Where the Words Sound Sweet: A Trip to Itzulia

By Marcos Pereda / Translated by Matthew Bailey / Images by Gomez Sport

There he is. In the distance. Look! Look! Here he comes! The figure, small at first, is getting bigger. He’s wearing a green jersey, in a vivid shade that stands out against the slightly dowdy landscape. People are starting to applaud, to shout, to form a corridor for the rider to pass through. He’s here, and then he’s gone, lost up the mountainside. The heads turn again. There he is. In the distance. Look! Here he comes! 

 

The second stage of the 2018 Itzulia ends in Bermeo. In the past the riders always faced a leg-bursting route along the coast roads. A never-ending up and down, without long climbs but also without a single flat kilometre. It wasn’t unusual for their gadgets to record several thousand metres of climbing in a single day. 

It’s been raining all day, on and off. Sometimes there is thick cloud, almost like fog, which saturates everything. At other times the rain is violent, bouncing off the muscles of men with not an ounce of fat on them. It’s windy, too. Occasionally the sun appears, timidly. Or, miracle of miracles, it’s sunny and raining at the same time. Here they call it “the witches’ sun”. A transcendent, special moment.

Bermeo is a fishing village that looks out onto the Cantabrian Sea. The town’s coat of arms includes a whale, a reminder of the area’s history of hunting these leviathans. A Nantucket in miniature, with its own Pequod, Ismael and Queequeeg. Today there are hardly any whales in these waters, and of course no one hunts them. But the memory remains, even in the appearance of the town itself. A visitor arriving at the ancient port is surprised by the silent boats, their masts lowered, covered with tarpaulins. From a distance, just for one (magical, unreal) moment, they seem to be whales, surfacing imperiously.

To get to Bermeo you have to descend almost to the water’s edge, whichever direction you come from. This is typical of the towns of the area, which are open to the waves of the Cantabrian and are protected to the south by an enormous mountain. Some places are no less than 500 metres above sea level. That makes them wet and gloomy, as the ocean lashes them during the long winter months and the sun is barely capable of warming them. Tiny towns surrounded by cliffs dotted with houses of a thousand colours and orange roofs. On one side, the furious Cantabrian Sea. On the other, the patient mountain.

There are islands here, too, specks of rock where only gulls and cormorants live. Except one, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, directly opposite Bermeo. There is a hermitage here, a small medieval fort, 241 narrow steps that transport the visitor to another era. Or another world. Recently the place was chosen by the producers of Game of Thrones as the location of Dragonstone, the traditional bastion of the Targaryen. Stories that will be repeated innumerable times by the reporters sent here for the day to cover the Itzulia.

The official name of the Tour of the Basque Country is Itzulia Basque Country. Until this year it was Euskal Herriko Itzulia. Like that. In Euskera.

Euskera is the language of the Basque Country. At first it sounds rough and alien, and leaves a bitter taste on the palate. But after the initial surprise has worn off one begins to find the curves, the sensuality in those strange words. Sounds that seem to come fresh from the earth, that smell of grass, forest, saltpeter, nights around a bonfire. Euskera is the language of the Basques and one of their greatest sources of national pride.

And no wonder. Although no one knows the origins of the language, it certainly does not derive from Latin, and it has no relatives among other European languages. Some claim similarities with Hungarian, with Icelandic, with the Finno-Ugric languages. But these are just different ways of saying no one knows. We don’t know where it came from, if indeed it came from anywhere. What is clear is that it has been around forever. The Romans could barely get a foothold in the Basque country. The same goes for the Visigoths and the Muslims. An indomitable people that protects its ancient roots every time it speaks.

The Tour, the Itzulia, contributes to this by labelling everything in at least three languages: Spanish, English and Euskera. Visitors from abroad (the Itzulia distributes 2200 accreditations for the week of the race) are surprised by the sound of the consonants, the force behind the accent. And also, of course, with the delicacy of certain terms. Bernado Atxaga, one of the most important authors in Euskera, dedicated a whole novel to the word mitxirrika, which means ‘butterfly’. Mothers are amas. The sun is eguzki. When the sea reaches the shore it’s zuria eta urdina, blue and white. Tradition. Bernat Etxepare, the oldest known author to write in Euskera, lived in the sixteenth century – barely a heartbeat ago in the history of a people.

