The Basque Gateway To The Pyrenees
Nigel Hale-Hunter of BPM Coaching writes for Sportive Cycling and took on a tour of the amazing basque region in his preparation of the Swiss Wysam 333. He rode with Basque Bike Tours to get those extra mountain miles - here's his account.
With the grueling Swiss Wysam 333 on my calendar in June, I was hungry to get some distance in the legs with some serious but not overly taxing climbing in a week block. Xavier of Bike Basque had invited me to help him with a tour in the heart of the Basque country and I knew this would tick all the boxes.
The Basque Country rises from the Bay of Biscay to form the gateway and worthy prelude to the mighty Pyrenees. Its Culture, history, and love of the bicycle united this most Northern region of Spain and Southern region of France, it may not break you, but it won't leave you wanting.
The Basque Country is in the UK a little-known cycling mecca, its topography reminds me of Chianti in Tuscany, the scenery would shame Majorca and with an easy connection from Stanstead direct via a 90-minute flight to Biarritz what could be easier, especially as Xavier of Bike Basque can also provide a good standard of bikes for hire.
Several great European Sportive not to mention races take part and visit the area and so I was also interested in getting more acquainted with the area with a view to perhaps tackling in August "La Maccel Queheille 146 kms, 3470 m" one of the classic European Sportive named after the great Basque rider who was victorious in some 36 major races in a career both amateur and professional from 1953 to 1963. The sportive is full of great climbs and descents in good friendly company and competition.
Another in July is the “La Pierre-Jacques” which again is friendly but mountainous and will leave you with strong memories. Covering 148km and with 3700m of climbing in the gateway to the Pyrenees south of Pau, the routes will take you over the Col de la Pierre St Martin, Alto Lata, Port de Larrua and Col de Soudet.
However, it's also a fantastic location for a cycling holiday or training camp because the area offers everything you need and more in the way of outstanding scenery, quiet well-kept roads, great food, and a cafe culture.
What do you get with Bike Basque?
Local knowledge that ensures that your precious time is best spent. Your days planned to maximize your trip in line with your ability, to include the routes and climbs that you might not discover yourself, so all the essentials are not missed. The best hotels for your choice of budget, with the best places to eat, it's all that local knowledge that you cannot put a price on.
We missed a day thanks to a certain budget airline, however, Xavier reorganize our flight's hotels and was there to pick us up and deliver us down the road ready for day two, although we missed the classic coastline climbs of Jaizkibel and Monte Igueldo we still had plenty to look forward to.
Day 1: Getaria to Guernica 80km 1800m Plus a little extra
Our day and Basque Country tour starts with a cracking Basque breakfast of omelette, Toast, Jam, fruit, fresh orange juice and coffee in the hotel garden overlooking the bay in Getaria watching an early morning surfer ride the waves under the growing sun that will accompany us upon our ride.
With group greetings over and preparations made we set off along the coast at a civilized 09.30. The day was spent climbing though cliff top pine forests and descending into the small harbor villages and towns that punctuate this part of the Basque Coast.
The weather is beautiful, the scenery stunning and the pace is good for all the group, it’s clear my companions are not only fit and able but also amiable, and good company.
By mid-afternoon with a coffee stop and a picnic lunch along the way, we arrive at our hotel in Guernica in time for a shower, siesta, some housekeeping and a wander around the town famous for being the inspiration for Picasso painting " Guernica".
We are all looking forward to an evening in the square and perhaps some pintxos, (bar food for the Basque) great Basque cooking and a glass or two of Rioja. With many of the world's top 20 Michelin start restaurants located in the Basque Country, the area is recognized as a world-class gastronomic mecca.
Day 2: Guernica to Bidania 77km 1800m??
