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Chapter 2:

Cycle Sport Through the Franco Years 1936-1975
Franco’s Spain - cycling pariah


The fortunes of Spanish cycle sport were mixed during the Franco regime and reflected economic, national and international factors to 1975. The period after World War Two and the Cold War era, especially provide interesting parallels between Spain’s international performance of the sport and the policy directions of Franco’s regime.

The Second World War brought a halt to genuine international competition in all sports. The last pre-war Giro D’Italia was held May 1940 recommencing in 1946; the last Tour de France occurred in July 1939, only resuming in 1947. By contrast, cycle sport continued in Spain. The disruption caused by the Civil War provided obstacles to the resumption of the sport, including extensive devastation of the road network and the implementation of a police state - diverting resources away from the pursuit of national sports.
 The complexion of the government of Spain after the end of the Civil War, with its undertones of fascism, precluded any possibility of international events. Likewise, despite relative Spanish neutrality during World War Two (fascist Spain had supported the Axis until 1943), the war prevented any international events, even with Franco’s ideological allies, Germany and Italy. Nonetheless, competitive cycle races resumed in Spain during 1941, with the first edition of the Vuelta since 1936, albeit with a decidedly national and nationalistic flavour. Of significance was the very fact that this edition was and remains the longest ever, reflecting a keen desire of the Franco regime to demarcate the victors’ Spanish National State boundary across the regions and the former Republican strongholds.
 The staging of the races did however, remain economically problematic. The historical reliance of such races upon private finance, particularly often derived from newspapers, was disrupted by the implementation of economic autarky (1945-1957).1 The Basque economy did not escape the impacts of Spanish post-war international isolationism and the fascist state was not favourable to capitalist support of sports. This corporate state model, still in some economic disarray, backed by a police apparatus and repressive system, not best disposed to unfettered newspaper publication, contained the development of capitalist links with the professionalising sponsorship of teams and events. Despite this, editions of the Vuelta were held in 1941 over a distance of 4442 km, 1942 over 3634 km and 1945 over 3723 km, with the participation of Spanish nationals only, until 1946 when foreign nationals resumed participation.2
Between 1945 and 1950, despite the participation of some foreign nationals in the Vuelta, Spanish cycling remained internationally limited due to the diplomatic and economic boycotts imposed after the war. Many Basque cyclists left for exile in France or further afield to the United States and Latin America. Many exiles to France participated in French amateur squads and could base themselves in the French Pays Basque departments.
 In Spain, the economic effects of autarky and depression contributed to the abandonment of the Vuelta between 1950 and 1955. The most able Spanish cyclists were forced to prove themselves abroad. In 1952 Barnardo Ruiz achieved third place in the Tour de France, having won the Vuelta in 1948; in 1954 Federico Bahamontes won the gruelling ‘King of the Mountains’ points jersey in the Tour, providing a glimpse of a Spanish renaissance at an international level in the sport.3
 This renaissance coincided with the reality of East-West political polarisation during the 1950’s Cold-War and the abandonment of autarky by the Franco regime. The strategic position of the Iberian Peninsular and the ideological antithesis of its regimes to communism, brought the dictatorships of Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal back in to the sphere of Western politics, strategic importance and economics.
 In 1950, Franco offered Spanish troops towards the US effort in the anti-Communist Korean War; in 1953 Spain was clearly seen in a new light as the USA formed a mutual defence pact with Franco, bringing massive economic and military assistance at a crucial time for the regime.4 Such infringements of Spanish sovereignty were not entirely domestically popular. By February 1957, the inclusion of a number of economic technocrats from the Catholic Opus Dei order, indicated the regime’s move towards economic modernisation and integration into world capitalism, confirming the abandonment of autarky.5
 Almost symbolically, in 1959 Federico Bahamontes became the first Spaniard to win the Tour de France. However, Bahamontes was no true friend of the regime. In 1957 he came second in the Vuelta, after which he based his career in France. Problematically for Spain’s cyclists and especially for objectors to the regime, the international sport was based around national squads - commercial teams having been abandoned from 1930, due to the effects of the ‘Great Depression’. Thus, Bahamontes’ objections remained subdued sufficiently in order to allow inclusion in the national squad, allowing the regime to claim these performances in the name of Spain and indirectly the regime.
