Vuelta Skelter by Tim Moore

Steven Appleby’s illustrations adorn each chapter

I’ve been feeling tired all day, weak legs, stiff all over, aching feet. It’s warm, 29ºC, the kind of muggy heat that makes you feel a bit sick. All of this following a 26km bike ride this morning. I’d wanted to set off early, but insomniac daughter was slow to get going. I offered to go on my own, but she wanted to come, so it was gone 9 o’clock by the time we set off down the hill. And the cool air on the way down, in the shade of the trees, was the last cool air we’d feel – all day, but certainly until the last painful grind up our hill, on wobbly legs and with my right foot burning, as usual.

And that’s my limit, an hour or so in the saddle and I’m done, and more or less useless for the rest of the day. Exercise! It’s good for you! It was the kind of ride that has you throwing your bib shorts in the bin as soon as you get undressed for the shower: those are too uncomfortable, you say, slamming the lid of the bin down.

That being my limit: the weak legs, the burning feet, is why I like to read Tim Moore’s various books of cycling adventure. There was his hilarious Tour de France opus, French Revolutions, and more recently his vintage Giro d’Italia travails, Gironimo! And now comes Vuelta Skelter, his retracing of the route of the 1941 Vuelta d’Espagna on a 40-year-old bike sold by the shop run by that race’s winner, Julián Berrendero.

Moore, as a man of a certain age, makes me feel better about my struggles on the bicycle, because he details his own struggles in such an entertaining way. It’s one of his great gifts as a writer that he can find 300 different ways to detail his pain and exhaustion without boring you. But whereas he is deliriously hungry and puking after 140km over mountains in the Spanish heat, I feel that way after 26km. He achieves feats of endurance that are really quite incredible, especially for a lone cyclist, and his various misadventures in hotels and bars and petrol stations around Spain are all part of the fun. A favourite passage:

…I wobbled into the first petrol station in a state of some disarray. There, in the shadow of a refuelling tractor, I struggled to ingest four bags of cheese puffs. It was all the apologetic attendant could offer me to eat, and as I wanly crunched through smelly handfuls of air and yellow dust, it felt as if the process was expending more calories than it replaced.

Moore’s refusal to take nutrition seriously is very funny, when you consider all the column inches dedicated to gels and electrolytes in the cycling press. He needs around 7000 calories a day, but these take the form of whole bottles of red wine, humungous sandwiches and unappetising chocolate pastries. He does have the odd gel, but what the (all right, this) reader envies is his ability to sit down of an evening and eat two whole pizzas – and still lose about 7 kilos over the 6 weeks of his ride.

All of this was taking place against the backdrop of the pandemic, as he manages to arrive in Spain and complete his adventure in the brief hiatus between the first and second lockdowns. More seriously, the 1941 Vuelta was only the third in that race’s history, and the first after the devastation of the Spanish Civil War. This lends the book a different tone to the others, as it’s impossible to escape the grim, brutal history of that conflict – especially as the race’s winner spent the previous 18 months in a concentration camp. Only 32 riders started the race, and less than 20 finished, in an era when the race organisers would confiscate drink bottles because of their belief that real athletes didn’t need to hydrate and when half the country was starving.

It still brings me up short to remember that Spain was a fascist dictatorship well into the 1970s, in the era during which many Brits experienced their first foreign summer holidays. So the darker sections of this book are a stark whiplashy counterpoint to Moore’s usual self-deprecating buffoonery.

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