With the first race in the Basque Country’s Euskaldun series in Zumaia on Saturday and the opening round of the Copa España in Don Benito on Sunday, the last weekend in February marked the start of the season here in Spain. For the first time, Eiser Hirumet sent a team to both races.
I opted to ride in Zumaia. I have ridden both in my time in Spain and neither particularly suits me. It is generally considered a weekend for the pure sprinters. Don Benito includes the 2km steep climb through the town of Magacela which the race goes up on each of the 5 laps. Some years a small group manages to go clear on the climb and lasts the final 15km to the finish but, more often than not, it comes to a bunch sprint. Zumaia is far less selective, the climb each lap is on a wide road making it difficult for anyone to get away. Although Don Benito is a higher level race and almost 70km longer I decided Zumaia would be best for me. Staying local, I would miss the 7 hour car journey to and from the race, avoid a night in a hotel and be able to ride back to Durango afterwards.
The emphasis of the race in Zumaia was on riding well technically rather than looking for a result. The more experienced riders had been taken to Don Benito. This meant we didn’t have a sprinter and most of the team were first-year U23 riders. Expecting a result was unrealistic. I was asked to organize the team and make sure we stuck together in the bunch. The team director’s wanted to see us well positioned and near to each other in the bunch. This is something I am used to after two seasons racing in Spain but for riders fresh from the junior category or riders new to racing this is a big step to take. All of a sudden your concentration is required throughout the race, you are forced to fight for position and ride in a disciplined manner.
For the first half of the race we rode well as a team. Once or twice I dropped back in the bunch to collect less experienced teammates and guide them forward to where the team was positioned but generally we held our own. At one point, when the break of 3 riders had about a minute advantage and the bunch was rolling easy, we brought the team through and did a few minutes pulling on the front. We weren’t interested in catching the guys up the road, it was more an exercise in teamwork and to show ourselves in the race. Of course, we made sure we were on the front to come through the finishing line where all the photographers and spectators were.
In the last two laps the pace increased, one by one, the younger riders in the team disappeared from the front. Caja Rural, Baque and Lizarte were pulling hard to lead out their sprinters. I positioned just behind the leading teams with a teammate of mine, Jon Munixa, just on my wheel. Jon, who has been racing cyclocross this winter, had told me he was feeling good so I waited for the right time to bring him to the front. I couldn’t do my turn in the wind to soon because I wouldn’t be able to match the pace of the lead outs of the stronger teams but I had to make my move before we were swamped by riders behind. With 2km to go I saw 4 riders from the Ampo team come past us. I heard a shout from Jon and moved out into the wind to follow them forward. They took us to the front, where I dropped Jon off with about 500 metres to go. He managed to get 10th in the sprint.
In Don Benito the team had a disaster. Of the 7 man team, 2 had mechanicals and 2 crashed. Gabriel Irisari still managed to make the breakaway after an early bike change but our main man for the sprint Adrian Sainz went down in a crash on the last lap.
This weekend the season starts proper. Aiztondo Klasika is the second round of the Copa España and the first in the Basque Country. We’ve been to recce the course and it looks just as hard and technical as I remember it from last season. In 2017, with Escribano at Aiztondo Klasika, I remember having a tough day. We missed the crucial split after a descent where the race turns onto a narrow bike lane. All of the race favorites had made it into an 18 man group who had over a minute on us by the time we got back onto the main road. With us being one of the only teams not represented at the front, I had to work to try and bring it back. After exhausting myself in a hopeless effort to catch the front riders, I ended up getting dropped with about 40km still to race. This year I will have more of a free role in the team and I know the course well so I am hoping for a better result.