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The Climber and the Dictator

From issue 56 (Aug 2016) • Words by Paul Maunder with illustrations from Matthew Burton

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Today, professional road racing exists in somewhat of a bubble. It’s well organized, quite well financed and on the whole it keeps itself well away from the major political concerns of the day. Which is probably a good thing—particularly for the riders. No pro bike racer wants his career affected by forces of political unrest. Yet this seclusion from the political world—we might call it the real world—is relatively recent. If we spin back through the 20th century there are numerous examples of cyclists whose careers have been affected by war, ideological conflicts or the repressive nature of autocratic governments.

Such a man was Spanish climber Julián Berrendero, a two-time winner of the Vuelta a España in the 1940s, whose story is illustrative of the tumultuous times through which he lived. Berrendero was born in April 1912 in the small community of San Agustin del Guadalix, just north of Madrid and not far from the Puerto del Navacerrada—one of the climbs where last year’s Vuelta was played out between race leader Tom Dumoulin and eventual winner Fabio Aru. Berrendero’s name has become synonymous with the way the Vuelta was conceived as a political tool.

The first Vuelta, in 1935, which had 14 stages over 3,425 kilometers, covered a considerable amount of Spain’s impressive landmass. Critically, it also included the Basque Country and Catalunya, because the race was intended to be a symbol of unification. That first Vuelta was the expansion of an existing, smaller race, the GP de la Republica, which in turn had been founded to celebrate the flight of the Spanish monarchy and the establishment of the democratic Second Republic. But, for the Spain of 1935, a unifying national stage race was a pretty farcical idea. Basques and Catalans were both pursuing their independence, the Spanish economy was fragile and the infrastructure was nonexistent.

Anyone traveling beyond the major cities found a rural Spain that would not have looked much different in the previous century. As with so many bike races, it was the vision of one man who gave the Vuelta its genesis. Juan Pujol, director of Madrid’s newspaper Informaciones, pushed past the skepticism of other sections of the media and used his newspaper to promote the Vuelta as an expression of national unity, optimism and pride.

Pujol must have been rather disappointed when a Belgian, Gustaaf Deloor won the first edition. The following year, Deloor was again a favorite, so the Spanish riders decided to work together to beat him. It was a good plan with only one major flaw: the rider they picked to spearhead their mission wasn’t good enough to beat Deloor. By the penultimate stage the chosen Spanish rider, Antonio Escuriet, was in second place behind Deloor, but well behind the strong Belgian, and not far ahead of Deloor’s older brother Alfons.

As a result, Berrendero and fellow climber Fermin Trueba decided to abandon the Spanish coalition and ride their own race. They launched a series of attacks in the mountains but only succeeding in dropping their compatriot, Escuriet, who fell back to fifth place overall. By the finish of the race in Madrid the Deloor brothers were first and second, with Berrendero in fourth. He and Trueba—one of four brothers who all raced professionally—were named traitors by some parts of the press; and though there was no political element to what Berrendero had done—he was just going about the business of bike racing—to be publicly called treacherous in those turbulent times was not desirable.

Berrendero’s riding in that Vuelta earned him an invite to the 1936 Tour de France, for which Henri Desgrange found him a place on a Luxembourg-International team. He repaid Desgrange’s faith by finishing 11th overall and winning the climbers jersey. But on July 18, while Berrendero and his fellow racers were spinning out a flat stage into Nice, a much more real and frightening event was unfolding across the Mediterranean.

That day, in Morocco, General Francisco Franco seized control of the 30,000 men of the Spanish army based in its colonies in North Africa and set about a ruthless rise to power. Aided by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, Franco’s Nationalists crossed the Mediterranean to Seville in southern Spain, and then marched on Madrid. Almost three years of bloody civil war were about to start.

Berrendero and fellow Spaniard Mariano Cañardo, who were Republicans, remained in France after the Tour. Berrendero opened a bike shop in Pau at the foot of the Pyrénées, where he continued training for the following year’s Tour—he’d win two stages and send half his prize money back to Spain for children made orphans by the conflict.

By the end of March 1939, Franco’s Nationalist troops had achieved dominance across every territory of Spain. Franco made a victory speech by radio from Madrid, and the Republicans conceded defeat. The war was over, but 36 years of repressive dictatorship were about to start. As streams of Spaniards fled over the Pyrénées into France, one man was travelling in the opposite direction. Berrendero was homesick; he wanted to go home to his family and girlfriend.

But Berrendero was a marked man, a public figure who had supported the Republican cause. As soon as he reached the Spanish border, Franco’s men arrested him and threw into a concentration camp, where he remained for 18 months. He survived the camps, which were characterized by disease, malnourishment and frequent beatings, but to what physical and mental cost? He was only 27 and should have been at the height of his cycling career.

When the Vuelta restarted in 1941, Berrendero was one of just 32 riders to take the start. Franco, wishing to convey to the public that life was returning to normality, was keen that the national tour go ahead. Protestations about the state of the roads and the lack of food for the riders were brushed aside. The Vuelta was a useful propaganda tool and the Ministry of Education & Leisure ensured that it promoted Franco’s vision of Spain, a vision based upon the Andalusian identity of devout Catholicism, bullfighting and flamenco.

With the benefit of many years’ distance, it might seem odd that Berrendero took part in a race that formed part of Franco’s propaganda. But above all Berrendero was a bike racer. He just wanted to compete. And his only chance to do so was to conform. He stood to gain nothing from withholding his entry. Indeed, when he won that 1941 Vuelta by just over a minute from his old friend and ally Trueba, Berrendero must have been pleased with the message it sent to the Nationalist regime that had imprisoned him.

Berrendero went on to win the Vuelta in 1942 before it was again paused by a conflict: World War II. In 1945 and 1946 he finished second both years, first to sprinter Delio Rodríguez and then to Dalmacio Langarica. After the war, with Mussolini and Hitler dead, Spain was the only country still with a Fascist dictatorship, and was ostracized by the international community. Its riders weren’t able to travel to foreign races, and it was not until 1949 that Berrendero got the chance to go back to the Tour de France.

It was an ignominious return. His Spanish team was disorganized and poorly equipped. Berrendero broke his rear gears on an early stage and the whole team waited for by the roadside with him, while the team car tried to get to them. They waited for 38 minutes, missed the time cut and were disqualified. As punishment for tarnishing the reputation of the nation, the Spanish federation revoked the racing licenses of all those involved. Berrendero would never race again.

Today, on a quiet leafy street in northern Madrid there’s a bike shop, Bikes Berrendero, which he established shortly after his retirement. It has thrived ever since and is now owned by the great man’s nephew.

Berrendero loved cycling and he used his experience to help others who’d ride for the Spanish national team. One was Federico Bahamontes, who credited Berrendero’s coaching to helping him develop into a formidable rider and become Spain’s first Tour winner. Last year, when Utrecht hosted the Tour’s Grand Départ, Bahamontes recalled the 1954 Tour, which opened in Amsterdam. After the team presentation six decades earlier, Bahamontes recalled, the riders were treated to a lavish communal dinner—though the members of the Spanish team were perturbed to find that Berrendero, their trainer, was fastidious about which foods they could and couldn’t eat. He was particularly vehement in his opinions about cherries. He said they’d give his riders dysentery.

Today’s stars of cycling are able to travel freely, live privileged lifestyles and are often honored by their country’s leaders. Their careers, thankfully, do not collide with war, deprivation and violence. Perhaps the experience of men such as Berrendero, whose career was so impacted by the wars of the mid-20th century. But we must never forget that freedom is fragile and being free to race your bike is something to cherish, not to be taken for granted.

From issue 56. Buy it here.