A Nose, a Nazi and Fifty Cyclists - The Origins of the Vuelta a España

by Marcos Pereda: translated by Matthew Bailey 

In 1935 the Tour de France was about to celebrate its 32nd anniversary. The Giro d’Italia was heading for its 26th. The Tour of Belgium had been running since 1908, the Tour of Portugal had been born in 1927 and the Tour of Switzerland in 1933. What’s more, Catalunya had held its first Volta in 1911, the Basque Country its first race in 1924 and Asturias and Cantabria had followed suit the year after that.

So – what about the Vuelta?

This is not an easy question to answer. The birth of the Tour of Spain was replete with difficulties, spokes in the wheels, conflicts of interest and sideways glances at what others were up to: well, they’re not doing it right, I ask you . . . There were efforts in 1913, supported by the newspaper El Mundo Deportivo (efforts centred on Barcelona, and which failed, some say, precisely because they weren’t centralist enough), and further attempts in 1924, more serious ones, supported by the Heraldo de Madrid. In the end the problems all came down to the same thing: have you seen the state of the roads? Don’t be an idiot, boy, stick to what’s actually possible . . .

What was lacking was some kind of impetus, perhaps a private or even a personal one. Someone undeterred by the challenges.

A man to remember.

Contrary to what happened in France with Henri Desgrange and in Italia with Emilio Colombo (the “fathers” of the Tour and the Giro), in Spain the figure of Clemente López-Doriga is relatively unknown. And not because he lacked pedigree, sporting or otherwise.

López-Doriga belonged to one of the most important families of 19th and early 20th-century Santander. The sort of bourgeois family that likes to marry into others via cousins and aunts (the name given in our protagonist’s birth certificate is Clemente López-Dóriga López-Dóriga Sañudo López-Dóriga), which started by sending a few boats overseas and ended up inveigling itself into armchairs, town halls, parliamentary seats and even thrones. In the López-Doriga family tree there are gentlemen-in-waiting to His Majesty, captains of frigates, mayors of Santander, deputies of the Cortes, the founders of a certain internationally renowned bank and innumerable wealthy individuals.

Also: patrons of the arts, daring businessmen, people with noses like Dante’s who ran the city and had a taste for sophistication that made them pioneers in everything they did. The owner of the first car in Cantabria? A López-Dóriga. What’s this new aviation business? A López-Dóriga tried it. Racing with futuristic sailing boats? That was a López-Dóriga too. And one shouldn’t be surprised: after all, they had the money for it.

And the bike too, of course.

At first, sneakily, furtively. A brother of Clemente’s, Alfredo López-Dóriga, had died after crashing one of those infernal contraptions at La Pajosa, a short descent of no more than a couple of kilometres, close to Santander. The parents, naturally, were horrified. Don Victoriano and Doña Matilde wept for El Sardinero. So young Clemente had no choice but to race under a pseudonym. He couldn’t stay away from the bike, but he had no desire to defy the patriarch of the dynasty. He called himself “Lapize”, like the French rider. But it was no use: it was not possible for part of the Santander elite to go incognito. Especially not with the distinctive López-Dóriga nose . . .

So the boy carried on racing. And he did well. Until one day he found himself racing against Victorino Otero, who was a beast on two wheels, and his morale was shattered. He could never be as good as Otero, so . . . why continue? No, it would be better to contribute to the world of cycling in other ways. And, using the usual advantages of the López-Dórigas, he started writing for newspapers, organizing races and finding sponsorships. He even managed to arrange an entry to the 1930 Tour de France for Vicente Trueba (and his brother José). Many said, well, they won’t get past the second stage .  . .

But back in the thirties the dream was clear. That there should be a Tour of Spain. A competition that would encircle the whole of Spain, like a bow. And off he went, to sell his story to the city of Madrid.

