The 1960 Vuelta a España – the craziest race in history?

Death threats, brawls, scandals, bicycle pumps: the story of the 1960 Vuelta a España

Frans De Mulder was a professional cyclist for only five years. An average but tough rider, best suited to the Flemish Classics. A rider who barely amounted to a footnote in books about the sport, he died in 2001.

The 1960 Vuelta a España won’t go down in history for having had a glamorous winner. The rest of it, however, the rest of it… oh, it was glorious. Perhaps not strictly sport, but it was unforgettable. There were fights, blows and bumps, with bicycle pumps used like medieval lances. Riders thrown out, a star who loved himself but was hated by everyone else, an organiser who disorganised and any sense of dignity was left behind on the mountaintops of Spain.

The following story is so sad that one should read it with a forced smile…

At that time in history, the Vuelta wasn’t the race that we know it to be today. Now it’s electric with nervous, impossibly steep ascents. But back then, not so much. Predominantly flat with just a handful of climbs of any substance and a race progression nothing like the wild event we’re used to now. However, there was still plenty of passion, of course. Passion from supporters, and journalists who were shameless cheerleaders for their own against those untrustworthy foreigners. It was 1960 and in Spain, the dictator Franco ruled with an iron fist. Strict censorship was imposed on the press, and patriotic values were always at the fore.

But Bahamontes was there, of course. Federico Martín Bahamontes. One of the best climbers in history (unless you'd have asked him – he’d say that he was undisputedly the greatest), he was a real social phenomenon. Controversial and provocative, he gave excuses after defeats and aggrandised his own victories. Those public pronouncements, his interpretation of cycling and of life meant that if he’d been born fifty years later, he’d have been the most popular rider ever. However he was born in the 1920s, he had to endure the civil war and became a rider by trying to flee guards whilst smuggling contraband around the starving Spain of the ‘40s. His image was shaped by the blows life had thrown at him.

In April 1960, Bahamontes was untouchable. He’d already become nothing less than the first Spanish winner of the Tour de France, having taken victory the summer before in a race that finished on the 18 July, the dictatorial regime’s most symbolic date, celebrating the Francoist coup d’état that gave way to the bloody civil war which fascists called “the crusade”. A winning symbol on a day of symbolism, Bahamontes became the Eagle, el Águila. So much so that his eccentricity was forgiven, as was his braggadocio and boastful comments. That wasn’t the image that the regime looked to promote, but with Spain hardly recognised on the international stage back then, his success certainly was. Nobody dared question Federico, at least until that particular Vuelta…
Everything surrounding Bahamontes that year was strange. Firstly, he rode in the colours of the Faema team and was paid a record salary of 800,000 pesetas [an astronomical amount in ‘60s Spain]. His sports director was the recently retired ex-rider Bernardo Ruíz, who hated the man from Toledo. The two had even thrown punches at each other in the past. “We mutually tolerate one another,” said the director just before the race began, a sentence that didn’t exactly inspire calm.

Ruíz wasn’t the only one who didn’t get on with Bahamontes; almost nobody in the team could put up with him. Antonio Suárez, the reigning Vuelta champion, said that he wouldn’t be working for him. Fernando Manzaneque declared that he would be playing his own cards. Another rider, Miguel Pacheco, was even thrown out of the team for being… Bahamontes’ friend.

It was a powder keg. The reigning Tour winner laid down an ultimatum: “If they don’t guarantee me the team leadership, I won’t ride the Vuelta”. They all kept their mouths shut for a few hours and pretended to be at peace. It was a mirage. In the Faema ranks, the Ides of March were approaching.

And from the opening day, too. Strange, like everything else at this Vuelta. A team time trial, in a velodrome. Each squad rides 18 laps and when they finish, the next squad starts. As you can imagine, not very televisual. Faema win, they’re the strongest team. However they seemed to be riding a little too extravagantly, because Antonio Suárez crashes on the final turn and takes down half of the team. Among those who hit the ground is Bahamontes, who hurts his hand, losing a nail in the process. The man from Toledo holds his bloodied finger up in front of the assembled journalists, making it known that nothing has happened by chance. His rivals can’t believe it. Neither can his teammates.

