The Basque Country is famous for its love of cycling with many professional riders regarding it as their favourite place to race thanks to the droves of fans lining the roads creating powerful tunnels of noise and willing, only equalled by the Belgians. The Ikurrina, the name of the Basque flag, can be seen flying in practically every race on the calendar, a symbol of loyalty and passion unlike anywhere on the planet, again, followed closely by the Vlaamse Leeuw waving Flemish fans. Despite the similarities in die hard passion, the Belgians and the Basques have one major difference, mountains.
The Basque Country is filled with mountains and hills, not the highest, nor the longest, but underestimate their ferocity at your peril. Mountains and climbs like Arrate and Monte Oiz have seen great battles, heartbreaks and triumphs in the Itzulia, the tour of the Basque Country, and the Vuelta España with mythical stages taking place, with stage 17 of the 2018 Vuelta España atop the fog covered Monte Oiz firm in the memory of many. The side used in the race that day is one of numerous, with the main and most frequently used ascent starting from Durango. I say main ascent, but the majority of the climb is a single lane of cracking concrete snaking and undulating through forests of Oaks and Beeches, quintessentially Basque.
The town of Durango is a prosperous, well known and well located town east of Bilbao. Not as traditionally Basque as many of the smaller villages, with Spanish being what you would hear on the streets more often than Euskera, but it is still a strong fulcrum for Basque heritage and culture. Durango, for a cyclist, is the perfect location with beautiful roads and rewarding climbs, and a fantastic community of bike shops and cyclists. One of the first roads, maybe even the first you would hear about while in Durango, is the climb of Urkiola, seemingly a rite of passage for riding in the area.
Urkiola is the name of the mountain range situated in the Urkiola Natural Park, the great limestone massifs reaching up from the ground are a sight to be behold and a demand to conquer by bike or foot. This is an incredible area with a deep and rich history dating back to prehistoric times, but to a cyclist the word Urkiola means something else. 5.45 km long, 9.2% average gradient, with stretches over 13%, makes it only a 2nd category, but don’t be fooled, this is a beast of a climb. Over recent years, this once famous climb has lost some of its reputation to the wider spread cycling community, thanks to it falling out of favour from race organisers. This is probably due to it being a main route from Durango and the lower valleys to the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz on the plateau south of the mountain range. Despite this, the road was used for many years as the centrepiece for an epic race, Urkiola Igoera. In Spanish, Subida a Urkiola, and in English, The Climb to Urkiola.
In 2006, Iban Mayo climbed to The Sanctuary of San Antonio in 15:31 seconds, ascending from the valley to the church that signals the top in a devilishly quick time, and in doing so elevated himself to a Saint worth standing amongst the Basque people. The entire 185.4 km race was run off at an equally ludicrous pace, with the average speed of the winner being 48.7kph, despite the mountainous terrain.
The current Strava record is an unholy 16:52 set by the thoroughbred climber, Mikel Bizkarra of the Fundacion Euskadi pro-continental team. Bizkarra is 53 kg of pure climbing talent with numerous world tour top-tens, including at the Vuelta España, to his name, spanning more than a ten-year career. He even lives on the climb itself and can be regularly seen making multiple ascents during interval sessions. To set his 16:52 Bizkarra raced up the climb at 19.4kph, at an average of 367 watts, resulting in an incomprehensible 6.92W/kg, and a time that I imagine will stand for years to come.
The average weight of a rider at the Tour de France is 68.8 kg. To do the watts per kilo to match that of Bizkarra during his KOM setting time, the average Tour de France rider would have to do an astonishing 476 watts for just under 17 minutes. I am sure there are riders who can do 17 minutes at 476 watts, but it would be a once in a generation talent to do 476 watts at 68.8 kg. Magnus Backstedt was rumoured to have a functional threshold power of 490 watts. But he weighed 95 kg. A true generational talent like Mathieu van der Poel is rumoured to have an FTP of 485, but again, he weighs 75 kg. If he started the climb fresh with the intention of climbing it as fast as possible, I am sure the 500+ watts would steal him the KOM from Bizkarra, and I think I can safely say that riders like Pogacar, Roglic, Vingegaard, Van Aert, and probably Evenepoel could take the record too. Contador could have blown this out the water on any given day, 2 years after retirement! But all of these riders are the best of the world’s best, which shows just how remarkable I think Bizkarra’s time is, but what does that say about Mayo’s almost mythical ascent?
The orange train of the Euskadi-Euskaltel world tour team put a strangle hold on the 2006 Urkiola Igoera, to be expected of the pure and authentic Basque team in their home race, but this was something else. Reeling in the day’s breakaway with surgical precision on the first few hundred meters of the mountain itself. Despite a crash taking down the distinguished Alejandro Valverde, who was a favourite to take the day, but I am not sure even he could have stopped Iban Mayo.
Within one kilometre of the climb, on its fourth sweeping hairpin, there were four Euskadi-Euskaltel riders, with Mayo poised in fourth wheel. Behind him, only three riders before the first gap started to appear to the next three, and the rest suffering, deforming over the bike in ones and twos. The pace was brutal. The race over for so many in less than one kilometre of the mountain.
Before the 2.5km mark, Euskadi Euskaltel were down to two riders on the front. Mayo with only one domestique, but this is no ordinary rider. Igor Anton, who at this point was only in his second year as a pro, took the front, out of the saddle, pushing the pace even more. The pace that had broken the entire field was now lifted to levels that only Mayo, and the eventual second place finisher, Ricardo Serrano could follow. And follow Ricardo did, but for only an agonising 50 m before the pace of Anton broke his will.
The two Euskadi-Euskaltel riders were alone. Anton’s pull sealing the win for his team, hammering the nail in the coffin for the rest of the riders. But Mayo was not done, Anton’s acceleration broke the legs and dropped the heads of all his team’s competitors, but Mayo wanted more, he wanted to show utter and absolute dominance.
After a quick look at the destruction down the road behind him, Mayo got out of the saddle and launched past his teammate with a beautiful ease and fluidity. After more than forty seconds out of the saddle, Mayo sat down and settled into the effort. The next three kilometres sealed the race with a 46-second gap being pulled out on Ricardo Serrano, with young Igor Anton holding on to third place, at 54 seconds behind.
First and third on the day for Euskadi-Euskaltel, but this race was more than that. The individual performance of Mayo after utter dominance from the orange team, made this a still talked about and remembered race in Durango and the neighbouring towns.
The climb itself, and Mayo’s ascent to glory, almost entwined as one, as one story, and one legend. A forgotten mountain, but with stories like this keeping it from fading completely, and only adding to its beautiful allure.