“Yes, yes, a race that covers the whole of Spain, for the greater glory of the Republic.” The Republic . . . ah, the Republic. Since 1932 there had been a Grand Prix of the Republic, based in Eibar, that had grown to five stages covering over 1,000 km. The reference to Eibar was almost obligatory, given that it was no less than the cycling capital of the country, having retooled part of its arms industry for bicycle production after the end of the Great War and the consequent collapse in orders for bullets, bombs and various means of killing 

So, thought López-Dóriga, the new race could carry that torch, and fill the regime with pride in the whole country. Yes, a nice way to sell it – even if it doesn’t remotely fit the ideology of Don Clemente. But hey, business is business, and after all, we’ve made a fortune by being bourgeois.

But he came up against the culture famously first described by Mario José de Larra, the Spanish culture of “come back tomorrow” – mañana. And if he is to be believed, the people who made it happen were Manuel González Domingo (a journalist who wrote under the pen name Rienzi) and Juan Pujol.

Let’s start with Pujol, a man of substance. A Murcian by birth, a lawyer by training, an anarchist in his early life, ultra right-wing a little later. He soon begins to write for a variety of newspapers, always taking the line of the right. The far right. His articles about the first world war are furiously pro-German. Those about the Jews are overtly antisemitic. The manifesto for Sanjurjo’s coup[1] of 1932? Written by Pujol. Politics? Twice a deputy, first with Acción Popular[2] (the party of Cardinal Herrera Oria) and then with the CEDA[3]. Both right-leaning. Pujol flourished further after July 18, 1936, being appointed Chief of Press and Propaganda during the civil war. Quite the pussycat, this other father of the Vuelta a España . . .

As for the daily newspaper Informaciones . . . how to say it without using the word ‘Nazi’? Ah, whatever . . . it was an overtly Nazi newspaper in the second half of the 1930s. At last someone had come to save Europe from decline, even if it was an old corporal with a silly moustache. Yes sir, that’s the way to go. The paper overflowed with praise for the Aryans and acquired something of their bonhomie towards others, towards any Jew that crossed its path. It’s also true that Informaciones received between 3,000 and 4,000 pesetas a month straight from the Reich, still warm on arrival. A free press, and all that. And he was there too, with his money: Juan March[4]. Yes, the one of whom it was said “Either Juan March submits to the Republic, or the Republic will submit to Juan March.” Very smart, that Jaime Carner[5].

A brief interlude. Informaciones survived until 1983, with a clear evolution in its editorial line. Through the 1940s, under Victor de la Serna, it continued to be somewhat factional, but it later broadened its view and ended up as one of the newspapers where many voices critical of the dictatorship could be heard. Criticism within the limits of the day: no one expected jokes about Carrero[6]. But come on, credit where it’s due.

So the story is written. When, on Monday, 29th April, 1935, at a quarter to eight in the morning, a squadron of fifty cyclists set off from the Puerta de Atocha nobody gave it a moment’s thought. The Vuelta a España, that race created to the greater glory of the Republic by a bourgeois from Santander and a Nazi journalist, was underway.

May it live long. 

This article was originally published in Spanish at ctxt.es
With thanks to Marcos Pereda and Alex Moreno


[1] General José Sanjurjo y Sacanell, 1st Marquess of the Rif, was one of the chief conspirators in the military uprising that led to the Spanish Civil War.

[2] Acción Popular was formed after the fall of the monarchy and the defeat of monarchist parties in the 1931 elections. Extremely pro-monarchist, its goal was to defend the interests of Roman Catholics in the new Spanish Republic.

[3] Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rights), a political party in the Second Spanish Republic and the spiritual heir to Acción Popular.

[4] Juan March was a businessman closely associated with Franco’s nationalists during and after the Spanish Civil War. He was the richest man in Spain and the sixth richest individual in the world. The March family remain among Spain’s wealthiest, with a net worth believed to be in excess of $16bn.

[5] A Catalan businessman, lawyer and politician who was Minister of Finance under the Second Spanish Republic between 1931 and 1933.

[6] Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, right-hand man of Franco. Carrero succeeded Franco as head of government in June 1973 due to the dictator’s failing health. He was killed in December 1973 by the Basque terrorist group ETA.