Advertisement

Sign up for our newsletter

Advertisement

Why you should go to the 2023 Tour de France Grand depart in the Basque Country

Joe Robinson
9 Oct 2019

One of cycling's true heartlands, the Basque Country looks set to host the start of cycling's biggest race

Aupa! Rumour has it that the Basque country, one of the world’s most devout cycling regions, is in with a chance of hosting the Tour de France Grand Depart. According to former professional cyclist and Basqueman Joseba Beloki, an agreement has been reached between ASO, the Tour’s organising company, and the city of Bilbao to host the opening stages of the race in 2023.

Details on where the stage will go and whether there will be more than just the single stage are still unknown, but chances are the first few stages will snake around the region before returning to France.

After recent Grand Departs in Yorkshire and Belgium, cycling’s biggest race has been no stranger to visiting areas in Europe that are totally dedicated to the sport.

However, in the Basque country you have something that’s truly unique. An area, that despite its chequered past, embraces cycling and cyclists whatever the scenario to create one of the greatest places to ride a bike in the world.

And while the Tour has visited the Basque Country on plenty of occasions, most recently in 2018 for the Stage 20 time trial to Espelette, the decision to start the race there seems just reward for their devotion to the sport. 

Cyclist has put together a few reasons why the Tour de France starting in the Basque Country is exciting and why you should start saving the pounds to make sure you can be there.

Cycling culture

Cycling is to the Basque Country what football is to Brazil. It’s a sport so interwoven with the area that it seems almost impossible to imagine cycling without the green, white and red of the region.

Even through the darkest troubles, professional cycling came to the Basque Country with the region’s week-long stage race, Izulia Basque Country, and the one-day San Sebastien, always attracting the peloton’s most capable climbers.

The Basque region is also often marked as having the best fans in cycling. They come to the roadside in their thousands, cheering with a visceral desire but always with the greatest of respect, never impeding the rider. It’s akin to Flanders, but arguably even more striking.

If you go and stand roadside, you will truly see an area that loves its cycling and you will not be disappointed.

Such is the love and affection that even your average grandmother walking down the street will be able to hold a conversation about professional cycling and likely know more than you do, too.

The Basque region also has a rich history of providing the sport with some of the most loved and respected climbers and one of the most memorable teams of the 2000s.

Proud of their heritage, the orange jerseys of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team occupied the peloton between 1994 and 2013, using their loose 'Basque riders only' policy to propel the best local riders into cycling's highest level.

Just look at today’s peloton. Mikel Landa, Mikel Nieve, the Izagirre brothers, Igor Anton, Pello Bilbao, serial animators of races who are considered some of the most respected climbers in the world all came through the Euskaltel production line.

Riding and terrain

It’s quite telling that pro riders consider the Itzulia Basque Country stage race the race for the real stage racers.

Bordering the Bay of Biscay, the Basque country is sandwiched between the Pyrenees to the east and Cantabrian mountains to the west, lacking a lot of the height of its surrounding ranges.

While it lacks in height, it will not lack in difficulty. The typical climb in the region is under 10km in length but will regularly visit high gradients, to the point that even the best pros often opt for easier gears when racing in the region.

If you go to ride in the Basque country, be prepared to climb.

Take Monte Oiz, for example, which figured in the 2018 Vuelta a Espana. It averages 9.4% for its entire 8.8km, snaking through typical luscious green forest - fed by the high levels of rainfall - before rearing its head with 20% gradients towards the top.

To contrast, you then have the Jaizkibel, Classica San Sebastian’s most infamous climb, that rises from the Atlantic coast for 9.6km at a more manageable 4.7km.

Away from the climbs, rolling roads through Gernika, Getaria and all the way to Bilbao can guide you only metres from the coast for entire days of riding while the inland roads navigate the patchwork farm fields of the region.

Riding in this area is diverse and the roads are largely good with even the smaller, less-used roads having tarmac that would put most of the UK's network to shame.

And, it’s also helped along by a genuine low level of traffic and remarkable respect of cyclists by the local population.

Food and drink

With 18 Michelin stars within a 25km radius of San Sebastian the Basque Country has been declared the food capital of the world but it is not just high-end cuisine that this northern corner of Spain specialises in.

Take Mugaritz, a two-star restaurant. The fourth best restaurant in the world, 20 ‘creations’ are presented to you across three hours of eating as Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz asks you to ‘question the logic of the gastronomic world, rethinking the social habits and prejudices’ with his complex menu that will set you back €200.

On the other end of the spectrum is the bustling Basque bar food scene.

Instead of tapas, the Basques eat pintxos. The main difference between the two being that pintxos is held together with a toothpick, piercing the food through to the bread that acts as a base. The name pintxos actually comes from the verb ‘pinchar’ which means ‘to pierce’.

It’s cheap, and sometimes even free when accompanying a cold beer. It’s always fresh and delicious too, perfect food after a long ride.

A particular joint to note is hidden in the narrow alleyways of San Sebastien called Bar Nestor, named after its moustachioed owner. He makes two tortillas a day. You have to pre-order a slice the day before and you’re only allowed to reserve one per person and it has to be done face-to-face, not over the phone.

It comes with a piece of bread, costs €2 and is best served with a glass of Txakoli, a dry sparkling white wine poured from a height. But it’s so delicious, it reminds you of why food is one of life’s simplest pleasures.

People

The Basque country has had a long and complex history. Centuries of struggle with Spain, some within the region have long pined for independence and their own nation-state. So much so, it boiled over into violence for most of the 20th century through the armed separatist group ETA.

For long periods, visiting the Basque country was highly discouraged and came with its obvious risks. In fact, package holidays to the region have only really been available for the last decade.

But with peace since ETA’s permanent ceasefire in 2011, tourism has grown through the area, largely thanks to its world-class food, but also through cycling and the locals have taken to this with open arms.

Pitch up at the quietest coffee shop in your lycra, and the fact you ride a bike will be met with instant warmth, regardless of the Basque/Spanish/English language barrier.

Be ready for a local to ogle your bike, point and ask why it’s not an Orbea, but it’s all in jest and is ultimately them showing the bond you both share through cycling.

These same people are also among the most respectful of cyclists in the world. The bond to the sport is so deep in the region, that seldom will a car perform a close pass.

In fact, it’s often the opposite with the driver taking a wide berth, rolling down the hill and shouting ‘Aupa’ to implore you to ride further and faster.

• Cyclist magazine covers all the major cycling events with in-depth features and exclusives from the pro cycling world. Subscribe today and try 3 issues for JUST £5 (saving 84% on RRP) and get a FREE Ass Saver as a welcome gift.

Read more about: