Biking Spain's Basque Country and Cycling its Climbs

Planning to Cycle Spain's north and check off all those climbs?  With roads like these and its Vuelta a España history, you are in for a treat.  Get to know some of the Basque Country's road cycling heritage before you go!

Cycling the Basque Country and its climbsCycling the Basque Country is excellent and road cyclists will love the climbs here, which can be anything from short and impossibly steep to milder inclines but always with some staggering scenery and dramatic landscape.
Samuel Sanchez, famous Euskaltel-Euskadi rider, with Team BMC
Samuel Sanchez, famous Euskaltel-Euskadi rider
There are so many to choose from it is hard to make time to cycle them all. Bike such notables as the Category 2 climb, Alto de Arrate (“Alto Ixua”) which has been a stage final for the Vuelta a España 3 times or even the nice Cat 1, Alto de Bianditz which is a good one as it never gets too steep to breath!  Give Jaizkibel a go  which can be climbed from both sides of the east and west. Eager for something more, bike the brutal Urkiola, a great one to challenge every road cyclist with its 7% average on the short (5.4km) route which reaches some tougher ramp sections in the 11% range.

Cycling in the Pais Vasco, Basque CountryStarting off in Bilbao, the main hub to the north and Pais Vasco (The Basque Country) you will get a great taste of what is to come.  Bilbao has certainly improved its reputation in the last few years.  It has gone from a fairly grimy port on the temperamental Bay of Biscay, a centre of industry, manufacturing, polluted, noisy and crowded (it is Spain's 4th largest city) to a centre of arts and culture.  The welcome addition of the stunning Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (opening its doors in October 1997), a building by Frank Gehry whose limestone, glass and titanium creation was hailed as by architect Philip Johnson as “the greatest building of our time”, helped things change.  It is a good place to start from and has an international airport to get into. Today's city has become a hot spot for Europe with artists or sports people once again, and it was showcased in La Vuelta in the 2018 race program with great success.

Cycling the tough Balcón de Bizkaia on Vuelta 2018
Cycling the tough Balcón de Bizkaia
However, this inclusion into the Grand Tour Pro Cycling calendar hasn´t always been guaranteed. For the local cycling fanatics, La Vuelta a España arriving in the Basque country was, and is, always a very, very big deal. Preserve of the pro cyclist and some of Spain's greatest including Abraham Olano and Jesús Loroño, the Basque Country hadn't since 2011, been featured in a Vuelta for 33 years, passing last in 1978!  

Euskaltel Euskadi Cyclist on the Angliru (2013 Vuelta a España)
Euskaltel Euskadi on the
Angliru (2013 Vuelta a España)

In that year, the stage was called off after the streets were strewn with nails, logs and barricades. Notably avoided since then (and politically motivated due to ETA threats), the “Orange Tide” made itself known since its welcome back into the grand tour cycling calendar with the 2001 arrival of the Tour de France with Euskaltel supporters cheering and waving their bright orange flags alongside the road.  With mountainous training grounds the Basque cyclists are particularly well regarded when things go perpendicular.


2013 Vuelta a España - Sammy Sanchez, Euskaltel Euskadi
2013 Vuelta a España - Sammy Sanchez, Euskaltel Euskadi

In the 2011 revisiting of Pais Vasco by Spain's own National race, La Vuelta a España, Samuel Sanchez, Olympic gold medallist in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and former member of the now defunct Basque Euskaltel-Euskadi team commented, “These are two decisive stages, with very difficult climbs and descents and people are going to suffer a lot. It is going to be very exciting, and I think for a few days, people are going to set aside the politics and come out for the race.”  Fortunately, he was right.  It was a great few stages and set the stage for La Vuelta to return many times since then.

You cannot be cycling in the Basque Country without knowing the history of The Orange Tide – The Basques.  Such illustrious cyclists, such great bike makers (think ORBEA & BH), and such a potent group to have in the Vuelta, there has always been that flash of brilliant orange near the head of the peloton somewhere for almost 2 decades. Sadly 2013 was thought to be their last year as the economic crisis took its toll on accruing sponsorship fees with the public institutions involved. However, just in the midst of La Vuelta 2014 the news was that the Formula 1 driver, and cycling enthusiast, Fernando Alonso had bought the team and 30 riders to keep it going! However, once in talks and the 6 million price tag, the negotiations stalled and it looks like the Orange tide has been consigned to the history books.

