The 56th edition of the Euskal Herriko Itzulia or Tour of the Basque Country kicked off yesterday with a 144 km stage from Etxebarria to Markina-Xemein, won by Spanish rider Luis León Sánchez of the Astana Pro Team, and a second-stage win today (Markina-Xemein to Baranbio-Garrastatxu, Amurrio, 174.3 km) for Basque rider Mikel Landa of Team Sky. This year’s event, one of the 24 races that make up the UCI World ranking calendar, will be held over six days, culminating in the Eibar to Eibar individual time trial on Saturday, April 9.
Competitive cycling continues to be one of the great Basque sporting passions.
The first ever Tour of the Basque Country, won by French rider Francis Pélissier, was held in 1924, but the event was suspended between 1935 and 1969. Basques have won the event on eight occasions: Mariano Cañado (1930), Luis Pedro Santamarina (1970), Miguel Maria Lasa (1974), Julian Gorospe (1983 and 1990), Peio Ruiz Cabestany (1985), Aitor Osa (2002), and Iban Mayo (2003).
Cycling has traditionally been one of the three most popular “international” sports in the Basque Country, together with soccer (in Hegoalde) and rugby (in Iparralde); a popularity that many people put down to a particularly Basque fondness for trials of physical endurance. The Tour of the Basque Country is even mentioned in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a novel infused with references to the Basque Country and Basque culture in general. Hemingway had visited the Basque Country in 1924 so it is probably reasonable to speculate that he based the following on that first ever tour (quoted in The Sun Also Rises, New York: Scribner, 1926; 1952, pp. 239-40; with thanks, too, to le grimpeur, a cycling blog for everything climbing):
There was a bicycle-race on, the Tour de Pays Basque, and the riders were stopping that night in San Sebastian. In the [hotel] dining room, at one side, there was a long table of bicycle riders, eating with their trainers and managers. They were all French and Belgian, and paid close attention to their meal, but they were having a good time . . . The next morning at five o’clock the race resumed with the last lap, San Sebastian-Bilbao. The bicycle riders drank much wine, and were burned and browned by the sun. They did not take the racing seriously except among themselves. They had raced among themselves so often that it did not make much difference who won. Especially in a foreign country. The money could be arranged . . . I had coffee out on the terrasse with the team manager of one of the big bicycle manufacturers. He said it had been a very pleasant race, and would have been worth watching if Bottechia had not abandoned it at Pamplona. The dust had been bad but the roads were better than in France. Bicycle road-racing was the only sport in the world, he said.
During the early twentieth century, when the tour was first organized, “the popularity of soccer as a spectator sport was rivaled only by that of cycling, which was actively sponsored by the Gipuzkoan industrial town of Eibar, where bicycles were manufactured” (Cameron Watson, Modern Basque History, p. 255; see below). Indeed, the Eibar Cycling Club was instrumental in reestablishing the tour in 1969, on the back of the success of its own 3-day event, the Gran Premio de la Bicicleta Eibarresa (Eibar Cycles Grand Prize), first held in 1952.
Both traditional local and modern international sports in the Basque Country are discussed in the aforementioned Modern Basque History, available free to download here. If you’re interested in sports-related studies, check out Playing Fields: Power, Practice, and Passion in Sport, edited by Mariann Vaczi. This is a multi-authored work that examines, among many other things, issues such as global-local tensions, gender in sport, the idea of risk-taking in a sports context, and sporting activity as an expression of collective desire.