By Michael DiGregorio | Photography by Brian Vernor
“Groove is in the Heart” was originally featured in the Spring 2011 issue of Paved
It didn't make sense to stage the midway point in the 2010 Cyclocross World Cup Series in Spain's Basque region. No. But viewed on an intuitive, innate level it made perfect sense.
Going off reservation from the fallback Czech, Dutch and Belgian venues, the Swiss-based UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), competitive cycling's governing body, would stage race number four in the village of Igorre, in Spain's Basque region (22 kilometers from Bilbao).
The subtleties were nothing less than riveting. Here you had a 100-year-old European athletic tradition, an exotic if slightly peculiar alloy of steeplechase, road race and enduro staged during the dead of winter.
Now road cycling's quirky cousin would saddle up with a rather insular, 7,000-year-old European civilization—a nationless nation that shades 100 miles of northern Spain and France's Atlantic coast regions, from Bilbao east across the border to French Bayonne, spilling south into the Pyrenees.
As though mud had to turned to Turkish coffee grounds, two story lines emerged at the finish: First, that the hosts, despite their spit-on-their-palms, get-at-it tenacity couldn't touch the machine-like prowess of their Belgian 'cross counterparts. But, foremost, reflecting the biased conceit of two Yanquis—neither of whom speak Basque—nearly every feature of the December 2010 World Cup event, if not this new-old cycling stronghold, left a lasting, almost transcendent impression.
Rocked by the fickle hand of weather and fondled by caprice, what follows is a weeklong travelogue. Hewing to neither linear focus nor chronological attention, the narrative unfolds akin to a 'cross course—a bit distended at each end, a quick transition, a couple of long wind-outs giving way to some nasty bits.
Covering more than a few dozen kilometers—not to mention various states of mind—these glimpses and dispatches from mod Bilbao to the Igorre event, or, Igorreko Ziklio Krossa, if you will, reference without frame of reference, ultimately defining the outer limits of cycling significance.
An Enigma, Wrapped in a Puzzle, Folded in a Riddle
Transiting from Bilbao (pop. 500,000) to Igorre—the race venue—is to throttle back from world beat to Old World. By turns low-to-the-ground functional and low-key, Igorre and its adjacent industrial park immediately came off more Balkan backwater or Eastern European drab than Spanish fly. Restaurants were in short supply. Most locals took a light meal at any number of corner bars or a smoky, backstreet tavern.
Inasmuch, striking out from stylish, up-tempo Bilbao brought with it an almost immediate recognition of the real Basque—the chunky, olive-skinned cousin of the Celts. Men of leather and bronze who fought as mercenaries for pre-Roman Carthage, the early whalers who sighted Iceland as far back as the sixteenth century, and the explorer who settled the site that would become San Francisco. Later generations of ironworkers, fishermen and farmers kept an ancient culture intact, if not bloodlines pulsing, through dance, competitive sports such as pelota (what we call jai alai) and heavy duty rural games called Herri Kirolak.
In fact, the earliest strong-man events unfolded here. Glimpsing the lush, rolling valleys and lowlands on Igorre's pastoral edge, one could almost project these raucous celebrations of wood-chipping and the lifting and man-hauling of huge stones.
Groove is in The Heart
Today, Basque strongmen are called cyclists. Across what's called Askatasuna (homeland), or the less formal zazpi (for seven, citing the number of Basque provinces within a confederated Spain), the serious Basque rider finds him or herself on the leading edge of a resurgent national pride.
Most belong to the EE, or Euskaltel Euskadi, a national cycling team. Owned by a foundation and the socios, or members themselves, the EE's primary function rests on wrapping Basque values to a growing cycling community.
At the same time, some team members hail from outside the Basque region. Speaking to that inclusiveness, former racer/EE member David Etxebarria said, "It's not necessary to be born here to be Basque, but that you feel Basque."
Those EE jerseys are a constant across the Basque ministate. Their go-to locales ramble around the Bay of Biscay. One, the Lekeitio road, fast tandems to hot-wired fitness pursuers doggedly cling to the thinnest margin. The scenes that greet them compare to the Marin highlands in Northern California, down to the state's central coast.
