Welcome to the Basque Country
The next two stages of the Vuelta a España will take place on some of the most spectacular bike-racing terrain on the planet
EF Education-EasyPost sports director Juanma Gárate is proud to welcome our team to his homeland.
The Basque Country is one of the most beautiful places in the world to ride bikes. Foggy hills rise from the glittering beaches, lush headlands, and stony coves of the Bay of Biscay into the Pyrénées. Those hills are laced with quiet roads, which meander through green valleys and over rocky cols, passing old farms and fishing ports and mountain villages. Every town has its race. From spring until the end of the summer, juniors can ride three or four times in a week to prove themselves in the rugged terrain of the Basque Country. When the pros come, thousands of Basques make their way to the mountains to cheer on the riders and wave their red, white, and green flags.
“Normally, when our riders arrive, I start by saying, 'welcome to the best land in the world',” Juanma says. “I love it. They know that I am from here.”
The riders love racing in the Basque Country too. Basques are some of the most passionate and knowledgeable cycling fans there are.
“The people here know cycling and respect the riders,” Juanma says. “When Merhawi Kudus comes here to race, they will cheer him by name. He is not a big star, but the people know him. The fans here don’t go to a race just to run beside the riders or take pictures. They know cycling. Every single village here has its own bicycle club. There are fans everywhere.”
The Vuelta a España wasn’t always welcome in the Basque Country though. The first time that Juanma came to his homeland with the race, his team was staying at a hotel near Bilbao, and their trucks were spray painted with graffiti telling them to go away. Basque separatists didn’t think that the Basque Country belonged in a Tour of Spain. However, as Spain has modernised, new generations of Basques feel more at home within its borders. The Vuelta a España is an opportunity for them to show their homeland, with its rich history and culture and cuisine and language, to the world.
The fourth stage of this year’s race travels from the mediaeval city of Vitoria-Gasteiz to the old town of Laguardia, where it will finish with a steep climb under the cliffs of the Sierra de Cantabria.
“This stage is up on a plateau,” Juanma says. “This is the wine region, so the first thing the team staff are going to do is drink Rioja wine, because we are in the proper area. Laguardia is one of the places with the best bodegas in all of Spain.”
The next day, the race will start in Irún, the beautiful port where Juanma has his home, and finish in the buzzing, cosmopolitan city of Bilbao, after crossing five cols on the way.
“The race will start in front of my house,” Juanma says. “That is really cool. Once the peloton arrives here and they feel the first real mountains, they are going to think, ‘Okay, finally we are in the race’. It is going to be a really nice stage with the Bilbao finale.”
Juanma now expects his fellow Basques to welcome the Vuelta with open arms. They will come out in droves to cheer on the riders on their terrain–which is some of the best bike-racing terrain on the planet. They will eat tapas and drink cold Txakoli and cider and wave their flags for the riders.
“For such an important cycling region as the Basque Country, to have the Vuelta a España here is a really big thing,” Juanma says. “It is a big present to all of the fans of cycling that we can have the opportunity to have the Vuelta this year.”