Basking in the Cycling Limelight Once Again By Peter Cossins | Images by Chris Auld

I watched the finale of the third stage of the Tour of the Basque Country with half of my attention on the race and the rest of it trying to spot landmarks that I recognized from a family holiday in the attractive finish town of Hondarribia. We traveled there just after the 2018 Tour de France had been decided in the Pays Basque, just on the French side of the border. Woken up very early each morning by the sound of firecrackers and a band of pipers escorting a parade of huge, teetering papier maché figures through the narrow streets as part of the local festival, we spent our days exploring the glorious beaches on both sides of the border, walking in the verdant hills and woods inland, and eating wonderful food. My only regret was not having my bike (Orbea naturally) with me, especially as the spectacular Jaizkibel and Erlaitz climbs from the San Sebastián Classic were right on the doorstep.

PELOTON

I can’t pin my love for the Basque Country to any particular incident or personality. It’s steadily evolved, but I suspect that the region’s big race, known as Itzulia Basque Country nowadays, was at the root of it. I’ve always been fascinated by it. As a journalist, I’ve been drawn to it because when it takes place 95-percent of the cycling media are at the northern classics, while at the same time 95-percent of the riders likely to challenge for grand tour success later in the season would be in the Basque Country. Those are good numbers when you’re looking for interviews. 

As a fan, it means six days of glorious mayhem, with a climb every few minutes and thousands of baying supporters all of the way up them, many waving the red, green and white ikurrina that is the Basque Country flag, those same colors always evident on the facades of houses in Euskadi and the Pays Basque.

The region has always been the heartland of Spanish cycling. It wasn’t all that long ago that almost every Spanish professional was either Basque or had at least been brought through by a Basque junior or under-23 team. Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodríguez both cut their teeth on the region’s many steep hills with the Iberdrola team, Alejandro Valverde did the same in Banesto’s junior ranks, all three of these future stars traveling to Spain’s northeastern corner because they knew the number of races, the level of their organization and the quality of the opposition far outstripped what they would find in any other part of the country.

Yet, towards the end of the Noughties, Basque cycling was hit by a series of setbacks from which it seemed at one point it would struggle to recover. There were doping positives for some of the biggest names on the Euskaltel-Euskadi squad, the region’s emblematic, orange-clad racing flagship, including team leaders Iban Mayo and Igor Astarloza. At the end of 2008, the long-standing Euzkal Bizikleta stage race had to merge with the Tour of the Basque Country in order to survive, its legacy the Arrate stage that now brings the race to a thrilling climax. 

In 2013, the Euskaltel team tried to reverse its fortunes by signing a significant number of non-Basque riders, including a couple of Slovenians (right country, wrong time!), but the initiative ended miserably. At the end of that season, the telecoms company withdrew its sponsorship after 17 years in the sport. At the same time, junior races were steadily disappearing too, usually for the same reasons that other cycling heartlands have been hit, including parental fears about safety and growing competition from other sports.

Despite the Vuelta a España making its first visit to the region for more than 30 years in 2011 after fears of separatists causing unrest had dissipated, the prospects for Basque cycling were bleak. Yet, steadily, the situation has changed for the better. There’s no single reason for this but Mikel Landa’s surprise decision to take over as president of the Fundacion Euskadi in 2017 was undoubtedly a pivotal moment. 

Mikel Landa’s surprise decision to take over as president of the Fundacion Euskadi in 2017 was undoubtedly a pivotal moment for Basque cycling.

A member of that final Euskaltel-Euskadi roster four years earlier, the Bahrain-Merida rider had worked his way up through the foundation’s rank and maintained a close relationship with its founder and long-time president Miguel Madariaga, who passed the baton to him. During a mid-2017 Vuelta press conference to announce his appointment, Landa expressed his hopes for the team and his confidence that the support of Basque fans and businesses would enable it to thrive at the top level once again.

The first move towards that came right at the start of 2018, when the foundation’s amateur team stepped up to continental level under the Euskadi name. The results were modest, but the team’s profile rose considerably at the start of the following season when they brought in a young Colombian called Sergio Higuita. Then just 20, he blazed a trail through Iberia’s early season races before being lured into the WorldTour ranks by EF Education First.

Last year, Euskadi stepped up again to ProTeam (previously Pro Continental) level, signing several riders who’d been with the Euskadi-Murias team that folded at the end of 2019, including 2019 Vuelta a España stage winner Mikel Iturria. Better still, Euskaltel decided to return as the main sponsor, in the process re-establishing their old relationship with bike manufacturer Orbea and clothing company Etxe-Ondo. Fulfilling a promise made the year before, the foundation also launched a 12-strong women’s continental team backed by the Laboral Kutxa credit union and bank.

The team’s progress since then has been so rapid that Landa was forced to give up the presidency of the foundation just days before this month’s Itzulia Basque Country got under way in order to prevent any perceived conflict interest when the Bahrain-Merida leader found himself lining alongside the men in orange. He might yet find himself doing so later this year at the Vuelta a España, for which Euskaltel have been awarded a wild card spot. 

On the same day that Landa stepped down, Tour de France boss Christian Prudhomme stepped out of his red race director’s Skoda in Bilbao to announce that the 2023 race will start in the Basque city. As was the case with the Vuelta, it will have been more than three decades since the Tour’s last incursion into the Basque Country, San Sebastián hosting the start of the 1992 race. “You’ve kept on asking for the Tour to come back ever since then,” Prudhomme told the local politicians gathered for the announcement. “You’ve got everything we need here,” he added, highlighting the rugged terrain, the beauty of the Basque coast and inland areas and, above all, the passion of the Basque fans, who are “undoubtedly the best in the world alongside those in Belgium and Yorkshire.” 

ASO won’t have made this decision lightly. They’ll have seen the potential, the enthusiasm with which the Vuelta has been greeted, the likelihood that the region will put on a thrilling spectacle. That enthusiasm will, of course, be even greater if Euskaltel-Euskadi’s rise continues and their unmistakable orange colors are once again part of the Tour peloton. To achieve that, the team will need to sign bigger names, riders like… well, Mikel Landa and other Basque stars who are plying their trade in foreign teams, such as the Izagirres, Alex Aranburu, Omar Fraile and Pello Bilbao. In that event, the 2023 Grand Départ will be well worth watching.

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