From Andarroa to the Durango district, two more cycling hotbeds, in wicked-fast groups, they carve out critical space on only slightly broader rural and alpine thoroughfares. Today they're bringing that juice to Igorre.
Literally, the Basque people are on the move. While the remainder of Spain tilts at windmills, reeling with 20-percent unemployment, the jobless rate in the Basque country is half that figure.
Orbea, the preeminent Spanish cycle manufacturer, symbolizes but one spoke in a Basque owned coop, The Mondragon Corporation, the world's largest. Employing 85,000 workers in 256 businesses, Bilbao-based Mondragon caps its executive pay at no more than three to seven times the salary of the coop's lowest paid assembly worker.
As if a business model purged of greed wasn't admirable enough, that progressive mindset is producing green jobs… in the US. If you've seen or happened by the iconic wind-farms on the sandy margins of Palm Springs, California, the newest and most robust wind turbines are Basque built.
The Igorre course wends past a two-story grade school cum youth center. Behind the school's heavy glass double doors the UCI has set up their nerve center. Six or eight journalists from three or four different countries share two tables in one classroom. In another, a four-color race program, press credentials and photographers' vests are assigned.
Clearly, this is Beat Wabel's show. A tall, Swiss-born mountain bike racer turned UCI official, Wabel betrays both quiet pride crossed with a hint of anxiety. In an economy of words he describes staging the World Cup here as less an anomaly than relocating a deep, less obvious taproot.
Inasmuch, no one could animate the UCI organizer's contention more than the stout, 55-year old Basque gentleman quietly holding court in an adjoining rec room. A generation ago, Jose Maria Yurrebaso cut the figure of young Robert DeNiro.
Rail thin, dark haired and sporting the Basque teams' then lime green and black jerseys Yurrebaso won the Spanish national championship three times. Taking the podium he proudly donned the traditional black Basque beret, which is no less a weighty task.
More head garment than hat, the Basque beret fans out wide as a large pizza pan. More, the word for champion also doubles as the one who dons the beret: txapela.
In the flesh, sans beret, Yurrebaso looks chiseled, so fit he might drop the boys in a quick loop around the course.
His comportment breathes humility: his presence, old school Basque, filling a room with quiet confidence. Cyclists of Yurrebaso's stature tend to become town mayors, or, in the formers case, a community leader and bike shop owner. As Wabel said, "They show a lifelong regard for the sport…and where they came from."
The Pain in Spain
January may be the cruelest month, but December, experienced on the jutting, churned-up edge of The Atlantic can be as thoroughly sadistic as a 250-pound Catholic school nun wielding a yardstick.
Forty-eight hours before the racers grouped at the frontline, a frigid anvil dropped on Europe. Airports from Dublin to Moscow turned out the lights. Commercial aviation ground to a halt, stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers.
Nevertheless, 35-year old Sven Nys experienced no such travel issues. In a chartered jet the Belgian born BMXer turned cyclocross monster reached the Basque country from a training base in Mallorca. Nys has won the overall elite men's cyclocross series six times since 1999.
The Igorre course, however, represents a departure from the caravan-burnt wastes and reclaimed sand traps that largely characterize Belgian courses.
Given its frontier-like status, Igorre speaks to a UCI thrust to enlarge and reflexively globalize the cross foothold from the traditional Czech, Dutch and Belgian locales. UCI's Mountain Bike/Cyclocross Event coordinator expanded.
"The Basque region and people are really enthusiastic about cycling and do their very best to welcome the CX community that gathers every year in Igorre," said Mélanie Leveau. "The financial means are certainly more limited there than in other places which means that the human aspect—motivation, involvement of the volunteers, etcetera—is prominent.
Leveau continued. "We are just trying to grow the CX sport out of the Benelux border. The discipline is booming in the US; we are getting more and more involved there. As a proof of that, Louisville will host of the 2013 UCI CX Worlds and we are already looking forward to it.
"But the event in Igorre is very important for us in that sense… We sincerely hope that in a few years time, there will be more "Igorre" around the world."
Ask a cycling enthusiast what distinguishes cross from other disciplines? Most would cite the bike itself—the unique geometrics, the bottom bracket height. But in Northern Spain the sport stands out for its fans: more specifically, their collective socio-economic place.
