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A tour of the Basque Country: The heartland of Spanish cycling

In-depth
7 Apr 2019
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Words: Joe Robinson Photography: Ashley Quinlan

A journey to France wouldn’t feel right if it went by unaffected by strike action. This time it wasn’t a farmers' strike blocking the motorways or fuel strike in the petrol stations, but rather an air traffic control strike grounding all planes travelling through French airspace.

This meant a 30-hour delay to my flight into Biarritz, my first day's riding lost and most importantly, the climb of the Basque region’s most famous peak and the annual showpiece of the Classica San Sebastian, the Jazikabel, canned.

Instead of touching down on Tuesday morning, I arrive on Wednesday evening under the cover of darkness in a spattering of rain.

Picked up by our local guide Xavier, a man who on first looks is quintessentially Basque with his olive skin and dark hair but is, in fact, a lifelong Parisian, we drive through the night into Spain and to our hotel in the harbour of Getaria.

All the local artisan fish restaurants are closed - as it’s 11pm on a Wednesday - leaving us just the local kebab shop to fuel for tomorrow’s ride.

As I tuck into what I guess is a ‘mixed meat’ kebab, I realise my phone hasn’t survived the flight and has decided to reduce its use down to just text and calls. No camera and no internet, just like the early 2000s, and not ideal for a cycling journalist.

Hugging the coast

The stress of the flight delay and my broken phone mixed with the grease of the kebab has left my stomach in knots as I wake up for the first day of riding. I'm tense and eager to get going, knowing once on the bike I can begin to relax.

After an eclectic breakfast of mushroom omelette, lemon cake and two black coffees, Xavier hands me my bike for the week - a much-travelled Canyon Endurace - and introduces me to my companions for the next few days.

Nigel, Xavier’s business partner from the Southwest of England, and Lisa and Duncan, a husband and wife set of doctors from Shropshire who have already been in the Basque Country since Monday.

Pleasantries exchanged we begin our first day of riding, 100km along the Atlantic coast from the food haven of Getaria to Guernica, a city made famous by Picasso’s 1937 mural that remembered the aerial bombing conducted by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the wishes of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

It’s said that when living in Nazi-occupied Paris, an SS officer asked Picasso if he was responsible for the mural, then hanging in his apartment. The artist simply replied, ‘no, you are.’

Within three turns of the pedals, I can already hear the sound of waves crashing against the shore. Hidden by night, I hadn’t realised our hotel sat on a cliff, a stone’s throw from the ocean.

The first 5km hugs the Atlantic’s shore with nothing but a small concrete barrier keeping me from the water below. It's not long until we push inland.

The sea has battered the land for centuries causing a dramatically steep cliff face that we need to climb our way around.

At only 3%, the 7km to Itziar allows my legs to open up and ready themselves for the climbs later in the week.

The descent is as gentle as the climb and brings us back down to sea level for the next 30km. It's never flat as the road followed the geography of the coast. Local roadmakers hadn’t been ambitious by attempting to sculpt into the hillside.

Instead, they allowed the ebb and flow of the many bays to guide the tarmac keeping you constantly twisting and turning on the bike.

The pace of our four-rider group is as high as our spirits as we decide to duck into the town of Lekeito for a quick espresso.

As we sit in the sun, Xavier - who's been driving in support - warns us of the two climbs directly out of town and that we shouldn't sit around for too long.

It was all Morrissey's fault

Obviously, we fail to listen - our lengthy chat about the demise of Morrissey coming back to haunt us. The ascent of Lekeito begins immediately after we leave the town and steadily climbs its way up the side of a harsh hillside.

Attempting to get to know Duncan better I start to quiz him about being a surgeon; ‘I perform surgery all day Tuesdays’ gasp, ‘Then in the week,’ gasp, ‘I consult.’

Our conversation reduces to a silent stare at our stems as the gradient and, more importantly, the heat begin to bite.

The climb comes in two parts with the first part just under 2km. For the following 4km we roll over a plateau before dropping back down to sea level for the second part of the climb, Barrio De Natxitua, another 2km stretch.

With temperatures reaching the magical 30 by this point, our pace stays steady as we form a tight bunch of four.

Taking a lazy right-hander away from the sea the gradient tops out at 10% causing our pod to break. Lisa and Nigel, substantially lighter riders, brake ahead by about 10 bike lengths as Duncan and I form the grupetto.

Before long it's a grupetto of one as I drift back on my own. The heat is beginning to tell and the beaming sun has warmed up my water bottles to an unpalatable temperature.

Almost 9 minutes later I find myself at the small summit hamlet of Natxitua in a pool of sweat. I need to rest and so do the others so we come to a collective agreement to call it lunch.

