The Tour of the Basque Country: 6 stages
Hailed as the hardest one week of racing on the calendar, this race is known for attracting the best climbers in the world in their best condition.
Stage 1: 150 km
Igor slipped away in a three man breakaway. We churned along behind him. Once we absorbed the breakaway I rode in the wind protecting the guys and keeping them at the front into the last ten km where technical roads threatened to fracture the peloton. Despite the violent effort it was a bunch sprint. Inside the last kilometre Igor prepared to sprint but a crash sent him head over heals into a soft garden in the middle of a roundabout.
Stage 2: 170 km
Although the power numbers indicated an easy stage, it was tense with periods of calm interspersed by moments of blistering intensity that confused our legs with pain. I pulled for a few kilometres to place Omar at the front for the last kicker then slipped off the back. The final six km of the downhill sprint averaged around 80kph.
Stage 3: 165 km
As is typical of sprint the Basque Country, rain teased us throughout the day. Jacket on, jacket off, jacket on again. And as is typical of this race, we ventured into more challenging climbs. I attacked like a mad man for the breakaway, and made a number of promising moves that just never gained enough traction. I began to suffer in the mountains and dropped on the penultimate climb. As we cruised to the finish, Igor made sure I saw the amazing views his country offered. Below us through a filter of fog the ocean caressed the green shoreline. Steve, Merhawi, and Serge made the first group of forty-five riders.
Stage 4: 175 km
It took over an hour for the breakaway to form. Lachlan and I alternated following attacks in sync ripping through corners along the coast. A constant flurry of big groups rotated off the front but finally just three riders slipped away and we settled in behind them. The climbs later in the race stung but the entire peloton remained in tact. I knew the run in to the final climb from the Vuelta a Espana last year and prepared to bring Steve from the back to the front at the base of the climb. He had targeted this stage for a late attack. With thirty km to go the road funnelled from three lanes to one. At the front they refused to brake and lose position. Sometimes you play chicken and lose. The crash rippled through the peloton. At the back with Steve, I gingerly slowed and went wide around the mayhem where riders still fishtailed and smashed the asphalt. But Steve crashed! My radio wasn’t working, but I saw Lachlan stop with him. I waited at the back of the peloton. Lachlan would bring him through the cars and I could still place him for the climb. He never came. After the race we learned he was in the hospital with a broken clavicle, scapula, and sternum. Merhawi and Serge still made the first group.
Stage 5: 138 km
I got ahead of the action in a twenty rider breakaway with Omar and Adrian, but the peloton chewed up the road behind us. They wanted a hard day. We hammered over the first climb and crested with one minute, our largest gap. Into the second climb Omar wanted to press on, so I set a hard pace for him at the bottom and he attacked. The ferocious pace put a quick death to his effort. The rest of the stage I did my best to position Merhawi and Serge at the base of the climbs until I dropped. The Basque fans are rabid for cycling and were a nice distraction from the pain. I ground up the last climb with my compatriot, Nate Brown. One of my best friends in cycling and ex-teammate, Alex Howes, clinched the KOM jersey. Merhawi and Serge suffered and fell out of the GC fight. We lost Lachlan and Adrian early in the stage.
Stage 6: 27 km TT
After grinding over the uphill start and plummeting down the other side my rear tire blew out. I changed wheels, but three minutes later it exploded again. I rode the last fifteen km on my road bike.
It was a tough week on many levels, especially losing Steve, but our spirits aren’t broken. It’s my third time racing the Tour of the Basque Country. My experience has always been that it recalibrates your pain threshold, builds both mental and physical strength. As a team, fighting against the odds in a positive manner, continuing to maintain optimism and a good atmosphere, and sacrificing for each other when each of us is on the limit makes us each a better rider and fortifies solid friendships.