The Tour of the Basque Country is on this week and a chance to take a closer look at this region which is one of the hotbeds of cycling in Europe. It’s packed with clubs, pro teams, races, knowledgeable fans and berets.
Basque Country vs Basque country: the Basque Country has been a live political topic for centuries and today the summary version is that there is a defined administrative region in Spain with a population of about 2.1 million. There is also a wider Basque country which includes the Spanish region of Navarre as well as areas in France along the border.
Sport is big in the Basque Country: the biggest sport is football and this arrived in part because of trading links on the Atlantic to Britain. The inaugural Copa del Rey soccer competition was won twice by Athletic Bilbao and in 1909 the same trophy was won by… the San Sebastiàn Cycling Club, better known today as Real Sociedad. In reality the bay city of San Sebastiàn (Donostia in Basque) had a general sports club with cycling, football and other sections and an admin mix-up meant the cycling team got entered but the footballers won, not the cyclists.
Cycling runs a close second to football. What made cycling so popular? As ever there’s more than one factor but industrialism and the large workforce that accompanied the factories were central. The region’s
capital biggest city is is Bilbao (pictured), a port city which took off in the 19th century thank to abundant reserves of iron ore. A lot of this precious material was exported but in time Bilbao became a major producer of iron and steel. This made the region wealthy and also gave rise to industries like shipbuilding and armaments. You didn’t come here for an economic history of the Basque region but the point here is that these industries created the roots of the flourishing cycle culture. First the production of rifles led to expertise in steel tubing which in turn allowed several Basque bicycle manufacturers like Orbea and BH to succeed. Second the large population of workers needed transport to get to work and so the bicycle was quickly adopted and, as so often, some went from commuting to the factory to riding at weekends.
Mountains: the geography doesn’t make it easy to get into cycling. The region is mountainous with the Pyrenees to the east and the Cantabrian mountains to the west (the Lagos de Covadonga etc) and if the highest peak is 1,551 metres above sea level the landscape is corrugated with wooded hills. It’s similar to the Apennines in central Italy only wetter, the proximity to the Atlantic means this is a lush region. This is compact chainset territory and even the pros in the Tour of the Basque Country run special low gears.
Nationalism and regional identity have long played a part. It seems no coincidence today that the Spanish regions with the strongest polling for independence, the Basque Country and Catalonia, are the ones that retain their own World Tour stage races alongside the Vuelta a España and Spain’s only major one day race is the Clasica San Sebastiàn. The Vuelta itself for years wasn’t the full tour of Spain because it stayed away from the Basque country following protests in 1978 and fears that it would not be safe to return; the race was bombed when it visited the region in 1968. The Tour de France also had its scares with bombs and arrests in the Pyrenees too. But in 2011 the Vuelta returned to the region and as ex-pro and journalist Pedro Horillo said “For the Vuelta this signifies a return to its roots. The Vuelta was organised by a paper from here” with reference to the El Correo Español-El Pueblo Vasco (“The Spanish Post – The Basque City”) newspaper that ran the race from 1955 to 1978. In fact the first three editions of the Vuelta were really a race from Eibar in the Basque Country to Madrid and back.
Knowledgeable fans: the Tour of the Basque Country is well supported by locals every year and one reason behind the large crowds sometimes seen at Spanish races is high unemployment (currently 18% across Spain) then this might still be a factor but the region has a significantly lower unemployment rate than the nation. Instead the locals are passionate about cycling and often knowledgeable too and anecdotally the region is similar to Flanders in that your average citizen in the street actually knows something about the sport. The likes of France and Italy can have their grand tours but this doesn’t translate into year round popularity, ask an Italian to name a cyclist and they’d probably say Marco Pantani rather than Vincenzo Nibali.
The Tour of the Basque Country: arguably it’s the stage racer’s stage race. Winning any stage race is a feat especially in the World Tour but this one seems to command particular respect from peers who know the severity of the course.
Language: Basque is an original language and if you watch the Tour of the Basque Country or the Clasisca San Sebastiàn chances are the on-screen captions confuse. Don’t worry because Euskara, the Basque language, has confused linguistics experts because it has no obvious roots in another language, ie it can’t be traced back to, say, Latin, Greek or Celtic. Within the region today there are various dialects but most if not all locals speak Castilian Spanish.
Euskadi and Euskaltel: For 20 years Basque cycling was exported via its own team and chances are for many readers Basque identity is not the green, white and red ikurrina flag but the orange lycra of the Euskaltel team, dressed in Exteondo clothing of course, another local brand. They started out in the colours of the Basque flag thanks to a crowdfunding project where supporters subscribed to keep the team on the road but in time they adopted the colours and name of a regional telecoms operator.
Like some local football clubs the team had a policy of recruiting only local riders. This swept wide to include the likes of Romain Sicard who comes from the French Basque Country and Samuel Sanchez, a rider from Oviedo in the Asturias region but who since moved a village outside Bilbao making him an adopted local. The original idea behind the team was to promote the region and give local talent a chance and to wear the Basque colours but there was a deliberate choice to distance the project from the more vocal, hardline elements of Basque nationalism. Only the team could only go so far, its regional sponsorship couldn’t rival global brands in the World Tour and the team ended in 2013 after an absurd final year where they ended up hiring Russian, German, Slovenian and Moroccan riders with UCI points in a bid to retain their World Tour status.
Ironically today’s best Basque riders have plenty of points between them. Mikel Landa, David Lopez, Mikel Nieve and Beñat Intxausti at Team Sky (even if Nieve is from Pamplona in Navarre and the Inxausti has been out with mononucleosis for ages); Ion Izagirre at Bahrain-Merida; Igor Anton and Omar Fraile at Dimension Data; Markel Irizar and Haimar Zubeldia ride for Trek-Segafredo and Movistar have Jonathan Castroviejo, Gorka Izagirre and Pamplona’s Imanol Erviti. This isn’t an exhaustive list either, just an illustration but it’s impressive for one area of Spain. There are concerns about the conveyor belt continuing. Not along ago the likes of Romain Sicard and Loïc Chetout would head to Spain to ride for amateur teams in the Basque Country on their way to the pro ranks but now some Basque riders are riding for amateur squads in south-western France as their route to the pro ranks. Still Spain’s pyramid of teams seems Movistar at the top, Caja Rural in the Pro Conti ranks and of the two continental teams there’s the Euskadi Basque Country-Murias team.
Away from the pro ranks this is a rewarding area to ride, at least if you like a climb or two. The roads are packed with cyclists on a Sunday morning too. Ride enough and you can treat yourself to pintxos, the local version of tapas and which exploits ingredients from the region which, because of the ocean and the mountains, have a lot of variety.
Homes of cycling? With luck this will become a short series looking at other regions of Europe where the sport is popular, from Brittany to Flanders to Lombardia.