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In theory, sport and politics should not have a lot in common but in Spanish culture there is a strong connection between cycling and the government. We take a look at the legacy of three major bike races in the Iberian peninsula and their influence on a proud nation.
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How bike races were used as a political tool in a time of dramatic change.
(A flashback to RIDE #46, published October 2009.)
– By Mark Johnson and James Stout
The history of professional cycling as a tool for forging national identity has generated not only Spain’s run of great professional cyclists, but also prefaces Spain’s current renaissance on many of the world’s sporting stages. A sporting ‘Siglo de Oro’ – a return to the golden age when Spain owned the world.
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When Australian Ron Baensch arrived at the 1965 track world championships in San Sebastian, Spain, generalissimo Francisco Franco’s police welcomed him with a beating.
The 70-year-old Baensch, who now lives in Newcastle, recalls returning from that September morning’s training ride with two Dutchmen: “Franco was coming down from the cathedral in a big row of cars. The Guardia Civil were all lining the roads and we wanted to get across and get some breakfast.
“We thought we could do a little dash across and the Guardia jumped straight on top of us. They arrested us and put us in jail for crossing the road in front of Franco. They handcuffed us together and beat us with their truncheons.”
The British consulate managed to get him out in time to race the following day. But Baensch didn’t let matters drop. After winning a repechage match that landed him the bronze medal in the sprint competition, Baensch raised a middle finger at Franco.
“He was sitting up there in his armchair, his little throne, right on the finish line. He had armed guards with machine guns all around him. I was a bit worried, actually. He could have you locked up forever, if he wanted to.”
At 26, the Australian had unwittingly found himself at the explosive crossroads of Spanish nationalism and cycling.
He learned first hand that in Spain racing bikes is often about more than leader’s jerseys and trophies. The nation’s competitive cycling history is also a story of violence, contested terrain, political autonomy and national pride.
The country’s three oldest stage races – the Vuelta a España, Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco and the Volta a Catalunya – have, from their earliest beginnings, been used to spread a message that their respective regions are historically unique, distinct, and ultimately separate.
That is, these races foster nationalism: the imagining of oneself as part of a singular community defined by a common geography, sense of community and will to self-government. Because they are peripatetic, threading symbolic ancient sites, pastoral settings, picturesque villages and capital cities, Spain’s pro cycling events helped make concrete a national sense of place for those viewing, reading about and listening to the race.
By projecting images of lovely places and heroic riders, and by physically tracing each region’s bounds, these circuits described a nation as it was and prescribed a version of the nation as its leaders would have it be.
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Vuelta a España – A Race as a political tool…
The 14 stages of the inaugural edition of la Vuelta a España in 1935 spanned 3,425km of country from Granada in the south to Valencia on the east coast, all the way to Barcelona in Catalonia and Bilbao in the Basque Country. The event was an outgrowth of the GP de la República, a shorter stage race founded in 1932 to commemorate 1931’s flight of monarch King Alfonso XIII and the establishment of democracy with what was called the Second Republic.
Created to commemorate the birth of a new Spain, the Vuelta’s earliest incarnation was as much a political event as a sporting spectacle.
Even as the province of Catalonia tried to break away as an independent nation and bloody mining strikes morphed into armed insurrections in Asturias, the GP promoted the ideal of a unified Spain that included the Basque Country and Catalonia – cycling hotbeds in the north of Spain with long histories of yearning for independence from a central government.
Over the following three years GP organisers tried to get Spanish publishers to sponsor the race the way the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia got their starts in 1903 and 1909 as vehicles to sell newspapers.
Spanish media rejected supporting a national tour for practical reasons; they argued the country’s abysmal roads and lack of lodging would make it impossible to run the race and house riders.
As much as the race attempted to project an image of a robust, confident Spain in the wake of the fall of the monarchy, potential financial supporters argued that the fragile democracy was simply unprepared to host a national tour.
Such a position is hard to believe in light of today’s Spain, crisscrossed by modern autopistas, which is the second-most popular tourist destination in the world (after France and ahead of the USA) and hosts nearly 100 million visitors annually.
But 1930s Spain was not much different from the primitive place Cervantes described Sancho Panza and Don Quijote travelling across three centuries earlier.
Apart from the industrialised Basque and Catalan cities, Spain of the 1930s was a largely rural, undeveloped country where travellers often had to make do sleeping on a pile of straw in a barn.
In 1935 Juan Pujol, the director of Madrid’s daily paper Informaciones, decided to back a Grand Tour.
With its sprawling geographic scope from the tip of Africa to the Pyrenees, the first Vuelta was designed to highlight historic sites, project a shared sense of space and enforce the notion of a the nation’s collective heritage. While Pujol certainly wanted to generate publicity for his newspaper, publicly he wrote in Informaciones that his support was an expression of Spanish national pride.
