A few hours south of where I live in the Basque Country, in the region of La Rioja, my parents have a house where we have spent every summer and Easter holiday I can remember. In the summer, our place in Inestrillas makes for the perfect getaway. A 5-minute stroll from the swimming pool and sitting at the foot of a 10km climb, it is perfect for both training and relaxing.
At any other time of the year however, our house is not for the faint hearted. Hidden in an almost deserted village where there isn’t so much as a shop in walking distance, our house has no heating, television or internet. To any relatives or other visitors to Inestrillas we are always careful to talk down our place before they arrive. The house is best described to people as something nearer to “posh camping” than a Spanish holiday home.
The lack of home comforts brings the family together, we are forced to read books rather than Twitter feeds and play Scrabble instead of Xbox. When we were younger, me and my sister ventured outside for entertainment. We’d make friends with other local kids, spending the days seeing who could leave the longest rear wheel skid mark on our mountain bikes or daring each other to jump in the river. In the past few years the place has been a perfect escape from team accommodation and great for my training. The mental break from being in a familiar location and the great roads have seen most of my best rides come just after an Easter stint in Inestrillas. So after a patchy start of the season, when the holidays came around, it was time for me to go to the land that WiFi forgot.
My parents flew out from London to see me race in Amorebieta, just down the road from Durango where the team is based. They’d then drive south to Inestrillas. My plan was to stick around to ride with the team the next morning then get the train to join them in the village two days later.
I did well in Amorebieta. I made it over all of the climbs into the select group of 30 riders which contested the win. But a bit of high speed bumping and barging had seen me touch the brakes on the penultimate corner. Sprinting in a box, I only came away with 13th.
I was looking to do better than 13th but, the truth is, I’d have been disappointed however the race had gone. Amorebieta is an U23 race in the Lehendakari series, it took place on the same day as the Memorial Valenciaga. Valenciaga is the 5th round of the Copa España and is widely considered the most prestigious amateur race in Spain. Two years ago I raced Valenciaga for Escribano and wrote about it’s significance. I, along with every other amateur, was desperate to ride Valenciaga.
The 4-hour train journey from Durango to Bilbao then south to meet my parents gave me a chance to reflect on the season so far. Although disheartened, I wasn’t surprised to find myself left out of the selection for Valenciaga. I’d had a patchy start to the year. Racing had come as a shock to the system after a long break last season. Also the allergies that had ultimately resulted in me needing surgery to correct my deviated septum back in August, had returned and held me back. Add to that an early season cold plus a bit of bad luck getting caught behind crashes, and it’s easy to see why I didn’t make the 7 man team. By the time I boarded the train from Bilbao to Calahorra, where I’d arranged to meet my parents, I had put the Valenciaga disappointment behind me.
The trainline bisects the western half of Spain. Starting in Bilbao, it snakes south through Burgos, Navarra and Aragon then eventually arrives in Barcelona. From Haro to Zaragoza the train follows the river Ebro, sticking to the river’s meandering route with the water flowing to the left and the valley wall on the right. Although scenic, it is not the most direct route. For the first hour I appreciated the landscape, but after a while I began to wonder whether the driver was also taking in the views. By the third hour I found myself fixating on the floating sticks and debris in the current, I was convinced the river was flowing faster than we were moving. When my Dad picked me up, I told him I’d be coming by raft next time.
Training in La Rioja, my focus was on the two Basque races which would likely determine the team selection for the upcoming events. It was time to earn my place in the remaining rounds of the Copa España and the first stage race of the season; the Vuelta Bidasoa, considered the U23 Tour of the Basque Country. I got some big miles done on some of my favorite training roads and enjoyed the time catching up with my parents who I hadn’t seen since Christmas. The social media purge enforced by the lack of internet resulted in my reading of a whole novel in just over a week. Feeling very proud to have doubled my tally of books read in the last year, my Easter stretch in the Spanish ghost town came to an end. I was optimistic about the next part of the season.
I arrived back to civilisation the day before the Durango Euskaldun race, IV Memorial Aitor Bugallo. Eiser Hirumet’s home race is organised by its parent club the Duranguesa. This makes it an important one for us.The race goes through the town, past my front door and out to do an almost flat lap around the neighboring villages of Abadino, Elorrio and Berriz. The 5th time the race completes the 21km flat lap, it turns right to include the steep climbs of Garai and Goiuria. The finish is in Durango, just 5km after Goiuria .
We had 3 riders in the split of 40 caused by a strong move from Caja Rural on the 3rd narrow passage through Durango. I started the climbs in the main bunch but with the group of 40 still in sight. The groups exploded on the two climbs and descent in between. I caught some of the guys up the road but just as many came past me from my group. By the final 20% ramp of Goiuria I had no idea what position I was in.
My teammates Daniel Avellaneda managed 5th and Jon Munitxa 14th. Not a bad day for Eiser Hirumet but I didn’t even make the top 50. We raced Durango on the Thursday and had another race planned in the Basque region of Alava, in the town of Durana, that weekend. I knew I needed to do a better ride to make a case for my inclusion in the bigger races.
Durana is a strange race because you do the fast technical descent before the steep climb of Salinas; down-then-up as opposed to up-then-down. The race starts on the top of a flat plain before going downhill to the village of Aretxabaleta where it turns back on itself to take on the climb of Salinas. Then it returns to Durana and the lap is repeated once more. There is nothing to split the race before the descent on the first lap so 200 fresh-legged riders fight for position at the front and fly down the mountain. There are crashes every year.
I had to position my teammates Vicente and Dani before the downhill both times. On the second lap I sat in the first 20 riders right in the middle of the pack. With my two teammates behind me I was directly in the middle of the arrowhead shape created at the front of the bunch, waiting for an opening to drive forward just before the descent.
Everyone was nervous. Riders were leading on one another and I could feel gear shifters brushing my hips. I was stressed but the situation felt familiar, a sign I am getting my race legs back perhaps. I recognised the feeling of wanting to slip back in the bunch. I reminded myself that being 10 or 20 riders further back the fight would only be tougher and I’d be no safer from crashes. The only way out was forward. Just at the last moment before we began the descent a gap opened and I stamped on the pedals. As I accelerated my exit route narrowed. The two riders in front of me moved together, their shoulders closing like sliding doors on an underground train. I just managed to get my handlebars in front of theirs, from there I could pull Dani and Vicente through the chaos.
On the descent I could hear the crashes behind, I knew I had done my job. Dani and Vicente managed 4th and 6th respectively. After the race they were both raving about my bunch heroics. I rolled in 45th with the second group but I knew I had done enough to earn my place in the upcoming races. Once again, a week of taking it back to basics in the isolated village of Inestrillas has got my season back on track.