But on that day in Bermeo there was no room for the waves of devout tourists who normally overrun the stone enclave of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. No, on that typical spring day (it rains for a while; later, the sun rises and the smell of petrichor fills the air) the small town is brought alive by the arrival of the Itzulia.

In Bermeo it smells of saltpeter and passion. And in sporting terms the town is split three ways. First comes Athletic Bilbao, the biggest team in the Vizcaya, the Basque Country, which only fields players who are Basque or who are unearthed in the quarries of the Basque clubs. A unique club, with a romanticism that many think is outdated, but which is part of the identity of thousands of people.

In second place are the traineras. These are rowing races which finish at a sandbank in the Cantabrian Sea. Some date back almost a century and a half (the Bandera de la Concha, in San Sebastian, has been staged since 1879). They generate a frenzy of excitement on the coast of the Basque country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. Every town is identified by the colours of its trainera. Yellow in Orio, green in Fuenterrabía, purple in San Pedro.

Bermeo’s trainera wears the blue of the sea. It is one of the most successful of recent times, probably the most important of all for the last five years. The boat, twelve metres long, is known as Bou Bizkaia. The pride of the town, of the old sailors who have turned themselves into a tourist attraction. A desire to keep the old traditions alive. This, too, is the Basque country.

And finally, of course, there is cycling. In reality, everything is mixed up together. At the finish line in Bermeo, for added atmosphere, there was a giant rower, dressed for the trainera. Here and there the Athletic Bilbao jersey was visible, and some of the bars are decorated in the team’s colours. But above all there were bicycles, the orange jerseys of the sadly defunct Euskaltel-Euskadi, or the green of the modern-day Euskadi-Murias. Helmets and sunglasses. The percussion of thousands of cleats clack-clacking down the pavement as the cyclo-tourists looked for the best place to watch the end of the stage.

It might sound clichéd to say that the cycling fans of the Basque Country are different, but there is some truth in it. “In other places a stage of the Vuelta could be about to begin and someone might ask you what’s happening, what all the buses and police are for. In Euskadi, thanks in part to the media, that doesn’t happen, even for an under-23 race,” says Eduard Prades, a Catalan who rides for Euskadi-Murias. This phenomenon is well known, even to the pros. When the German professional Jens Voigt retired he published a letter in which he thanked the Basque fans for their passion and fairness. “Throughout my fourteen years as a professional cyclist I have always seen Basque fans as the most passionate and loyal supporters of cycling,” he wrote. And who are we to contradict someone whose career stretched into his forties?

Anyone who comes to the Itzulia can see it for themselves. In the villages, for example, every house is festooned with flags. Some relate to the cycling: jerseys hang from the windows alongside banners bearing words of encouragement. The ikurriña (the well-known Basque flag of red, green and white) appears here and there. When the riders approach (that moment of growing intensity, unreality, when cars and motorcycles pass at full speed while you feel a knot in your stomach as you stretch to see, in the distance, the bikes arriving) the locals jump into the road to encourage the riders, shouting what sound like Basque spells against fatigue . . . for a few moments, for a few short moments, (the peloton is always too fast for anyone caught dreaming) the houses and buildings at the roadside blend into the hands and faces that greet the race.

The Basques are passionate and fiery. Seemingly calm, they are transformed when they find something to pour their passions into. Like cycling. There are examples throughout history.

Dalmacio Langarica was the first Spanish rider to win the Vuelta a España. That was in 1946. Thirteen years later Langarica is the Spanish cycling coach, with responsibility for selecting the Spanish Tour de France team, with high hopes of victory at what seems a promising moment. Coppi is past his prime, Anquetil is too young to perform consistently day after day, Gaul is always an unknown, Rivière fails too often in the mountains. So perhaps the moment has come for the Spanish.