With the clouds of global depression, Hitler, World War II and a civil war gathering, the first Vuelta was a chirrup of nationalistic optimism from a fledgling democracy that, four short years later, would be crushed by a military dictator.
On 18 July 1936, as the 30th Tour de France unfolded north of the border, Spanish General Francisco Franco launched a military coup from Spain’s North African colonies. Two Spains faced off in what was to be a ruinously bloody civil war.
As Spain shuddered during that traumatic summer two Spanish cyclists – Julián Berrendero and Mariano Cañardo – were busy placing sixth and 11th at the Tour. Fearing a return to Spain, they remained in France after the race. The following summer they represented the Franco-resisting Republicans and won two stages of the Tour, dedicating half their take to war orphans at home. Republican militia even crossed the Pyrenees to cheer on Berrendero and Cañardo in southern France.
By the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 half a million people had died and nearly as many faced an exile that would last for the remainder of Franco’s 36-year reign.
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Pining for his family, Berrendero left the bike shop he established in Pau in France (where he had also won his stage of the 1937 Tour) and returned to Spain. The 27-year-old cyclist’s public alignment with the Republic got him promptly seized at the border and tossed into Franco’s hellish concentration camps for 18 months.
The Vuelta did not run from 1937 to 1940 because of the Civil War. After Franco assumed full control in 1939 he resurrected the race in 1941 as a vehicle to assert the notion of a Spain unified around his centralised political power in Madrid.
With the race, the political leader tried to nationalise a romanticised Andalusian identity, emphasising features of southern Spain such as the bullfight, flamenco dancing and devout Catholicism alongside the Castilian language.
The travelling, highly publicised bike race was his vehicle to move this public re-education mission forward.
During and after World War II Spain was an international pariah, much like North Korea today.
While its people starved the country was ostracised from Marshall Plan support and its economy lay in ruins. Even though the sad field of 32 riders who started the Vuelta in 1941 were challenged to scrape up enough food to eat once a day, let along fuel themselves for the three weeks of racing and stages of almost 300km per day that lay ahead, Franco went ahead with the race.
As Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell’s comprehensive history of the race Viva la Vuelta aptly puts it, the post-Civil War races were Franco’s way of spinning an “illusion of normality… a gesture of defiance in the face of ruin”.
What started as a race celebrating the end of monarchy was reborn as a propaganda event to market a megalomaniac’s vision of a purified, homogeneous Spain. It attempted to divert public gaze from the concentration camps and mass graves around them, and excluded all languages and cultures which Franco did not deem ‘Spanish’.
Such a crowbarred identity was anathema to Basque nationalists who yearned for independence and seethed under Franco’s banning of both their Ikkurina flag and the use of their native Euskera tongue. Basque Country – Paìs Vascoor Euskadi – a cycling-crazy region of northern Spain bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, France, and the Pyrenees and the possessor of its own language has agitated for political autonomy since Roman times, when it was one of the few parts of Spain, indeed of Europe, not conquered by the Roman Empire.
Franco’s regime crushed all Basque expressions of regional independence with an iron fist, including shutting down their beloved bike races and jailing and torturing political dissidents.
During the Civil War, Franco also sanctioned the Nazi bombing of the Basque village of Guernica – an event famously depicted in the eponymous Picasso painting that hangs in Madrid today. In 1945 Franco called the Vuelta a “peace” tour to celebrate Spain’s non-involvement in WWII which had ended just three days earlier. This did not sit well with Basques who had seen Guernica obliterated by Franco-backed bombers.
With its honking parade of official vehicles and platoons of black-booted, motorcycle-riding Guardia Civil, the sporting event flaunted Madrid’s centralised power while tearing at wounds carved by oppression that, as Australian Baensch discovered in 1965, were especially mercurial and malevolent in Paìs Vasco. Beginning in the 1960s, Basque national identity gained one immediately recognisable face, that of ETA.
Formed in 1959, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna – or Basque Homeland and Freedom – became the public, and violent, face of a brand of Basque nationalism that had declared war on its Spanish oppressors in its quest for an autonomous nation.
Whether it liked it or not, in the years after 1964 cycling in Spain became overtly political when violent Basque nationalism kicked its way into the Vuelta.
The 1967 Vuelta saw Basque teams KAS and Fagor locked in a dominating battle that was ultimately self-defeating for both. It also marked the appearance of ETA when the organisation sabotaged the descent of the iconic Sollube climb by spraying the road with oil and nails. This relatively minor disruption escalated in future years.
