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Book review: Vuelta Skelter: Riding the Remarkable 1941 Tour of Spain, by Tim Moore

13 Aug 2021

A compelling mix of comedy and tragedy that will appeal to all lovers of Spain and/or cycling

Cyclist Rating: 
The perfect reading accompaniment to this year's Vuelta
Could have done with a more detailed route map

If the Vuelta was your blind date, you’d be looking yearningly across the room at its Grand Tour siblings.

While the Tour is a global celebrity and the Giro is renowned for its beauty, the Vuelta is the runt of the litter. As the youngest of the three, it’s often been treated as an inconvenient afterthought, struggling to attract any foreign riders of note in its early years and shifted around on the race calendar ever since.

It even disappeared completely for five years when it couldn’t find any sponsors after a threadbare peloton of only 42 completed the 1949 edition.

In 1960, Spain’s leading sports daily Marca declared the race muerte after only 24 riders from a field of 80 completed a route that included stages exceeding 260 km in length.

But it was the 1941 Vuelta, with the smallest ever field of just 32 riders, that captured the imagination of author Tim Moore when he was looking for a new project in the midst of last year’s coronavirus lockdown.

This third edition of the race was organised by the new Nationalist government’s Department of Education and Leisure as “The Tour of a Nation Reborn” just two years after hundreds of thousands had died – many in the most cruel and arbitrary of circumstances – during the Spanish Civil War.

Spain’s most famous rider at the time, Julián Berrendero, had just been released after 18 months in a succession of concentration camps (and only after a friendly guard and amateur cyclist recognised him from his exploits both in Spain and at the Tours of 1936 and 1937). He was welcomed by race director Manuel Serdan – a sadistic Nationalist lackey who penalised riders for drinking too much water – with the ominous words, “Now let us see what has resulted from his purification.”

For Moore, who had previously ridden the routes of the 2000 Tour and “very terrible 1914 Giro” for his books French Revolutions and Gironimo!, the story of the 1941 Vuelta and Berrendero’s part in it was too good to resist.

After searching various Spanish marketplaces online, he finds a mint-condition 1970s, Campagnolo-equipped racing bike that was produced by Julián Berrendero’s own bike shop in Madrid.

After an antibody test confirms that Moore has had Covid – “at least I could now travel round Spain confident that I wouldn’t be getting it, or spreading it” - he decides to ride the 4,442 kilometres of the longest ever Vuelta on his newly-acquired machine.

The result is Vuelta Skelter, a 324-page account of his escapade that brilliantly, comically and movingly captures the three distinct threads that bind his journey: the 1941 race itself; the civil war; and the Coronavirus pandemic.

Buy Vuelta Skelter by Tim Moore now from Waterstones

These are tough props to work with.

In French Revolutions, Moore could make fun of all the razzmatazz surrounding the biggest bike race in the world; in Gironimo! he could plunder the peculiar histories and skulduggeries of some of the protagonists of the 1914 Giro.

But there are few laughs to be found in the Spanish Civil War, which claimed half a million lives and saw Spain become a pariah nation ruled by a dictator until the 1970s.

Almost every place Moore visits during his ride is haunted by atrocity. There is no voyeuristic relish, just the sense of his stomach turning as he details unspeakable acts of cruelty. “A Portuguese correspondent,” he writes, “was so haunted by what he witnessed that he wound up in a Lisbon mental asylum.”

Nor is Moore’s adopted hero a barrel of laughs either. Berrendero was a tragic, solitary figure who nursed bitter grievances against his rivals. Asked shortly before his death in 1995 who he wanted to thank for their support during his career, he replied: “Do me a favour and print this in large letters: nobody.”

An unexpected revelation about him near the end of the book is a jolt for both author and reader.

Buy Vuelta Skelter by Tim Moore now from Waterstones

Then there is the pandemic. Anyone who has spent time in Spain knows that its people love nothing more than gathering in crowds, making a loud noise and invading each other’s personal space. Now they are forced to wear masks, limit socialising and keep their distance from each other.

Yet against all the odds of working with such material, Moore manages to concoct a tale that oozes warmth and wit.

If he can’t find any laughs in the story of Juan Bermejo, the “Killer Priest of Zafra” who boasted of killing more than 100 anti-fascists, he perfectly addresses the dilemma of every cyclist who has wondered whether they should go down to the hotel breakfast buffet in their bib shorts or not: “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, now that I have your attention I’d like to introduce you all to my genitals.”

While he despairs at the tenuous reason Berrendero was deprived of his liberty and racing license for 18 months – his “crime” was to have had his name included in a report of the 1937 Tour that was published in the Spanish Communist Party newspaper – he celebrates the eloquence and eccentricity of one of the journalists who was following the 1941 Vuelta in an “aged Fiat piloted with wayward elan by Corporal Pastor of the transport corps” and fuelled by a diet of cider and vermouth.

Ramón Torres was a former “billiard and bullfighting correspondent” who didn’t cover cycling until he was “pushing forty” but who would always ride a race’s most brutal climb himself “so he could understand what the riders went through.”

Between the horrors of war, the suffering of the riders – they had to start one stage on empty stomachs because “this was an era when cats and dogs were a rare sight on Spanish streets: they’d either died of hunger or gone into a casserole” – and the frustrations of the pandemic, Moore weaves his own story of riding a 50-year-old bicycle on a lap of Spain.

He bonks, he is stopped by the police for not wearing a helmet, he gets lost because he accidentally entered his route as a “Hike” on his SatNav, and he pleads innocence and mercy at every linguistic, cultural and culinary obstacle he encounters with the catch all plea, “Lo siento, soy Ingles.”

Buy Vuelta Skelter by Tim Moore now from Waterstones

Revisiting a period of unimaginable tragedy while living in the period of a deadly pandemic was a tall order. For Moore to have found humour and humanity amongst the horror is a testament to his skills and sensitivity as a writer.

Vuelta Skelter: Riding the Remarkable 1941 Tour of Spain, is published by Jonathan Cape on 12 August.


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