The other grand star of that Vuelta was none other than Charly Gaul. “Only Charly could beat me uphill, and only in bad weather,” Bahamontes once said, and that’s the biggest compliment he ever allowed himself to give a rival. The truth is that Gaul was magnificent. By the time he arrives in Spain with the EMI team, he’s already won two Giri d’Italia and a Tour. Above all else, he’s established a reputation as an incredible climber capable of the most legendary feats and immune to pain. A superman who, at times, seems enchanted.

The fans awaited a battle between the two men of the peaks in the mountains – or at least on the small bit of mountain terrain that was part of that particular Vuelta: one stage close to Madrid and the odd one in the peaks of the north, between Cantabria and the Basque Country. However, the Luxembourger’s performance, always so mysterious, ends up stagnating. He attacks on the way to the capital, leading over the climbs of the Guadarrama and Navacerrada with elegant supernatural strength, but hardly shows his face on the other days. He won’t even finish the race…

Every day there were long breakaways and embarrassing time gaps at the finish line between the winner and the chasers. A small peloton, young riders, some poorly prepared or even having come in straight from other jobs. Frans De Mulder, for example, hadn’t even been riding for two years. Before that he’d been a miner (which, upon reflection, is the opposite to being a grimpeur). All that created a lack of control. Chaos.

On the way to Zamora, Bahamontes himself went on one of those solitary adventures that he enjoyed so much. Only, on that occasion, the stage profile was (almost) totally flat and a strong headwind was blowing. What did it matter? The native of Toledo had a lot to prove. To that end, he ploughed on alone for more than 200 kilometres, before being caught. “I think that I’m going to hide in the forest until the peloton comes past so they can keep chasing a ghost,” he told his soigneur. Federico was like that. He’d taken a beating, and for no gain. “Bahamontes is a man out of control,” his director will say. As you can see, they’re all getting on swimmingly…

The fans weren’t very happy, either. The eighth stage, after Gaul’s charge around the Sierra de Madrid, finishes in Zaragoza. Riding under the headlights of the following cars, the peloton arrives at 21:30, where they are booed by 30,000 fans waiting in La Romareda, the city’s football stadium. The race organisers feel betrayed and decide to withhold all prizes from the day’s competition. Then it kicks off. ‘What? They’re taking away part of our winnings? Well, we’ll see about that…’

An escapada bidón is a breakaway where one or more riders take so much of a lead that finally they manage to win the overall or at least make it into the first few places. For it to happen, the leaders need to watch each other, be passive and show a bit of arrogance. And that’s how races are lost. The kind of error that shouldn’t be committed too often in life. Apart from at the 1960 Vuelta, of course.

Because from Zaragoza onwards, the huge time losses begin. Indecent, embarrassing. In Barcelona, the peloton arrives 37 minutes after the 15-man breakaway. Outside the time limit, the commissaires are forced to readmit them. The following day, the front of the race reaches the line in Barbastro 19 minutes ahead of the bunch. As a product of those two days, a Belgian Classics rider named Armand Desmet takes nearly an hour and pulls on the leader’s jersey with a gigantic lead. But there’s more. There’s always more at this Vuelta.

Just 24 hours later, another breakaway makes it to the finish in Pamplona. This time the gap is 18 minutes. That moves Miguel Pacheco up to second in the general classification. Remember him?

Yes, Bahamontes’ friend, the one they’d thrown out of Bahamontes’ team for being, well, Bahamontes’ friend. It’s a mess. Especially because Pacheco had said that although he got on well with the star, they’d had their problems in the past and had even exchanged punches. So after being sacked by Faema, Pacheco ends up with Licor 43, a team sponsored by a sweet, sticky and strong alcoholic drink that leads to terrible hangovers.

Ah, one final escapada bidón. The next day, stage 12 to Logroño. The peloton at 24 minutes, yet again time cut. Readmitted, of course. By this time, Vuelta director Luís Bergareche is totally heartbroken. What happened was scandalous. And the worst (or best) was yet to come.

Because you, my dear readers, have come here to see epic cycling feats, great champions. You want arguments, you can smell controversy. And you’re going to get it. You can’t even begin to imagine how much.

The mountains are back. Don’t think of the Galibier, Stelvio or even the Angliru. Here the protagonists are more modest. Jaizkibel, Urkiola, El Escudo. Nowadays it doesn’t seem much, but remember that cyclists back then were also different. I mean, just like the roads, which didn’t amount to much more than horse tracks covered in bits of stone, gravel and mud. Terrain worthy of legendary feats. There were a few of those. Before the episodes of embarrassment, we must add. 

