Thursday, 1 January 2009

Book Review: Viva la Vuelta

During these cold, cold days (I am not kidding: it is -19C outside right now) it is always an escape to look ahead to the warm days that will mark the 2009 racing season. And to warm up what better race is there to consider than the Vuelta a España, which will be run through the hot plains and the high mountains of Spain once again in, oh, 240 days?

A latecomer to the list of Great Stage Races, the Vuelta began only in 1935, inspired by the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France and likewise hoped by its chief sponsor as a way to sell newspapers. It has had a rollercoaster history, far more than those other two celebrated races, but if you want to find out about it there are not many places to look. English-language publishers have focused so single-mindedly on the Tour de France that it is actually rather difficult to find good books about other races. There are dozens of books about the Tour in English but a lengthy search has provided only one on the Vuelta. Viva la Vuelta was written by Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell (with a foreward by 1988 Vuelta winner Sean Kelly) and published by Mousehold Press in the United Kingdom in 2005 and is not easy to find in North America but well worth seeking out.

This small paperback is packed with a remarkable density of information in its 350 pages. Not only is each annual race covered in detail, but the authors have made an effort to provide a political and social setting behind the race. Although the race was first run in 1935 and then again in 1936 (won both times by Belgian Gustaaf Deloor), it was cancelled from 1937 to 1940 due to the Spanish Civil War. Relaunched in Franco’s Spain, it staggered through until 1943, when it was dropped due to World War II but started up again in Spring 1945. There were other cancellations due to the lack of funds or internal squabbles and it was not until 1955 that the race became an annual fixture that has continued to this day. Long considered a warm-up race for the Tour, the organizers sought to make it more competitive in 1995 by moving it from Spring to late Summer, giving those who had not done so well at the Tour a chance of redemption, as well as providing an opportunity for cyclists seeking new contracts to strut their stuff.

The flavour of the race has changed greatly over the years, according to the authors. At the beginning, it was clear that the Spanish riders were inferior and foreign riders, with their superior tactics and experience, easily dominated the race. The other element that repeats itself is the resistance of the Spanish towards working together and in many races it seems that they were more eager to compete against each other rather than win the race! Until the 1960s, Spanish racing was marked by rugged individualism rather than a willingness to stick to team discipline, with predictable results (or non-results) against powerful teams from across the Pyrenees.

Conditions sounded dreadful in some years. Following World War II, Spain was isolated diplomatically and the object of a trade embargo. Ineligible for Marshall Plan aid, the country, suffering as well from drought and crop shortages, was saved from general famine only by the assistance rendered by Argentine dictator Juan Peron. The cyclists competing in the Vuelta had difficulty finding an adequate supply of nourishment, with even potatoes becoming a rarity.

Looking over the list of winners of the Vuelta, one is struck by how few repeat winners there have been. Stars like Anquetil, Poulidor, Gimondi, Merckx and Maertens came in with their powerful teams, easily put the Spanish in their place, and swept out triumphantly, not to return. Amazingly, Maertens won more than half the stages in 1977, taking thirteen in all! Hinault, a two-time winner, did not have it quite as easy as by now the Spanish were beginning to learn about competing more seriously. Pedro Delgado’s win in 1985 was the signal that times had changed and the Iberians were now a force in international cycling, although shortly afterwards there was a string of victories by Swiss riders Tony Rominger and Alex Zűlle, followed by Frenchman Laurent Jalabert (admittedly the latter two riding for Spanish teams). Oddly enough, two of Spain’s greatest cyclists, Federico Bahamontes and Miguel Indurain, winners of the Tour de France both, never wore the gold jersey of the Vuelta leader or even won a stage in the race.

Racing on the Angliru

The Vuelta has certainly had its ups and downs over the years. Snubbed by many big names in cycling (some of whom only stayed when the rules were bent for them, to the detriment of the local riders), subject to extreme weather conditions, often struggling financially, the Vuelta has been run as an experiment in road racing, with management willing to try all sorts of new ways to attract an audience and the best riders. With wildly exciting mountain stages alternating with stupifyingly dull flat stages (sometimes run on highways!), the Vuelta has made for mixed viewing but the addition of insanely brutal climbs like the Angliru (where an angry David Miller threw his bike across the finish line in the rain) have increased the drama and the last few editions of the Vuelta have maintained the race’s tradition of unpredictability. And of course the race is populated with exciting and eccentric characters, like El Chaba, Banesto’s erratic but brilliant climber, or José Pérez Francés, called “the Rudolf Valentino of the peleton” by the Tour de France’s Jacques Goddet and greatly feared by Anquetil. Or José Manuel Fuente, who won in 1972 and 1974, who liked to attack when tactically it made no sense.

Viva la Vuelta covers all of these aspects of the race in economical prose and the reader has an excellent sense of the battles on the fabled climb on the Covadonga or during the nail-biting time trials. It concludes with detailed Appendices, covering the podium winners, as well as the points, mountain and team classification winners and even all the individual stage winners from 1935-2005.

Alberto Contador dominating the Vuelta in 2008
(photo by Koke, Creative Commons)

Ending as it does in 2005, it makes reference to Roberto Heras’ fourth victory, going on to describe the rider thus: “...serious, dependable, his victories an exercise of maturity and strong team work that once seemed beyond Spanish capabilities...” which, of course, turned out not to be the case as the Liberty Seguros cyclist was subsequently disqualified for doping, the first Grand Tour winner to be so humiliated. The rise of Alberto Contador, whose brilliant ride with Team Astana in 2008 gave him the hat-trick of Grand Tour wins (Giro, Tour and Vuelta) in only two seasons, suggests that Spanish cycling continues to have a great future ahead of it.

There is presently no American distributor for Viva la Vuelta, but copies may sometimes be obtained at However, the book is available directly from the publisher in the UK, along with a number of other interesting cycling titles. While the only current English book on the Vuelta, it should not be considered as “better than nothing” but stands out as an excellent survey of this sadly underrated race. Recommended.

“Viva la Vuelta”
by Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell
350 pp., Mousehold Press, 2005, £16.95
ISBN 1 874739 40 4
available from the publisher at:

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