But . . . there are at least two riders who see themselves as potential leaders. One is anarchic and wild, an erratic genius capable of the greatest deeds and the most shameful failures. His name is Federico Martín Bahamontes, and they call him the Eagle. The other is different. A silent, selfless worker. Strong, very strong. Also a climber, like the Toledan. But he answers to the name of Jesús Loroño, and was born in Larrabezúa, in Vizcaya, just a few kilometers from where Langarica came into to the world. Both are Basques. Both have won the Vuelta (Loroño managed it in 1957). And now Langarica has to decide.

And he does. Langarica thinks you can’t have two roosters on the same farm, and bets on Bahamontes. The Basque Country is up in arms. The windows of a shop he owns in Bilbao are shattered. They shout in the street. They say he broke a finger during an argument with Loroño. The fans do not even forgive him when Bahamontes wins the Tour that July. How could he? How could he do it? This betrayal of the homeland. They will never look at him the same way again.

Yes, in the Basque Country cycling is a very serious matter.

Of course, the best way to feel the true passion of the Basques for cycling is to get closer to the hills, to one of the mercilessly many short, narrow and sinuous climbs the Itzulia goes up every year. That’s where you really appreciate how special this place is. Groups of friends – cuadrillas (‘crews’) as they are known in the Basque Country – start arriving in the morning, looking for the best spots to watch the riders pass. Some on their bikes but mostly on foot. Then (in the middle of a curve, or at the end of a steep straight, or in a field near the summit) the party begins.

Basques like to eat and drink. So it is no surprise that an intense aroma of chorizo or chuletas, roasting on an improvised grill, rises from these gatherings by the roadside. Gatherings that invite you to stay, to share, to chat for a while about great feats of the past, about the last great hope of Euskadi, about who will win the Tour this year. We are all united by a common love of the bicycle, and this is enough to win a stranger an invitation to try what’s cooking. An excess of sociability can carry you to the top of the climb, yes, but you’ll be sweating and carrying an extra kilo or two when you get there. And there may be drink, too. Races in the Basque Country smell of calimocho, made by mixing cola with red wine (not wine of a very high quality, of course). It’s most refreshing when served very cold – but also most treacherous, because although it doesn’t seem too strong there are snakes in its grass. Learning to say no to a second (or third) is very important if you are going to cover this kind of race properly.

The Itzulia’s home team is Euskadi-Murias. This is a modest, relatively young team that has been racing since 2015, each year more successfully than the last. It is also the one with the most support among the fans, who go crazy when they see the striking green jersey appear in the distance. The Basques encourage all the riders with their shouts and applause, but they really lay it on thick for these boys, who they regard as their own.

Euskadi-Murias is attempting to recreate the passion that Euskaltel-Euskadi awoke at the turn of the century. They had real stars, like Iban Mayo, Haimar Zubeldia and Samuel Sánchez, who won stages of the Tour de France, of the Vuelta a España and even a gold medal in the Olympic road race. A guerrilla team, one which stood out in the peloton thanks to their orange jerseys, and who became a pioneer of viral marketing, distributing team T-shirts during the Pyrenean stages of the Tour de France so that the corridor of spectators appeared to have been painted in Euskaltel colours.

That was known as the ‘Orange Tide’. Now Euskadi-Muria is trying to create a ‘Green Tide’. They have yet to reach the heights of their predecessors, but their step is sure, and so far has only carried them upwards. Cycling, including the professional kind, is alive in the Basque Country.

The wait passes quickly. The crowd sings, dances, laughs. It’s a day of partying, a day when they celebrate the combination of their passions: bicycles, friendship and nature. Perfect for a people rooted in its own soil, in its ancient customs, living happily alongside its neighbours. What in other races would be hours of tedium here becomes a carousel of sensations.