A plate full of cooked ham and couscous later, we take the fast 10km descent back onto the coast and to the mouth of the Urdaibai Estuary. Xavier boasts that it is home to the world’s longest uninterrupted wave. Take that Severn Estuary!

The estuary pushes us inland and to my despair into a headwind for the final 15km before Guernica. Taking even turns on the front, we crawl our way into town for our night’s rest.

A quick shower later we head out for a spot to eat. Faux-local Xavier makes a beeline for a local restaurant that, from its exterior, looks no better than a dive bar.

Instead, it's a gastronomic hub serving us local pintxo dishes and rich glasses of wine. Quite the improvement from the kebab from the night before.

The road to nowhere

Our second day of riding takes us inland and starts uphill. Not in an abrupt way though, the gradient is gentle for the first 15km rarely rearing its head above 5% taking us to Markina-Xemein.

Think of Spain and you will probably picture a sun-kissed beach, blue skies and wispy, dry farmland. The Basque Country is the antithesis, with the nearby Atlantic causing a damp climate that sees an abundance of rainfall leaving a dark green hue stalking the roadside as thick woodland covers the rolling hills.

Between these jungle-like woods sit small towns filled with industrial workers who once thrived off the strong metal works that supported the Basque economy.

Large blocks of colourful flats are now quiet and old while many buildings are simply empty, proving that the financial crash a decade ago truly swamped every corner of the country.

Markina-Xemein comes and goes as we begin to climb uphill again, this time to San Miguel, on a spaghetti-like road that takes us into the low lying clouds.

Constantly cornering, the climb of San Miguel eases us skywards slowly as the gradient remains manageable. Climbing at our own speeds, our group of four splits but only across a distance of 100m.

As we regroup at the top of the climb I take a moment to take in the view that lays ahead. None of the mountains is particularly high, they would be dwarfed by the nearby Pyrenees. However, their tendency to drop sharply into a valley gives them a dramatic feel.

The various shades of green give the landscape depth and the low lying cloud fools you into believing you are higher than you actually are. Nevertheless, it's a stunning sight.

After a day and a half of escaping the rain, our luck finally ends. The sky opens on the technical descent of San Miguel causing us to all take the 6km drop into the tired, industrial town of Elgiobar - a carbon copy town of Markina-Xemein the other side of the hills - at our own pace.

Xavier races ahead to meet us at the bottom ready with our waterproof jackets and gilets, although by the time I reach him I am soaked to the skin.

Duncan quips ‘a bit pointless now’ as we pull our waterproofs over our sodden jerseys.

We cross the river Deba Ibaia through the heart of the town shooting straight back out and onto the penultimate climb of the day, Azkarate, 5.4km at a steady 7%.

Knowing that one climb still lays ahead, I allow Lisa and Neil to drift off into the distance. Both considerably lighter and fitter, their cadence barely misses a beat as they disappear into the hill.

I try to stick with Duncan but can feel the gradient biting so allow his wheel to go also. This leaves me alone with 4km still to climb.

The road ahead is straight and the thick border of trees gives me no relief from the task ahead. Turning the pedals in my lowest gear I find a steady rhythm and just tap away in a world of my own until the summit.

It hurts, but thankfully a beautifully steady 10km follows allowing the legs to recover.

After struggling on the climb of Azkarate earlier, my fears double as we approach the base of the final climb.

Mountain debut

Santa Agueda also averages 7% but was longer at 8.1km. There's also the small issue of a 300m ramp at over 15% to contest within the final 2km.

Rolling on to the base of the climb past a spattering of farmhouses, the pace of Lisa and Nigel is immediately something I am not willing to match. That again leaves me with Duncan as good company.

He asks me if I have ever climbed anything this big before. As a cycling journalist you’d expect me to say yes, but truthfully this was my first ever ‘mountain’ and I say that lightly considering Santa Agueda topped out at only 683m above sea level.

I shake my head and he simply says ‘It’s all about rhythm’.

‘Yep, all about rhythm, shame I haven’t got any’.

I’m soon left by Duncan to climb alone yet again in near-silence. The only sound I have to accompany me is the grind of chain and the gentle rattle of bells around the necks of cows on the roadside.

Over my right shoulder and through the thin veil of trees is a small reservoir brimmed with the constant rainwater. It feeds the surrounding pastures with plenty of moisture meaning the perfect grazing land for cattle that now litter the patchwork farms of the hillside.

Before long I reach the slight descent into the halfway house village of Beizema allowing my legs a second of rest. This is short-lived as the climb takes hold again.

I notice two elderly gentlemen sat outside a cafe, beer in hand, watching me intently as I suffer from the gradient. The temptation to join them definitely crosses my mind.

I battle on, soon hitting the ramp I had been dreading. One stroke at a time, I navigate the steep section well within my means taking no chances.

