Coast, hills, and heart – three days of cycling in the Basque Country
Driving towards San Sebastian on the Autopista 8, it’s hard to decide where to look. At Zarautz, famous for its surf, you get a glimpse of the Bay of Biscay. In the hazy distance, the ocean shimmers in the reflection of the sun. But glancing the other way reveals a heart-filling vista. An endless array of rolling hills — rocky pinnacles aimed at the sky, scattered with copses of pine trees, and laced with rugged valleys — spreads out as far as the eye can see. Empty meandering roads trace their way through this Basque landscape, which is as varied as the range of activities it offers.
Almost there now. One more turn and there it is: the magnificence of La Concha Bay, with San Sebastian, or Donostia in the Basque language, at its golden sandy shore. You’d be hard put to think of a better location to situate a city. The bay is one of two on the coastline here, marked by natural peaks on either side. In the middle lies the photogenic Isla Santa Maria with its rugged rock face. In summer, the bay is filled with anchored boats and surfers. In the evening, the boulevard’s a buzzing place, with the Kursaal auditorium and congress centre on one end, and a grand old theatre across the Urumea river. Up from the beach is the inner city, a close grid of tall stone houses, pintxos bars, and churches from the 18th century. It’s a lively place, where you can indulge in Basque cuisine.
But it wasn’t always like this. Some of the belle époque buildings along the boulevard are still pockmarked with bullet holes from the battles that were fought during the Civil War in the 1930s. During Franco’s regime, the Basque language and traditions were suppressed, which bred a violent resistance that lead to the foundation of the ETA terrorist group. After Franco’s death in 1975, ETA independentistas continued to strive for autonomy by way of violence. This lasted until 2011, when a permanent ceasefire was declared. Since then, the city has taken a bold and cheerful approach to reconciliation. Its proud identity shows in its modern architecture, its shops and its eateries, and its authentic approach to tourism. Add fantastic surf and plenty of sunshine and you’ve got a fantastic holiday destination. It will be our base for the next three days of cycling.
But first let’s get an idea of where we are geographically. San Sebastian lies in the autonomous region of the Basque Country (or Euskadi), which is made up of three provinces — Álava, Biscay, and Gipuzkoa. The Basque Country is situated in the western Pyrenees, which straddle the border between France and Spain on the Atlantic coast. It’s arguably the best region for cycling in Spain. The variety of roads, long cycling season, and a regional passion for the sport, which stretches back for over a century, make it an unforgettable cycling destination.
San Sebastian is surrounded by hills. Whichever direction you decide to ride, you will always be climbing. The hills are short and steep by the coast and long and meandering when you reach the city’s suburbs on your way towards the Pyrenean peaks. Whether you consider yourself a ‘short and steep bergs’ kind of rider or a true mountain goat, there is a road here for every type of cyclist. This variety demands a decent bike with a wide range of gears. For our three days here, Basque Country Cycling is our host, and the rental bikes they carry are provided by Orbea. A set of brand-new Avants were delivered to KILI, just in time for our arrival. KILI is Basque Country Cycling’s base, a top-notch bike store in a classy building on the city’s perimeter, which makes a great starting point for a ride in the hills. It’s where we are fitted and get geared up. This is also where we meet our guides — local cycling hero Aitor and cycling enthusiast Antton, imported from Finland, who also happens to be a talented photographer (most images here are by Antton).
When cycling in the Basque Country, it’s hard not to stop at every turn for a picture. Heading out along the coast, the first climb is the Monte Igueldo, which looks out over Gipuzkoa and its bays. From there, the back road takes us down to the port of Orio, a small town known for its whaling history, boatbuilding industry, and internationally successful rowing team.
Sport plays a key role in Basque identity and the game of pelota is unique to this region. It’s a bit like squash, but is played with bare hands or a glove. Originally a family game for Sundays after church, pelota was first played against the church wall, with its courtyard as the playing field. Pelota courts are still often found next to churches, even in the smallest mountain hamlets.
The road to the surfing paradise of Zarautz leads past vineyards that produce the famous Txakoli white wines, and then to another dazzling vista overlooking a wide sandy bay. To get to Getaria and Zumaia, we get back on the main road, which curves along the Bay of Biscay. This is a famous section of road with overhanging rock, often included in the Vuelta and the Clásica de San Sebastian. At Getaria you can stop to view the unique rock formations that rise up from the beach, before sitting down to a lunch of pintxos (the Basque variation of tapas), which you can pick up from the counter at any bar and will give you plenty of energy for the ride back to the city.
Very early the next morning, when the first rays of sunlight creep over the distant mountains, we find ourselves in Sakona on San Sebastian’s lively boulevard. Sakona is a funky espresso bar with highly skilled baristas.
Over coffee, we talk about the latest, thrilling edition of the Vuelta. We will follow its route for a part of today’s ride.
Spain’s largest cycling event finds its origin in the Basque town of Eibar, where employees of Orbea initiated a race from their factory grounds all the way to Madrid and named it the Vuelta a la Republica. Orbea began as a weapons factory, but when demand shifted, they decided to put their metal tubes to better use. (Early in the history of La Vuelta, the concrete indoor track in San Sebastian served for many years as the finish of the race. The track, the Velódromo de Anoeta, is still open, and it’s possible to ride there any day.)
