Christian Prudhomme likes to compare road cycling with a pyramid. If elite events such as the Tour de France can rise and shine at the summit, he says, it’s thanks to the daily involvement of the many cycling enthusiasts who give life to the sport at its base.
As the Director of cycling events for Amaury Sport Organisation, Prudhomme has experienced and explained this concept all around France, in many other European countries and on other continents too. But rarely has he found a pyramid with a base so vibrant as in the Basque region.
Regarded by many as the heart of Spanish cycling, the Basque country beats again with the rhythm of cycling this spring, and will continue to do so for the years to come. Prudhomme was in Bilbao at the end of March to announce that the 110th Tour de France will start from the most populous Basque city in 2023. And before they fight for the yellow jersey in the province of Biscay, elite riders already head for the Northern Spanish region to provide what promises to be an exciting showdown on wonderful but demanding roads.
Land of climbs
From Monday, the area welcomes the 60th edition of the Itzulia Basque Country (April 5-10), the fifth stage race of the 2021 UCI WorldTour, and the winners of the previous four will all be there to battle it out from Bilbao to Eibar: UAE Team Emirates’ Tadej Pogačar (winner of the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico), Bora-Hansgrohe’s Maximilian Schachmann (Paris-Nice) and Ineos Grenadiers’ Adam Yates (Volta Ciclista a Catalunya). The champions of the UCI Women’s WorldTour are also expected in the region this summer, with the Donostia San Sebastian Klasikoa to be held on July 31st
while the Itzulia Basque Country Women will return in 2022.
On Basque roads, today’s champions will reignite exploration of a land made for cycling, whose uniquely passionate fans love to carry the riders through spectacular scenery and up its legendary slopes. In order to succeed the local champion Ion Izagirre (Astana-Premier Tech), winner of the Itzulia Basque Country in 2019, the strongest contenders will need to find opportunities to gain time from day one, with an individual time trial around Bilbao (13.9km) featuring inclines of up to 19% in the final kilometre.
Throughout the week, they will face the iconic Alto de Jaizkibel on stage four and cover a total of 797.7km on the way to the traditional ascent of Arrate, where Adam Yates raised his arms on the last stage of Itzulia, two years ago. The British star is one of the many riders to have established a strong connection with the Basque roads, also winning the Clásica San Sebastián in 2015, a week before his 23rd birthday.
Land of emotions
Adam and his twin brother Simon Yates (whose Team BikeExchange should be led on the next Itzulia by the in-form Esteban Chaves and the Spanish climber Mikel Nieve, who hails from the neighbouring community of Navarre) also rode through the Basque Country on the way to Madrid when Simon won La Vuelta Ciclista a España in 2018. On that occasion, the Basque climbs welcomed one of the most memorable stages of that edition, when Michael Woods rose to an emotional victory on Balcón de Bizkaia.
“My wife had a stillbirth two months ago”, the Canadian climber explained, unable to hold back his tears, a stark contrast with the boiling atmosphere set by the Basque fans despite the fog and wet conditions on the day. They didn’t know what Woods was going through, but they pushed him to the line with their shouts of support, and they kept shouting until Matthias Brändle (riding for Trek-Segafredo at the time, now Woods’ teammate at Israel Start-Up Nation) was the last rider to cross the line, almost half an hour later.
The Basque supporters’ reputation is well established but the 2021 edition of the Itzulia Basque Country will enforce restrictions on the roadsides due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s still easy to imagine how temperatures will rise with the return of the Euskaltel-Euskadi orange jerseys to their home race, while hoping that the situation will soon allow for a full reunion between the Basque fans and the world’s best riders.