Monday, July 4, 2022

Vuelta Skelter


We’ve had to wait a while for the final installment in Tim Moore’s Grand Tour trilogy that began with French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France (2001) and continued with Geronimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy (2014). A book from Moore about La Vuelta a España was inevitable, and highly anticipated by many, including me, but the timing of when he finally undertook the project turned out to be something of a surprise. Moore needed an angle for this book, and it wasn’t until the COVIDy spring of 2020 that he stumbled on it, when he came across the remarkable story of Julián Berrendero and the strange 1941 campaign, the smallest grand tour ever, with only 32 starters, as well as the longest, at a mind-blowing 4442 km.   

Berrendero is a now largely forgotten Spaniard who, when he retired in 1949, was the most famous bike racer the country had produced. Moore had never heard of him before picking up a history of the race, Viva la Vuelta, which explains how Berrendero rode in the Tour de France in 1936, racing as part of the first Spanish team to compete in that event. The riders were poor, under-resourced, and overmatched, yet somehow Berrendero won the King of the Mountains and became a sporting hero.

As Moore describes him, Berrendero was, for the most part, a colossal asshole. On his bike, he was a ruthless and selfish loner, “a recidivist wheel sucker,” hated by rivals and teammates alike. Off the bike he was generally a miserable bastard too, though Moore uncovers some surprising details about his life that complicate that reputation. 

As terrible as Berrendero sounds, though, he is a sympathetic figure, to some extent, both for his underdog accomplishments in 1936 and for having suffered during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, which pitted the Republican left versus the Nationalist right of Francisco Franco. (I have to admit I didn’t know much about the war beyond what I remember from reading Hemingway when I was 19, which probably isn’t the most objective account.) Berrendero had been critical of Franco’s regime, so the Generalissimo had the cyclist arrested; he spent 18 months of what should have been the prime of his cycling career in what was essentially a concentration camp before returning to bike racing and winning two Vueltas.

Julián Berrendero’s story is the perfect framework for this book, and fortunately for Moore, the story comes complete with supplementary texts, namely a series of race-report dispatches in a Madrid newspaper, and Berrendero’s own memoir, published long after he retired, both of which Moore dips into judiciously. With his combination of research and first-hand reporting, Moore delivers a fascinating snapshot of not just bike racing in Spain in the early 1940s but of Franco’s Spain, in general.

Moore’s actual trip ended up happening smack dab in the middle of the first wave of COVID in the summer of 2020 (in one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic).This is the first travel book I’ve read that attempts to convey the weirdness of COVID travel, and, at the outset, I wasn’t sure if I was ready yet to read about pandemic times. But Moore handles it with just the right touch, addressing it head on, with frankness, sensitivity, and, above all, humour. Like the legacy of Spain’s Civil War, COVID lurks in the background throughout the book and Moore shrewdly points out some of the eerie parallels between those calamities. As we all know to varying extents, living through “the rona,” as he calls it, was by turns tragic and absurd. 

If you’ve read his other cycling books, you’ll know that Moore is at his best when suffering and/or experiencing mechanical issues with whatever crappy old bike he happens to be riding. In this case, we can add suffocating heat and tons of climbing. Self-deprecation and vivid description are a formidable one-two punch:

Mired in nostalgia, I completely forgot to eat lunch . . . pedalling straight out of town and on to Stage 13. Almost at once the terrain turned lumpy, and I found myself going against the grain, up and over every hefty vine-striped hill. Once again the afternoon heat seemed to transcend its elemental constraints and acquire an actual physical form, a sweaty fat toddler hanging on to my shoulders, then wetting himself.

Amazingly, somehow this schtick doesn’t wear thin for me; if anything, I think he’s getting better at it. 

The landscape levered itself up into some properly huge hills, all topped with wind turbines, like birthday candles on some horrible green cake. After Amorebieta I laboured up a broad and busy road of heavy gradient, bullying my agonised gurn into an approximation of mildly brow-furrowing curiosity, so that approaching motorists might think I was, say, trying to identify the call of distant water fowl, rather than dying a million sweaty deaths. But soon, and inevitably, my face collapsed into its habitual slack-jawed gasping grimace. That morning, I noticed in the bathroom mirror that my smile had changed colour, from weathered magnolia to pure brilliant white: I had actually bleached my front teeth by baring them to the sun all day, Rooney to Clooney in a month.

Moore commits–fully, completely–to the bit, as they say.

Some of the funniest passages are food related. Moore documents what any touring cyclist will recognize as the quest for calories–of any kind at all. At a gas station, he reports on his efforts:

There, in the shadow of a refuelling tractor, I struggled to ingest four bags of cheese puffs. It was all the apologetic attendant could offer me to eat, and as I wanly crunched through smelly handfuls of air and yellow dust, it felt as if the process was expending more calories than it replaced. I should have asked him to chew them up and spit the slurry into my mouth, like a loving mother bird.

Despite his exquisite and hilarious suffering, Moore is well aware of how much better he has it than the riders of 1941 did. His graphic depiction of the grueling realities of the 1941 Vuelta are eye-opening, especially when he explains how little food the cyclists were operating on as they rode these outrageously long stages. These were known as the Years of Hunger in Spain; people starved and infant mortality was shockingly high. In 1942, at the beginning of Stage 3, the riders were offered no food at all; there just wasn’t any. Old film footage shows “barefoot and cadaverous” spectators along the road. People ate whatever they could get their hands on. Police patrolled orchards along the race route to prevent cyclists from raiding fruit. 

I fondly recall laughing my arse off, as Moore might say, reading the Tour de France book two decades back. And then, more than a decade later, being surprised by how the Italy book was even better–funnier and more insightful, with a sharper focus on a particular race (1914) as opposed to the broader institution of the Tour over time. Now, somehow Moore has topped that. The Vuelta may be the least popular of the grand tours, but Moore’s book about it may well be the best of the three.

What’s next for Moore, in terms of cycling adventures? He kind of had to write this book to complete the Grand Tour trilogy, so perhaps he’ll consider that the conclusion of his bicycle-travel-writing phase. That would be going out at the top of his game, for sure. But I’d like to think that if Moore comes across another perfect cycling story–and it doesn’t have to be a bike racing one; there are plenty of bike-travel stories that he could apply his schtick to as well–he’ll get back in the saddle. We can only hope.


  1. Oh Jasper! ".. . a sweaty fat toddler hanging on to my shoulders, then wetting himself." ".. spit the slurry into my mouth, like a loving mother bird." Hilarious! I want to read these books!

  2. Oh, now I need to read it again! Wonderful review.


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