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Basque Cycling Culture 2022

Topa! The Basque word for cheers closely resembles the word ‘topper’, Dutch vernacular for a great person. These two thoughts came together frequently during the five-day Basque Cycling Culture trip. A group of Dutch riders who were exposed to the many fine things the Basque Country has to offer. Good people riding together create lasting memories and build camaraderie along the way. Wonderful meals and fine wines cement that experience. Who would not say cheers to that?
La Vuelta 2022 had its start in the Netherlands. Three days of racing on Dutch soil and an estimated one million spectators and fans along the route. Etxeondo staff were in the Netherlands to connect with the Dutch cycling fans and to support their teams Euskaltel- Euskadi and Equipo Kern Pharma. The flatlands, the Amsterdam and Utrecht canals, the cycling infrastructure, the many city bikes and the love for cycling racing; you better understand the Dutch when you visit them and hang out with them. And so it happened the other way, when the Dutch visited Euskadi and immersed themselves in the Basque culture. This is how the Basque Cycling Culture was born. A dozen Dutch riders came over from the Netherlands, accompanied by 4 Basque cyclists with local knowledge and insights.
The Bay of Biscay was the backdrop for stage one, a stunning route that meandered via coastal hilltops such as Ibarrangelua, Itziar, Garate and Mendizorrotz to San Sebastian before turning inland to Irura for a visit to the Etxeondo headquarters. “This is just like route 101 on the California coast”, Flip exclaimed. New vistas bring new emotions. After a welcoming homemade lunch and an informative tour of the facilities the lycra-clad team headed for Tolosa to spend the night, but not before a traditional Basque meal in a sidreria, a cider house where the cider is served straight from the barrel.
The mountains were next, a 140 km stage to Pamplona with four categorised climbs. The team started with the Azpiroz pass, followed by the mythical Sanctuary of Aralar, a col with rich cycling history. Help came from unexpected guests; Usoa Ostolaza from the Laboral Kutxa women’s team and Euskaltel-Euskadi riders Peio Goikoetxea and Unai Iribar generously helped pace the riders up the climbs. The pro riders team clothing contrasted nicely with the uniform outfits of the BCC crew in their emerald green bib shorts and pistachio coloured jerseys. Riding in style.
Upon arrival in Pamplona the riders rumbled along the mythical Estafeta street and cobbled pavement. Not like anxious running bulls but as smooth and satisfied cyclists. Cycling aficionado and stellar chef Iñigo Lavado took the team by the horns, put them to work, and jointly they created a meal of high standard, consumed in a downtown sociedad. Ride together, cook together, eat and drink together; relationships were forged on and off the bike.
On day 3, cycling legend Miguel Indurain popped in for a cameo visit and walked in unannounced at the Pamplona departure point. Erwin’s eyes nearly popped out; his dad was a huge Indurain fan back in the days and now he could ride side by side with 5-time Tour de France winner Miguel. Not just Indurain joined the first 40 kilometers of the ride, also the youthful and promising rider Mikel Retegi of the Pamplona-based Lizarte Under-23 team came along. Past and future side by side.
The wind picked up on the way to Las Bardenas Reales desert, a surreal setting that reminded Jeffrey of the Arizona landscape. Game of Thrones scenes were shot here. On these exposed gravel roads there was some punchy riding; the Dutchies know how to ride the wind and windy it was. Small-town Castejón was the next stop.
The team visited
the stitching atelier where Etxeondo has been making its garments with great care since 1976. Etxeondo founder and owner Paco Rodrigo is a native of Castejon and the ties between the company and the people from Castejon are strong. With a headwind the team set sail for La Rioja, the wine country, in stage 4. Close to the finish the group passed beautiful hilltop town Laguardia, the finish of La Vuelta 2022 stage 4 Vitoria/Gasteiz-Laguardia. The Luis Cañas winery was the scene of the team’s last supper in the Basque Country. A family business just like Etxeondo. The local gastronomy and the wines of the area were the protagonists, the lead characters in this cyclist dinner party. A well-deserved feast before facing the last stage the day after on the way to Bilbao.
In two groups with different departure times the team left the Rioja Alavesa behind to cross the Mena Valley to reach Bilbao, the Biscay capital, a symbol of change and modernisation and a key image of the Basque Country. The fatigue of the 650 kilometers accumulated in five intense yet unforgettable days brought emotion and enthusiasm to the surface. With pintxos and drinks at the the San Mames stadium, home ground of Atletic Bilbao, the tour officially ended. The place where the Tour de France 2023 will have its Grand Départ was the finish line for the BCC riders.
Yet there is no finish line. There will always be a next ride, another adventure, and new friends. From the Netherlands to the Basque Country, an exchange of cultures, ideas, and habits yet with one clear common denominator, an unrivalled passion for the bike. That thought is encouraging. Something to toast to, with a Txakoli wine from Zarautz, fresh cider from Tolosa, or fine wine from the Luis Cañas winery. Cheers! Proost! Topa!
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