And then, of course, they arrive. Them. The riders. And the passion boils over. But always respectfully. No matter how narrow the road, the rider will always have room to pass. A corridor of shouts and encouragements, of faces and voices, will open before him, but he will never have a problem. No one in the Basque Country will boo a rider, no one will spit on him (as has happened, sadly, at the Tour de France) and no one will insult him. “The Basque fans make you feel at home no matter where you come from,” says Eduard Prades of Euskadi-Murias. There will also be very few running alongside the bikes. They understand that this bothers the cyclist, interrupts his concentration, can even make him fall. No, it’s unnecessary. Here the love of the sport is combined with understanding, wisdom and respect.

To an extent that may be surprising. A few years ago I went to see an amateur race that took place in the Basque Country. It went up Sollube, one of the mythical climbs of the region, where cycling history has been written since time immemorial. I rode up it and chose what I thought would be the best spot to watch, next to a group of other cyclists, all with grey hair. A lot of grey hair. Their bikes were lined up neatly against a railing, well out of the way. When the race came past (the riders scattered like the beads of a rosary – the young ride with their legs, not their heads, which is why their races are always such fun) I was surprised that these spectators didn’t shout. They just applauded gently and gave a few words of encouragement to passing riders. I asked them about their behaviour. “If we shout,” said one, “we can’t hear the sounds of the chains on the pinions, or the breathing, or the wheels on the asphalt. Those are some of the best bits.” Since then, I have tried it myself numerous times. It’s quite something to hear these sounds. And do you know what? They were right. These are some of the best bits.

This year the cyclists arrive in Bermeo via a different road than usual, a narrow road, more of a path, that snakes nervously along the cliffs of San Pelaio into a forest then down, sparkling, into the town centre. It’s a perfect example of what the terrain of the Basque Country has to offer to those who travel by bicycle.

The climb looks spectacular. The rough slopes seem to slide into the Cantabrian Sea, a mythological being of foam and water, white and blue, furious and wild, forever crashing violently against the rocks. Rather like the cyclists. In the most technical section, where the road looks proudly to the sky, the attacks begin. In the end four men will stand out. A Frenchman, Julian Alaphilippe. A Slovenian, Primož Roglič. And, of course, two Basques, two of the idols of the fans, Ion Izaguirre and Mikel Landa.

The descent is dizzying. And challenging, very challenging. Curves that tighten, causing the riders to brush against the walls of houses and schools as they pass. Crossings, changes of road surface, hidden steep sections that sap the legs. And at the end half a kilometre of impossible ramps, a last malevolent trap to punish the riders, as if they weren’t in enough agony already.

In Bermeo Alaphilippe wins. He is a tiny figure, wasp-waisted but with thighs like Roman columns. A specialist in the Ardennes classics: a good top speed, with a great capacity to ride climbs of up to 5 km at a high cadence. Perfectly adapted to the Itzulia. He also won the first stage.

The Vuelta al País Vasco was born in 1924, organised by a newspaper, Excelsior. The importance of this publication in contemporary Spanish cycling was so great that for many years it was Excelsior who drew up the list of Iberian cyclists who would compete at the Tour de France. The first winner was no less a rider than Francis Pélissier, the youngest member of France’s most legendary cycling dynasty. A rider of true quality, he was the start of an absolutely stellar list of winners, which includes names such as Nicolas Frantz, Jacques Anquetil, Luis Ocaña, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Laurent Jalabert and Nairo Quintana. Virtually all the great champions of history have left their tyre prints on the roads of the Basque Country, especially since the 1970s when the race was revived after three decades of oblivion.

The characteristics of the race have always been the same. Narrow, nervous, hilly roads, with barely a flat metre on the way. A time trial that helps decide the winner. And climbs, lots of climbs. Short climbs, less than 5 km, but violent and tough, one after another with barely a pause. There are no really high mountains in the Basque Country but there are impossibly many slopes that can be linked over a short distance. It’s a true crucible, and one which produces a high-voltage show.

