Book Review: Vuelta Skelter

Vuelta Skelter, by Tim Moore

A raucous tale of re-riding the 1941 Vuelta a España that has plenty of comedy… and a darker side.

Tim Moore is no stranger to grand tours. He started with “French Revolutions, Cycling the Tour de France”, later wrote “Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy” and both are hilarious accounts.

French Revolutions relied on the ineptitude of Moore as a cyclist as the crux, at times he was merciless with France but he was often the butt of his own jokes, a tirade of self-deprecation. With a bit of experience, Moore’s made things harder for himself covering the Giro’s 1914 route on a bike from the period too, no gears and barely any brakes either.

Now the slapstick continues with a lap of Spain. While at times mocking others along the way, Moore seems to know he is the outsider and is ruthless with himself. He buys some “golf trousers” on the advice of a cycling forum as they’re lightweight to pack and don’t crease meaning he’s got something elegant to pull out of his bike bag for the evenings but soon realises he’s not so much Rory McIlroy striding down the 18th as “Angela Merkel approaching a lectern”.

Moore’s journey around contemporary Spain, albeit during the 2020 Covid pandemic, wouldn’t be fun if it was easy. So he opts to ride a retro bike and do it in the heat of summer:

The road pitched up the drawn-out Cuesta de la Media Fanega. It wasn’t hideously steep, but it was hideously hot. My bidons, decontaminated overnight in hotel shower gel, were now as squidgy and flaccid as Dali’s floppy clocks: the merest squeeze dispatched a mighty jet of warm, soapy bathwater down my gullet

The old bike is a 1970s Berrendero with Campagnolo parts, a bike that proved hard to acquire, let alone pedal. It’s a tribute Julián Berrendero, winner of the 1941 Vuelta a España, and Moore sets off to ride the route of that edition and tell the story of Berrendero. He won the Tour de France’s mountains competition in 1936 only to get imprisoned at the end of the Spanish civil war, probably for no good reason. Moved from one internment camp to the next, a stroke of luck: a prison officer turns out to be a fellow cyclist and before long Berrendero finds himself nourished, freed and starting the 1941 Vuelta, the first after wartime hiatus.

Embed from Getty Images

This event is organised by the newly-installed Franco regime for propaganda purposes and has just 32 starters, the country was almost closed to outsiders, and few wanted to visit given the dilapidated roads and food shortages. This is where Moore’s manic slapstick ends as the backdrop of the Spanish civil war and the establishment of the Franco dictatorship means he often arrives in town to Google the place name plus guerra civil to find what grim discovery awaits and also draws on British historians. Such is the brutality of the civil war that Moore often resorts to making light of it. Here’s Moore on General José Moscardó who was appointed to run the reprised 1941 Vuelta:

After Nationalist reinforcements broke the siege [of Toledo], Moscardó swiftly directed their attention to his Republican hostages. All 130 patients in the fortress’s hospital had their throats slit, including 20 pregnant women. A further 180 Republican militiamen were locked in the seminary and burned alive. As the indiscretions of a sports administrator, these rather put Sepp Blatter’s in the shade.

This can ease the horrors but it means the story goes from struggling with a derailleur one in one paragraph to civilian killing fields the next, interspersed by accounts of the 1941 Vuelta and often jolting effect.

Sometimes these three threads weave together. Riding past an idyllic castle as part of his 1941 route recreation, Moore makes a note to Google the place later… and finds it was requisitioned by the Condor Legion, the Nazi unit that bombed Guernica.

As we’ve all learned, the deadly influenza pandemic in 1918 was sometimes unfairly called “Spanish flu” because censorship restrictions meant the wave of deaths were suppressed in many countries, leading to reports coming from Spain. Whatever the label, more died from this virus than in the 1914-1918 war yet it was an episode almost largely forgotten from public consciousness until Covid appeared. It’s a reminder that memory, individual and collective, can be selective. Moore also evokes this, to mention the civil war in conversation brings “shrugs and mumbles, as that guerra civil omertà brought the shutters down once more.” This is just Moore’s account but his message is that many want to forget this part of Spain’s history. It’s understandable but there’s the sense today, even more than in 2020 when Moore was riding that to forget the past is to re-enable the conditions that led to the very things we want to attribute to the past. To read of the horrors in the book is one thing, the uneasy feeling that they can happen again is awkward and lingers longer than than the comedy, our smartphones might allow us to carry the world’s libraries about in a pocket but it can be more profitable for some if we deploy them as digital pitchforks.

However the further you read the more there is about cycle touring and Vuelta history, there are even stats that might be new to many. Amid the often merciless portrait of Berrendero as more than just a determined racer, Moore also displays some admiration and even ventures why the Spaniard was often so steely and thorny with others.

Moore does have his moments with people along the way and some Spanish readers could prickle but only just, the brief section about Italians might win some around… or see the book hurled away.

