Vuelta a España

Does Dios ride a bike? Religion and cycling in Spain.

by Alasdair Fotheringham on 05 July 2021
Reputed to be a bulwark of Roman Catholicism, Spain's links between its semi-official religion and a sport in which it has traditionally excelled are well-established. But, surprisingly, they have little to do with personal faith.

In nearly 30 years of living in Spain, I have lost count of the number of times I have had the following conversation: "Are you a creyente?", social shorthand for a Roman Catholic believer, I would ask, and receive a solid 'Sí.' as an answer. But then comes the all important qualification: "only for weddings, funerals and baptisms, mind."

Roman Catholics

More than 70 percent of Spaniards describe themselves as fully believing, full-time Roman Catholics. Yet less than a fifth of that number – 13 percent – regularly attend Mass. But perhaps the most telling piece of data about how skin deep religion belief is for many Spaniards is the country's chronic vocational crisis for priests and nuns - now in its fifth decade. For proof of that, a piece of data: in the Basque Country, said to be both cycling's heartland and the most religious part of Spain, for years the main Roman Catholic seminary was a vast eight-story building in the town of Derio near Bilbao, visible for miles around. Yet such has been the drop in active faith, even four decades ago, that as far back as 1974 only two would-be priests remained in the seminary, rattling around in a structure (which still exists) designed for hundreds for novitiates. Now, there are none.

Religion as a social activity remained and remains a hugely important part of Spain's daily life.

Religion as a social activity, though, remained and remains a hugely important part of Spain's daily life. The Easter processions where hundreds of thousands of young men and women carry huge throne-like structures with immense figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary for hours through the streets, are as popular as they were 50 years ago. (In total, there are around 7,000 such processions each Easter in Spain, and around a million participants). Interest in walking the Santiago Way, a network of pilgrimage paths stretching from the Pyrenees through to the Galician cathedral city, has surged, particularly thanks to the recent economic recession, and is considered a cheap, and healthy, leisure activity, reaching an all-time high of 192,000 pilgrims per year.

The Church itself is one of the country's biggest landowners, with 100,000 properties across the country. Around 1,300,000 Spanish children, according to church figures, are in Catholic schools. And there are some very highly placed, intensely religious figures in Spain's political establishment, too: as recently as 2014 the Spanish government was taken to court over a decision by the Minister of the Interior, Jorge Fernandez Díaz, to give Spain's a top policing award, the gold medal of police merit, to a statue of the Virgin Mary in Málaga. As the figures for Mass-goers suggest, though, Mr. Fernández Díaz, though, is an exception that proves a rule. More than an individual question of faith, the Catholic Church, then, is often a kind of social glue that serves to unite Spain. In that way, religion's relationship with cycling in the country is rarely one where personal faith is the leading issue. Rather, the Catholic faith often acts as a formula for bringing people together.


To begin with, look no further than the priests' seminary in Derio. First built as a mental hospital before it was taken over by the church in the early 1950s, the seminary's imposing central tower and two flanking buildings, its rough cement exterior walls, painted a kind of off-pink colour, are distinctly reminiscent of an Eastern Block 1970s police headquarters. And yet, at its forbidding base, every Sunday, hundreds of bike riders assemble. The reason? Although the seminary has closed, there is not only a hotel and a leisure centre in the building – still owned by the Catholic Church – but for more than 20 years, Derio has also housed a cycling team. Euskaltel-Euskadi, seen by many Basques as their unofficial national squad, had its headquarters here in the seminary. The team's manager and alma mater for Miguel Madariaga, still runs the Euskadi amateur squad from the same building, and as a way of remaining integrated in the community, the squad holds bike 'schools' for young children, and fun rides for the adults. What the former religious occupants of the seminary would make of such activities we can only guess!

Euskaltel-Euskadi's religious links extended more clearly to other areas. Every year, when the team – which disbanded at the end of 2013 – set off for the Tour de France, a ceremony would be held at Bilbao airport on the Tuesday or Wednesday before the race started, where they would receive an official blessing from a local priest, then get on the plane for France. It's perhaps no coincidence that one of their top riders, Roberto Laiseka, was one of the most religiously minded athletes of his era and a lifelong member of the team. Laiseka, a skilled climber, would never travel without a bottle of holy water, and he would rub drops of the sacred liquid into his legs before each stage. Whether it worked or not, Laiseka took two of the team's biggest ever victories, at Abantos in the Vuelta – their first ever Grand Tour stage win – in 1999 and in Luz Ardiden in 2001 in the Tour de France.

Roberto Laiseka, a skilled climber, would never travel without a bottle of holy water, and he would rub drops of the sacred liquid into his legs before each stage.