In 1968 ETA bombed the stage 15 route between the historic Basque towns of Vitoria and Pamplona at Puerto de Urbasa; a spectator was injured, the road torn up and the peloton sat down on the road, threatening to abandon the stage. The bomb was designed to cut Euskadi out of the Vuelta’s symbolic lasso of Spain. If the Tour of Spain served to beat the bounds of the country, then ETA was trying to draw the boundaries south of the Basque provinces.
Basque riders who were seen to be riding against the interests of the Euskadi that day (ie. preventing a Basque win) received death threats.
Given ETA’s road bomb and its proven ability to kill government officials, riders took the threats seriously. Late-night negotiations saw the race continue with the Spanish cycling federation – like all official organisations at the time, an arm of the Franco regime – declaring that any rider who refused to continue would never race again.
When Franco died in November 1976, Spain held its breath. Would the generalissimo’s hand-groomed successor, King Juan Carlos, continue his despotic ways?
Within months Juan Carlos and his prime minister Adolfo Suárez stunned the nation by pushing through democratic reforms that culminated in the legalisation of political parties and the first election in 40 years. By 1978 a new constitution was in place that granted long-desired autonomy to Spain’s various regions, including Catalonia and the Basque country.
This transition away from 40 years of dictatorship was fast. It was also violent, traumatic and vividly dramatised by the final week of the 1977 Vuelta, which took place in Euskadi.
The race’s closing weekend coincided with Amnesty Week, eight days of public manifestations meant to free political prisoners still in Spanish jails. During a week that saw streets barricaded with hijacked buses and burning cars as well as pitched battles between molotov-cocktail throwing protesters and bullet-discharging Guardia Civil, at least five protesters were killed.
Photos of barricaded streets and truncheon-wielding police on the front page of newspaper La Vanguardia capture the unsettled spirit of the time.
“Never in the last 40 years,” reads the lead story, “has the Basque country lived through such a violent weekend.”
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Belgian Freddy Maertens dominated the 1977 Vuelta from start to finish, wearing the leader’s jersey for all 21 stages and winning 13 stages.
As Maertens’ Vuelta staggered into its final week in the Basque Country, on Thursday 12 May police responded to a separatist protest in the town of Renteria with gunfire, injuring five and killing one spectator.
That death, along with a workers’ strike and street protests that lead to two more deaths the following afternoon in Pamplona, ratcheted the tension so high that heavily armed police had to escort the peloton for the first 50km as the race made its way from near Pamplona to the finish in Bilbao.
On 14 May protesters gathered on the steep slopes of the stage’s finishing climb, Urquiola. El Mundo Deportivo’s account describes Maertens cementing his overall win by finishing 15 seconds in arrears of Basque stage winner and KAS rider José Nazabal, but also details the race caravan flatting on nails spread across the base of the climb. In spite of frigid wind and rain, police forces clashed with demonstrators beneath the stage finish banner.
On that fateful day cycling came together with resentment and fuelled gales of nationalism to create a perfect storm as Franco’s 40-year reign of terror began to recede and the pent-up voices of Basques asserted their repressed identity.
“All the riders ardently desire that it would all just finally end,” read the summary in El Mundo Deportivo.
In light of the violence that followed the race like a hissing red fuse twisting through the velvety green Basque country, race organisers shortened the next day’s two-stage finale. What was scheduled to start with a morning road race and conclude with a time trial in San Sebastian was abbreviated to a single road race.
As if to underscore the dark spirit of the times, the final shortened day finished at Miranda de Ebro, the location of one of Franco’s concentration camps.
With rumours flying about the number of injured and dead, organisers did not want to risk sending riders – especially non-Basque Spaniards – into the war zone San Sebastian had become.
In addition to the fact that at least five demonstrators had been shot in that city, stores and bakeries were completely out of bread and news vendors refused to sell their papers to protest the killing of a newspaper worker in Pamplona. Maertens clinched the 1977 Vuelta after winning the final 105km stage and headed off to Italy to contest the Giro.
By 1979 race organisers could no longer afford violent Basque protests and nail-covered roads. They stopped routing the course through the region. Now, 30 years later, the Vuelta still steers clear of the Pais Vasco. During the final days of the 2009 Vuelta, however, the Basque government stated that it would like the Vuelta to return.
According to Basque newspaper Diario Vasco, after visiting the Euskatel-Euskadi team before the start of stage 17 in Talavera de La Reina and assisting with the stage start, Patxi Mutiloa, the director general of sports for the Basque government, stated that bringing the Vuelta back in the near future would demonstrate that the Euskadi has returned to a “climate of normalcy”. Blanca Urgell, from the Basque cultural council, added that returning the Vuelta to the region would “be a step forward on the road toward normalcy. It would be very visible and desirable for all”.
– Mark Johnson and James Stout