Bernardo Ruiz: The Vuelta's Accidental Pioneer

He escaped Franco’s purges and endured abject poverty in Spain to win a ramshackle Vuelta. 95-year-old Bernardo Ruiz is the oldest living Grand Tour winner, still singing, chain-smoking and regaling us with tales of derring do. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Between puffs on a cigarette as he sits outside his summer house close to the southern Spanish town of Orihuela, and as the crickets chirrup deafeningly in the August morning heat, Bernardo Ruiz, victorious in the 1948 Vuelta a España, is singing me snatches of a song he learned when he was a small boy.

“iSomos pioneros! La roja flor de la nación. No queremos tiranos, somos la obra en construcción… muchos cabezas capitalistas se segarán. ¡Pionero! ¡Pionero!”

We are pioneers! The red flowers of the nation. We don’t want tyrants, we are building the future… many capitalist heads will be cut off. Pioneer! Pioneer!

This, Ruiz recounts, was one of the songs that he learned when he belonged to his local Communist Party Youth Movement – aka Los Pioneros – just before the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. But Ruiz's development as a young revolutionary came to an abrupt halt on April 2nd 1939, the day that the War ended, and General Franco's troops raised the fascist flag across Spain. The Communist Party was then banned in Spain until after the General’s death in 1975, and as Ruiz puts it, “you couldn’t sing that song any more during Franco’s time unless you wanted to end up in jail. Or worse.”

But even during General Franco’s four decades of dictatorship, Ruiz still had some trailblazing to do. Rather than chopping off capitalists’ heads, by what is surely one of the more improbable pathways into the sport, Ruiz became an accidental pioneer for post-Civil War Spanish professional cycling.

To say Ruiz had his work cut out in this unintentional mission would be no exaggeration, given how much of a mess Spain was in at the time. Never the richest of European countries even before the Civil War, three years of unfettered internal conflict had left what little infrastructure there had been mostly ruined, its economy wrecked, as well as over half a million dead. The situation was exacerbated by an international boycott, to the point where Spain's level of general poverty and economic backwardness remained so great the Spaniards, even today, refer to the 1940s and early 1950s as “the years of hunger”.

In such conditions, a sport like cycling, heavily reliant on “luxuries” such as up-to-date bikes and equipment, specialised clothing and paved roads – the latter which rarely existed outside Spain’s main cities at the time – became a kind of grotesquely emaciated caricature of the booming post-WWII racing scene in Italy, France and Belgium. But these enormous handicaps also made what Ruiz achieved even more remarkable.

The 95-year-old with a mean line in revolutionary songs was not only Spain’s first ever Tour de France podium finisher, in 1952. He was also Spain’s first ever winner of a Giro d’Italia stage, in 1955, and the first Spaniard to take two Tour stages in a single edition of the race, in 1951.

Ruiz's starting point in Grand Tours though, was back home in the Vuelta a España, although the Vuelta of that era hardly merited the title of ‘Grand’, except in terms of being three weeks long. Rather, his description of the Vuelta – which he first raced in 1945 when he had just turned 20 – as “terrifying” sounds far more accurate.

“Like in most Spanish races at the time, the Vuelta peloton was so small – about 50 or 60 riders – and the roads so bad, we had to race as far apart as possible in case the others crashed,” he recalls. But the real problem, Ruiz says, “was trying to eat enough. We were given 100 pesetas [about 60 pence] per day for food and board, which was so little that we’d have to ask the organisers for advances.”

What that money could buy hardly sounds appealing, either. “At the checkpoints on the stages, we’d be offered a steak in breadcrumbs, as tough as a rock, or bananas or oranges. But stocks of everything were always low. I remember one stage we raced from Alicante to Valencia – 200 kilometres – we ate nothing but bananas all day.

“I got a boil on my bum and somebody told me to buy butter to put on it. But I had no idea what butter even looked like, I’d never seen it in my life – until the Vuelta got to the Basque Country, where they sold it in the market in San Sebastian.”

