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Cycling Spain

Edwin Winkels Tekst Edwin Winkels Gepubliceerd 01 October 2014

The climb is not arduous, up to the top of the Monte de Arlabán, along a winding road tucked away between oaks and beech trees in the heart of the green Basque region, not far from its capital city of Vitoria. Below, in the valley, a controversial motorway carves its way through the once-unspoilt natural landscape. Just below the peak of the Arlabán is a chapel dedicated to the Holy Virgin of Dorleta; a bit farther down, at the side of the road, a tiny shrine houses a statue of the same patron saint. Old cycling caps, gloves, jerseys, water bottles and other cyclists’ gear lie at her feet, placed there as devotional offerings. The text inscribed on a marble slab echoes the same words written under a statue of Mary 250 kilometres to the northeast, outside the Notre-Dame des Cyclistes in the Armagnac region of France: ‘Mary, queen of the world, please protect the routes in all directions ridden by cyclists who love the great works of nature created by the Lord.’

In August 1960, three young Basques cycled the 1,700 kilometres to Rome. The Bishop of San Sebastián interceded on their behalf, arranging for them to have an audience with Pope John XXIII. Dressed in cycling gear, they presented a petition signed by many cyclists, priests and other Catholics, asking the pope to officially designate Our Holy Lady of Dorleta as the patron saint of cyclists. The Pope, who was himself a great admirer of Gino (‘the Pious’) Bartali, immediately granted the petition.

Beeld: Hollandse Hoogte
Beeld: Hollandse Hoogte

Sadly, the Holy Virgin is unable to offer blanket protection to all cyclists. Between 30 and 50 cyclists die in accidents every year in Spain; most of them are touring cyclists, like those three Basque pilgrims, who ride without protection on rural roads in a country without cycle paths. Cyclists are quite frequently found on the emergency lanes on the hard shoulder – if they are even present – of roads where lorries rush past at speed limits up to 100 kmph, where the sideways gust of wind from their passage is sometimes more hazardous than the massive vehicle itself. Even pro cyclists cannot always avoid an unexpected brush with death on the road.

Spain is no exception, of course; these accidents happen all over the place. Some may even consider these fatality figures fairly low, considering the size of the country, the narrow or high-speed roads stretching thousands and thousands of kilometres, and the number of cyclists on those roads. Despite the lingering phantom of doping, Operación Puerto and the many Spanish cycling heroes who were caught out, road cycling has only become more popular in recent years. Cycling is the fourth most common recreational sport in Spain, following fitness, football and swimming: 20% of the 15 million athletes grab their bicycles and head out on roads or paths. That distinction is significant: the number of people who climb on a mountain bike instead of hitting the roads has risen exponentially, inspired in no small part by fear of vehicle traffic on the roads. And of course Spain offers an ideal landscape for mountain bikers. The fact that the Dorleta shrine stands at an altitude of nearly 600 metres is characteristic of the country; there are very few places in Spain where you can cycle long distances on a flat road. Hills, mountain ranges, high-altitude plateaus… There is no end to the elevated variety of landscapes – and most of them are far from the cities and completely abandoned.

The fact that the Dorleta shrine stands at an altitude of nearly 600 metres is characteristic of the country.

Other statistics released by the government show that nearly half of the 47 million Spaniards have a bicycle, 16 million of them use it occasionally, and 2.5 million people take their bicycles out every day, most to go to work or school. Low figures compared to a cycling paradise like the Netherlands, but not all that bad for a country with such vast distances, where cars have always been cherished and cycling through a city was long considered tantamount to attempted suicide. In Madrid, potential cyclists still believe that: only 0.3% of movements within the capital city take place on the bicycle, far fewer than the surprising frontrunner of Seville, where nearly 7% of all rides take place by bicycle.

It has always been Spain’s huge paradox: especially since Federico Martín Bahamontes swooped down from Toledo like an eagle to dominate the highest roads in Europe in the 1950s, the professional cyclists have won countless races and Spain has grown to become one of the biggest cycling countries worldwide – but at the same time, the underlying foundation of cycling from home to work, school and shops has been almost impossible. Even now, traffic congestion builds up around primary and secondary schools every morning and afternoon because all children, including pre-teens and teenagers, are brought to school and picked up by their parents; if they’re lucky, the oldest students have a scooter. But a bicycle? It looks dumb, and it makes you sweaty.

Beeld: Pavé Culture Cycliste
Beeld: Pavé Culture Cycliste

Generations of Spaniards have never learned to ride a bike, especially if they’re older than 50, and certainly the people living in cities – not just because it was dangerous to cycle there, but also because they simply didn’t have any room for a bicycle in their small flats. And of course it would be stolen straight away if they parked it on the street, since bicycles were rare and expensive. The title of a theatre show and film from forty years ago is still a common expression: ‘Las bicicletas son para el verano’: the bicycles are only for the summer, when people head out into the countryside, going back to their hometown on holiday and discovering a renewed passion for cycling there.

That was one of the reasons why Tour winners like Bahamontes, Luis Ocaña, Pedro Delgado and Miguel Induráin became such popular heroes; they were the world’s best at something that almost no one in Spain did or could do: riding a bicycle. In particular, Delgado and Induráin contributed to a huge increase in the bicycle’s popularity over the past twenty years. Now, right when pro Spanish cycling is experiencing its biggest crisis ever – or will be in the coming years, when winners like Contador, Valverde and Rodríguez step down – road cycling and city bikes are both bigger than ever. The economic crisis has been a contributing factor, especially in city traffic: the Spaniards have discovered that the bicycle offers a dirt-cheap alternative form of transport which often proves faster than cars or buses. And not just in summer – when Spanish weather is often too hot for cycling – but all year round.

It would take some time until Barcelona was truly conquered by the cyclists.

