Words: Marcos Pereda / Translation: Matthew Bailey / Images: Angel Nelia Collection
This is an extract from Marcos Pereda’s novel, A Flea In The Mountains, a fictionalised biography of the Spanish cyclist, Vicente Trueba, based on extensive research about real-life events. The passage is an account of events in the 1933 Tour de France, written as if told by a French journalist who witnessed them in person.
And that’s why that day’s stage was such a succession of emotions. Firstly surprise. Then excitement, the sweet smell of glory. And finally the absurd bite of injustice. Because that day in Nice on the shores of the Mediterranean, Vicente Trueba was robbed of the Tour de France.
Over the years since then I have seen many champions. People with the lungs of a bull, the legs of a racehorse. Sportsmen who sometimes combined such a physique with not much of a brain.
I don’t mean the ones who missed opportunities by making tactical errors, or who spent a sleepless night before a decisive stage and then couldn’t turn the pedals of their machine the next day. No, I’m talking about a more malicious attitude, more subtle. I’m talking about the ability to smell danger, to know that something, something important, is about to happen. You can be a great champion without that virtue, of course, but with it, well that’s when special things can happen. And that’s what Vicente Trueba had. And that’s why he won the 1933 Tour.
Because for me Trueba will always be the winner of the 1933 edition of the Tour de France. Nobody can tell me otherwise, because I won’t believe them. I was there. According to the rules he won, and he did so in a fair fight. And if he never raised his arms in Paris it was because Desgrange, who had always dreamed of ‘the Survivor’s Tour’ with a single finisher, was not true to his word. To his own ambitions. He had the legend within his grasp and he backed down. For fear of what people would say, perhaps.
What does it matter? The fact is that he showed himself to be arbitrary and unfair, inconsistent with everything the Grande Boucle was. And his victim was the honourable Trueba, who had always operated within the rules, who smiled even as he pedalled more powerfully than anyone. That day in Nice, Vicente dressed himself in yellow, and if it doesn’t say that in the record books it’s only because his glory was stolen.
It was a short, nervous stage, which I remember as if it were yesterday. I experienced it directly from the press car like every stage, starting on the Col de Vars on that magical afternoon. I wasn’t interested in the nights, the laughter and the taverns. I only dreamed of bikes.
It was short, as I say, over narrow roads with continual changes of direction, sharp turns, climbs here and there, followed by vertiginous descents. The race left the Alps behind and launched itself towards the Mediterranean, towards the Promenade des Anglais, which everyone associates with the movies and which will always be an inseparable part of my memory of the little mountain climber. Because that’s where Trueba gave the very best of himself, of his body but also of his head.
He was always clever, very clever. He knew how to weigh things up, how to recognise danger, how to stay alert while racing. And he was not afraid to face adversity alone. As if he were riding as an isolè, without teammates or any other form of support. Almost immediately after the start a break forms of five men, near-anonymous seasonal workers seeking temporary glory who worry no one. And they open a gap, one that keeps growing. Trueba calculates, smells the problem, repeats the rule of three to himself and understands. It might just be that the Tour is being decided up ahead. So he attacks, a tiny man taking on an entire peloton, and rides across to the break. When he arrives he starts talking to them in broken French, with determined movements of his jaw. We will all work together. Him always first, pulling with more strength than any of them. The gap grows progressively and Trueba smiles, knowing what is happening, the only one at that moment who understands the gravity of the situation. He will finish fifth in Nice. And then he will wait. He will wait many minutes before the other cyclists arrive.
As soon as we crossed the finish line, I jumped out of the car and launched myself into the arms of Vicente Trueba. I had understood his move, I had been doing the sums, stopwatch in hand, and I knew what had happened. I hugged him very tightly, that small but sturdy body while shouting like a madman “Vous êtes le maillot jaune, vous êtes le maillot jaune!” And he smiled, understanding perfectly even though he would not have been able to understand my words. Or maybe he could have. His head, the head of a born businessman, had not betrayed him, and the accounts had balanced perfectly. The peloton, commanded by the conquistador Lapébie (but who is interested in his nocturnal activities? Not me, that’s for sure), arrived 22 minutes after the winner. De facto, beyond the time limit. The Tour de France had been reduced to just six riders.
Fernand Cornez, Fernand Fayolle, Pierre Pastorelli, Alfred Bulla, Léon Le Calvez. And him – best-placed in the general classification, he would take the yellow jersey with several minutes’ advantage over the second-placed rider. Him. Vicente Trueba. He had decided the Tour de France, and the gentle rays of the French Riviera reflected in his eyes like laurels of glory. Probably because that’s what they were.
And then disappointment. The murmuring between the commissaires at the end of the stage. The delayed prize-giving. Trueba wiping away the sweat, waiting to collect the jersey that he would carry all the way to Paris without difficulty. Voices, shouts, nerves among the journalists, who know neither what is going to happen nor what they want to happen. A French victory would be ruled out completely, but Trueba is so popular. In the end, nothing. Desgrange announces a repêchage. “In view of the serious damage that would be done to the race if it were reduced to six competitors at such an early stage…”
‘It was not my intention, of course… the prevailing circumstances… I find myself compelled…’
And more of the same. I remember throwing my notebook down in a fit of rage. Desgrange saw it, and gave me that icy look of his, the one that made any French journalist lower his eyes and yield to the will of the old man. But that day, proud and affronted young man that I was, I did not. And it was Monsieur Henri, the father of the Tour de France, who had to lower his eyes as if in recognition that yes, it’s true, he had acted arbitrarily, arrogantly, unfairly, but this was his job. Back in Grenoble my report of the stage had to be almost completely censored and rewritten by using what other sanitised journalists had told their employers. The editor was disappointed, very dis-ap-point-ed. I did not care in the slightest. I felt empty, as if I had been robbed. Funny thing, youth.
That night I interviewed Trueba again. He almost had to comfort me. It seemed to me incredible that this man kept calm after suffering such an injustice. I urged him to make bombastic statements, that he should draw attention to the brutal abuse he had suffered. And he smiled again, as if everything was fine. And what good would it do, he said. Anyway, there’s still a race to ride. There are still stages to win. I’ve almost won the King of the Mountains. And he looked at me in silence, as if there was nothing more in the world to say. And I could hardly hold back the tears.
King of the Mountains. No less. King of the Mountains, he who had been born in that place called La Montaña, so far away. Green and grey, he said it was, and it rained a lot. But pretty, crazily pretty. King of the Mountains, and King of La Montaña.