Over the top the shallower gradient feels easier than before as I squirrel further up the wooded hillside towards the summit.

I reach the top 39 minutes later. Legs empty, face drenched, I slump my body over the bars and recatch my breath before looking down into the valley below, my visual prize for burying myself to the top.

All roads head to France

It could be the pitter patter of rainfall on the open window. It could be the crashing of thunder and lightning. Either way, the final day of the trip starts early.

The weather has me awake by 06:00, three hours before we are set to depart on our bikes. For two hours I wait at the window for the rain and thunder to stop. The thunder stops after hour two but the rain does not.

With 90km from Bidania to the Spanish-French border summit of Alto d’Izpegi with plenty of lumps in between, I go hearty at breakfast stocking up on almond croissants, mini baguettes and slices of chorizo.

At 09:00 on the dot - ever conscious of my flight home that afternoon - the four of us depart a sleeping Bidania with Xavier in tow.

Escaping the rural farmhouses, we find the main road east towards France, some 90km away. The rain eases from the morning allowing us to enjoy a comfortable descent to the first town of the day, Tolosa.

This town is the final point on the road before the climb to the Basque/Navarre border begins. Its geographical position probably goes some way to explaining the graffiti that dominates the landscape of Tolosa.

No wall remains bare with a black outline of the Basque border painted clear to see. Surrounding the border is the red, white and green flag with three simple Basque words ‘Euskal Presoak Etxra’.

Occasionally, the words are joined by the figures of masked men holding rifles. Sometimes the flag and landmass are forgotten and the words are alone.

After seeing it again and again, when our group comes to a natural stop at the base of the climb, I had Xaiver google what these words mean.

’Basque prisoners come home’.

Two days of riding along the picturesque coastline and in the stunning countryside make it easy to forget the troubled past of the Basque Country.

This was an area of Spain that has spent centuries fighting for independence. To become Euskal Herria, not Spain.

A separate state that went back centuries to a period before Spain was a united country and reignited furiously during the Franco dictatorship of that dominated Spain’s 20th century.

Not all Basques wanted independence but for the few that did, it was a fight worth dying for. A fight that highlighted ETA to the world, the Basque separatist group that used armed violence in its bid for independence, recognised as a terrorist organisation.

The Basque fight for independence is centuries long but came to a violent head with ETA, which largely operated throughout the 20th century and didn’t officially disarm until two weeks before my arrival despite an extended period of peace.

In this long period, it undertook various armed campaigns killing members of the Spanish armed forces and police force regularly.

Sometimes its actions were bigger, more heinous, like the merciless bombing of the Hipercor shopping centre in 1987, killing 21.

Basque perception of ETA ebbed and flowed; sometimes experiencing waves of support, such as when the Spanish government blamed the Al-Qaeda Madrid bombing on the group, and damnation such as in 1997 when they murdered local Basque conservative politician Miguel Blanco, a move that even saw criticism within ETA.

The violence of the 20th century deterred tourism, cycling tourism like the trip I was on, but it did not deter cycling. Despite the guns and the bombs, the Classica San Sebastian and Tour of the Basque Country continued.

Even Big Tex, Lance Armstrong, made a visit in 1995 winning the one-day Classica, one of the few results that remain unscratched from his palmares.

I feel like this was telling of the Basque love of cycling. The Basque people struggled through political unrest and violence yet remained impassioned and supportive of the sport they so love.

Now, post-troubles, this love has moved beyond the pro peloton and is alive and well for even an amateur like me. Cars give you an entire roadside when passing and occasionally give a light honk to alert their presence.

The eager even poke their heads out the window to shout ‘allez’.

Kids see you pass and frantically wave as if you’re local legends Mikel Landa or an Izagirre brother. Cafe owners smile from ear to ear when you stumble in lycra-clad, and elderly people-watchers pick apart your bike with their eyes over a milky coffee.

A passion I needed as we hit the lower slopes of the Calle de Aiztunald

The climb meanders for 7km at a shallow gradient. The first few kilometres take us past vast metal factories offering careers to those back in Tolosa.

By the halfway village of Berrobi, industry has been replaced by agriculture as cow and sheep farms flank the road.

The small village of Berrobi has a few houses, one shop, a restaurant and a town hall hanging three flags. The Basque flag, the Palestinian flag and the Scottish flag.

The rain in Spain falls mainly in the Basque Country

We finally reach the Basque border at the summit of the Calle de Aiztunalde before dropping into neighbouring Navarre, an area the Basque separatists would call Basque and the Spanish Navarre.

Our quartet of riders stick together as we race through Mitchelton-Scott’s Mikel Nieve’s hometown of Leitza before beginning the penultimate climb of the day, Basakabi.

