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Into the world of Basque cyclocross

Andrew Juiliano Tekst Andrew Juiliano Gepubliceerd 20 November 2019

My body is confused. So confused. Maybe it’s the transatlantic flight I crawled off of two days earlier. Maybe it is having a hard time understanding that tomorrow I’ll be thrown into the midst of the first stop of the Copa España National Cyclocross Series. 

Whatever am I going to do? The only logical thing in a moment of energy crisis: coffee. Unfortunately, it’s half past three in the Spanish afternoon, which means the country is lying down for a mid-day siesta. Here and now, it’s a little bit too late for lunch, and a way bit too early for dinner, which is still five hours away.  

We’re lucky to catch the hotel receptionist, who points me and David Conroy, fellow racer and two-time Irish National Cyclocross Champ, in the direction of the closest bar. He too is here for a double race weekend of Basque cyclocross, and he also needs a little afternoon jolt.  

Off we wander, out of our riverside hotel, across the busy traffic circle and past the Dia grocery story. A sign next to the road points to “Laudio/Llodio”. Like most communities in this part of the world, the city has two names. One in official Spanish, and one in Euskera, the native language of Euskadi, the autonomous Basque region of northeastern Spain. Across another parking lot, we descend to the basement of an old stone building–the Xarmanta Bar. It’s got low ceilings, supported by timber beams of varying but sturdy sizes.

Photo: Tomás Montes

 The bartender looks at David and me and asks what we’d like. His Spanish has a thick accent, influenced by the staccato pronunciations of Euskera. My Spanish has its own unique twang, built on a wobbly foundation of solid C’s in high school Spanish and fine tuned with Latinos in commercial kitchens during my days as a line cook. It makes for rather rudimentary conversation, though we get what we’ve come for, two small coffees. 

His name is Carlos. He’s lived in and around Laudio all his life. This is his bar. He assumes we are in town for the bike race. He’s correct. He inquires as to where we are from. Southern California for me. South of Dublin, Ireland, for David. Carlos wants to know: are we professionals? Yes. 

He points to the wall behind us. There hangs a photo of Joseba Beloki, four-time grand tour podium finisher and native of the neighbouring Basque province of Gipuzkoa. The photo features the tiny climber in his orange Euskaltel-Euskadi jersey bouncing across the cobbles of Northern Europe. 

Are we professionals like that, he wonders. I am quick to assure him that professional cyclocross racers and professional road racers are two very different beasts. I explain that I too will be headed to the cobbles after Spain, for three more months of racing in Belgium. Koppenbergcross is coming next week…

His eyes widen upon hearing this, and he points again behind us.  There, in a small nook below Beloki, one stone stands out from the rest of the wall. It’s one of those famed cobbles, awarded to race winners in Flanders. The plaque on the inscription reads “Ronde Van Vlaanderen 40-45 Jaar.” 

I turn and point at him, and then back at the stone. He nods his head. Many years ago, he says. Back when he was faster. Now he has to work all the time. He hasn’t won anything in ten years. I’m impressed. Age grouper or not, they don’t hand out those stones for being a half-assed bike rider.

I put two euros on the counter and square up for the coffee. David and I get up to leave. 

“Vas a ganar mañana?” He asks if I’m going to win tomorrow. 

“Siempre ojala!” I respond that I always hope to. 

He looks at Daivd,“Him too?”

“Of course,” I say with a grin. “We’re both going to win.”

Photo: Tomás Montes

On the northern coast of Spain, cliffs jut from the Bay of Biscay and steep green hills undulate inland toward the arid plains of the country’s interior. These rugged mountains and steep river valleys make up the majority of Euskadi. There’s nary a flat road in the region, much less a level field for a cyclocross course. Basque cyclocross is distinctly brutal, with an exceptional amount of climbing and number of steep technical descents, often made more treacherous by the constant precipitation that turns the grassy slopes into grimy toboggan runs. 

But the mid-autumn date of the Laudio race has beaten the weather by a single week. The Copa España kicks off under sunny skies with temperatures approaching 25 degrees—a proper scorcher by cyclocross standards. I drain my water bottle and sweat my way to the start grid. 

Over the loudspeaker, the announcer interviews Javier Ruiz De Larrinaga Ibanez, who grew up 30 kilometres south of Laudio, in the heart of the Basque country. During his 20-year professional career, he’s won five Spanish national championship titles, making him a local hero, and a source of pride to his fellow Basques. Now retired, he is one of the organisers of the race today, and he’s also taken up coaching local youth cycling programmes. The announcer asks what’s harder: racing, coaching kids, or coaching the parents of the kids. Ibanez laughs and says it’s all part of the deal. 

The whistle blows and 84 elite men sprint up the opening start straight, which is the main road between Laudio and the mountain town of Okondo. A sharp right sends the field up a steeper pitch. They hammer and flail into the forest. Halfway through the first wooded section, a slender baby-blue skinsuit speeds by. It’s Gorka Izagirre, who is taking a break after wrapping up a road season that saw him finish 9th in the grim conditions of the Yorkshire World Championships. He’s got no international ranking and starts way back in the field, though it doesn’t take him long to find the head of the race. He’s the only full on road pro in the field and he’ll go on to finish eighth at the national race behind cyclocross specialists like 24 year old Felipe Orts who takes the win over Izagirre as well as a host of visiting Belgian and Dutch riders. 

Photo: Tomás Montes

The race ends just after four, and I’m soon wandering the outskirts of Laudio/Llodio, only this time in a post-race daze of exhaustion and hunger. 

It’s five o’clock in the Basque Country, high time for epicurean purgatory. I inevitably wander back to Xarmanta. This time, I’ve come with my two Spanish-speaking travel companions from Barcelona, Tomás and Sergi.  

Carlos looks up from behind the bar and immediately asks in Spanish. 

“Did you win?” 

“Ooooooooooofffff” I say. “I did win…the race to 27th place.” 

“27? Two-seven? Ahhhhhhh, eres una paquete…”

The bar’s patrons erupt in laughter, and I turn to Tomás, who grins as he translates. 

“He calls you pack fodder…” 

I join in laughing. Heck, pack fodder was a generous assessment. I was barely that on the punchy parcours. 

Disappointed or not, he brings out some food, which we devour, two dozen thin slices of salt-cured jamón followed by a mound of soft oveja cheese. He points to a large faded portrait of a shepherd on the wall and indicates that his family has long made cheese from the sheep they’ve raised in the surrounding hills. I ask for a coffee to top it all off. As he pulls an Americano from the espresso machine, he exclaims, “You never came in for coffee this morning!” 

“Maybe I would have gotten 17th instead of 27th,” I say with a grin.  

He grabs my hand, heartedly shaking it. “It might take a little more than just coffee,” he chuckles. 

I laugh my way out the door. What else am I going to do?