This year the Vuelta a España took the coastal road from Bilbao to San Sebastian, before heading up into the Pyrenees the next day. We reach this first of our ‘Vuelta climbs’, the Aritxulegi, after a 10-km ride past the city’s industrial harbour districts. The climb is spectacular and takes us across the border of the Basque Country into the Navarre region and up to the Endara reservoir at the foot of the Peñas de Aia massif. From here, the road leads up a similar climb called the Agina, which is 3.5 kilometres long and has an average gradient of 7%. We finish on a platform with an almost 360-degree view that is as breathtaking as the climb itself.
We are surrounded by mountains now. It’s very quiet up here, just like the roads we’ve been riding. This whole day, we pass only two other cyclists and a handful of cars. Courtesy is common on the road here. Our cycling guide Aitor generally rides ahead when a car approaches from behind. The cars then wait until they are given the signal that the road ahead is clear before they pass. Angry drivers swerving past a cycling group at close range and high speed, often honking, are a rare experience in the Basque Country. Even on the busier main roads, cars wait patiently before passing safely. Presumably most drivers here either ride bikes themselves or know people who do.
Still tracing the route of the Vuelta, we climb the Col de Lizarrieta, summiting at the Spanish border with France. For lunch, we have been invited to Singular, a modern restaurant run by a talented young chef, and enthusiastic cyclist, by the name of Inigo Lavado. To get there, we follow the border towards the ocean (by car now) to Irun, Gipuzkoa’s second largest city. Inigo’s food is widely celebrated and imbued with just as much passion as his story.
He welcomes us warmly, even though we blunder into his beautifully designed dining area in our cleats and sweaty lycra. Cyclists are obviously not a rare sight here. Indeed, every Saturday Inigo cooks up a meal outside, to which all local cyclists are invited. Some, like ex-pro Juan Manuel Garate even have a personalised bicycle stand at the restaurant’s entrance.
We take a quick shower, then Inigo tells us the story of how he inherited his love of cycling from his father and now strives to incorporate the values he learned from riding into his cooking. Last year, Inigo and his dad rode one last gran fondo together. Shortly afterwards, his father died, and the steel bike he rode now decorates the entrance wall of Singular. We are touched by Inigo’s openness and his hospitality, and positively blown away by his food.
You’ll find the true character of any region in its heartland. Day three of our tour with Basque Country Cycling starts off in the heart of Gipuzkoa, Tolosa. There’s a slight drizzle and clouds hang low around the crests of the surrounding hills. Traditionally, the Clásica de San Sebastian passes through the city of Tolosa. Basque cycling fans are known worldwide for their passion, knowledge of cycling, and sheer numbers. From their sense of cultural pride and love for sports, the Basque people initiate many cycling events. Much like the Vuelta, the Clásica is a local event that turned international. It was founded to celebrate the Eibar Cycling Club’s 25th anniversary.
The wet chill soon dissipates, as we start climbing out of town. The Iturburu climb is tough on our cold legs, and the cool air stings our lungs. But the views are a great distraction. This is Basque farmland. Under a leaden sky, the hilltops are hiding in the fog, but the pastures are bright green and dotted with ancient farmsteads. Families have been producing famous Basque cheeses like Idiazabal here for centuries. Descending through quiet fir woods, the valleys echo the buzz of our tyres. Aitor tells us his parents grew up here, with a bunch of kids to take care of and a working day that lasted from dusk till dawn.
Every 10-15 kilometres we pass a little hamlet, consisting of a hilltop church, a pelota court, and several houses, arranged along the streets that lead to the town square. The roads are always going either up or down, but a climb is only a climb when it is longer than 3 kilometres, our guide Aitor tells us. We stop for a quick espresso. The three old men occupying the café’s bar are unsurprised by our outfits. We fill our bottles at the fountain by the square and carry on.
Wednesday is market day in Ordizia and we stop again for a quick bite of organic cake before pushing on to the grand hotel Etxeberri for a lavish lunch. The Basques love their cycling, but the sport goes hand in hand with elaborate lunches and plenty of pintxos. The post-ride gratification of Basque cuisine is taken very seriously. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
Later that evening, Ander from Orbea takes us to his second home, San Sebastian’s oldest sociedad gastronomíca, which is situated on the Plaza de la Trinidad. The sociedad, originally a male-only club, was founded to cultivate Basque cuisine. This is where Basque kitchen techniques and recipes were discussed, defined, and recorded. Indeed there is an extensive library in the sociedad that is off limits to everyone except for the country’s master chefs and the VIP members of the brotherhood. Ander explains that nowadays women are allowed here and the club is a place to celebrate food, family, and Basque traditions — but only if you are invited. During Franco’s time, the different sociedads in the old town were the only places where the Basque language could be spoken and traditions upheld. Men gathered secretly in these clubs to sing Basque folk songs, bet on Basque sports, pour Basque cider, and cook Basque food for their friends. That explains the pride they take in these places and the reverence with which they are treated still today.
Tonight, we have experienced some of that Basque pride ourselves, as we eat grand bowls of seafood risotto and roast lamb and drink cider poured from high above the glass (the only way to fully appreciate the flavour, we are told). Our cheeks are glowing and our legs are numb. Still, if we were asked to set out the next morning on another ride in the Basque hills, we would. There is an authenticity in the Basque cycling experience we haven’t encountered anywhere else. The Basques take great pride in their cycling history, and local heroes are celebrated. But cycling is also a low-key family tradition, a means of enjoying the immensely attractive countryside and the perfect pretext for sitting down to some post-ride Basque soul food.