One of the culinary capitals of the world also has some delicious cycling routes on its menu...
There are kilometres," my guide, Aitor Sukia says. "And then there are Basque kilometres.” In the way that Christmas Day kilometres count double, given that most cyclists are at home indulging in turkey and pudding, a kilometre in the forever undulating terrain of this region of northern Spain is worth more than the same distance elsewhere. “Even if you make the decision to stay away from the climbs, you're still going to climb 1000m in a 100km ride. There’s no avoiding it.”
Why the riding is harder here isn’t just a matter of climbing, you can climb in Europe’s mountain ranges for far longer and higher than the Basque Country. It’s because the climbs are often super-steep here, and, as such, the descents too.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that because they’re not overly long that it’s going to be easy; the steep four to five kilometre climb is signature Basque Country in and around San Sebastián, so opportunities to recover in between climbs is scant. Also consider that off the beaten track, where the best of the climbing can be found, the road surfaces can be poor. It is, in many ways, very British terrain, if the terrain had been subject to an intensive course of growth hormone. On every level it’s bigger, badder, harder.
The Basque Country is a bonafide hotspot of world cycling, unearthing riders for top pro team Euskaltel-Euskadi for 20 seasons up until its demise in 2013. For the majority of that time it was a team that recruited only from the region – either riders born here or raised within its cycling culture – and for a population of 3 million (as of 2015), it punched above its weight.
Since the team went to the wall the absence of a Basque pro team has been good news for everyone else, who value what is generally seen to be a strong work ethic and team player attitude of Basque people. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Team Sky has recruited so many of its professionals, including David Lopez, Beñat Intxausti and Mikel Nieve – diligent team players worth their weight in gold for a team whose efforts, from a grand tour perspective, are largely focused on one man, Chris Froome.
This idea is backed up by Oskar Aguiriano Beitia, owner of the website Basque Country Cycling (basquecountrycycling.com), a hub for both his bike shop, Kili, and the guided tours that he runs out of San Sebastián. He believes that Basque Country people tend to be more serious in their outlook on life to Spaniards outside the region. It’s true that the region, an autonomous community in charge, to a large extent, of its own destiny (it has its own parliament and collects its own taxes), continues to thrive despite wider Spanish decline. The unemployment rate here, for example is 12.6 per cent compared to Spain’s 18.9.
It’s not been all good news in San Sebastián, and the wider Basque Country. Until recently terrorism had plagued the region since the late 1960s; Basque separatist group ETA, who wanted independence for the region, were responsible for many attacks here up until it declared a final ceasefire in 2010, which they called permanent a year later. The move has had a hugely positive impact on this delightful city, giving a boost to tourism, one of the major pillars of its economy. Though the ceasefire is still relatively fresh, the perception of a city like San Sebastián being beset by terrorism has changed, sadly in part because of the plight of European capitals such as Paris and Brussels and their own battles against this scourge.
Situated on the coast of the Bay of Biscay 20km from the French border, San Sebastián is famous for its gastronomy (according to the Huffington Post, only Kyoto, Japan has more Michelin stars in proportion to its population. It has three 3-star restaurants, the highest level). It’s also home to one of the world’s major film festivals (held annually in September) and was a European Capital of Culture in 2016.
Oskar opened his shop in 2009 and began tours three years later, in response to what he felt was a tourism surge following the ceasefire. Yet despite its connections with professional cycling – there’s the Clásica San Sebastián, a one-day WorldTour race held a week after the Tour de France, and April’s Tour of the Basque Country – the region is down on the bucket list for fans, behind the Alps, Pyrenees, Dolomites, even Belgium. It shouldn’t be. It’s a city and region that’s as beautiful as it is challenging.
In the 1970s the Vuelta a España was another race that brought San Sebastián into the spotlight, when it used to finish here. It’s now in Madrid but its most recent showcase came last September in stage 13 through the Basque Country from Bilbao to Urdax. Sadly it wasn’t the best advert for the region; it had been a tough race till that point and with the promise of some savage stages in the Pyrenees, the peloton opted for a day off, allowing the breakaway to get away and making no attempt to chase them. They finished an off-the-chart 34 minutes down on the winner, with one Spanish radio station ending its broadcast in protest.
It was frustrating for viewers but having ridden a 40km portion of the route on day one in San Sebastián towards Zumaia (80km when factoring in the return journey), I could only feel sympathy for their situation – the riding is truly relentless, never allowing any sort of rhythm. The stretch, hugging the coast, is very pretty, though annoyingly cut in two by the main highway in the region, the AP-8, that dominates the area.
Our second ride was a treat, taking us east through the city and into the Aiako Harria National Park. Following roughly the Vuelta route after it had passed through San Sebastián, if the scenery was less spectacular amid dense forest it was made up for by the quality of riding. Far more remote, we passed over four longer but less severe climbs, including the 550m Alto de Agina, into the Navarra region adjacent to the Basque Country, and tipped over into France.
After the descent we hitched a ride with Oskar and took a late lunch at Singular, a restaurant in Irun back over the Spanish border in the shadow of the famous Clasica climb of Alto de Jaizkibel, an 8km mountain road – the road for cyclists of this region – with 450m of elevation that is climbed twice during the race and whittles down the peloton. The restaurant is owned by renowned Basque chef, Iñigo Lavado, a man whose passion for food wages a daily battle for supremacy with his love for road cycling. Here, in that regard, he’s far from alone and is a big part of the reason why cycling and San Sebastián are such a fabulous fit.
Singular, chef Iñigo Lavado's restaurant, in nearby Irun (inigolavado.com). Cycling memorabilia decorates the interior of Singular, notably his father’s old bike and the Pyrenean profile, chalked on the wall, of the epic final route they rode together (he died just a few days later). There’s a parking area for bikes outside (naturally, only skinny road tyres fit!), he’ll prepare food and leave it outside for passing cyclists and, given his love for long-distance epics, will give free beer to any rider who shows proof of over 200km on their Garmins.
A visit to one of the city’s gastronomic societies. Food is important to the people of San Sebastián and whether it’s with friends, family, business associates or the wider community, these gatherings are the social hubs of the city, with gatherings either at hired venues or spaces owned by the society itself. Generally, they involve two or three people bringing their own food and cooking it for the other members, with costs split equally. Good luck getting into one, though; entry is by invitation only. In many cases, women still aren’t allowed and places tend to be passed on down through the generations. The best way as a visitor is to be invited by a member, so ask around. Exploring Cycling Plus was helped by Oskar and his team at Basque Country Cycling (basquecountrycycling). They are passionate cyclists who know every strip of tarmac worth riding and offer Orbea bike hire (€65 a day) and guided routes (€90 a day).
Get the Route
This feature first appeared in issue 323 of Cycling Plus magazine, in a supplement profiling some of the best routes and destinations to ride around the world. To subscribe, visit here: tinyurl.com/cyclingplussubs