If 'cross has an American sports parallel it would be The Packer Backers. Not for the cheesehead hats, mind, but the attitude that says short-sleeves in 20-below. The brats. The beer. And moreover, the small market/community owned ethos.
In that vein, the Igorre event, shrouded as it was in low, fast-moving clouds and freezing rain certainly wasn't for the money-to-burn crowd. These were predominantly need-to-earn types. Approaching the start Igorre became a soggy mire of gentleman farmer wear, baggy gym sweats over rubber boots on the younger set; leggings, arm warmers and bodysuits on the competitors.
Parbo: The Thinking Man's Crosser
Well-read, ultra personable, and something of a man-child, Danish national champion Joachim Parbo has no private jet at his disposal. The twenty-fourth ranked rider drove to Igorre from his digs in Aarhus, Denmark.
Spain was the last country Parbo had on a cross hit list that covered 13. "I wanted to race in Igorre a long time. The spectators give a noticeable, strong cheer to all the racers—and that makes the somewhat smaller crowds seem bigger. More dedicated.
"In Belgium, most spectators seem to only know maybe five of the very best, high profile racers. The rest of us are just anonymous landfill. In my book Igorre is a better rounded tribute to sport and players."
Technically he knew what loomed. "When it rains in Igorre—and it seems to rain a lot—the course turns into a deep and challenging mix of mud, grass and clay. Not speed, but strength, composition and technical skills become the decisive factors."
Parbo described his images of the Basque region as, "A venture into a land that mixes culture and nature and oozes deep-rootedness. Coherency," he paused, "I don't think I would find there."
As for The Dane's familiarity with the Belgian varsity, Sven Nys at the spear end, Parbo offered this anecdote.
"Even though I've raced against Nys now the last ten-years, I am actually not sure he knows of me. Two years ago I chatted briefly with him about his brake choice, setup.
"As I walked away I could hear Belgian spectators ask him who I was. He said "An American." Kind of strange, especially since I was wearing the red/white Danish National Champions kit. In more than one way you can say we are racing separate races within the same race."
While the Belgian beast might not recognize or choose acknowledge his fellow competitor, more than a few Yank cross enthusiasts and racers know Joachim.
That owes to a 2006 Colorado racing stint. Building out, Parbo then competed widely across the states. He relates that it was the madcap, contagious attitude he found racing on US soil that has kept him in the sport.
Nonetheless, it wasn't racing as much as someone racing off with one of his Leopard bikes that made the Dane topical.
At the Zolder World Cup in Belgium, Parbo placed a mid-field 32nd. Post-event, a fan sought him out. Ever kickback and approachable—maybe naïve—Parbo let the guy take it for ride. The next time Parbo saw the bike was days later at the Heusden-Zolder police station. Either cops in cycling-mad Belgium take bike jacking seriously, or Parbo miraculously reaped the windfall of a very slow crime day.
Riders on The Storm
Described as impossible, obscure and incomprehensible, the Basque language (Euskadi) has no linguistic relative. Europe's oldest and purest, on the ear of a newcomer, hints at a faster moving splice of Navajo and Inuit, a mad scramble of Ts and Xs shaped into eleven syllable words.
Though blared over stacks of speakers and Pas, in a near constant flow seems to have the effect of lifting and pulling the Igorre crowd, pegged at between 1,500 and 3,500, around the course. Add a jaunty squeezebox, called—what else—a trikitixa, and the joint really jumps.
From beneath the beer tent canvass, moved along by a Cajun-Mexican like accordion, the scene transitions from theatrical quality to verging on surreal. It's a perfect storm—thin knobbies, good beer and spicy sausage. The action here is as hot and heavy as the double pit equipment area.
X Marks the Spot
It's three degrees Celsius at go-time. A group of 30 to 50ish tomatoes, all warm smiles and yellow, in "Team Larrinaga" (a local racer) slickers attempt to ascend a muddy embankment. As the hilltop vantage point begins to erode beneath their feet, those already in place reach down with their umbrellas to help the latecomers up.
When the boys in orange and black Euskadi skinsuits roll by the crowd chimes in as one with a spirited, high pitched, "Venga, venga, venga," or "Vai, vai, vai!" (C'mon let's go.)