But if the strength of the spiritual link to Roman Catholicism varied from rider to rider, it has never been difficult for Basque riders to connect Catholicism with their sport in a geographical sense. Every year since 1941, one of the region's key races has been a hillclimb to Arrate, which has a sanctuary to the Virgin Mary at its summit. First an independent event, then part of the now defunct Bicicleta Vasca race, the Arrate climb is now the finale for the main stage of the Basque Country's biggest race, the WorldTour ranked Vuelta al País Vasco, and the finish line, the tv mobile rooms and the winner's podium are literally in the shadow of the sanctuary building. Amongst those who have raised their arms in triumph there are Federico Martín Bahamontes – the record holder for victories there, five between 1958 and 1962 – the illfated Luis Ocaña, Stephen Roche, Miguel Indurain (twice) and Alberto Contador. For nearly 80 years until 2009, the one-day ‘Subida a Urkiola’ race would have feature a twin ascent to another sanctuary at Urkiola, the second and final climb coming to within a few metres of the church at its summit. And some 40 kilometres further sourth, one of the regions's biggest junior races, the ‘Subida a Aranzazu’, still does exactly the same to another sanctuary.

Chapel of Dorleta

The Basque Country is home, too, to Spain's 'cycling sanctuary', the chapel of Our Lady of Dorleta at Salinas de Léniz, just a few kilometres north of its capital, Vitoria. Whilst the chapel itself is situated at the top of the Alto de Arlaban climb, 587 metres above sealevel, roughly a kilometre below the summit the main focal point of the sanctuary for riders is a shrine. Many clubs and cyclists leave winners' bouquets of flowers, cycling maillots and other bike-related paraphernalia, there, in both homage to the Virgin and at the same time as way of requesting her protection in races and beyond.

The sanctuary's link to cycling was established in 1960, when three Basque cyclo-tourists rode the 1,700 kilometres to Rome with a petition signed by thousands of their fellow countrymen to ask for the chapel to take on that role. They managed to convince the Pope of the time, John XXIII to give his official approval to their request, although given he was well-known as a fan of Gino 'the Pious' Bartoli, and with a missive from the Bishop of nearby San Sebastian supporting their petition, was perhaps not so surprising. It took considerably more time – years apparently – to get the Spanish Cycling Federation on board, but Spain finally gained a chapel like the Chapelle des Cyclistes at Labastide d'Armagnac in France or the chapel on the Madonna di Ghisallo in Lombardy, one dedicated both to cycling and to God.

News of Spain's cycling sanctuary spread, and images of the Virgin of Dorleta can be seen in the most unexpected of places – like the religious college of Jesus y María in Valencia, nearly 1,000 kilometres away on the other side of Spain. The image, paid for and funded by the main local association, Bici-Club Valencia. Every Sunday, outside the school, the club meets for its usual weekly group ride.

These kinds of religious connections between Roman Catholicism and cycling are not constant, but they do pop up from time to time and at all levels, too. Every year that Miguel Indurain won the Tour de France, for example it was traditional for one of the maillot jaunes to be donated and hung on display his local church in Villava, all this during a mass to held as part of the victory celebrations. Look back at the past, and Federico Martín Bahamontes and one of the yellow jerseys he won in the 1959 Tour is still on display in the cathedral of his home city, Toledo. 1973 Tour winner Luis Ocaña, although an exile in France, was married in the cyclist's chapel at Labastide d'Armagnac, and it was there, too that his funeral was held in 1994. When Alberto Contador won the 2014 Vuelta a España in Galicia, afterwards he had his photo taken in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, dressed as a pilgrim and the final podium was positioned within a stone's throw of the cathedral's main door.

"In Bejar we only believe in two things, the Virgin and [multiple Vuelta a España winner] Roberto Heras," a local blogger, Oscar Rivadeneyra, from Heras small home town of Bejar, once wrote in 2005. This could have been a joke, of course, particularly given Heras dubious doping past, but the humour reflects an underlying association between the rider and religion.

The priest of the Vuelta

The Vuelta a España – won by Heras four times – is the only one of the Grand Tours, too, to have its own Roman Catholic priest. Up until the late 1970s, when the Vuelta was run by Basque newspaper El Correo, the role was an official one. From the 1980’s onwards, when the race was taken over Unipublic, the position has an unofficial occupant, Salvador Andrés García San Emeterio, known simply to everybody as Salva. Every Sunday in the race, Salva improvises a chapel in the Vuelta's main organisation hotel for a mass, and offers confessions and spiritual advice to those riders who request it.