On the plus side, the Vuelta riders generally got more food than a fair proportion of Spain’s malnourished population, “most of whom had no idea what a bike race was in any case”, were surviving on at the time. Ruiz recalls having to smuggle bread into their rudimentary midrace accommodation, “in case some local official saw it and confiscated it” to eat.

In terms of organisation, the Vuelta was an utterly ramshackle affair too, with only two police outriders – “and one of them was drunk all the time, so he didn’t really count" – and only one jeep for all the race officials. Media interest was limited. Ruiz says he doesn't recollect any journalists following the race directly whatsoever. To cap it all, the prize money was abysmal. For finishing 23rd of 26 finishers in 1945, Ruiz received 500 pesetas (£3), and even that prize, he says, was only thanks to someone in the race organisation taking pity on the six riders who had finished outside the top 20 on GC and giving them some money off the books. Theoretically, they should have received nothing at all.

Compared to prizes of that era outside Spain, 500 pesetas was roughly five per cent of what Ruiz would make a few years later in France for an hour-long criterium. But as Ruiz put it, “Spain at the time was another world.” In the midst of all of this organisational chaos and physical misery, a bike race was going on.

“We did 4,400 kilometres in 21 stages, all very long and very tough because most of the roads were unpaved tracks. We went so slowly we’d start racing in the dark and we’d finish in the dark. And the director, Clemente López Doriga, was a bastard. If he thought we weren’t going fast enough, he’d stop the entire race and organise a time-trial in the middle of nowhere, just like that. He didn’t like to see us racing in a group, either.”

When it came to actually winning the Vuelta, though, just three years later, Ruiz proved to be more than up to the task. Apart from his natural talent, consistency and raw physical strength – photos of the era suggest the heftily built Ruiz was anything but fragile – Ruiz says that being a gifted all-rounder helped him enormously, particularly on a route with no summit finishes, which did not feature in the Vuelta until the early 1970s.

The first part of the ’48 Vuelta, Ruiz recalls, was hardly a race in any case, as it was unbearably hot, with temperatures reaching 43 degrees as they looped through southern and eastern Spain. For over a week, the 50-strong peloton mostly ground along at an average speed “of around 23 kilometres an hour”. Rather than punish them with a time-trial for their unofficial strike, López Doriga simply stopped all prize money. The long, tedious and mostly inconclusive days in the saddle reached a low point with a futile 13.5-hour stage (with an hour off for whatever passed for lunch) from Zaragoza to San Sebastian.

The next day, en route to Bilbao, as the weather broke and the rain finally set in, the Vuelta spluttered into some sort of life. On the attack in the Basque Country hills, Ruiz managed to avoid the multiple punctures that affected the GC leader and his key rival, Dalmacio Langarica, who lost four minutes as a result. Then Langarica lost another eight, again because of punctures, on the following day to Santander. Having moved up to the top spot overall almost by default, Ruiz stayed out of trouble on the 1,200 remaining kilometres between Bilbao and Madrid, fending off Langarica’s increasingly futile attacks to take victory.

If Langarica was unfortunate with his punctures, it so happened that looking after tyres, thereby avoiding flats, was one of Ruiz’s specialities. “I used to race a lot in Italy, but not because the money was particularly good, more because I could buy a lot of bike material on the cheap. Or if the equipment turned out to be a bit defective, I’d sell it on to my rivals,” he adds with refreshing honesty.

"But when it came to tubs, I’d cure them like hams, hang them up in a shed for one or two winters, because the older they got, the less they’d suffer on rocky roads.” Indeed, in his entire Grand Tour career, Ruiz claims – and he rode 21 of them, holding the record of 12 consecutive completed Giri, Tours and Vueltas for nearly 50 years until he was overhauled by Australian Adam Hansen – he never once punctured.

