New book explores the history of the Spanish Vuelta

Surrender? Never! Kill my son instead: General’s cold-blooded sacrifice of his own child during Spain’s Civil War is one of many savage acts brought to life in a history of the Vuelta, the country’s famous cycle race, which starts tomorrow

  • Tim Moore released third book in his trilogy about cycling Grand Tours of Europe 
  • Discusses dark history of the Vuelta Skelter and its roots in the Spanish Civil War
  • Tells tale of Alcazar commander General Moscardo who let Republican forces kill his son when they asked him to surrender

BOOK OF THE WEEK

ALTON VUELTA SKELTER  

by Tim Moore (Cape, £20, 336pp) 

General Jose Moscardo was not your typical sports administrator. A highly religious Spanish grandee who committed to Franco’s Nationalist forces in the savage early days of the Spanish Civil War, his name will forever be associated with an eye-watering act of brutality.

In 1936, General Moscardo was the commander of the Alcazar fortress in Toledo, which was under siege from anti-Franco Republican forces. In a skirmish, his 24-year-old son was captured and held hostage by the Republicans, who telephoned Moscardo to inform him that unless he surrendered, they would kill his son.

Moscardo demanded his son be put on the line. ‘Boy, commend your soul to God and die like a patriot,’ he shouted. His son was shot on the spot.

When Franco’s troops broke the siege a couple of months later to liberate the fortress, Moscardo’s attention turned to the Republicans. All 130 patients in the hospital had their throats slit, including 20 pregnant women. A further 180 Republican militia were locked in the seminary and burned alive.

One other reason Moscardo’s name is still known: as a fanatical sports fan he took the career opportunities offered by Franco’s dictatorship to oversee the relaunch in 1941 of the Vuelta a Espana, cycling’s Spanish Grand Tour (though, in truth, it is the least grand of the grand tours).

In 1936, General Moscardo was the commander of the Alcazar fortress in Toledo, which was under siege from anti-Franco Republican forces. In a skirmish, his 24-year-old son was captured and held hostage by the Republicans, who telephoned Moscardo to inform him that unless he surrendered, they would kill his son. Pictured: General Moscardo holding up his other child Restitutus Alcazar, born during the siege

Eighty years on, the latest Vuelta kicks off tomorrow.

Travel writer and humorist Tim Moore has long been fascinated by big league cycling, and Vuelta Skelter is the final part of his trilogy about cycling the Grand Tours of Europe, which started with French Revolutions (about, yes, the Tour de France) and continued with Gironimo (about the Giro d’Italia, not the doomed male alpaca).

Moore, despite his self-effacing protestations to the contrary, is clearly also an indefatigable and very tough cyclist.

For Gironimo, he built a replica 100-year-old bike. And for the Vuelta, following the route of the 1941 tour, he borrowed a 40-year-old road bike, plastered with the name of Spain’s greatest cyclist, Julian Berrendero, the man who won it.

Vuelta Skelter is really three books in one. It’s the story of Moore’s own epic 2,760-mile, lung-busting, thigh-wrenching journey, making his way around the country in searing heat amid the Covid-19 pandemic last year.

It is a rich, kaleidoscopic look at the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, a brutal conflict still (just) within living memory. And it is also a tribute to Berrendero — a tough, dour loner who refuses to give an inch, either to the mountains or to the authorities.

One other reason Moscardo’s (pictured) name is still known: as a fanatical sports fan he took the career opportunities offered by Franco’s dictatorship to oversee the relaunch in 1941 of the Vuelta a Espana, cycling’s Spanish Grand Tour (though, in truth, it is the least grand of the grand tours).

The youthful rider was part of the small Spanish team in the 1936 Tour de France. Julian (or JB, as Moore calls him) won King of the Mountains, second only to the Yellow Jersey in prestige.

Feted after the race, JB stayed in France as his homeland had begun to unravel. The Leftist Republican coalition — narrowly elected at the start of the year in what would be the last free vote for 40 years — was on the ropes.

General Franco’s Nationalist opposition and its conservative supporters were looking for a full-scale revolution.

Republican mobs stormed prisons to free communists and anarchists, while on the other side, Nationalist death squads ran amok, shooting judges and Left-wing MPs.

By the end of the 1936 Tour de France, Franco had launched a coup, controlling most of Central and Western Spain, while the Republicans still held Madrid and Barcelona. Death squads from both sides were executing enemy sympathisers by the hundred.

Simon Yates of United Kingdom and Team BikeExchange & Thomas Boudat of France during the 43rd Vuelta a Burgos 2021, Stage 5

Meanwhile JB, interviewed in France, declared himself a passionate Republican and condemned ‘the fascist aggression in my homeland’.

Three years later, in 1939, he returned home. The Civil War was over, Franco was the new dictator and JB was keen to swerve another war. He had been told it was safe to return: instead, he was arrested for his Republican sympathies and incarcerated in concentration camps, one of 900,000 Spaniards and foreign volunteers who would disappear into Franco’s vast network of prisons.

With extraordinary stoicism — or self-preservation — he subsequently only ever referred to this period as ‘a small misunderstanding’. He was released early in 1941, thanks to a camp commander who had raced against him as an amateur and recognised Spain’s greatest cyclist at morning roll call.

Three months later, JB lined up in Madrid for the start of Moscardo’s Vuelta, reinstated after a five-year hiatus and the first to be held under Franco.

And so, pausing only to give the fascist salute, a small peloton set off on the longest bicycle race in Spanish history, a route which, 79 years later, in 2020, Moore set out to repeat. For JB, the Vuelta was an opportunity to vent both his bloody-minded bitterness at the authorities who had robbed him of years of racing and his fury at his fellow riders who had escaped punishment.

For Moore it was a chance to see the legacy of the war, but also to get away from the pandemic, the hand sanitiser, the social distancing.

Moore follows the Vuelta through the lonely, hot flatlands south to Seville, the Civil War’s bloodiest killing fields.

In a simmering peasants’ revolt, farm workers had started seizing land from their aristocratic and religious overlords.

So when Franco’s African Legion, an ultra-brutal troop of vicious Moroccan mercenaries, marched north in 1936, they were given free rein to extract vengeance.

Writer Tim Moore (pictured) has released his third book in his trilogy about cycling Grand Tours of Europe

The wholesale slaughter and decapitation of agricultural workers was referred to as ‘agrarian reform’.

As a propaganda move to stamp out lingering separatist sentiments, Moscardo routed the 1941 Vuelta through the ruins of Guernica, the Basque market town flattened four years earlier by German bombers (in a dress rehearsal for World War II) and the subject of Picasso’s world-famous painting.

‘Did you do this?’ asked a Nazi officer, pointing at a photo of Picasso’s Guernica after barging into the artist’s Paris apartment.

‘No,’ said Picasso. ‘You did.’

Moore cycles into Guernica and in a moving passage wonders how, all those years before, German airmen could have looked through their bombsights at the blameless little town — it was market day in 1937 when the bombers arrived — and decided: ‘It’s time for you to die.’

Berrendero won not only that 1941 Tour but the next year’s, too, powering through the heat and over terrible surfaces. He retired from racing soon after, and briefly went into race management (with no great success) before opening a bike shop in Madrid in the time-honoured manner for retired sports people.

He died aged 83 in 1995, his death marked only perfunctorily. Moore wants to restore JB to his proper place in the ranks of cycling legends. He succeeds superbly.

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