This book was published two years ago and I got a PDF review copy just days before my laptop developed a fault that many reports said would lead to it catching fire. Panicked like a hypochondriac diagnosing an illness online, I rushed the laptop off for repair and the book review didn’t make it in time for the Vuelta that year. Reading the book in 2023 lends an extra resonance, the pandemic Moore describes is a now memory yet authoritarian rule doesn’t feel like it quite belongs to history as populist politicians the world already rule and more might only be an election away from power in many places, and then they’re only a wardrobe change away from khaki uniforms.

The Verdict
Superficially the story of an idiot riding around Spain for comic effect, and enjoyable for this because no matter how hard a time you might be having on the bike, Moore has it worse.

The book covers plenty of the 1941 Vuelta and Berrendero’s career, including his brief but disastrous spell as Spanish team jefe for Federico Bahamontes. Yet it’s also about much deeper issues. Like a jester who uses humour to raise points in the royal court that other advisors to the king could not say aloud, Moore evokes a disturbing recent past, here it is Spain through the prism of the 1941 Vuelta but take your pick from many other countries.

  • A PDF copy was sent free for review by the publishers Penguin.

More book reviews at

38 thoughts on “Book Review: Vuelta Skelter”

  1. Thanks Inrng. Sounds like an intriguing read. Humorous cycling books are fairly few and far between, or tend to be aimed at spectators outside looking in (sniggering at fat men in Lycra etc).

    • There are moments when he’s mocking himself as a cyclist, coming down to the hotel breakfast in his lycra shorts and spotting the reaction of other guests, or riding up a mountain in bad weather knowing what those sat in their cars passing might think but most often he’s not laughing at others and more inviting us to laugh at him, and often not so much an invitation as a gold ticket and a red carpet for the reader.

    • The opening weekend’s quote/Tweet from Spanish cycling writer Sergi López-Egea that all that was missing from the start was a “plague of locusts” seems even more prophetic given the biblical flooding in Spain, and keeping with Moore’s prose too.

  2. Can tell I’m not feeling well! Can’t believe I put ‘Inrng’ as my handle. Many apologies.
    My sudden thought was ‘what next?’ For Mr Moore? It would have to be Gino Bartali’s 1937 Giro….or Pantani’s 1998 win….

    • Feel free to do a Vuelta rest day blog post. 😉

      Will amend the name above to avoid confusion.

      He’s driven across the USA in a Model T Ford and cycled the length of the old Iron Curtain on an East German shopping bike. I think the US example might suggest he’s had enough with cycling, arguably Vuelta Skelter is his most cycling related book, the third grand tour and with it the accumulated knowledge of what it takes to do a grand tour under his own steam as he becomes a sort of Bill Bryson, only tasked with observing his woes more than the country at large. He’s mentioned riding across China on a cast iron bike though…

  3. Ah, I love this writer — thanks for bringing this up. If you haven’t read it, the one where he walks a donkey across northern Spain is a classic.

  4. Thanks for the review – sounds like a good read. The best and the worst of people are often found in the same story and sometimes even in the same place.

  5. “Angela Merkel approaching a lectern” prompted me to request this from the library!

    (He sounds a bit like Redmond O’Hanlon, perhaps moreso than Bill Bryson, though I’ve not read Tim Moore yet. If you don’t know O’Hanlon’s work “Congo Journey” (or No Mercy! in the US) is hilarious, if perhaps a bit neocolonialist…O’Hanlon gets himself into lots of trouble, some of which would terrify me…)

  6. Got it for my birthday this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Some laugh-out-loud moments, usually when he follows a passage of eloquent prose with terse, colloquial profanity (“Small ring up front, biggest at the back: this was as good as it was going to get, and it was shit”). It also made me realise how little I knew about the a Spanish civil war, so I’m now reading ‘Ghosts of Spain’ to learn more. It certainly helps put Spanish politics (and Vuelta stages) into context!

      • Just finished Antony beevor’s the battle for Spain. I’d recommend.
        Not a big fan of Mr. Orwell. Barely mentions the fact his missus was working at POUM hq at the time and has his own political axe to grind. Road to wigan pier really put me off him:southern bourgeois public schoolboy comes up north and tells the northern working class how they should live.

        • What a peculiar interpretation of Orwell, a man who struggled publicly with the inherent contradiction of being brought up within the imperial machine while being hugely sceptical of its contradictions. Still, he shot at fascists for real and they shot back. And he was right about the Sagrada Familia, that heap of hate (see also the equally contentious Sacre Coeur) should have been blown up when the anarchists had their chance.

        • I hate to be such a contrarian but that’s really not what Road to Wigan Pier is like. It’s a journalistic account, not didactic. Besides, half of it is not even about Wigan.

          Tim Moore is an entertaining writer – his book about staying at each of the squares on the monopoly board is worth reading, though nothing to do with cycling.

          • That one was genius- several (well, two) writer friends of mine were jealous of him for coming up with a great idea that cost nothing in travel expenses beyond an LT travelcard.

          • The only thing that I have retained from that book is his description of waddling in the squat position for some interminable distance just to get to the coal face.

