It’s the second half of the alphabet …
N is for Nieve
Yet another Euskaltel alumni, Mikel Nieve hails from Leitza in Navarre and now rides for Sky. He’s a consistent performer with a host of top ten finishes to his name, particularly in one week stage races.
He has two grand tour stages on his palmares: stage 15 of 2010 Vuelta a Espana and stage 16, the queen stage, of 2011 Giro d’Italia, which Alberto Contador said was the most difficult stage he’s ever ridden. And if Alberto thought it was tough …
O is for Orbea
Part of the Mondragon Corporation since 1969, Orbea was set up in 1840 in Eibar, the heart of the Basque country, by three brothers: Juan Manuel, Mateo, and Casimiro. They began by selling handguns with an ornate logo “OH” (Orbea Hermanos) – Orbea Brothers. After WW1, the brothers used their expertise in steel tubing to start manufacturing bikes and it’s now the largest bike manufacturer in Spain.
P is for Podium
I love podium presentations in the Basque country. Hosted by Basque presenter Inigo Asensio, with podium girls Miren and Eiharne, the sponsors award loads of prizes, leaving the victors to stagger away with their bodyweights in cheese, chorizo and all manner of delicious local goodies. They award prizes for the Most Audacious Attack, the Best Haircut (I made that up), Best Basque Rider …
Q is for Queens of the Mountain
The Bizkaia-Durango professional cycling team was set up in 2004 and has remained a women’s UCI team ever since. Cyclists such as Joane Somarriba, Gema Pascual, Emma Johansson, Shara Gillow and more recently Ane Santesteban and Anna Sanchis have raced for the squad. The team has already recorded wins this season in a few Spanish races but they’ll be looking to impress in early June in their home race, Durango Durango Emakumeen Saria.
R is for Rioja
The Vuelta a La Rioja, once a three-day stage race, was reduced to a one-day event in 2009. The race in the heart of the Basque wine-producing region is a sprint-fest and the last two editions have been won by Michael Matthews (2014) and Caleb Ewan (2015), both from Orica-GreenEDGE. This is a team that does well in the Basque country, but it has inside knowledge – Directeur Sportif Neil Stephens lives there.
S is for Sammy Sanchez
Samu is an honorary Basque by virtue of having ridden for the Basque development squad before joining Euskaltel, where for many years he was the team’s leading rider. A gold medallist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he’s also won Pais Vasco in 2012 and a stage in the 2011 Tour de France, where he was also crowned KOM.
In his third and probably last year with BMC (will someone please pass me a hankie….sob), he’s played the role of domestique deluxe for the likes of Philippe Gilbert and Tejay van Garderen.
T is for Txurruka
The diminutive Amets Txurruka comes from Etxebarria and is a popular figure at Basque races, having passed through the ranks of Euskaltel, where he won the overall combativity prize at 2007 Tour de France as a neo pro. He’s a familiar figure in breakaways but having moved across to Orica-GreenEDGE this season, he’ll now be riding in support of the Yates twins.
U is for Urkiola
The Subida a Urkiola was a one-day race on the UCI Europe Tour that appears to have permanently dropped off the calendar. It began in 1931 and took place in Biscay around Durango. The last winner in 2009 was Igor Anton.
V is for Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco
Known locally as Euskal Herriko txirrindulari itzulia, (which is why they use #itzulia on Twitter), this event is considered to be one of the more challenging stage races on the WorldTour – no flat stages, just plenty of mountains and a lumpy time trial. While climbs in the Basque country are not long, they are short, sharp and steep.
The race was first run in 1924, and won by Frenchman Francis Pelissier and features in the palmares of Gino Bartali, Jacques Anquetil, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Alberto Contador, to name a few. It’s possibly one of the few races that Eddy Merckx never won while Jose Antonio Gonzalez won it four times (1972, 1975, 1977, 1978). The race was also famously featured in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises.
W is for Weather
The Basque country is green for a reason. It rains, a lot! The Basques even have a word for that light, misty rain that seems to never stop – it’s txirimiri.
X is for X-treme weather
The 2013 Vuelta al Pais Vasco suffered heavy snow after a week of torrential rain but that didn’t stop the boys racing or halt the Basque fans in their tracks.
Y is for Young Riders
The Basque Country still has a Continental squad, Euskadi Basque Country – Murias, with 14 young Basque riders. Imanol Estevez recorded the team’s first victory on stage 1 of the recent Volta ao Alentejo and recorded consistent top five placings this season and last, but he’s just one of a number of promising young Basque riders that the area supports and nurtures. Long may it continue!
Z is for Zubeldia
Famous for his five top ten placings in the Tour de France, 38-year-old Haimar Zubeldia was born in Usurbil but currently resides in the neighbouring seaside town of Zarautz. He turned pro with Euskaltel-Euskadi at 21 and two years later won Euskal Bizikleta and finished runner-up in the Criterium du Dauphine. He now rides for Trek-Segafredo, along with Markel Irizar.
Since his 2015 participation, he’s the Spanish rider with the most Tour starts, a record previously held by five-time winner Miguel Indurain and Jose Vicente Garcia Acosta. The former has his own race, GP Miguel Indurain, in Estella, the Saturday before the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, while the latter is working as a DS at Movistar.
Header image: Team Euskadi Basque Country – Murias from their website