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From Inside Peloton: Riding for Freedom

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When the riders roll out of Vitoria-Gasteiz on stage 14 of this year’s Vuelta a España, they may be thinking about the feelings in their legs, the road rash on their hips, next year’s contract, or the chances of making their nation’s world championships squad. They may be thinking about a new playlist on Spotify, or whether they’ve got a chance with that blonde podium girl. It’s probably reasonable to assume most of the peloton will not be thinking about the nuances of the Spanish political identity.

Words: Paul Maunder
Illustrations: Matthew Burton

And yet, Vitoria-Gasteiz, as the capital city of the Basque Autonomous Community, does have powerful historical associations. Today, it is a prosperous city, and the Basque region as a whole is reinventing itself. From post-industrial dereliction, Bilbao has become a 21st-century cultural destination. Glossy travel magazines write articles outlining your trendy weekend in the city. But this transformation is recent and Spain is a country conscious of its past.

Since 2011, after a long break, the Vuelta has consistently visited the Basque Country, and this seems perfectly logical—Basques are fanatical about cycling, the terrain is challenging, and the landscapes beautiful. Before 2011 however, the Vuelta did not visit the Basque Country for 33 years. To understand why, we need to turn to Pablo Picasso.


Guernica, Picasso’s most famous painting, depicts the bombing of this Basque town in 1937. The air raid was delivered by Germany’s Luftwaffe, but sponsored by General Franco as part of the Spanish Civil War. Franco sought to bring all parts of Spain under the stamp of his dictatorship. The Basque and Catalan regions were most resistant, and he was uncompromising in his oppression of them. Guernica, though a relatively small town, was symbolic for the Basque people as the ancient center of their national identity. It also occupied a strategic position in the area, standing between the frontline of Franco’s Nationalist troops and the city of Bilbao. The deaths of hundreds of defenseless civilians in that bombing raid marked an important moment in the Basque struggle for freedom.

Having run its first edition in 1935, the Vuelta a España wasn’t held from 1937 to 1940 because of the Civil War. Franco reinstated the race in 1941 and used it as a vehicle to promote his Nationalist vision of a united Spain. But Spain, pariah of Europe and far from a modern nation, was anything but united. Only through the threat and use of force did Franco retain power.

In the 1960s, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (“Basque Homeland and Freedom”) became the public face of Basque nationalism. ETA, as it was known, declared war on Franco and from the outset was prepared to use terrorist violence. It wasn’t long before cycling got drawn into the struggle for freedom.

In 1967, ETA mounted its first sabotage attack on the Vuelta, covering the descent of the Sollube with oil and nails. Over the following years, the group bombed the race route whenever it came into the region, and sent death threats to Basque riders who they thought were not acting in the interests of other Basque riders. The Vuelta organizers, under pressure from Franco, continued sending the race into the region, and refused to bend to ETA’s demands. For Franco, it was an important statement that the Vuelta was truly a national race, and to omit the Basque Country would have been to admit defeat.


In the years after Franco’s death in 1975, as the fledgling Spanish democracy started to emerge, the Vuelta’s relationship with the Basque Country grew ever more tense. Sensing that their campaign was entering a critical period, ETA escalated its activities. The 1977 race, which had a final week routed through the Basque Country, including Bilbao, became a focal point for nationalist protests and violence. In a few heated days, the subsequent repressions by the truncheon-bearing Guardia Civil left six people dead, dozens injured and dozens imprisoned. Naturally this only intensified the rebellion. In the major cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian, there were barricades in the streets, Molotov cocktails thrown at police and vehicles set alight. San Sebastian became a city under siege, and this were only a few days before it was supposed to host the final weekend of the Vuelta. Under an armed police escort, the Vuelta peloton weaved a course through the carnage, and it was perhaps fortunate that the race that year was dominated by a Belgian, Freddy Maertens. The organizers decided not to send the race into San Sebastian and instead ended the race with a short stage to Miranda de Ebro. Even this new location wasn’t without political significance—it had once been home to one of Franco’s concentration camps.

