With the opening round of the Basque Euskaldun series in Zumaia and the first round of the Copa España 700km away in Don Benito, the last weekend in February marks the start of the season in Spain. In my first year I was sent to Zumaia with Caja Rural, in 2017 I raced the Circuito Guardiana in Don Benito with Escribano and last season I opted for Zumaia. So this year, after the 7hrs on the autopista, stopping to pick up teammates in Vitoria, Burgos and Valladolid, racing in Don Benito evened up my appearances.
I felt like a veteran Spanish amateur when explaining both races to my younger teammates on the journey. Their naivety certainly was sobering: this season will be my last as an U23. It doesn’t feel very long ago that I was quizzing older riders on where they thought a breakaway would go or whether the climb each lap was going to be really hard or really really hard. Things got even scarier when my phone remembered the WiFi password in the hotel.
When I had got over my Spanish cyclist’s midlife crisis, I kitted up for an evening spin. We went to the 1km steep climb through the town of Magacela that the race goes up each lap. Every other team had had the same idea. Magacela was buzzing with people watching the junior race going on that afternoon, and with the Elite/U23 riders checking out the hill. As is always the case at the first race of the year, there was a back-to-school feeling of excitement. For me it was particularly special after having missed most of last season. I caught up with some old teammates as we watched the juniors zigzag up the climb.
Eiser Hirumet have signed 3 riders from South America this season, as well as 4 Brits and a French rider. Had it not been for an unfortunate crash to Scunthorpe’s finest puncheur Max Williamson, also funded by the Dave Rayner Fund this season, we’d have lined up with only two Spanish riders. Adrian Fernandez, who we picked up in Burgos, stepped in for Max and pulled off a cracking ride in the day’s breakaway.
In the car the day before, we’d been following the race in Zumaia where Eiser had also sent a team. Zumaia is generally considered a more relaxed race than Don Benito, often riders choose to avoid Don Benito for its reputation for crashes. As every cyclist knows, the first races of the year are the most dangerous; it’s been months since anyone’s ridden in a bunch and everyone is nervous. Wide roads, but with several pinch points and no long climbs for natural selections to reduce the bunch, mean this first round of the Copa España is renowned for big pile ups. But this year Zumaia was certainly the race to avoid.
Between Twitter and phone calls to the team car we found out about the early crash which had seen 6 riders taken to hospital. Most of our team had gone down, one lad had fractured his ribs another had been taken away with a suspected broken collarbone. The race was neutralized for an hour while they waited for another ambulance to come and join the convoy. In the end the race was resumed but shortened to 40km and so was soon wrapped up with a bunch sprint where Jon, our best finisher, came 9th.
As expected, Don Benito started hard. After a few of us had followed the early moves a breakaway of 10, including my teammate Adrian, began putting time into the bunch. With Adrian up the road, the 6 of us tried to stick together in the bunch. Perhaps with the events of Zumaia playing on people’s minds, there were crashes left, right and centre. The wide roads made it easy for riders to move up around the sides of the bunch, there were constant waves of riders moving up on both sides and squeezing inwards to try and shelter from the wind. This created what was once described to me at an RSR, British Cycling’s Regional School of Racing days for U14 and U16 riders, as the washing machine. Watching the change of riders at the front of the bunch looked as though a jersey from each team had been put in a washing machine set to spin.
The climb the race tackles once each lap, 4 times in total, starts with a dead left hand turn after a short descent. The road goes from being wide enough for 20 riders to being too narrow even for the cars to pass. The race convoy is detoured away from the steep part of the climb while the bunch slams on the breaks and turns left into the chaos of Magacela. The number of spectators and the gradient of the climb means that, at the steepest part of the climb, any riders outside of the top 50 will be held up in the chaos. Like a sprint lead out, each team fights for control before the crucial left hand turn.
As we approached Magacela each lap the teams would turn up the heat, the 50kph washing machine became a drier as more riders took tumbles. The breakaway had been hung out to dry but their advantage fell fast on the second lap. This laundry metaphor has been rung out enough…
Just to add to the chaos of the day, it was our first time using race radios. Radios have been authorised in the Copa España races for the first time this season. Until now the teams have had radio communication to the commissaire, where they can find out the time gaps between bunches and who’s in which group, but have had no way of communicating with their riders.
Radios seem a good idea but there were some teething problems. Teams using the same type of radio hadn’t coordinated the channel they’d set their transmitters to. The radios we were using have 20 channels. Of course teams were reluctant to tell one another their channel, you don’t want your rivals listening to your tactics. Picking channel 16 seemed random enough to ensure us radio privacy, and when we tested it in the car park our communication worked perfectly. It wasn’t till we rolled away that I started hearing other rider’s names in an accent I didn’t recognise… We had two other teams on our channel.
So after 3 and a half hours of fighting for position each lap and listening to the same innovative instructions of “stick together… dig deep… stay at the front” 3 times from Basque, Valencian and Tenerifian team directors, we approached the final run in to Magacela. I interrupted the well meaning nonsense on the radio to tell the guys to follow me forward on the left hand side. We managed to get to the front as a team but it wasn’t long before we were swamped. Just before the climb I got caught behind a crash which put me out of contention. I think if you spoke to my teammates they’d each have a similar story about the last lap. That is, all apart from Vicente Hernaiz, who recovered a dozen positions on the climb and survived the crosswinds to make the front group of 30.
Adrians ride in the breakaway which got the team jersey on Teledeporte this week, Jons respectable top 10 in Zumaia and Vicente making the front group in Don Benito meant a respectable weekend for Eiser Hirumet. But we all know there is plenty more to come, when the Basque U23 races start this month.