The two riders who have the most victories, each with four, are perfectly adapted to roads such as these. Albert Contador, a nervy rider, well-suited to short climbs, competitive in hilly time trials. Less well-known is José Antonio González Linares, a Spaniard who rode for the mythical Kas team, and made the Itzulia his personal annual hunting ground. González Linares was a very strong rider, especially in time trials (he once won one in the Tour, beating Eddy Merckx himself) and who dominated on medium mountain stages. Protected by a genuinely legendary team, which occasionally tyrannized the races in which it rode, González Linares won four editions between 1972 and 1978. He is now active in politics, and is currently the mayor of his home town. A strange world.

Back to Euskadi-Murias. Above we said that the fans support all the cyclists equally, but their own just a little bit more. The home team. Or the team on home soil.

Euskadi-Murias is that team, which is why the Basques shout more loudly when they see one of the green jerseys appear in the distance – an easy feat, because they are wearing what is surely the most striking and spectacular kit in the peloton. The decibels rise, and cyclists are called by their first names. Some of them have been known to the spectators all their lives – the guy you used to see out training as a lad who has now made it to the top. “It’s a beautiful thing to hear your name called out so many times as you climb. It almost makes you forget the suffering,” says Mikel Bizkarra, one of the outstanding Euskadi-Murias riders of 2018. “People even cheer when you are out training. They shout ‘Go, Murias!’” The fans identify with the team, with their patient way of doing things, little by little, without rushing. Starting at the bottom and growing year after year.

The truth is that it is not easy for a Continental squad like Euskadi-Murias to compete with the best teams in the world, the best of the WorldTour, in these major races. Jon Odriozola, directeur sportif, was very pleased with the efforts of his team in the Itzulia. “The sixth place of Chades and the fifth of Enrique Sanz in two stages shows that we are not far behind, and that is no mean feat in our first year,” he says. Beyond concrete results, the participation of Euskadi-Murias in the Itzulia has an important symbolic aspect. “The fans recognize that the Euskadi team is back in the race,” says Odriozola. The Euskadi team. This is more than some empty commercial brand name, like Flandria in the seventies, for example.

Yes, when the Basque fans see a fluourescent green jersey in the distance they shout all the louder. How could they not?

Incidentally, the team will make its Vuelta a España debut in 2018. Its evolution does not yet appear to be at an end.

The 2018 Itzulia Basque Country was totally dominated by the Slovenian rider Primož Roglič. A former ski jumper, he discovered cycling as a means of recovering from a serious fall in his original sport, and has always stood out in time trials. But since last year Roglič is showing that there is more to him than that. Much more. He won a stage at the Tour de France after climbing Croix de Fer and Galibier, no less, and at the Itzulia he has been imperious in his strongest discipline (he won the midweek time trial, opening up huge gaps on his rivals) and strong on the climbs. Only on the final day did Mikel Landa, the exceptional Basque climber, manage to put him under pressure on the run into the finish at Nuestra Señora de Arrate. But it was a mirage. A gap of over a minute to the second-placed finisher overall is a good indication of the power that Roglič displayed all week.

Inded, he displayed it from the very first day. Arriving in Zarautz, the finish of the initial stage, Roglič and Alaphilippe broke away from the rest of the field to dispute the stage win, which in the end went to the Frenchman. The order is repeated the next day. Everything went perfectly. Quick-Step Floors were finalizing their preparation for their triumphs in the Ardennes. Roglič was cementing overall victory, which was decided in the time trial in Lodosa, where he gained such significant time on the climbers that it suggested he was capable of greater feats in the Grand Tours. After that it was just a matter of controlling the race (a challenge on the treacherous, twisty roads of the Basque Country) and celebrating his greatest success to date. One which seems likely to be the first of many.

Cycling will eternally remain a part of life in the Basque Country. It is a tradition, one that is passed from generation to generation, and which is discussed at night by firelight. A way of socializing, of spending time with friends and acquaintances. A way of watching young athletes crossing the rough terrain that nature has given to this little piece of greenery and ocean.

And they will be there.

Always.

The greatest fans in the world.