In 1978, a new constitution gave the Basques the autonomous status that they still have today. ETA’s activities continued and, either through courage or naiveté, the Vuelta organizers again sent the race into the region. This time the protests were muted but still disruptive. The patience of the organizers ran out. After the 1978 edition they vowed never to return to the Basque Country.

It proved to be a wise decision for both sides. Free of the stress that a visit to the region entailed, the new Vuelta organizer, Unipublic, could set about building its race into the true grand tour that we see today. During the ’70s many riders saw it as a third-rate race, only good for training miles. After his 1977 victory, Freddy Maertens remarked that the Vuelta, then held in the spring, had been excellent training for the Giro d’Italia, though I think we can forgive him for being less than fulsome in his praise for the race considering the atmosphere it had generated.

The Vuelta gradually built its reputation, and at the same time the Spanish teams began to rediscover their pride. In 1985, British viewers looked on in horror as Spanish teams combined to work over Robert Millar and give the victory to national hero Pedro Delgado. For Spaniards, the story was a triumph of national identity. No longer would the local teams fight among themselves to the point of losing the race to an outsider, as happened in 1977.

Meanwhile, the Basques set about building upon their autonomy. The Tour of the Basque Country was restarted and, in 1982, the Clásica San Sebastian was created. Both races were sponsored by a Basque newspaper, El Diario Vasco, and this meant that the races were able to be run without financial assistance from outside the region. Free of the fear that Franco’s men would throw them in jail, Basque riders began to openly express their political positions. The darling of the Basque fans during the ’80s was Marino Lejarreta, double winner of the Clásica San Sebastian. Lejarreta had a long and hard-working career, and after retirement he helped to establish a national professional team for the Basque Country, Euskadi.

The ’90s were a period when the Basque Country could embrace a positive assertion of its identity, and the locals did it through cycling. As Delgado faded from the sport, a failed doping test tainting his reputation, a new, more solid hero emerged: Miguel Induráin. The quiet man from Villava, near Pamplona, embodied the Basque ideal of a humble yet powerful working man—even though Pamplona is strictly not in the Basque region. He was pious, devoted to his family and to his sport, and he won bike races. Indeed he won the Tour de France five times and the Giro twice. Despite never winning the Vuelta, the whole of Spain adored Big Mig.

At the same time, the Euskadi-Euskaltel team was growing both in terms of its sporting achievement and its moral position. Its founders say they never had any intention of either supporting or contradicting ETA’s message, but the team did become the positive face of Basque nationalism. From the ’80s onwards, ETA, however, justified its original opposition to Franco’s oppression, became increasingly marginalized. The group’s continuing terrorism alienated the majority of Basques, and during the ’90s its campaign fragmented. A series of tentative ceasefires followed, culminating in 2010 with a definitive ceasefire that still holds today.


It would be far-fetched to claim that Euskadi-Euskaltel was responsible for bringing ETA’s violence to a halt. But the team, with its exclusively Basque lineup and its plucky racing philosophy, did contribute to the “orange tide”—which created astonishing scenes during Tour de France’s Pyrenean stages when Basque fans, vastly outnumbered, thronged in their thousands to cheer on their countrymen.

Remember the 2001 Tour de France, with its battles between Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich? For Basques, that race was not about the American and the German. It was about stage 14 to Luz-Ardiden. In years past, they had seen Delgado and Induráin cement their Tour victories on this famous Pyrenean climb close to the Spanish border. Now the mountain was packed with Basque fans clad in orange T-shirts, going crazy as a rider from Euskadi-Euskaltel climbed toward the stage win. Robert Laiseka rode for the team for his entire 13-year pro career. This was the biggest moment of that career, and for all the team’s other successes, it’s still stands as the culmination of the Euskadi ideal. Why was this one victory so special? It may have something to do with where Laiseka was born—a town called Guernica. 

From Issue 44.

Paul Maunder on Twitter: @PMaunderpaul

Matthew Burton on Twitter: @matthew__burton