- Contributed by Peter Easton -
Close your eyes and imagine a perfect day on the bike, and it will match very closely to riding in the Basque Country. A picturesque landscape that is unrivalled for beauty, the roads of the Western Pyrйnйes rise and fall over rugged limestone mountains, giving way to the emerald hillsides that fill the countryside.
Rolling hills, beautiful mountain climbs, serpentine coastal roads, minimal traffic and endless vistas. All sounds quite perfect to me. The twisting coastal road of the Cфte Basque culminates on the Alto de Jaizkibel, the crucial climb in the Clasica San Sebastian. The pride of cycling in the Basque Country runs so deep the winner is honored with his own txapela, a traditional Basque beret that unless you speak Euskara, is as close as any outsider is going to get to being a local.
Lessons From the Past
As the summer months turn, the most important single day Classics return this weekend and assuming center stage is the Basque city of San Sebastian. The Five Monuments of Cycling as we know them- Paris-Roubaix, Liиge-Bastogne-Liиge, the Tour of Flanders, Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Lombardy-are all rich with tradition and history spanning well over 100 years. Each of these Classics has its icon, its signature element that creates anticipation and defines the crucial moment of the race. For a few of these races, their icons-The Muur van Geraardsbergen, the Arenberg Forest, Cфte de la Redoute for example- have been installed into their races more recently however, and have created a modern- post World War II-feel to the race. But how old does something need to be for it to have tradition? And how old does it have to be before many consider a change in this tradition a violation of its history, or a reaction to a fad or whim? While possibly rhetorical questions, Spain-more specifically the Basque Country- offers up one the younger single day classics with the Clasica San Sebastian, and while its course has clearly been modeled after the traditional classics recipe, the organizers have recognized, on this the 30th edition, that, while the region is rich with a cultural heritage that relies on its traditions to exist, the best way to move forward is to keep an eye on the past in a rear view mirror.
The Basque Country is decidedly split across the border of France and Spain, and also between being classically authentic and progressively modern. While both traits can be found on either side of the border, the Clasica San Sebastian itself is a wholly Spanish Basque affair. While the race has traditionally suited the climbers and those on raging form following the Tour, the organizers have looked to their eastern brethren in France to see how progress works. This year the race has doubled up on what has become its signature climb, and consequently its icon- the Alto de Jaizkibel. The crucial portion of the race will come in the final 85 kilometers, with two clockwise loops from the eastern edge of San Sebastian that includes the Alto de Jaizkibel and the Alto de Arzate. This could be a lesson gained from other Classics, namely Liиge-Bastogne-Liиge and the Amstel Gold Race. It seems the easiest way to make a race more exciting is to make it more challenging and place the demands and attention squarely on the course’s icon.
Looking Back to See the Future
Historically speaking, the Jaizkibel area is a relevant landmark thanks to its strategic position near France, with the mountain range standing as the easternmost Spanish rise by the seaside and affording unmatched views, both over the sea and inland. Highlighted by the Alto de Jaizkibel and the craggily peak of La Rhune, the quilted, richly decorated Basque Country landscape is at the heart of the confluence of the Western Pyrenees collapsing onto the rugged Basque coast.
As a result, the military has had an interest here since the sixteenth century when the Spanish-French border was negotiated, building defense facilities, such as the towers dotting the ridge.
With the first pass of the Jaizkibel coming with 85 kilometers remaining, and the second with 47, the nature of the race will inevitably change. The climb itself, at 7.8 kilometers, is tough enough when raced over once to create a race winning selection. With a second ascent, and the following Alto de Arzake Arzake at 2.7 kilometers long and 15 kilometers from the finish, the organizers have succeeded in creating exactly what defines a great classic- a highly anticipated two hour finale that puts the race action right where it should be.
Master and Apprentice
It is very difficult to discuss anything Basque without a reference to one of their greatest passions- food. Again, there are two schools of thought here, and the latter, modern cuisine delicately places itself next to the classic gastronomic culture that has defined this region as one of the richest culinary regions in all of Europe. Barely across the border in France, L’Auberge Basque, a renovated farmhouse with a decidedly modern addition that includes the dining room and kitchen, is home to the progressive cooking of the young chef Cedric Bechade. At 32, Mr Bechade is hardly older than the race itself, and while his hero was the great Basque chef Juan Marie Arzak, he did recall seeing the race during his youth, understood the pain involved, and found greater pleasure in eating and cooking.
Ten minutes from San Sebastian and still in Spain, is Zuberoa Jatetxea, a classic Basque restaurant manned by master chef Hilario Arbelaitz. His food is based on the classic recipes of his family, and even the architecture is distinctly territorial. Zuberoa is in a 600 year old farm house, the oldest in the valley. When speaking with him, Mr. Arbelaitz says his cooking is similar to the Classics-you need talent to succeed, and that comes from understanding the basics and perfecting your craft. He was very proud to have a reservation from Andy Schleck for Saturday night after the race. But for him, the Euskaltel team is very important, and he smiled when I asked him who his pick was. He said it would bring him great joy if Samuel Sanchez was to win.
Classic or modern, traditional or progressive, all eyes will be on the Basque Country, and for one day at least, it will assume center stage in the sport of cycling. Organizer Jaime Ugarte is hopeful that his more aggressive parcours will show the sport that the Clasica San Sebastian deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the older Classics, even if it has a more modern feel to it. One tradition that won’t change, thankfully, is the rewarding of the winners txapela. There are still some things that deserve to be viewed head on, even if it means looking into the past.
Peter Easton is not only a man of the Spring Classics, but of the latter half of the year one day specials as well. Catch up with him on the road with Velo Classic Tours and one of his eleven itineraries to the Classics. Visit VeloClassic.com for more information.