Photography: Kåre Dehlie Thorstad
Euskal Herriko Itzulia
In the week between monuments Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, there is madness to be found elsewhere. Just off the shores of the Biscay Bay, stuck in the corner between France and Spain, lies the Basque Country, Euskal Herria.
It’s green and lush, wild and beautiful, vibrant in every way. The roads here are steep and narrow — most often on the far side of crazy and extreme — whilst the weather can be anything from torrential rain to searing heat, all in one day. Undeniably, the Basque Country is one of high contrast, and this is where some of the world’s best climbers fight for glory in one of the hardest stage races on the UCI calendar. Welcome to Vuelta al País Vasco! Or, Euskal Herriko Itzulia, to be entirely correct. When in the Basque Country, keep your Spanish down to a minimum and make an effort to pick up some Basque expressions. The Basque people are extremely proud of their legacy, and will have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the Iberian Peninsula.
While Tom Boonen & co. fought it out on the cobbles of the North, País Vasco had no difficulty in attracting the very best of GC riders on this planet, with Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde, Romain Bardet, Sergio Henao, Simon Yates, and Rigoberto Urán all on the start line of the 57th edition of this mystical race. It would be pointless for this tender troupe to risk their limbs and future prospects on the farm tracks of Vlaanderen and Roubaix.
País Vasco is the ideal build-up for Giro d’Italia, one month further away in time, preparing the legs for all the suffering to come. The density of classified climbs is unreasonably high in the Basque Country, and gradients often transcend the 20s, factors which in due time makes for savage racing, pushing the riders to the very edge of their physical capabilities. As a rule, the field is torn to shreds over the first ‘gaina’, the Basque equivalent of ‘alto’, and from then on the weaker riders are left fighting for survival at the back of the pack.
The level of suffering is just colossal, almost obscene. Ideal for a photographer on a mission to depict the depths of human suffering, but at the same time quite an unpleasant experience for the merciful onlooker in me. There is a fine line between excitement and perversity, and the good in you just wants to reach out and help these wounded men stuck in their own personal hell. If only I could take away a fragment of the discomfort they are feeling, just the 1/1000th of a second it takes to capture that moment in time with my camera — maybe it would help.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 17 where it was first printed.