 Bahamontes later achieved second place behind the great Frenchman and five times Tour winner Jacques Anquetil in 1963 and third in 1964, but he dominated the ‘King of the Mountains’ jersey, winning again in 1958, 1959, 1962, 1963 and 1964.
The ending of autarky and the 1960’s subsequent Spanish economic boom, consequently coincided with the apparent rise of Spanish cycling as Julio Jiminez continued the Spanish domination of the ‘King of the Mountains’ jersey, winning in 1965, 1966 and 1967. In 1967 he also achieved second place in the Tour’s overall classification.
By 1968, the necessary infrastructure of an internationally competitive Spanish cycling team was consolidated by Spain’s strengthening economic position. This was exhibited by Spain’s overall points win in the 1968 Tour de France and by the resumption of the Vuelta, characterised by an increased international participation post 1958.6
By 1968, the opening of Spain to tourism and the slight liberalisation of the regime allowed the resurgence of Basque nationalism and significantly the re-emergence of explicitly Basque cyclists at an international level. The renewed commercialisation of the professional sport during 1962-1967 and from 1969 to the present day, enabled Basque business to again rally behind the region’s cycling and other sports clubs, without the previous levels of state interference. However, this does not mean that a covert PNV structure was unable to exist during the Franco regime.
The Spanish nationalist project of Franco, with its repression of regional identities prevented overt Basque or Catalan nationalist expression through sport and culture. Sports that were not specifically Basque were not outlawed. Franco regarded Basque culture, especially the language, as an excuse for and sign of separatism.7
Football, basketball and cycling were all key elements in Franco’s concept of sport as a nationalist tool. The Real Madrid football team and the national squad were essential elements of Spanish nationalism at both a national and international political level. Franco’s prohibition of the European Nations Cup football match against the USSR in 1960 and the eventual win against the USSR at the 1964 event, hosted by Spain demonstrated this still further. This the press hailed as the "logical culmination of Franco’s victory in the Civil War", indicating the nature of nationalism in Spanish sport.8
The introduction of television to Spain during the early 1960’s, was a state run enterprise, dominated by movies and especially sport. Despite, Franco’s rejection of international criticism and resentment at the change in the social and political direction of the Second Vatican Council, real social and economic changes occurred in 1960’s Spain. Attempts by the most reactionary in the regime to denounce any liberalisation in Spain was out of kilter with the reality of change in the country, especially in the Basque Country.
The cultural and political assault on the region after the Civil War did not mean long-term economic neglect. Although the Basque Country remained industrially weak compared to other west European economies, the policy of autarky had allowed some consolidation of the Basque industrial elite. The economic crisis of the late 1950’s and the re-entry of the Spanish economy into world trade after autarky, benefited the region. Industrial growth, after the readjustments of the Plan of Stabilisation, particularly in the heavy industries of steel and ship building, expanded as a consequence of the state’s modernisation programme.
This had the net effect of increasing labour immigration to the region, as population growth indicates (1955-1975 average population growth of 59.95% in Basque Country) and of boosting the average per capita income of Basque residents well above the national norm (averaging 35% to 60% higher by the mid-70’s). The Plan brought modernisation and industrialisation closer to previously isolated rural communities.9 Furthermore, it laid a secure foundation upon which Basque businesses could re-enter the commercial support of cycle sport by the late 1960’s. Additionally, it provided a significant financial and political base for the reorganisation of PNV activity to 1975.
In 1960 the first ikastolas (schools in which Euskara is the language of instruction) opened since the Civil War, but the best known militant form of Basque nationalism was embodied in the emergence of the radical ETA movement (Euskadi’ ta Askatasuna - Euskadi and Liberty), which developed during the late 1950’s. Its programme has generally been associated with guerrilla activity to secure a separate Euskadi rather than regional autonomy or a federation of Spanish provinces.
Though there is not space to discuss the movement in depth here, importantly, it did increase interest in the nationalist issue as a whole. Although its role with regards to sporting events has been paradoxical to that of the PNV, from which it split in 1959 due to the PNV exiled leadership’s refusal to give support to a military response to Francoism.
