A bike race runs through it

The complicated history of La Vuelta

Bicycle racing has a long, winding history in Spain. The Volta a Catalunya was first held in 1911. The Euskal Herriko Itzulia, or Tour of the Basque Country, was founded in 1924. In those regions especially, the sport was very popular. The Vuelta a España was not founded until 1935 though—decades after France and Italy’s first grand tours.

Its originators, journalists from the newspaper Informaciones, hoped to emulate the success of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia and boost their publication’s circulation. There was much more at stake though. In 1935, Spain was a deeply divided country.

Split between left-leaning republicans who supported the then democratic government and right-wing nationalists who abhorred it, the country was also torn along regional lines. Cycling hotbeds, Catalonia and the Basque Country were also hotbeds of republicanism. Their people, who spoke their own languages and who were fiercely proud of their cultures, had been promised a degree of self-rule by the democratic government.

Informaciones was nationalist. Based in Madrid and subsidized by the German Nazi party, it was the main organ for pro-fascist voices in 1930s Spain. Its editor, Juan Pujol Martínez, edited General José Sanjurjo’s manifesto for his failed 1932 coup d’etat and regularly pushed Nazi propaganda in the paper’s pages. By organizing the first Vuelta a España, he and his colleagues meant to unify Spain under the nationalist flag.

There were practical concerns though. As much as Informaciones intended to present a vision of a strong and consolidated Spain, most of the country had fallen into disrepair. The roads were bad, and lodging did not get much better than straw beds in a barn. Still, the race went ahead. Belgian Gustaaf Deloor won the 14-stage, 3,425-km event, after a close duel with Spaniard Mariano Cañardo. Deloor repeated his feat the next year.

Just a few weeks after his 1936 victory, the Spanish Civil War erupted, when General Francisco Franco lead an armed uprising by nationalist forces.

The fighting was brutal. By the end, well over a million people had been killed, tortured, or imprisoned. Franco’s nationalist forces won the war. As soon as it was over, the dictator immediately began purging his remaining enemies, executing tens of thousands and forcing many more into prisons and concentration camps. For close to four decades, he would rule Spain with an iron fist. Economic modernization and political liberalization would be held back. Faced with authoritarian rule, Spaniards had no choice but to accommodate themselves to the regime.

That is the context in which the Vuelta was reborn.

Races were held in 1941 and ’42. Though Franco ensured that Spain remained nominally neutral during World War II, by the middle of the war, the economic situation in the country was so poor that organizing a bike race had become impossible. The next years’ editions had to be cancelled. In 1945, a new paper, the Francoist Diario Ya, tried its hand, and managed to get the race on the road for the next four years, and one more time in 1950, before calling it quits. In 1955, El Correo, a conservative paper with links to the regime, took over. The Vuelta a España has been raced every year since.

Nevertheless, through the late 1950s and 1960s, the Vuelta a España remained very much a poor cousin of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia. Not yet a full three-week race, it was held at the end of April and start of May and often conflicted with the more prestigious Giro. While Italy was in the throes of its economic miracle and France was nearing the peaks of its 30 glorious years, Spain was restrained by the Francoist regime. During the 1960s, economic liberalization was finally allowed to take place, and people’s living standards improved rapidly, though they remained lower than other Western Europeans’. Below the surface, Spain’s divisions continued to simmer.

Meanwhile, the Vuelta became more popular and acquired more international prestige. Jacques Anquetil won the race in 1963. Raymond Poulidor won it a year later. Jan Janssen and Felice Gimondi won it before the decade was out. Still, it was never fully embraced by Spaniards—especially not by cycling-mad Catalans and Basques.

The race was often disrupted by violence with Basque separatists, who saw it as an instrument of the central government, which had imprisoned and tortured their politicians and banned their language and many of their customs, including many of their beloved bike races. What began with spreading oil and tacks on the road lead to bombings and battles with police in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Though Franco died in 1975, and King Juan Carlos was convinced to institute a democratic constitution in 1978, which lead to Spain’s joining of the European Economic Community as a fully-fledged democracy in 1986, the Vuelta did not return to the Basque Country until 2011 for fear of further violence.

By then, it was a very different race.

The whole country had united behind Spanish cycling stars such as Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain during the 1980s and 1990s. Indurain, a Basque, was one of Spain’s greatest heroes. He’d won five Tours de France, the Giro d’Italia twice, a world time trial title, and Olympic gold medal to national acclaim. During the 2000s, Spanish riders such as Roberto Heras, Alejandro Valverde, Samuel Sanchez, and Alberto Contador had dominated the Vuelta—and most of cycling’s greatest races—to nationwide support.

The Vuelta had been taken over by Unipublic, a sports marketing agency now owned by the Amaury Sports Organisation, which also runs the Tour de France. In 1995, it had finally been moved to its present place on the calendar—in September, ahead of the world championships. Spectacular courses, which showed off the beautiful Spanish countryside and its steepest mountains, had made the race competitive with the French and Italian grand tours. It was often the best of them to watch.

During that 2011 Vuelta, Catalan Joaquim Rodriguez won two important mountain-top finishes. Spanish cycling fans from all over the country cheered him on. Despite the stresses and strains brought about by the financial crisis, Spanish federalism was still holding up. The Vuelta a España had united the country, though it was a very different country to the one its founders had imagined.

The Vuelta beings again this Saturday. The race will wind along the coast and by the tourists on holiday, through the sun-bleached buildings and then up , high into the green hills and bald mountains. Its history may be slightly complicated, but it is a truly magnificent bike race, one whose latest chapter we can’t wait to read.