The thirteenth stage finishes in San Sebastián. Only a single kilometre of the 211 on the route has been ridden and Bahamontes attacks, getting five minutes ahead of the peloton. But he isn’t satisfied. He says that he had in mind a chance to take “half an hour”, but that all the other teams race against him – as well as his own Faema squad, sometimes. Basically, what could’ve been a happy day in the saddle ends up becoming another chapter in the war between Federico and the rest of the world.

Ah, “the Eagle” is still 44 minutes behind the leader. And so majestic is his aura that nobody wants to write him off yet.

The next stage to Vitoria will be the most decisive one. And not because of its results (Suárez wins after another gargantuan attack lasting 250 kilometres, and on the day that Gaul abandons, Bahamontes continues to pull back time) but because of the effects it will have later on. Julio San Emeterio finishes the day outside the time limit. He is a Faema rider from Cantabria, one of the few friends Bahamontes has, the man he can rely on. The technical committee, which has already pardoned the peloton many times in the race, does not hesitate to throw San Emeterio off the race. Probably because he’s just a single rider. Fair or not, it marks the beginning of the biggest of the scandals to hit the event. 

From this moment on, we forget cycling and go straight to the tale. Don’t be scared if you see more blows, assaults, threats and comments than pedals and bicycles. This is how it happened. Years down the line, it even raises a smile or two…

Bahamontes is still trying to put half an hour into everyone, and for that he needs San Emeterio, who knows the terrain to perfection. The 15th stage of that crazy Vuelta would arrive in Santander, Cantabria. San Emeterio is a local, from Torrelavega, and knows every trap of a twisting, turning route. Bahamontes wants to launch the definitive attack with him by his side – only the judges aren’t for back-pedalling on their decision. San Emeterio remains expelled from the race. And Federico explodes. If my mate doesn’t continue the race, then neither do I. Or even better, I’m going to coast the stage, finishing outside the time limit. Let’s see if they have the courage to send me home, too. The best Spanish rider. The reigning Tour champion.

No sooner said than done. They begin to ride and Bahamontes drops quickly off the back of the group, losing minutes and advancing slowly along the roads of the north. The public sees this as a lack of respect and starts to boo him. Little by little, the atmosphere heats up. Whistles become insults. And then, not far from Güeñes, it happens. The supreme farce.

Nobody knows exactly what has happened. Some talk about people insulting Bahamontes’ mother. Fede himself says that some friends of his old rival, Jesus Loroño, were in the crowd and didn’t stop shouting abuse (as you can see, he gets on with everyone). And the reigning Tour champion, the man who had been astounding the world with his climbing prowess for years, stopped on the top of the mountain and began to give everyone a clout. Not with his fists, no. But with his bicycle pump.

The spectators in question defend themselves by using umbrellas or throwing bottles in return. There’s kicking and screaming. A mass brawl. In the end, there weren’t any serious injuries, but the images will make their way around the world. Bahamontes has just fatally wounded the race. Later he’ll deny having had a go at anyone. And the photos, Federico? A bad angle, a coincidence, I never once hit a fan.

That day he finished 54 minutes behind the stage winner. “I had stomach pain and I couldn’t go any faster,” he says. Nobody believes him, everyone is tired of him behaving like a diva and his inappropriate comments. He’s thrown off a race that only has 26 riders left.

It was chaos. The atmosphere of the crowd was tense, sometimes aggressive. A home-made sign in Castro Urdiales, crossing the border into Cantabria, reads “Bernardo (Ruíz), this is the land of noblemen, not traitors”. They were the “friendly” words.

The more raw language appeared a little further on. In Torrelavega there was another message aimed at the race organiser: “Bergareche, San Emetrio will be your cemetery”. In Peñacastillo they defend their local rider José Pérez Francés (thrown off the race a few days earlier for hitting one of the Groene Leeuw sports directors, pulling him out of the window of his moving car so as to reach his face and give it a good whack) with a lovely banner that reads “Bergareche, here’s where Pérez Francés was born”. Nothing bad at all, if it wasn’t for the fact that it had been written in blood – although when interrogated by the local press, the authors of that particular piece of writing were offended, revealing that it indeed was blood, but that of a “young bull”. We wouldn’t want anyone to think we’d killed someone, we aren’t savages…

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