Though one Basque rider is so gassed he can project a flirtatious smile at a 20ish bystander, a dark haired girl who wears a black Specialized jacket over army green overalls.
Ultimately it's a Belgian sweeping to victory—though not Nys. Niels Albert, the sixth-ranked racer outpaces fifteenth-ranked Frenchman Francis Mourey and Nys, who finishes third, only 39 seconds behind the frontrunner. Parbo the Dane is pulled for being lapped. The first Basque over the line was thirty-second ranked Rekalde Murgoitio, who crossed at eleventh.
First in Mud
Tape pulled, barriers stacked and stowed, there was no need to ask the 25-300 deep, all-volunteer race support crew, "so how you gonna' kick it?" It was time to get ill.
In a horseshoe-shaped corner tavern, maybe two-thirds the size of your average suburban two car garage, the scene was wall-to-wall rubber boots, yellow rain ponchos and wool watch caps. There was as much brown-skinned Boomer-aged soul on display here as the last El Chicano/War Low-rider Tour.
Cana (beer) flowed, cigarettes were lit, backs got slapped; the odd child was hoisted up and kissed. A handsome dog or two might've wandered in. Race observations and off-color jokes traveled to and fro in a heavy nicotine haze.
Between pulls on a cigarette, one gent, well, let's say more of an endearing, maybe 60-year old imp who we'll call el Malo (bad dude), reached into his wallet. Given that so many Basque historically emigrated to the Intermountain West—from Northern Nevada into Southern Idaho and south to California's Central Valley—one might expect el Malo sought some kind of warm, inside connection to these New World, obvious outsiders.
Say to share a dog-eared, black and white snapshot of his primo (cousin) tending a flock of sheep below the Ruby range outside Elko, perhaps an image of a matronly auntie in front of her Fresno coffee shop.
No, somehow el Malo had a fix on our wavelength, our high-lowbrow, R. Crumb to Jay and Silent Bob cultural literacy. Besides, el Malo's pictures of astoundingly giant field mushrooms in the unmistakable shapes of both male and female genitalia made for far better bar talk. Well, that is when your grasp of Basque extends from cana to pintxos (bar snacks). Later, at this same tavern, someone relates to the owner that the outsiders in his bar are Americans. "Patuak," (Yankees)? Ameriketo?" A full three hours prior to usual opening, the tavern owner warmly gestures the two Americans and the tall Dane inside the dining room doors, then pushes el Malo and his Polaroid porno out.
The hospitality is overwhelming. Wave after wave of pulpo en la tenta (squid in black ink), cincirones con papas (octopus with potatoes), chunks of beef and ox tail, pork elbow, lamb shoulder and sausage with black beans arrive. It's not Bon Appetite, it's Bomb Appetite.
Take Me Spanish Caravan
He stood at the far end of a semi-hokey but cozy Mexican-themed Bilbao bar called Cantina Tapachula. The end helmed by a lovely Argentinean barkeep, with a frame that conjured Russ Meyer's juggy and square-jawed oeuvre.
Perhaps he overheard the strange patois, the Left Coast American English. Something compelled his approach.
The bespeckled gent could have been a double for Haiti's deposed leader, Jean Bertrand Aristide; he introduced himself as Jean Barnabe Moussayou. Inevitably the conversation veered to profession. Moussayou related that he was the Angolan counsel, part of the West African country's diplomatic corps in Spain.
To lend validation, Moussayou produced his MPLA identification card. But it soon dawned that this diplomat wasn't immune to profound philosophical flourish. Picking up where Tolstoy, Kant and Camus left off, the African gent flashed a wry grin. A dismissive half-wave with the right hand, palm down, followed as though Jean was waving off a Blackjack dealer's hit.
His pronouncement, as bold as it was taut: "It does not matter." Whether this reflected the official stated position of the Angolan government, Counsel Moussayou's personal worldview or take on politics hung heavy and vague in the cantina air.
Gracefully he returned to the far end of the bar, the realm of the bosomy barback.
Travel, its often said, can be broadening—an expansive endeavor. On the heels of the African counsel's rather tart non-sequitor, the very essence or takeaway from Basque Experience, the intangibles, the embrace, not to mention the glorious natural assets rushed in.
Nothing matters, except for what's right in front of you. "Canya por favor"