Guide to cycling in the Basque Alps
Sandwiched by the western edges of the Pyrenees mountains and the Atlantic coast, the Basque region is comprised of seven provinces, four in Spain and three in France. Collectively these provinces make up the Basque Country or, as the region is known in the Basque language, Euskadi – ‘collection of Basques’.
The Spanish provinces of Álava, Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa and the northern part of Navarra in Spain are collectively known as El País Vasco in Spanish. North of the border in France the Pays Basque is comprised of Basse-Navarre, Labourd and Soule.
The Basque Country has always had a very strong cycling culture. Five times winner of the Tour de France, Miguel Indurain, was born in Pamplona, the historical capital of Navarra and the region is renowned for the ardent and vociferous fans who line the roads during the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and when the Vuelta e España passes through the region. The greatest noise was once reserved for the now disbanded Euskaltel-Euskadi riders, the Basque UCI Pro team that was easily recognisable in the pro peloton due to the vivid orange jerseys they wore and their Orbea bikes, made by the Basque manufacturer.
Many pro cyclists base themselves in the area – British cyclist David Millar lived in Biarritz until his temporary fall from grace in 2004 – and the rich cycling culture and lush scenery is drawing many to the area to discover why the region holds such allure. As anyone who knows the Basque region will testify, it caters for all the needs of the road cyclist. Quiet roads criss-cross the region, there is the challenge of the mountains, the climate is warm and then there is the proximity of the Atlantic coastline to chill out in the evening after a long, hard ride during the day and enjoy the gastronomic delights for which the region is rightly famous.
The region offers an eclectic range of riding options, from long climbs with benign gradients to brutally hard inclines that will test your legs and your gearing. Steep valleys run towards the coastline and roads follow the many streams that snake their way towards the sea. The coastline is relatively flat and offers some respite from the mountains and hills. Depending on the location of one’s accommodation, one can stay in the Basque region for a week and never ride the same route twice – enticing options branch out in all directions.
The region boasts a host of famous towns – Pamplona, San Sebastian and Bilbao in Spain and Biarritz and Bayonne in France. It’s not surprising therefore that the area has ample provision for cyclists, and such is the strong affinity with the sport in the area, that cycle tourists are always welcomed and well provided for by their Basque hosts.
If you prefer a more rural location, then the small village of Sare in the French Basque country is a perfect place to be based. It is centrally placed, surrounded by mountains and a short ride from the border with Spain and only half an hour from the Atlantic coast. Saint Jean de Luz or Biarritz on the coast are also popular and are often used as a starting for cyclists heading into length of the Pyrenees. Pamplona and San Sebastian are lively bases too, but the undulating countryside that surrounds them is also a perfect place to base oneself.
The Basque country enjoys warm weather, but due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, rainfall is frequent. This keeps the landscape looking green and lush, even in the height of summer, but inclement weather conditions are part and parcel of cycling in the Basque region. The canny cyclist will come prepared, ready to cope with sudden downpours and persistent drizzle. It is worth enduring the odd rain shower, however, in order to experience and savour the beauty and the rich culture of the region, but if the rain is unrelenting, then console yourself by taking shelter in one of the many fantastic restaurants of the region. many of which are frequently ranked among the best in the world!
Main image: Wherever you are based in the Basque Country, the Pyrenees beckon. Photo by Manu Molle/Haute Route