The first of four kilometres is easy, barely rising above 3% as the road weaves its way through the rich green countryside.

From kilometre two the road begins to pitch towards 8% although with silky smooth tarmac it did little to affect our pace.

I turn to Lisa to ask how her legs felt following seven days OF riding. She gives me a wry smile and tells me they feet absolutely fine. Mine, on the other hand, are beginning to feel heavy.

The rain begins to fall again and this time with insidious intent.

Lashing down, the road is becoming almost flooded within minutes. Splashing from the tarmac, the rain soaks my feet through as well as my summer jersey and bibs. Lisa and I push on to reach the top of the climb while Nigel and Duncan cling on to our coattails.

No time to stop in such weather, we roll over the summit into a long 30km descent.

The rain clouds are low causing daylight to fade. As we negotiate the winding drop towards Doneztebe I back away from the other three.

Water is streaming across the road bringing mud and grit from the earthy soil with it. I want to choose my own lines and don't fancy negotiating an unknown road with company.

Using the beaming headlights of Xavier’s Renault Picasso behind and every inch of the road, I safely find myself in Doneztebe shortly after the others, who are already diving into a cafe.

I follow the intermittent puddles of water towards the rear of the cafe to find my fellow rain-soaked riders huddling over hot chocolate and soggy energy gels.

I go for an espresso which I take down in one gulp before reminding them that I do have a flight to catch later.

Before long we are back on the bikes for a flat 25km run to the final test of the week, the Alto d’Izpegi, a little-known Pyrenean climb that connects France and Spain.

The rain finally stops but the heavy rain clouds remain overhead. Not wanting to ride in the rain any longer, Duncan and I take the front and push the pace high on the flat.

Taking long pulls, we manage to cover the final 25km in little under 45 minutes to reach the start of the Izpegi.

Union's been on strike, I'm down on my luck

Hidden behind a small hamlet of houses, we would have missed the climb if it wasn’t for the guidance of local Xavier. Running off a small farmer's lane, we take a nondescript left-hander out of Erratzu.

Before long we are climbing at a steady 5% gradient as the thick greenery either side of the road shields the peak of the climb with the first 1,500m of this 6km climb navigating seven shallow hairpins.

With a clear road, all four of us go wide into the corners slingshotting ourselves into the next section. Knowing the summit is the end, my legs receive a new lease of life.

Lisa and I take the lead, tapping out a steady tempo which soon sees us alone. Before long we brake the cover of the trees with the vista opening up ahead of us.

As we hug the borders of a cow farm that spread the hillside to our left, the smooth rolling peaks of the lower Pyrenees dominate the landscape ahead of us. The clouds finally start to clear allowing sunlight to fall onto the green scenery.

Soon I realise that I'm alone. Looking back Lisa is 30m adrift working her own cadence. I consider sitting up but I am wary of breaking my rhythm plus Nigel and Duncan have fought to catch back up.

Clicking the bike into the big ring, I decide to empty the legs with just a kilometre or so to the top.

A right, a left and a right lead me into the final switchback. The climb has taken us to the highest peak in the area allowing us to survey Spain below.

Turning into the final corner, I see the sign for France ahead signifying the summit. Cranking my legs up a notch for the final few times I roll over the imaginary border line to the view of France ahead.

I want to drink in the view all day but cannot, I have that flight to catch! I bundle into Xavier’s car and hurtle towards Biarritz airport to meet a departure time that looms dangerously close.

Arriving at the airport with not long to spare, I rush through the tiny terminal to reach my gate and then eventually the plane. With a sweaty brow, I sit down in my seat, embarrassed at being the last to reach the plane.

An hour later, I am still on the runway. French air strikes strike again.

How we got there

Travel

Cyclist flew to Biarritz, which is operated by several low-cost airlines, predominantly Ryanair.

Usually, the Bike Basque tour would start in the coastal French town with host Xavier collecting you from the airport.

Accommodation

Bike Basque works with a selection of hotels across the Basque Country. All hotels are at least three-star with the pick of the bunch being Iriarte Jauregia, a four-star converted manor house in the hills of Bidania.

Bike Basque offers 8 days/7 nights, full board, with a guide, support vehicle, luggage transport, snacks, a jersey and bottles for €1,600. A Canyon or Peugeot bike can be rented at a €220 surcharge.

Bike Basque also offer tours of the Pyrenees, Burgundy and Bordeaux.

More information can be found at Bike Basque online.

Thanks

Many thanks to Xavier from Bike Basque for inviting us to the poetic Basque Country, creating our routes and supporting us each step of the way on this trip.

Also, thanks to the people of the Basque Country for being so hospitable regardless of how wet I was because of rain and how poor my Basque was.