Not that all cities were or are equally well prepared. But where people in Madrid still can’t be convinced to hop on the bike – the only serious cycle path runs in a large arc through the green areas, curving around the city – Barcelona has proven that metropolitan regions that were once hostile to bicycles can suddenly have a different, friendlier, and more modern face with the rise of the two-wheeled contraptions. When the socialist mayor at that time, Pasquel Maragall, famous for winning the 1992 Olympics for the city, officially opened the first few kilometres of cycle track in autumn 1990, he was mocked in the local press as a crazy idealist.

It would take some time, until the 21st century, until Barcelona was truly conquered by the cyclists. A group of pioneering die-hards was already cycling to work every day, but the number of bicycle users really took off when the city introduced a public bike rental system in 2007, Bicing. The rapid growth in the number of cyclists – reaching over 100,000 subscribers in no time – also caused problems: many of the ‘new’ cyclists were inexperienced and the number of cycle paths, nearly 200 kilometres by that time, proved insufficient. Improvising its way forward, the city has been one step behind the cyclists ever since, struggling to find room for new cycle paths and traffic laws.


But the success of the bicycle in Barcelona, fed in part by the huge influx of expats from northern and western Europe, proved to many other cities in Spain that bicycles really weren’t just for summer. After Barcelona and Seville – another former high-paced car city that now has over 140 km in cycle paths – another hundred cities in Spain have now succumbed to the ‘public bicycle’, which you pick up from one rack and park somewhere else. Ideal for people who don’t have room for a bike at home or are worried it will be stolen on the street. Madrid was the most recent metropolis to sign on and only introduced its ‘municipal bicycles’ this summer, but with one major change that Barcelona would like to introduce in future too: Madrid has electric bicycles, making it easier to master the steep slopes in some parts of town.

Electric bikes are obviously taboo amongst the large group of ‘urban bikers’ who have found their dream location in Barcelona in recent years, enjoying its climate and seaside location. After the Brompton folding bicycles and classic city bikes had carved out a niche for themselves on a small scale, arriving from England and the Netherlands through two shops (Cap Problema in the old Gothic neighbourhood, and Bike Gràcia in Gràcia), things really started moving with the boys from the local courier companies; Trèbol (the clover) was a pioneer, the first to use bicycles instead of delivery vans. The eco-friendly couriers imported the fixed-gear bikes they saw in real life or on videos in New York.

Beeld: Jack Chevell
Beeld: Jack Chevell

Barcelona provided an excellent platform for the Red Hook Crit, the fixie event from Brooklyn held in August for the second time on the Catalan coast, which attracted a record number of registrations. The growing popularity also led to the opening of quite a few modern bicycle shops, which not only sell and fix bikes, but also offer a place for cycling aficionados to gather, especially twenty- and thirty-somethings with the cycling lifestyle etched deep into their calf muscles. That transformation is quite striking to see, in the exterior and interior of cycle shops; twenty years ago, the only cycle shops in Barcelona sold racing bikes, later adding mountain bikes. Those first ‘new’ cycle shops were joined by businesses like My Beautiful Parking, Barceloneta Bikes, Espai Bici, Cream Bikes and Things, and Classic Bikes, which refurbishes and sells second-hand Dutch bikes. A historic store like Castells also made the transformation towards that increasingly sought-after ‘urban bike’ culture.

The fact that the sports cycle shops have become a minority as a result is a sign of the sea change across Spain. Despite the many successes to date since Miguel Induráin won the Tour de France five times in a row, the – temporary? – decline in professional cycling in Spain is near-total. There are more than enough figures to support that claim (just over 70 wins in 2012, whereas 2006 still had twice that number), but the most recent Vuelta speaks volumes: only 28 of the 198 competing cyclists came from Spain. It was the first time in the 69 years of the race’s history that there were so few Spanish competitors. There are still two Spanish pro teams on the go: Movistar and CajaRural, the former only riding in the ProTour.

Barcelona provided an excellent platform for the Red Hook Crit.

Spanish pro cycling was hit hard by a twofold crisis: Spain was exposed as a doping paradise where the sport’s most famous sinner, Lance Armstrong, found a safe haven for years, and the economic crisis has hit Spain harder than almost any other country in Europe. Sponsors willing to pledge more than ten million euros to set up a prominent ProTour team are no longer around; Movistar, the heir to Reynolds, Banesto and Caisse d’Epargne, is the last lingering survivor from a golden generation that dominated cycling for years, or at least helped shape the face of the sport.

When there are almost no teams left, there are far fewer places for cyclists. The athletes still competing are on the older end of the spectrum: three-quarters of Spanish pro cyclists are over the age of thirty, including the only competitors who still rank among potential winners: Alberto Contador (31), Joaquim Rodríguez (35) and Alejandro Valverde (34), followed by men like Samuel Sánchez (36) or Dani Moreno (33). A huge gap follows these big names; of the 28 Spaniards who raced in the Vuelta, only four were under the age of 27, and none of them showed signs of developing into a future world-class medallist.

Beeld: Jack Chevell
Beeld: Jack Chevell

That also has a detrimental impact on youth training programmes. There are reasons why the patron saint of cyclists stands in the heart of the Basque Country, traditionally a bulwark of the most promising cyclists, with its hilly green landscape that always offered a great place to grow; nearly half of the cyclists in the Spanish team come from that region. Where the Holy Virgin of Dorleta sees more and more touring cyclists and mountain bikers passing by her shrine, the number of junior races and other competitions has dropped off sharply, even in the Basque Country. Cycling clubs are seeing fewer new members join their ranks; the future of pro cycling looks darker every day. Spain is essentially becoming ‘just another cycling country’, a place where bicycles are used all year round, no longer reserved for the fastest, the most talented, the elite.

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