Mikel Landa  - 2013 Vuelta a España Euskaltel Euskadi (Landa is now president  of the Euskadi Cycling Foundation)
Mikel Landa  - 2013 Vuelta a España Euskaltel Euskadi (as of 2017, Landa is now president
of the Euskadi Cycling Foundation )
An area of folklore and tradition very much unique to Spain, the Basque Country holds sport and its adversarial nature to its heart.  In an interview with Euskaltel rider, David Etxebarria he compared the sport to the life the Basques knew under Franco. “Sport is a part of Basque culture, and because of the suffering and sacrifice it has more influence and is more deeply rooted than in other cultures. It is because of the repression through which we have lived.”

The tough reputation for cycling and life in general was forged by its landscape and also due to its oppression. During the Franco years and the civil war the Basques were particularly picked out for persecution which included everything from physical violence to a complete ban of the Basque language.  However, it was perhaps the most infamous massacre in the Spanish Civil War occurring in the Pais Vasco which really caught the world’s attention.

Picasso's Gernika (Guernica)*Durango, Euskaltel’s “home town,” and Gernika (Guernica), was where internationally, the first civilian populations to ever be aerially bombed took place.   Franco's permission to the Italians and German Luftwaffe to do this has marked the world ever since.  Made famous by Picasso´s 1937 monochrome painting, “Guernica” it was a sobering reality of the Basque people's experience under Franco. The destruction of Guernica took place on the 26th of April 1937 on a market day and killed between 200 and 1,000 innocent civilians. Pablo Picasso, Spain’s renown artist created his famous 1937 work, “Guernica”, as a political statement.  The painting actually went on a world tour in an effort to promote this anti-war message.  Today this immense oil painting which is 3.5 metre (11 ft) tall and 7.8 metre (25.6 ft) wide, can be seen in the excellent Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. The painting itself, shows the agonies of humans and the devastation wrought by war and violence.  Two important symbols in the Spanish culture are represented, the horse  (the people of Guernica), and the bull, darkness and brutality and the onslaught of Fascism.

Michael Woods Stage Winner on the Balcón de Bizkaia - 2018 Vuelta a España As a side note, the 2018 Vuelta stage (Stage 17) passed through Guernica itself, on from Getxo to the famed and ultra steep, Balcón de Bizkaia (out of Bilbao) on Monte Oiz.  Climbing it from the harder north side the cyclists started out with 7km of pretty forest roads to follow with a 5km cruel incline up to an exposed summit. Our cyclists on our VIP Vuelta a España bike tour had the fortune (well misfortune - it was tough!) of climbing it on race day just before the pros!

One of the great things about cycling in the Basque Country is the food, which is amazing wherever you go! Whilst cycling, stop for a pincho (northern equivalent to tapas) or a drink, though you may have trouble with any high school Spanish you may want to try - the Basque language itself is fascinating, ancient and indigenous,  is called euskara and predates the Romanization of Europe. Linguists can't find any other living language even vaguely connected to it and claims range from Minoan to Sino-Tibetan origins.  Thus, speaking here is a minefield – do you use the Spanish or Basque name – making a political decision if you do so? Is it Bilbao or the euskara version Bilbo?, San Sebastian or Donostia?!  

But don't fear, the Basques love cyclists and the sport, so you won't ride away empty handed and will be generously supplied with huge hunks of tortilla to keep you climbing those hills around here!


Tough cycling climb in the Basque Country, try cycling the Balcón de Bizkaia - Vuelta 2018
Balcón de Bizkaia - La Vuelta 2018
Enjoy cycling some Basque Country routes on our Famous Vuelta Climbs - The North tour, or even on some of our La Vuelta Bike Tours depending on the year and route!



All Photos copyright Cycling Country Bike Tours

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