  7. Mr Moore is responsible for both my addiction to Gazpacho and my changed perception of Crickets. Like them, I loved this fabulous book. You too, can metamorphose from Rooney to Clooney by reading it.

  8. TV commentators complaining that they stopped Stage 9 too early. You reap what you sow: you all supported the riders incorrect protest about Stage 2 being too slippery. And now the organisers are being over-cautious.

    • People in and around the sport supposedly worried about “how hard to understand is it all to the novice”, please run a theatrical test show of st. 9 finale and ask spectators what about it, or just an abstract of sort on what was actually happening on screen. Inland Empire would receive better reviews and above all a clearer summary.
      You can also ask about TV-production quality.

      I used to be a huge Vuelta fan, and still am under many respects. Moreover, although this year’s course was a little step back of sort, the route design had been improving steadily and notably through the last 5-6 editions, after some dubious trends had set in with too much strength.
      But this…
      Is ASO making this terrible on purpose just to prove that only the TDF is worth anything? -____-

      (RCS are already taking care of the Giro, the Lombardia or Mi-To by themselves…)

  9. I had the pleasure of working with Tim Moore on a story in Spain just before he published this book – he is excellent company and a fantastic writer. I bought Vuelta Skelter for my father who enjoyed it immensely. Great to see it reviewed here.

  10. I know our host isn’t fond of stirring the pot or posts that may lead the comments to break down into bickering. But at some point someone is going to have to raise the subject of the Gewiss 1994 level of dominance a team is achieving this year.

    • I can see your point – and we’ve no idea.
      However, Roglic and Kuss have been very good for many years, and Kuss previously has only been allowed to ride as a domestique.
      It’s unusual for a team to put their two best grand tour riders in one race, plus they’re not up against the very best opposition, as they might be in a Tour de France.
      Vingegaard is probably the best grand tour rider in the world right now, Roglic is surely in the top 5 (unlike anyone else in this race) and Kuss was allowed to take minutes in a break on one stage.
      Ergo, it’s not that surprising that these three riders are dominating the race, even if they are on the same team.

      • And the Tour of Britain…

        If they were signing established superstars and forming a dream team I’d be less inclined to doubt. But none of the three you mentioned have ever ridden for anyone else.

        You know when you look at the 1970s and think ‘how did people not know about Jimmy Savile?!’ People might look back and think that about cycling fans of the 2020s.

        • I’m always a ‘don’t know’ until there’s evidence – because anybody could be doing it (look at Pogacar’s incredible performances to give just one example).
          I knew about Savile (as so many did) at the time (well, the early 2000s – it was on Popbitch, for god’s sake), just as I did with the dopers of the 90s and 00s, because the knowledge of both of these things was so widespread. If it turns out that today’s riders are all at it, I won’t feel like I’ve been duped because I don’t believe that they’re clean (I just also don’t believe that they’re dirty).
          And it’s not like these JV riders have come from nowhere, suddenly going from ‘rubbish’ to ‘brilliant’.

      • People said the same about Sky/Ineos. Did they just stop using dope because they’re near terrible now on a relative basis? I think the better question is why did JV send the A team to the C grand tour. Also, Soler is top 6, which says something about the competition.

        • I suppose there are some key differences between JV and Sky. Sky dominated the Tour, and also were a force at the Vuelta without ever dominating it. They didn’t win the Giro until they stopped winning other races. You could never say they dominated one day races or sprints either, though they did have success there too. JV this year are going to win all 3 Grand Tours, which no team has ever done before, as will as being a dominant team in the Classics (taking on two great riders who often beat them) and dominating the minor stage races.

          • “They didn’t win the Giro until they stopped winning other races.”

            They won both the 2018 and 2019 TdF which followed Froome’s 2018 Giro win. Not saying that proves or disproves anything, but just for the record.

  11. Half-way through this now and wanted to say: excellent read. He’s way better than Redmond O’Hanlon. So much more interest in the various histories that inhabit the places he passes through and the little vignettes about Berrendero that appear at regular intervals are great.

    • I meant to add: imagine if we had commentators on TV who gave the history of towns the race passes through like Moore does…it’d be something different than the occasional mention of a castle or church or ski area…

  12. There are some key differences between JV and Sky: evidence of drug use.
    Wiggins won the TdF on a PED (triamcinolone) that he only took before the three grand tours he was trying to win 2011-13, for allergies that occurred at different times of the year (coinciding with those grand tours).
    Froome came from nowhere, apparently having suffered a multitude of different illnesses. And he failed a drug test, before being acquitted unlike any other rider who had failed that drug test.
    Then, there were all the testosterone patches that were for ‘non-riding staff’ and all the corticosteroids that were for ‘non-riding staff’.
    Not to mention Henao’s biological passport anomalies that were going to be explained in a scientific paper – but never were.
    Froome’s biological oddities regarding the way his body supposedly processes salbutamol were also never explained.
    And then there are all the other things involving their doctor.
    Maybe not the best comparison to make!

Comments are closed.