Now 63, Salva told the news agency EFE last year how he began working in the Vuelta a España. "It all started in 1986, I was working in [the Basque towns of] Ermua and Mallabia had some links with a team, Orbea. Thanks to my friendship with [Orbea director and former professional] Txomin Perurena I was invited on some races, and almost without realizing it, I grew more and more involved in the sport. "He has officiated at many riders weddings, like those of Julian Gorospe, Marino Lejarreta and Pedro Horrillo, and "I have baptised many of their children. I have a good relationship with many riders in the peloton." A keen amateur rider, "When out training I'd run into riders like Lejarreta or [Alberto] Leanizbarrutia, they knew me from my priest's work and one thing led to another." The Vuelta's change of dates, from May to September, "has made it much easier for me to work here" – which is, it should be said, unpaid, and was, before retiring, taken from his holiday time. His other 'job' in the Vuelta a España "is as a driver for commissaires or doctors, always lending a hand where I can."

Should Salva be too busy ferrying officials, never fear: a second priest, José Luis Pascual Melgosa, is at hand. Pascual Melgosa is more of an occasional visitor, although he has been helping out in the Vuelta a España for more than 14 years. His usual 'job' is in the northern diocese of Burgos, but in the Vuelta, when he comes, "I give advice to the riders that need me, I give confession to those who ask me for it and I try to motivate them. Above all, the Spanish and Italians who tend to be the strongest believers." He also works with directors, like in 2012, when – after a tumultuous first week, when race leader and Movistar rider Alejandro Valverde lost the top spot overall in some controversial echelons – "I had to talk to [Movistar manager] Eusebio Unzue to try and calm things down, we couldn't go on with the same controversy, things had to go back to their usual situation." Like Salva, he knows of cycling first-hand, given one of his cousins is Isidro El Flequi Juarez, a professional from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s and a winner of a Vuelta stage in 1985. "I was inspired to ride a bike thanks to him."

Religion or politics?

That champion bike riders can inspire the religiously minded – as well as the other way round – is something which stretches back to the country's very first Tour de France winner, Federic Martín Bahamontes, in 1959. After victory in the Tour that year, the Spanish sports daily MARCA – which had very close links to General Franco's dictatorship – referred to the priesthood and Bahamontes in an article describing the positive benefits for Spanish society as a whole of such a breakthrough triumph in cycling's biggest bike race. First and foremost in the queue of inspired workers? A priest. "Bahamontes triumph pushes the pedals of the priest as he goes to say mass in a village, of the worker as he goes to his building site, or the road-mender as he goes to work on his stretch of road," the paper's editorial said. This social role was possible compared to the other top sport of football, MARCA concluded, because "football is too specialised in comparison to cycling. From today onwards, all the bicycles in Spain will be happier, lighter, as if the wind of Bahamontes' triumph was pushing them on."

Yet rather than boost religion, it was notable that Franco's dictatorship was more interested in how to exploit Bahamontes as a poster boy for the benefits of the regime. 1959 was a crucial year for Spain, politically and economically. American General Eisenhower's visit to the country in April 1959 ended its lengthy isolation from NATO countries for supporting Hitler and Mussolini, Severo Ochoa took the Nobel Prize of Medicine, confirming Spain was no longer a scientific backwater and the economic recession, the so called 'Years of Hunger', finally ended in 1959. At the same time, tourist restrictions for entering were lifted that year, allowing the start of the package holiday industry which acted as one of Spain's economic motors for decades afterwards . Bahamontes win was the first major sports triumph after Franco had seized power, and the fact he rode into Paris on July 18th, the anniversary of the start of Franco's uprising against the Spanish Republic in 1936, was given enormous prominence in state-approved media (the only kind in Spain) at the time of Bahamontes win.

So rather than a cross-over to religion – which is important – probably the most notable link for Spanish cycling to society in general has always been with the country's politics, right up to Miguel Indurain's victories in the 1990s, considered to be symbolic of Spain's breakthrough into mainstream EU Europe. It works the other way too: just think of Premier Jose Luis Zapatero's infamous Tweet supporting Contador when he had tested positive for clenbuterol and saying there was "no legal reason" to sanction Contador, or Mariano Rajoy's rumoured intervention with Movistar to encourage them to sponsor a bike team. But unlike Amore e Vita in Italy, say – a team which rode with crucifixes attached to their cross-bards – there has never been a professional team in Spain with clear religious links. If there are Spanish races which finish on a climb with strong religious associations, there are plenty which do not, and if the Vuelta has its own priest, there are plenty of races which do not. As a rule the religious link remains more logistical, social and geographical, than directly spiritual. In that sense, given Spanish society's tendency to keep its links with the church intact, but at arm's length, that is no different to anything else in Spain.

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