Today we set out under some heavy skies to work our way across the Basque hinterland rising over uplands and crossing valleys of green farmland and forest. The climbs and descents wind the way back northeast parallel but inland of our route the day before offering another perspective of this natural arena of cycling perfection. The roads twist and turn to make every kilometer a joy. Our ride today was not the longest of our week but 5 great climbs along the way, including the lovely 8.12 kms Santa Ageda, installed the 80 kms in the legs and the memory.
As a bonus, we finished at a delightful hotel and the prettiest of typical Basque villages, looking forward to another superb meal and in time to watch the now classic and much talked about (then over dinner and now) penultimate stage of the Giro d'Italia. A stroll down to the village for a cafe solo completed the afternoon.
Day 3: Bidania to St. Etienne de Baigorry 96km 1500
Our route today takes us from the Spanish Basque and into the French Basque via the stunning pass over the Col d'lspeguy. Today we make 3 great climbs and equally exciting descents through some of the best of the Spanish Basque countryside. The first half of the ride is through the morning rain that has arrived overnight, however, our ride finishes in glorious sunshine as we make the magnificent descent into the delightful Basque village of St. Etienne de Baigorry. Our hotel ticks all the boxes and the staff are as helpful and accommodating as with all our other overnight stops. The village is well worth an afternoon promenade with a fantastic chocolatier, quaint chateau, and ancient footbridge to be discovered. We, of course, look forward to another great Basque meal this evening.
Day 4: St. Etienne de Baigorry to Barcus 89km 1900m
We roll out through the now French Basque countryside with the Pyrenees insight, passing through typical villages and towns with painted half-timber houses. Soon after the citadel town of St. Jean Pied de Port we start to roll towards the epic Burdincurutchecha that starts with around 5 kms at circa 11%, The views are stunning and the false flat on top before starting the shorter and more rolling Bagarui Magnificent. The descent on the other side is equally so and you soon realize this side of the Basque is much quieter and has a very different slightly more tranquil feel, as you pass through sleepy villages and countryside, its Sunday and the roads are beautiful to ride and almost deserted.
Our hotel tonight as always is well chosen by our host Xavier Lopez of Bike Basque, its comfortable and again boasts an excellent reputation for great authentic Basque cuisine.
Day 5: Barcus to Biarritz 130km 2200m
After a superb breakfast leaving the sleepy village of Barcus we ride out today in the rain and immediately into our first climb the short and steady but picturesque Cote de Barcus. It's certainly the least challenging of today's climbs but it is a cracking warm-up for the rest of the ride. Rolling through the countryside on good easy-going roads we repass the citadel town of St. Jean Pied de Port, which is certainly worth a visit especially today as the market is here. A coffee stop is, of course, the order of the day before we roll the Col d'Ispeguy to return to Spain via the route we entered just two days ago. The climb is a mini classic and at 8km averaging 6.5% and again the views are worth every minute. Once over we are heading back down the wooded valley before starting our last climb of note before descending back into France and rolling back towards Biarritz and our overnight stay.
I love Biarritz, it's a great starting point and destination, Life is abundant, and distractions are everywhere even if like me you love simple things perhaps enjoy an individual Gateaux Basque from La Maison ADAM just up from the beach or some freshly landed seafood in the old fishing harbor below the town and between the surf beaches or just take a simple promenade and a cafe on the seafront.
Of course, I will also enjoy a glass of red in celebration of the 15 climbs of note, the 8000 plus meters of climbing and circa 500 kms all thoroughly enjoyed throughout my 5 days riding in the glorious Basque Country with Bike Basque. You get excellent service, airport transfer, baggage and vehicle support, a terrific route and guiding, great climbing and descending, fabulous scenery, history and cycling culture, great food, and respect on well-kept roads from a community that understand and love their cycling.
And I will definitely be entering that Basque Country Sportive soon.
Latest posts by Nigel Hale-Hunter (see all)
- The Wysam 333 – acelebration of grass-roots cycling - August 8, 2018
- The Basque Gateway To The Pyrenees - July 19, 2018
- Sleep is part of your training formula - March 27, 2018