Eddy Merckx often relates that the day after his wedding, several funeral wreaths appeared in front of his house and an attempt was made to plug the lock with toothpaste.
“What sin had I committed? Responding ‘oui’, in French, and not ‘ja’, in Flemish, when the priest asked me if I would take Claudine as my wife. The Flemish population in Belgium considered it a betrayal, but I’ve always expressed myself in French. Well, except once, when I fell in Valloire on the ’75 Tour and seeing the Basques from the Kas team, and kind of half in shock, spoke to them in Flemish…”
“Of course, I’m not surprised that he spoke to us in Flemish, a language that nobody understands,” says Txomin Perurena. “We’d taught him Euskera, which is even more difficult than Flemish. Well, not all of the Basque language, only one phrase: “Gora Euskadi Askatuta” (Long live the freedom of the Basque Country).
It was Santi Lazcano who’d taught him, and all Merckx could think of doing was to start shouting it in the middle of the pack when the Tour got to Spain, a stage that ended in La Seu d’Urgell. ‘You’re crazy, Eddy’, we would tell him, ‘if the Guardia Civil hear you, they’ll arrest you…’ And Merckx quietened down, but he had to win the stage, that was all that mattered to him. It was 1974 and Franco was still alive. Spain was a dictatorship…”
Ventas de Astigarraga: a crossing on a minor road one bright February morning in the heart of the Basque Country, with Renteria lying to the north, and Oiartzun to the south. The crossing has three points. A triangle that could symbolise what Euskadi was and could be. To the south, behind a garden of bare banana trees that one can imagine all lush and flowery, shading the terrace on a summer’s morning, there is a house with the shutters closed, ‘For Sale’ signs stuck on the balconies and a formerly-illuminated advertisement devoid of light for a couple of years now which reads: Bar Perurena.
Inside there are still tables and chairs, the old and immense Faema coffee-maker with its cups and saucers, and a vast framed photo of half a dozen Fagor riders, including Perurena, holding up the wounded Luis Ocaña, who had just fallen on the Ballon d’Alsace on his debut Tour in 1969; a photo that marked a generation.
Forty years have passed since Merckx spoke Euskera, almost the same length of time that Franco’s dictatorship reigned in Spain, and Txomin Perurena, Peru, walks as upright as his square shoulders will allow, the drooping shoulders of a cyclist circling the bar that he inherited from his parents.
“I rented it to some other people. Now nobody wants to rent it and that’s why I’m selling it. I never liked the business. I became a cyclist so that I wouldn’t have to work in the bar. Periko Matxain, who would go on to create and become director of Fagor, gave me a bike so that I didn’t have to walk from Oiartzun where I lived,” recalls Perurena.
If he stands in front of the bar that bears his name and looks just a few metres ahead and to the north, his line of vision will take in, on the other side of the road, resting on an islet of grass and shrubs, the second point of the triangle, which consists of a hard stone slab on which two faded bouquets of flowers lie.
On the headstone, two names are carved, ‘Peru eta Stein’ (Peru and Stein), the date February 8, 1984, and a Celtic cross. “That was the day they killed my brother Vincent,” says Txomin, without giving the matter any apparent greater importance, as if he were talking about a historical fact that should no longer matter to anyone. “Ahh, 30 years ago…”
With no noticeable resentment, or so it would seem, Txomin tells the story: “My brother was in [Basque separatist group] ETA, he was a Mugalari, and his work in the organisation was to help people cross the border with France using secret roads (in Basque, muga means border).
“He lived in Hendaye, France, and I, at least, didn’t know what he did for a living. I don’t know whether my mother knew or not, but I remember that in February ’84 I was on the Tour of Andalusia, as director of the Orbea team, when they called me from home. ‘GAL have killed your brother, Txomin,’ I was told. ‘He and Stein [Angel Gurmindo, alias Stein, was Domingo Iturbe Abasolo, alias Txomin’s bodyguard, one of the top leaders of ETA at the time, and also exiled in the French Basque Country] were gunned down in the street while on their way to see the cup match between Athletico Bilbao and Real Sociedad.
“I got into my car and drove without stopping from Fuengirola to Hendaye [a 1,000-kilometre journey across Spain]. I remember that in those days there wasn’t a crematorium nearby, and his body had to be taken to Bordeaux to be cremated…”
The GAL, or Anti-Terrorist Liberation Group, as it was later known, were a series of hired killers from the Spanish police that, during the government of Felipe Gonzalez, felt that the so-called ‘dirty war’ was the best way to fight against ETA terrorism.
“Many years later,” continues Perurena, “in 1999, the police arrested my niece Mari Luz, Vincent’s daughter, for being part of an ETA command that stole dynamite from a weapons store in Brittany.”
The third point of the triangle is located to the East, and is simply a road sign in the form of an arrow which points to the future and the ever present Basque Country, and shows how to get to the Mugaritz restaurant, hidden on a hillside in the middle of an oak tree forest. The Mugaritz is one of the best restaurants in the world, despite only having two Michelin stars.
“I gave up the third star because I would have gone against some of my principles,” says the chef and restaurant owner, Andoni Luis Aduriz. “Mugaritz is part of the emotional landscape for the Basque people, and their collective imagination and culture. The Basques, like all human beings, need mechanisms for belonging, to feel like ourselves, to feel that things belong to us.”
There was a time when this mechanism of belonging in the Basque Country came to the forefront in cycling with more force perhaps than any other activity. It was the ’60s and ’70s of the last century, the years of Kas and Fagor, the two great Basque teams, whose exploits could be matched by the Euskadi team up until their demise in 2013. Cycling in the ’60s and ’70s, and in particular the cycling era of Txomin Perurena, was a religion that had its cathedral in the Basque Country: the Anoeta Velodrome in San Sebastian.
Many years after his last visit, Txomin returns to the velodrome, whose midday visitors include a couple of fans doing laps without daring to climb the banking. In the middle of the cement track, Txomin turns, scans the grandstand and suddenly falls silent for someone who’s always happy to talk.
“There wasn’t a sadder moment in my career, I think,” he says, recovering the ability to speak. “Can you imagine what it’s like to enter the velodrome in your city with the stands full of fans, there would have been more than 15,000, and not hear any noise, only silence? That was what happened to me…”
It was the spring of 1975, on the last stage of the Vuelta. Perurena was leading with more than a minute on Miguel Maria Lasa and Agustín Tamames. Only a 30km time-trial stood between him and overall victory, finishing with a lap of the velodrome.
“Even though I’d lost 1m 19s to Tamames, I was leading the race,” recalls Perurena. “And I thought I could make it up, but on entering the velodrome and hearing the silence that greeted me from the fans, I knew that I hadn’t succeeded. In the end I lost out by 14 seconds, half a lap… I’ll never get that silence out of my head. Sometimes I feel like crying. That’s how I lost the Vuelta in front of the home fans.”
Extract from issue 17.6