Lost Races: Basque Country

We’re all familiar with the ‘Orange tide’ which lines the upper slopes of the Tours of France and Spain each year. These Basque fans hail largely from the lush emerald green regions of northern Spain and south-western France (coloured yellow on the map) where the mild climate and roads empty of traffic make it ideal for riding all year round. And cycling is a way of life here. Known as Euskadi in Basque and Pais Vasco in Spanish, this region is home to some 1,500 cycling clubs and thousands of cyclists. Both Spanish WorldTour teams are based in the region: Euskaltel-Euskadi in Bilbao and Movistar in Navarra (green on map: Nafarroa).

Children learn to ride in school and are taught the area’s cycling history as they grow up. Even the government promotes cycling, passing laws to designate cycling routes where cars must drive slowly and pass with extra care. In short, it’s a cycling paradise.

For the avoidance of doubt, I have only looked at races which are held in the Basque Autonomous Community – mauve on the map – that’s to say the three provinces of Araba (Alava, capital: Vitoria-Gasteiz), Bizkaia (Biscay, capital: Bilbao) and Gipuzkoa (capital: Donostia-San Sebastian).

Basque cyclistsDig into the archives and you’ll find a very rich vein of races in the Basque Country. So rich that I doubt successful racers bothered to breach its borders. The inverse is also true as looking at the palmares one finds names which would win you the jackpot in Scrabble, if only proper nouns were permitted.

Only a few weeks ago it was doubtful whether this week’s races would be held as the economic crisis gripping Spain impacts on its rich history of racing. Fittingly a local bank, Sabadell Guipuzcoano, stepped in at the last moment to save the Vuelta el Pais Vasco and the Clasica San Sebastian, and funds were found for the GP Miguel Indurain. Elsewhere, races have been foreshortened or have slipped altogether from the schedules.

For example, the Euskal Bizikleta stage race, which was first held in 1952 and won by Frenchman Louis Caput. In 2005 it became a 2.HC stage race on the UCI Europe Tour and was last won in 2008 by Eros Capecchi. Thereafter, the race was subsumed into the Vuelta al Pais Vasco along with the GP Ayuntamiento de Bilbao.

The Subida a Urkiola one-day race, held in mid-August around the village of Durango, started in 1931 and featured two ascents of the Urkiola climb. It was held intermittently until 1984 and then every year until 2009, when it was won by Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi). It features on the palmares of riders such as Pedro Delgado, Andy Hampsten and more recently Joaquim Rodriguez and Leonardo Piepoli, who won four times between 1995 and 2004. It was a 1.1 race on the UCI Europe Tour but has slipped from the schedules.

Another race on the slippery slope is the one-day 1.1 GP Llodio–Clasica de Alava, which commenced in 1949. Its most recent winners are Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel), Angel Vicioso (Katusha) and Santi Perez (Babot-Efapel) but organisers are still scrabbling to find the €70,000 they need to hold the race in a couple of weeks. It’s likely that this too will join the roll-call of lost Basque races which already includes the GP Liberacio de Ondarroa, San Sebastian to Madrid, GP Bilbao, GP Vizcaya, Subida a Aranzazu and Vuelta a Guipuzcoa among many others. Here’s a clip of Samu’s win in 2009:

One race thankfully still on the schedules is this weekend’s Klasika Primavera, the 58th edition of the one-day event, classified 1.1 on the UCI Europe Tour. It’s supported by WorldTour Teams Euskaltel, Movistar, Saxo Bank plus a host of Continental and ProContinental Teams. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) holds the record with three wins (2003, 2004 and 2009) and 2010’s edition was won by Samuel Sanchez. Last year saw Jonathan Hivert (Saur-Sojasun) become its first French winner since Laurent Jalabert in 1995, when he outsprinted David Lopez (Movistar) and Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank-SunGard) for the victory.

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