Ruiz's sidelines in dodgy equipment might invite condemnation today, but given the context and country in which he was living and racing, it feels overly self-righteous to do so about his era. “These days guys race for ten years and they’re set up for life,” Ruiz says with a mixture of scorn and envy. The money Ruiz made from winning the 1948 Vuelta was far more than his takings as a debutant three years before, but still pretty miserable: “I got three stage wins, the overall and the King of the Mountains title and my total takings came to 17,000 pesetas [roughly £105]. And I had to share that out between myself and my team-mates too. The truth was the organisers couldn’t afford to pay me any more,” he says.

Given the Vuelta’s scant rewards and dire organisation, Ruiz’ offhanded approach to the race, even now, is understandable, but back in the day, maybe he had underlying motives for being so casual about its prize-giving ceremony as well.

In what sounds like the 1940s equivalent of sportswashing, Ruiz was due to receive the victor’s trophy from General Franco himself in the recently inaugurated Santiago Bernabeu football stadium, the home of Real Madrid. But on discovering that he would have to wait three hours for a match to finish before the prize-giving, “I said to my soigneur, let’s get out here. So when Franco wanted to give me the trophy, I wasn’t there!”

As for whether standing up General Franco was a wise thing to do in the middle of a dictatorship, Ruiz simply harrumphs in disagreement: “Anyway, would I have done with a cup like that in my house?” However, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion, too, that by his absence, Ruiz’ old Communist pionero spirit could not resist an opportunity to stick up two fingers at Spain’s Fascist leader.

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Ruiz's rise to what passed for the pinnacle of the 1940s Spanish racing scene was all the more exceptional given his immediate family, as Communist supporters, had been on the losing side of the Civil War, and as such, following Franco's victory, were placed en masse on the list of “Reds” who were automatically deemed disloyal by the General's regime. “We were purged”, is how Ruiz puts it. For years, los rojos were denied the right to work legally and his father had to sign in at the police headquarters every two weeks, or risk being deemed a fugitive and shot on sight.

This situation suddenly improved, though, after a teenage Ruiz took a breakthrough win at his regional championships in Valencia. These just happened to be run by the local FET-JONS – in Franco’s era, Spain’s rough equivalent of the Fascist Party.

“As I appeared in the newspaper with the local Fascists handing out the prizes, and as I was wearing the regional champion’s jersey all year with the Fascist flag on its back, our loyalty stopped being questioned,” he says. “My father could go back to his normal life and nobody ever expected him to report to a police station again. The purge was over.”

Saving his family from political persecution thanks to his racing prowess was only one of the many bizarre but nonetheless tangible connections between the Franco dictatorship and Ruiz’s cycling career. It was, after all, only thanks to General Franco’s sporadic support of the Nazis in World War II (in which Spain was nominally neutral), sending a military unit known as the División Azul [Blue Division] to fight alongside the Germans in Russia in 1940, that Ruiz ended up owning a bike.

“Against his will, because as a former Communist if he hadn’t ‘volunteered’, he’d have been shot, one of my elder brothers fought with the División Azul,” Ruiz recounts. “But he was injured when a Russian soldier threw a hand grenade inside a machine gun post and he was the only survivor.” His brother's head absorbed so much shrapnel that it later became a Ruiz family party game to see how many bits of metal they could feel in it. “As a war invalid, he was given a pension, 3,000 pesetas [£14] and we used 500 pesetas of that money to buy my first bike. It was a blue Alcyon, with three gears but no gear levers: you had to change the chain over by hand.” Ruiz is at pains, even now, to emphasise that he then paid his brother back.

Ruiz and his family’s need for a bike was equally bound up, indirectly, with Spanish politics. Given Ruiz’s father could not work legally because he was a Red, the family earned what money they could on the black market, so “we would buy flour from the farms round Orihuela, get it milled and take it with a donkey and cart to sell it up in Valencia. But then the donkey was hit by a truck and killed so we needed another means of transport, and quickly, to keep our business going.”

