Words & photo by Peter Cossins
Sat having breakfast in the dining room of my hotel prior to the start of the third stage of the Tour of the Basque Country, the owner switched the TV channel from news of the latest horrors in Ukraine to footage of a gaggle of what were clearly amateur runners trotting along a road somewhere in the Spanish province, one of them brandishing a baton from which a handkerchief-sized ikurriña, the red, green and white Basque flag, was fluttering.
It made for the most bizarre viewing. The runners, most of them in jeans and all of them wrapped up very obviously against the early morning chill, appeared to be doing short sections of the run, joining an ever-changing gaggle of a dozen or so for a few minutes as others dropped away, one of them taking over possession of the baton in the process.
Occasionally a man would jump down from the back of what I assumed was a flat-bed truck that was ahead of them and interview the runners. Behind them, a police car brought up the rear of the little convoy, regulating the flow of backed-up vehicles, whose occupants waved and cheered delightedly as they passed, evidently not in the slightest bit bothered about being limited to just a few kilometres an hour for many minutes.
After watching this odd fun run for a quarter of an hour or so, I went to pay my bill and asked the hotel owner what the run was all about. It was, he told me, the 2022 edition of the Korrika, an 11-day event that runs non-stop and covers every corner of the Basque Country on both the Spanish and French sides of the border, stretching to more than 2,000 kilometres in total.
The runners buy a kilometre-long section of road – they can pay whatever amount they want, big or small, the hotelier told me – for the right to carry the baton, within which there is a message that is revealed at the end of the event. It’s designed to raise funds to support the Basque language and the schools that are so fundamental to this, known as ikastola.
A few minutes later, as I drove to the stage start in Laudio (Basque)/Llodio (Spanish), I passed little clusters of runners for kilometre after kilometre, each group awaiting their turn on what was the Korrika’s seventh morning.
I’m fairly sure that I’ve written about my love of the Basque Country in a previous column or two, and its moments like this that highlight what extraordinary place it is. Like Flanders and Brittany, two of the other traditional heartlands of cycling, the Basque people have a very particular tie to their homeland that’s conveyed through what, to bike fans, are instantly recognisable flags – the rampant lion of Flanders on a yellow background and the black-and-white horizontal stripes of the Breton Gwenn-ha-du – and a very fervent passion for bike racing that is very much part of their identity.
I’d already been reminded of this the morning before in Leitza, a small town a few dozen kilometres south of San Sebastián that was the location for the start of the second stage. Hosting Itzulia (it’s pronounced It-Chew-Lia rather than It-Zoo-Lia) provided the opportunity for a homage to their most famous cycling son, Mikel Nieve. The Basque climber was one of Chris Froome’s key mountain lieutenants for three of his Tour victories as well as the Briton’s 2017 Vuelta success during four seasons with Team Sky, then spent another four doing the same job for the Yates brothers at Mitchelton/BikeExchange, before joining Caja Rural last season.
Winner of what was widely regarded as the toughest mountain stage in recent Grand Tour history at the 2011 Giro, a 229km, seven-and-a-half-hour epic through the Dolomites run in atrocious conditions that crossed the Giau and Fedaia passes before a summit finish at Val di Fassa, Nieve is now 37 and at the tail-end of a long career. Called up onto the podium once the riders had all signed in to race, he was presented with an oil painting of himself in action and various other mementos as, all the while, what must have been every schoolchild in Leitza chanted his name.
He was then joined by another rider from the town, Euskaltel’s Ibai Azurmendi, who received his own tribute, which was followed by traditional Basque dancing and more chanting from the kids. It was a magical quarter of an hour, probably about as captivating and entertaining as a stage start presentation can be.
On the road, the action has been every bit as enthralling. We’ve seen Primož Roglič grab a stunning victory in the Hondarribia time trial on day one thanks to a wall-of-death descent, world champion Julian Alaphilippe take his first win of an illness-hit year on day two, Basque star Pello Bilbao outsprint the Frenchman on day three, and Dani Martínez do the same on day four.
Friday’s stage into Mallabia topped them all, Ineos taking their second consecutive victory thanks to a debut success for huge young talent Carlos Rodríguez, while, behind, Remco Evenepoel achieved what had appeared to be a very unlikely feat by relegating Roglič to the fringes of the GC contest. This set the race up very nicely indeed for its finale on the traditional race-deciding climb of the Arrate, where Evenepoel was set to defend a two-second lead over Martínez, with Basque riders Bilbao and Ion Izagirre in third and fourth, 20 and 21 seconds back, respectively.
Bearing in mind that many of these riders will be among the favourites in the Ardennes Classics in a fortnight, momentum currently seems to be with Ineos, whose climbers are all coming into form precisely when they would have wanted to, and QuickStep-Alpha Vinyl, who endured a torrid time in the Flemish Classics, but look well set to bounce back with Evenepoel and Alaphilippe. But, hardened by the short, sharp climbs of the Basque Country that are often quite similar to those in the Ardennes, there are plenty of other less feted names who may benefit from the boost they’ve gained in Itzulia to challenge at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.