2011 Vuelta a España – Return to the Basque Country

For the first time in 33 years the Vuelta a España will visit the Basque country after an extended absence from the northern region of Spain. Organizers of the Vuelta are planning to announce the route in full in mid-January, but have confirmed that the 2011 route will have finishes in both Bilbao and Vittoria. 1978 was the last year the race entered the highly contested Euskadi, known for having passionate orange-clad cycling fans, but also a long and sometimes bloody conflict born from a strong Basque separatist movement.

In 1978, the world was in a state of turmoil as the effects of the cold war flared around the globe. Somalia and Ethiopia were engaged in the Ogaden War. Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge were at war with Cambodia. In Spain, King Juan Carlos I had been appointed to the throne on Franco’s orders following the death of the dictator in 1975. Violence and confusion were issues around the globe in the late 70’s and it was no different in Spain. Juan Carlos I abandoned the Franco regime he was ordered to maintain and began a transition to democracy from dictatorship marking a period when political turbulence consumed Spain for years.

The Spanish people were amid much uncertainty when the 1978 Vuelta began. Only just recovering from the recent 1977 Atocha station massacre in Madrid by the terrorist faction Alianza Apostólica Anticomunista (AAA), political tensions were high. The AAA, were Francoists who exploded a bomb in the Madrid central train station on January 24, targetted at the then clandestine Communist Party of Spain, killing four and wounding nine. On April 25th, 1978 frenchman Bernard Hinault took to the start line of the Vuelta in Gijón. Outside of Spain, Afghan presidential monarchy led by Daoud Khan was about to fall as a military coup began. When the Vuelta left Gijón two days later on April 27th, Khan was dead in Afghanistan and a pro-communist democratic republic was in power with Nur Muhammad Taraki the new leader.

Tensions inside Spain mirrored those around the globe as political ideologies waged war. The first democratic president, Adolfo Suárez, was appointed by King Juan Carlos I in 1976 to lead Spain through La Transición. Suárez soon after offered complete amnesty to members of the Basque terrorist faction Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) in exchange for ceasefire. Basque culture and people had been heavily supressed during the Franco right-wing dictatorship and as La Transición began the Basque held much resentment toward the Spanish state. ETA refused amnesty and continued violence which began it’s bloodiest period in 1978, when ETA killed 68 people that year. This number would rise to 76 in 1979 and reach it’s worst in 1980 with 91 dead.

While in Madrid in 1978, Guardia Civil Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, Major Ricardo Saenz Ynestrillas and two others were planning Operation Galaxia, an effort to lauch a military coup and overthrow the presidency of Suárez and restore the Franco dictatorship. The Operation took it’s name, Galaxia, from the Madrid Cafe Galaxia (now Van Gogh Café) in which meetings took place. Spain was on the brink of chaos.

In 1978, while cyclists were heading east toward Barcelona in Spain, communist influence was gaining strength in Afghanistan. The USA began funding and arming a militant Islamist group which would eventually fight the Soviets, with a young Osama Bin Laden, the following year in 1979 after the assassination of Taraki by Hafizullah Amin beginning the Soviet War in Afghanistan.

By the time the Vuelta returned west from Barcelona and entered the Basque country on stage 17, the organizers of the Vuelta were concerned for the safety of riders and fans fearing terrorist actions by ETA. The race finished the first 84km portion of a two-stage-day in San Sebastian on the 14th of May, as stage 19a concluded with Domingo Perurena winning and Hinault in the overall lead by 3’02”. Originally, it was planned that a 19b time trial stage would happen later the same day, but organizers had already cancelled the final stage and rushed to disperse crowds, and conclude the event, with Hinault winning his first Grand Tour. In 1978, Hinault would go on to win his first of five Tour de France becoming only the 4th rider to win two tours in the same year. This was the last year the Vuelta a España entered the Basque region.

In 1981, a second, failed, Operation Galaxia was attempted on February 23rd, more commonly know as the 23-F coup when Tejero held 350 people hostage in the House of Parliament in Madrid. Later that year, Giovanni Battaglin would win the 36th Vuelta a España, and then the 64th Giro D’Italia becoming the 5th rider to win two Grand Tours in the same year.

In 2004, Bombs again rocked the Atocha train station in Madrid, killing 191 people and wounding 1800 as an Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell attacked several commuter trains. The terrorist organization whose beginnings were once funded by America, and allied with the US against the Soviets, now cited Spain’s support of American involvement in the war in the Middle East as reason for the attacks. These bombings, however, were almost immediately blamed on ETA by the Aznar administration. Many attribute this unproven accusation to his loss of power and the election of the current Zapatero government. However there are those who side with Aznar and still believe to this day that ETA is somehow involved, although ETA’s leaders have fervently denied this accusation while Al-Qaeda associates have been proven responsible.

On September 10, 2010 ETA committed to a third ceasefire, after two previous returns to violence, citing a new desire for “peaceful, democratic means.” The 13th stage of the 2010 Vuelta a España began in Rincon de Soto, traveled north toward Logroño, ran about 5km south of the Basque border and finally ended in Burgos on that same day. This had been the closest the race has come to entering the Basque country since 1978. Now, for the Basque cycling fan, and for all Spaniards, the Vuelta will return to Northern Spain and Euskadi, hopefully as one small indication of an attempt to move beyond a violent past and on to a peaceful and shared future.

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