Hence the purchase of the blue Alcyon, and Ruiz's first “training rides”: non-stop excursions bearing illegal food supplies on rutted, dusty back roads, where the black marketeers would leave piles of earth on the roadside in different shapes as a code to warn of oncoming police patrols.

As for getting involved in the competitive side of cycling, it was almost as fortuitous as getting the bike: “I just saw a bunch of guys pedalling past me one day in the opposite direction and thought I might as well join them and see what happened. It turned out to be a race.” The whole process of his turning into a bike rider, Ruiz agrees, was so improbable “that to this day, I really don’t know how I became one. I must have been 16 or 17, so I started very late. In those days virtually nobody in Spain had bikes. If they did, they were really heavy, old things and often the tyres were simply cords made out of vegetable fibres.

“There was so little food after the Civil War, we were all living hand to mouth. When there was a wheat harvest, we ate bread for a few weeks. Then when there was a crop of oranges, we’d move onto eating them. I remember the country was so poor the Perón government in Argentina sent Spain supplies of a horrendous kind of wheat called sorghum to help feed the population. But that was all we could get.”

Despite Spain’s grim political and economic circumstances, there were, still, bike races of sorts, many of them part of the entertainment in local village fiestas. The first 1940s Spanish newspaper reports containing the name of a certain Federico Martin Bahamontes, for example, describe the Eagle of Toledo's domination of these events – although they don't mention his stowing away on goods trains to get from one ramshackle event to the next.

Three years older, Ruiz, though, was on a much steeper upwards curve to sporting fame. He won the Volta a Catalunya in 1945, at the time the country’s wealthiest professional race, at the precocious age of 20.

Ruiz was lucky to make the start line. As he was unable to afford the train fare, his fellow citizens of Orihuela had a whip-round and raised the 350 pesetas [£2] Ruiz needed to travel, for the first time in his life, to a race outside his home region of Valencia. How he managed for food and board was even chancier: his local Fascist Party, having adopted Ruiz as “one of theirs” after he won the regional championships, provided him with an illegal ration book for meals.

His victory in Catalunya, taken without a stage win but by flying under the radar of the better-established racers until it was too late to beat the upstart, effectively kick-started his professional career.

Apart from the knock-on effects of the economic boycott of Franco’s Spain, international politics reared its ugly head even when the Spanish bike riders raced abroad. In 1949, a Spanish team was invited to the Tour de France for the first time. Despite Ruiz’s repeated warnings that the Spanish were not ready for their better-equipped, better-fed, more race-savvy rivals, they went.

It wasn’t just on the road the Spanish took a panning. For the first five days, Ruiz recalls, they received nothing but insults from the public too. “France was full of exiles from Franco’s Spain,” Ruiz recalls, “and they saw us racing in jerseys with Franco’s Spanish flag on our backs and started yelling hijos de puta! [sons of bitches] Franquistas! [Franco-supporters] We had to park our jeep in the police station garage every night in case it got attacked. The crazy thing was, I was part of a Communist family and one of the mechanics on the team had fought against Franco in the Civil War - he’d been a pilot who bombed Zaragoza!”

By stage five, the Spanish had had enough of France, and as Ruiz recalls, “we’d already made a deal to race the Tour of Portugal”, which took place shortly afterwards. “So Dalmacio [Langarica] deliberately smashed one of the gears on his bike and announced to our director he’d had a mechanical and had to abandon. Then most of the rest of the squad got off their bikes and sat in the team jeep behind me yelling ‘Quit! Quit!’ until I abandoned too.”

Whilst all of the riders had their international racing licences taken away by the furious Spanish authorities (they raced in Portugal anyway), the French were also unimpressed. The following year, the Spaniards were not invited to the Tour.

