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From Inside Peloton: The Basque

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The Basque region’s relationship with cycling is almost cinematic. It begins with panoramic views of the curving beach in Donostia. It cuts to urban vignettes in Bilbao, then lush but rugged, green hills dotted with tiny villages. It all looks so charmingly simple and inviting. Then, the camera pulls back and pans, slowly, to the forested, pitched slopes of the Pyrénées Mountains. The music takes on a serious tone, almost ominous but shaped by excitement more than anything sinister.

Words: Chris Henry
Images: Yuzuru Sunada

Faint shouting can be heard. Not from one voice, but from many. Thousands, even. The chop of helicopters, urgent car horns, and screaming hordes grow in intensity and reveal the scene. It’s a bike race. The peloton has reached the mountains that divide France and Spain. The roadside is orange.

They’re called la Marea Naranja, or the orange tide, and they come in their hordes to cheer their heroes. The orange comes not from the Basque region itself, but the home team›s sponsor of twelve years, Euskaltel-Euskadi. They have assumed control of the color, displacing the Dutch and claiming orange as their own. They go crazy.

Every nation has its fan base, but no group brings a fervor that is both nationalistic and sporting quite like the Basques. They sent their riders to the professional peloton, riders like Federico Echave, Marino Lejarreta, Abraham Olano, David Etxebarria, and Joseba Beloki. Euskaltel brought new names to glory in the Tour de France, including Roberto Laiseka, Iban Mayo, Haimar Zubeldia, and Mikel Astarloza. They have a Basque representative from the French side of the mountains, Romain Sicard.

Basque riders don’t win time trials. They tackle the cobbled classics out of obligation. Yet when the Grand Tours reach the mountains, they ignite in an attacking frenzy that is undeniably entertaining, if typically unsuccessful. Like the Colombians from across the ocean, the Basques are built to climb and when the roads tilt upward they race.

They race for their team. They race for their people. They race for the dream of Basque independence. They race for the orange tide.

From Issue 23. Buy it here.