The issue of Basque nationalism regained attention through the activity of Basque Catholic priests, many of whom were young and of rural extraction. Such priests were influenced by the general concept of liberation theology that evolved during the 1960’s and was consolidated by Vatican II. This challenge to the essence of Franco’s belief that the regime was a crusade for Christianity surprised much of the population and the authorities. The church provided a sanctuary to some extent in which criticism of the suppression of Basque culture and liberties could be discussed. It is often argued that many ETA activists came from or were influenced by the seminaries and convents of the rural Catholic Church.10
ETA mounted its military campaign in 1961. During the 1960’s much of ETA’s activity focused upon symbols of the Spanish State and Franco. In 1968 ETA organised clandestine demonstrations that coincided with Aberri Eguna (Basque national day), which erupted into riots. The same year, Txabi Echevarrieta became the first ETA militant shot by police, ensuring his martyrdom and sympathetic public protests. In revenge ETA assassinated the head of the political police in Guipúzcoa, consequently the Spanish authorities imposed a state of emergency in the province and Vizcaya. Significant repression and arrests culminated in the Burgos trials of sixteen people, including two priests and two women, implicated in the killing.11
Despite Spain hosting the World Championships at Lasarte in 1965 and although the Tour of the Basque Country resumed in 1969, professional cycle sport did not avoid the wider political tensions prevalent in Spain at this time. The new stars of the late 1960’s and 1970’s were more politicised than many of their predecessors. Additionally, their careers were not dependent upon national squads as commercial sponsorship resumed extensively by 1969.
Like Bahamontes before him Luis Ocaña, won the Tour de France in 1973 whilst basing most of his training in France due to his dislike of the Franco regime, endearing him to the Basques. However, he did participate in the Vuelta, winning in 1970.12  At the 1973 World Championships held in Montjuich in Spain Ocaña achieved third place as part of the Spanish squad. However, his major Spanish rival during this time was far less concerned with the excesses of the regime. The rivalry between the Asturian born José-Manuel Fuente and Ocaña reached its peak during the 1973 Tour when Fuente achieved third place eighteen minutes behind his rival. Fuente won the Vuelta in 1972 and 1974.13 To many, their rivalry was symbolic of the difficult times in Spain between 1970 and 1975, as the regime underwent a turbulent transition to democracy.14 Even cycling did not escape the activities of ETA during this time as protesters forced a stage of the Vuelta to be abandoned during 1973.15
No editions of the Vuelta or the Tour of the Basque Country were cancelled by the atmosphere of political crises brought about by the Burgos trials. Or indeed the reactionary activity of the fascist civilian or military ‘bunkers’ that preferred Francoism without Franco, brought to the fore whilst the aged Generalisimo’s health degenerated as a result of Parkinson’s and blood diseases.16 Those that favoured continuismo were dominant, particularly after ETA assassinated Franco’s right hand man, the Prime Minister Admiral Carrero Blanco with a car bomb in Madrid on 20th December 1973. The more liberal elements in the regime, whom favoured a democratic transition were effectively out manoeuvred by the so called ultras in the military and the fascist movement.
The April 1974 coup d’état in Portugal heightened the general insecurity of the regime as a neighbouring dictatorship collapsed.17 Amid increased suppression of Basque nationalism during 1975 and especially as a result of the trials and executions of ETA activists in September, international criticism and internal concerns from economists and industrialists grew, echoed by most of the Basque population.18
Significantly, it has to be remembered that most of the Basque professional cyclists of the 1980’s (notably Marino Lejarreta) and 1990’s were brought up during this time or would have been influenced by the accounts of their parents and relatives.
Thus, the death of Franco on 20th November 1975, although removing the figurehead of the extreme right, also heralded the beginning of a new era in not only Spanish politics, but in the politics and economics of Basque cycle sport as a nationalist force.


1. Carr, Modern Spain, p155

2. Statistics obtained from Federe Ciclismo. 1996.

3. Evans, Facts and Feats. p40

4. P.Preston, Politics of Revenge, 1995. p143

5. R.Carr and J.P. Fusi, Spain: Dictatorship to Democracy, UK, 1979. p53

6. Cycle Sport, August 1995. p29

7. Heiberg, The Making of the Basque Nation. p90

8. Preston, Franco, p717

9. Heiberg, The Making of the Basque Nation. p94

10. Ibid. p103

11. Sullivan, ETA and Basque Nationalism. p72

12. Cycle Sport, August, 1994. p50

13. Facts and Feats, p60

14. Cycle Sport, October, 1995. p10

15. Marca, July, 1994.

16. Preston, Franco, p768

17. Preston, Politics of Revenge, p156

18. Preston, The Triumph of Democracy in Spain,edn 1996. p75

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