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.
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.
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.
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