Some of the world’s very finest climbers have descended upon the Basque Country this week to do what they do best. The 59th edition of the Itzulia Basque Country (formerly Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco) is underway in northern Spain, attracting many of the biggest names in stage racing as well as plenty of puncheurs gearing up for the upcoming Ardennes Classics.
It's only fitting that the race would be a playground for the climbers: after all, this is the Basque Country. The landscape is made for it, with short but punchy climbs as far as the eye can see. Climbing is embedded deep within the culture there – this might as well be a world capital of riding bikes uphill.
The Itzulia Basque Country is a true celebration of that climbing culture. The six-day journey to the finish line in Eibar features 22 categorised climbs - including iconic ascents such as the Arrate – and not a single day of purely flat roads on the menu.
Over the years, the race has continued to delight the local fans even though Basque cycling has seen its ebbs and flows. Now, more than five years since the Euskaltel-Euskadi team closed, things seem to be looking up again for Basque riders and fans alike. The resurgence on the Basque cycling scene is on full display on home roads this week, with Basque talents like Ion Izagirre of Astana Pro Team and Mikel Landa of Movistar Team hoping to put on a show.
Landa, a Grand Tour podium finisher, was the Basque Country runner-up in 2018. Izagirre was third last year for the third time in his career, a career that has blossomed in recent years as he has developed into one of the sport's most successful one-week racers.
Spaniards have thrived at the Itzulia Basque Country, but no Basque rider has won the overall title this decade. Competition is fierce – the list of winners in the Basque Country is a Who's Who of GC talents, with Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador, Joaquím Rodríguez, Alejandro Valverde, and Primož Roglič among the many big names who have triumphed there in the last 10 years. Contenders this year include reigning Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas and former road race UCI World Champion Michael Kwiatkowski, both of Team Sky, Dan Martin of UAE Team Emirates, and Adam Yates of Mitchelton-Scott.
The current generation of Basque riders could have the firepower to turn things around, however. It helps when the lush, green hills you've trained on your whole life are the same climbs featured in the UCI WorldTour race. Plus, the motivation is certainly there for the local stars to secure the txapela hat awarded to the victor.
As Ion Izagirre's older brother Gorka said last year, "It's the race that every young Basque dreams of winning."
And there are plenty of young Basque riders in attendance... With Landa and co flying the Basque flag at the sport's highest division, local up-and-comers are thriving at the second level. The Euskadi Basque Country - Murias team jumped up to UCI Professional Continental ranks last year, while fellow UCI Pro Continental squads Caja Rurual - Seguros RGA and Burgos-BH also feature several promising Basque riders. The Itzulia Basque Country provides those rising talents with a critical opportunity to prove themselves against the world's best on familiar roads, in front of their home fans.
As the current generation of Basque stars and the many youngsters on the rise look to continue a revitalisation of cycling in their home region, all eyes are on the Basque Country this week. With its rolling route and its fierce field of favourites, the Itzulia Basque Country always delivers a true celebration of cycling in one of its most iconic regions.