearers forced to restrain that hardwired native impulse to gather and hug and raucously spray each other with aerosol breath droplets. Despite my travails it was always a relief to hit the open road and leave all that behind, to carry on as if the whole world hadn’t spun out of control, as if riding a really old bike for hours and hours in an open-air oven was reassuringly mundane rather than completely bloody stupid.
One month and 2,000 miles later, I started out from Gijón, up on Spain’s Atlantic coast, retracing the time trial to Oviedo in which Berrendero took a lead he would not relinquish. I was bang on it as the buildings began to thin around me, head down, taking roundabouts in an apexclipping straight line, swishing through red lights. A slightly terrifying gyratory system took me around and above Gijón’s outlying heavy industries, and then I was out in the hills. And the wind. And the sun.
The sporting daily newspaper Mundo Deportivo’s report on the time trial ran to just 158 words: more than a little cursory, and more than a little bitter and begrudging. ‘Our car follows Berrendero,’ it begins, ‘who pushes very hard in the first 40 kilometres. In Lugones, taking his time against that of Fermín Trueba, we see that he is five minutes ahead. Well, Berrendero is now the race leader on the road.’ Is that it? The greatest cycling all-rounder Spain had ever produced has just taken a pretty decisive lead in your national grand tour – a lead he last held on its first day – and that’s the best you can manage? Nobody seemed to have a good word for old JB. Was it fear of praising a man who’d been banged up as a traitor?
Back on the road my own time trial was turning into a story I’d rather not tell. Mundo Deportivo hadn’t mentioned any kind of inclines in its report, but by Luanco, less than a third of the way in, my thighs were trembling with protracted uphill effort. I pushed on, trying to channel Berrendero’s furious determination, clenching my teeth, glaring at the tarmac, crushing the pedals. With the last physical reserves gurgling down my inner sluices, all I had left was hate. Throughout his career, when JB was up against it, he found someone to despise: his rivals, the race referee, Doña Fatalidad – Lady Luck, forever piercing his tyres with a prick of her phantom pin. Hate put fire in his belly. But out on that lonely road in the dogday sun there was nobody to hate but myself, and doing that just put lead in my wheels.
Everything was going wrong. My chain fell off for the very first time, jamming itself between crank and frame in a manner that denied me a safe and graceful halt. I got lost in the industrial outskirts of Aviles, wobbling up a canal towpath between dark satanic mills, then over several pedestrian footbridges with massive zigzag stairs at either end. But even as I slid deep into ridicule, I wouldn’t give up. With the bike over my shoulder I half-ran, half-fell down that last staircase, sustaining umpteen abrasions that I didn’t even notice for several hours, until I turned on the shower taps and screamed the hotel down.
The road out of Aviles took me to a very bad place: a steep and green place, with a motorway on stilts a thousand miles above my head. I felt my bleary gaze drop down to the tarmac, and all the glinting bits of glass and metal that winked at me, and found myself steering towards them, praying for a pop and a hiss that would bring this misery to an end.
When Oviedo at last appeared, I wasn’t in
Just a few hours before, I had bloody loved cycling. Now I absolutely despised it
the least surprised to see it perched on an enormous hill. I got to the top feeling sad and beaten and strange, stopping the clock beneath the first hotel sign I saw. A while later I would reappraise my average speed: 22.2kmh, abysmal as it sounds, would in fact have been good enough for second-last place. But at the time, I pushed La Berrendero across a strip-lit foyer, shaking wrists round filthy bars, not knowing whether to vomit or cry. Just a few hours before, rolling over the sunny coastal hills and up Gijón’s well-peopled esplanade, I had bloody loved cycling. Now I absolutely despised it.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the receptionist, ‘but you cannot take your bicycle into your room.’
‘I don’t want to take it into my room,’ I said, in a cracked monotone. ‘I want to throw it off your roof.’
Extracted from Vuelta Skelter: Riding the Remarkable 1941 Tour of Spain, by Tim Moore, published by Jonathan Cape on 12 August at £20. © Tim Moore 2021