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The 2760 mile journey from hell – how I tackled Spain’s biggest cycling race on a 40 year old bike


‘Most of us developed a lockdown obsession, and mine now took hold in earnest’ – Courtesy of Tim Moore. It was 4 July 2020, and 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 sun-scorched 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 because 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, who spoke English, flicked a finger towards Gerardo, who had removed his sunglasses and drawn 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.

Day 1: Outside Biketown in Madrid with the men who lent him his bike, (left to right) Javier, Gerardo, and Antonio – Courtesy of Tom Moore

I straddled the bike, which wasn’t graceful, 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 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 shot by in a flash. This would be an adventure born of stir-crazy, weapons-grade boredom.


Julián Berrendero wins a stage of the 1937 Tour de France – Alamy

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. I took my son’s bedroom window out of its frame, carried it onto the patio, and somehow spent five days doing stuff to it with brushes and spatulas. It dragged on but got no worse than that.

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 few days in bed and another week mired in a jet-lagged hangover. Still, what a relief it was when I recovered and could finally rest 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 extracted the bike I had ridden around 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 tires were great coils of detached handlebar tape that spooled 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 tires, and went for a ride.

France’s Jean-Marie Goasmat passes Berrendero during the 1936 Tour de France – Alamy.

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 I read about old ones after my daily ride. In due course, Viva la Vuelta, the story of Spain’s great bike race, worked to the top of my bedside book pile. The Vuelta an España is comfortably the least 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 canceled 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 1941 Vuelta an España, focused on the man who won it, Julián Berrendero, and how he had spent the previous five years of his life. By page 25, I knew how I would spend my next few months.

The 1941 Vuelta an España story 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, clamor, and sheer relentlessness.

On 18 July, Berrendero and his four fellow Spanish riders heard the surprising news: General Francisco Franco had launched a coup. 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 Right-wing extremists turning murderous.

Berrendero’s 1949 autobiography – Courtesy of Tim Moore

The Spanish cyclists, anti-Franco Republicans to a man, were grilled by journalists. He delivered ‘an impetuous declaration of Republicanism’, condemning ‘the fascist aggression in my homeland’. 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.

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 the 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. After coming home, the other Spanish cyclists who’d stayed in France had received only cursory punishment from Franco’s new regime. 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 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 license 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 recognized the great champion lined up at morning roll-call. Three months later, he would line up in Madrid to start the first Vuelta an España since 1936 and the first under Franco.

Day 9: In front of the statue of El Cid in Seville – Courtesy of Tom Moore

The nationalist press billed the 1941 Vuelta as ‘The Tour of a Nation Reborn,’ Berrendero was offered a shot at atonement to prove 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 evil 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 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 on the outskirts of Madrid, selling Berrendero-branded bikes. Few were as desirable as the bespoke mid-’70s road racer I had first spotted on Gerardo’s vintage-bike blog. To Gerardo, this was no mere bicycle. In his words, and now with inheritance in mind, this was La Berrendero.

Moore at Franco’s Victory Arch in Madrid – Courtesy of Tim Moore

On 12 June 1941, a modest peloton gathered in front of officials and spectators on Madrid’s Calle de Alfonso XII. Every right arm was raised in a fascist salute on dutiful cue, and every voice joined a rendition of Cara al Sol (Face to the Sun), the Falangist anthem. Seventy-nine years and three weeks later, pedaling through the welcome shade of the plane trees that lined the Calle de Alfonso XII, I set off in their ghostly wheel tracks.

At 2,760 miles, the 1941 Vuelta was and remains the longest bicycle race in Spanish history. I rolled past the scabby, stunted Arc de Triomphe that is Franco’s Victory Arch, doing my best to process the excessive summer heat and the mind-melting scale of my undertaking. It wasn’t hard to imagine the scene in the total absence of tourists and with traffic dramatically thinned by the pandemic.

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. La Berrendero represented an intergalactic upgrade on the wooden-wheeled centenarian I’d ridden around Italy and the East German shopping bike that took me down the Iron Curtain for my other books. But it was still an ancient bicycle.

Bikes had improved much over the last 40 years – whereas I hadn’t. Before setting off the Calle de Alfonso XII, I was already slick with the sweat of effort and terror: the undulating ride from Biketown demonstrated a 1970s road bike with many bags and an older 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 colleagues, dragging one back by his jersey and 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. One morning, the riders rode away on empty stomachs – their hotel couldn’t find any food. This era was when cats and dogs were rare on Spanish streets: they’d either died of hunger or gone into a casserole.

My own more prosaic struggles coalesced in the weeks that followed. I discovered that whoever told me Spain was the second-most-mountainous country in Europe hadn’t been joking. I got lost in a desert. I developed the silliest tan lines of all time – when I removed my string-backed gloves, all those ochre stipples made it look like someone had just slammed my hands in a waffle iron.

Day 27: On the Atlantic coast, in Deba, a town halfway between San Sebastián and Bilbao – Courtesy of Tom Moore

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 onto 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 an 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 from Gijón, upon Spain’s Atlantic coast, retracing the time trial to Oviedo, where Berrendero took the lead he would not relinquish. I was bang on it as the buildings began to thin around me, head down, taking roundabouts in an apex-clipping straight line, swishing through red lights. A 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 kilometers. In Lugones, taking his time against that 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 decisive lead in your grand national tour Tourlead 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?

Day 31: Moore just outside the town of Oviedo, on the morning after retracing a fateful time trial – Courtesy of Tom Moore

Back on the road, my time trial was turning into a story I’d rather not tell. Mundo Deportivo hadn’t mentioned any 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 fierce determination, clenching my teeth, glaring at the tarmac, and crushing the pedals. With the last physical reserves gurgling down my inner sluices, all I had left was hate.

When JB was up against it throughout his career, he found someone to despise: his rivals, the race referee, Doña Fatalidad – Lady Luck, forever piercing his tires with a prick of her phantom pin. Hate put fire in his belly. But out on that lonely road in the dog-day sun, there was nobody to hate but myself, and doing that just put lead in my wheels.

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. Everything was going wrong. My chain fell off for the first time, jamming itself between crank and frame in a manner that denied me a safe and graceful halt.

But I wouldn’t give up even as I slid deep into ridicule. With the bike over my shoulder, I half-ran, half-fell down that last staircase, sustaining umpteen abrasions; 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 terrible place: a steep and green place with a motorway on stilts a thousand miles above my head. I felt my tired 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 finally appeared, I wasn’t 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: 22.2 km, abysmal as it sounds, would, have been good enough for the second-last place.

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 wouldn’t say I liked it. But at the time, I pushed La Berrendero across a strip-lit foyer, shaking wrists around filthy bars, not knowing whether to vomit or cry. ‘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



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