But in 1951, with this unofficial ban lifted, Ruiz’s participation in the Tour could not have gone better, with two stage wins, the first for his country since before the Civil War, and ninth place overall. Then in 1952 there was an even more important breakthrough as Ruiz netted Spain’s first ever podium position in Tour de France history.

Finishing third was, Ruiz says with characteristic directness, as good as it would get, given his chances against Fausto Coppi were verging on non-existent. “We were just racing for the right to stand beside him in Paris,” he says. However, Ruiz does believe he could have gone one better on the Tour’s podium had he not made a mistake over the Ventoux. “Our tubulars were very dangerous, because they heated up if you braked, so I descended 150 metres behind Coppi and Stan Ockers, very carefully because I was scared. I lost four minutes. If I hadn’t done that, I’d have finished second. But I’d never have beaten Coppi.” The Italian took one of his most famous Tour victories that year, winning with a lead of nearly half an hour over second-placed Ockers.

Clearly fond of the Italian, Ruiz’s memories abound of other stars and water-carriers of the 1940s and 1950s. He remembers 1947 Tour winner Jean Robic, for example, filling up several bidons with water “because he was so small if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have gone downhill fast enough” and has nothing but praise for the descending skills of triple 1950s Tour of Flanders winner Fiorenzo Magni: “I once had three minutes on him at a summit and he regained it all on me on a single downhill”. Then there are the 60 or so criteriums he recalls racing with his “good friend” Abdel-Kader Zaaf, the Algerian-born racer known for falling asleep under a tree and riding the wrong way in the 1950 Tour de France.

Ruiz's own past is so full of unexpected memories that they can still take the man himself by surprise. The same morning he talks to me, his daughter – already stunned by his Communist Pioneers song, which she has never heard before – and son-in-law have been ferretting through the summer house junk room and unearthed a bottle of Russian vodka dating from 1945 that Ruiz received as a prize. “I got that in a race in Altea,” he says, once again revealing his astonishing capacity to remember events of 75 years ago, “although I’d completely forgotten about that bottle until today.” Fortunately, he doesn’t suggest opening it.

Ruiz is not just one of the last riders able to uncork a rich series of memories of a forgotten era of cycling. His palmarès shows he achieved more than enough to be remembered in his own right, too. What is arguably most important of all is his strikingly similar role to the one played by Brian Robinson in British cycling. Just as Robinson was a vital, sometimes underappreciated, first link between Britain and mainland Europe’s professional racing, so Ruiz was the first Spaniard to bridge the divide between a country with its own cycling “scene” – one which had become a semi-isolated, backwards-looking, satellite of mainstream Continental racing.

With no disrespect to Robinson, Ruiz’s biggest results – like his Vuelta victory and Tour podium – were of an even higher calibre than the Briton's. But like the Yorkshireman, too, in one way it barely mattered. Just as Robinson’s achievements were quickly overshadowed by those of Tom Simpson a few years later, so Ruiz was quickly superceded in the Spanish public’s imagination by a far more erratic, charismatic and successful racer: Federico Bahamontes.

Even at the debut of his professional career, the Eagle of Toledo’s shows of bravado, like stopping to eat an ice cream on top of the Romeyere in the 1954 Tour, proved far more memorable than Ruiz’s industriously achieved podium breakthrough two years before. Then Bahamontes’ outright victory in the 1959 Tour, Spain’s first in the race, all but completely eclipsed what Ruiz had done.

Yet just as Simpson might not have achieved so much in mainland Europe without Robinson paving the way, there’s a strong case for saying that without Ruiz, Bahamontes’ chances of international success would have considerably diminished. That was particularly the case after the Spaniards’ disastrous post-War venture at the 1949 Tour of course, until Ruiz set the record straight in 1951 and again the following year. Albeit unintentionally, he became a true pioneer for his country’s sport in the process. And so, in one way at least, that old Communist Party youth song Ruiz still remembers ended up coming true after all.

Alasdair Fotheringham is the author of The Eagle of Toledo, the biography of Federico Martin Bahamontes

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