Explore: Urdaibai Euskadi's cycling reserve

We let ourselves be inspired by the diversity of the landscape, fauna and flora of the Urdaibai area, a protected settlement in Euskadi, host of the Grand Départ of the 2023 Tour de France. Our guide for the day: local ex-professional rider Beñat Intxausti

This article is produced in association with Urdaibai Basque Reserve

The bicycle is the best companion for discovering new places, and if there is a paradise in terms of cycling, it is Euskadi, known internationally as the Basque Country. This area in the north-east of Spain has terrain that is ideal for cycling. Perhaps this explains the number of professional cyclists born in this area and,  above all, a passionate audience of fans for whom cycling is a way of life. And this year, Euskadi hosted the Grand Départ of the Tour de France, which turned each road into a huge fiesta.

In the first stage, with its start and finish in Bilbao, the peloton rode through part of the Urdaibai natural area, declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1984. This occupies an area of 220 square kilometres, in which a very diverse fauna coexists with different aquatic species, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. It is also a very important staging post for migratory birds. This environment, located some 30km northeast of Bilbao, wants to position itself as a reference point in the world of cyclotourism, and we want to explore what this region has to offer with a 78-km route along undulating roads that accumulate more than 1,800 metres of altitude gain.

We plan to travel from the beaches to the ascent of Mount Oiz, the highest mountain in Urdaibai at 1,026m. The day starts with a few shy clouds, but the first rays of sunshine soon show up. The route has a circular structure from Gernika-Lumo, the most populated municipality in the Urdaibai area, which is the start and finish of this trip. There we meet up with former professional cyclist Beñat Intxausti, who will be our guide.

Intxausti is a native of Muxika, a small town in the south of Gernika, so he knows the surroundings perfectly, and it was even a regular training area during his years as a professional: “It’s ideal terrain for riding because there are quiet roads with continuous ups and downs,” he says. “Then you have the climb to Oiz, which was better for higher quality training and sustained climbing efforts. It’s a very complete area.”

In fact, the area is a great breeding ground for pros: Bahrain Victorious rider Pello Bilbao, twice in the top five of the Giro d’Italia, is from Gernika. Intxausti retired in 2019 at 34 after a bout of mononucleosis affected his last few seasons. The illness cut short a career that was brilliant in its beginnings and in which he rode for teams such as Saunier Duval, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Movistar – for whom he won two stages and wore the maglia rosa in the 2013 Giro – and Team Sky. In fact, traces of his cycling career can be seen in the equipment he rides in with us, as he wears a Sky helmet and rides a Movistar bike. He completes his outfit with the jersey of the Urdaibai cycling school, which he started with some friends in 2020 to teach children and help them to enjoy cycling in this exceptional environment.

Marshes, beaches and coastline

The meeting point, and therefore the start of the route, is the Casa de Juntas and the Tree of Gernika. This oak is the most universal symbol of the Basque People. The old tree was a survivor of the bombing of the Condor Legion that devastated Gernika on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The current tree is a sapling of the old one and was planted in 2015.

This tree is of great importance in Basque culture and an icon that represents the freedom of the Basques. The beginning of the route through Urdaibai powerfully marks that historic, terrible event. Just a hundred metres after setting off on our bikes, we see a life-size representation of Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s famous painting of the horror of the bombing in a ceramic mural.

We cross the Errenteria bridge over the Mundaka estuary, and we start to roll over the gentle hills outside the town. The change in the landscape is evident, going from the relative hustle and bustle of the city to the characteristic green of Euskadi, with cows grazing in the fields and farmhouses dotted over the entire panorama. Many are in the traditional style: rural stone constructions, divided into a ground floor for a stable or barn and the upper floor for the family.

As the road climbs to Kortezubi, we pass some tempting incursions and detours along narrow roads to the prehistoric site of the Santimamiñe Cave and the colourful Forest of Oma, a work of Land Art by the sculptor and painter Agustín Ibarrola. After Kortezubi, on the left of the road we can see the Arteaga Castle, a neo-medieval palace that is now a hotel, rising out of the trees. It is from this junction that the views of the Urdaibai estuary begin to take centre stage as the road winds through a  vast natural landscape.

The low tide allows us to see marshes and wet sandy areas that a few hours before were completely submerged by the Cantabrian Sea. A rapid descent brings us back to sea level and Laida Beach. This point becomes an improvised viewpoint where we stop for a moment and enjoy a privileged view of the other side of the estuary, with the Matxitxako headland in the background and the fishing villages of Bermeo and Mundaka. The second of these, which gives its name to the estuary, is well known in the world of surfing, since its famous left wave is considered one of the best waves in the world. Its irregular coastline forms a tube wave that can reach up to 400 metres in length and breaks on Laida Beach itself.

We follow the coast, with the sea breeze cooling our skin, for a few more kilometres until we reach Laga. This second beach appears on our left after a long descent from another clifftop view.

Undulating scenery

The coastal scenery changes once we pass Laga Beach, as the route begins to head inland again towards Urdaibai, via Ibarrangelu. This village welcomes us with a traditional pelota court at the roadside. A more modern semi-covered court is behind it, but this one has the charm of the passage of time and a wall built in 1929 using the ashlar technique, where finely carved stones are laid one on top of the other.

The pelota court is part of Euskadi culture, and there is one in every town. It is the playing field for Basque pelota, a sport that is deeply rooted in the north of Spain, especially in Euskadi and Navarre.

The road from this point onwards starts to tip steadily upwards. And then more steeply from Ereño. As we pass through this small enclave where the façades of the houses have a reddish hue, one of the most beautiful sections of the route begins, which will extend for more than eight kilometres to Nabarniz. The road becomes narrower, in good condition, but above all very quiet and free of traffic. We enter a more rural milieu with broad meadows, where horses, sheep and goats follow us with their eyes as they graze freely.

The section is a succession of ramps that test our strength on the way to Nabarniz, the second highest peak in Urdaibai. The descent, however, is a real delight. It’s at the perfect pitch – six or seven per cent – with no major technical complications, and it navigates its way through the forest.

On the way we come across small waterfalls and streams that run parallel or perpendicular to the road. This beautiful postcard culminates with an obligatory stop at a tavern for a coffee and a pintxo to recharge our batteries. It will be necessary for the approach to Munitibar, which features several demanding climbs between kiwi plantations and vineyards which produce one of the most popular wines in Euskadi: Txacoli.

The colossus of Urdaibai

Our arrival at the village of Munitibar marks the start of the nine-kilometre ascent to mount Oiz, the highest point in the Urdaibai area. A group of white houses, the Gerrikaitz neighbourhood, welcome us with a first horseshoe bend at eight per cent. However, this first part, which climbs up towards the Balcón de Bizkaia, is somewhat uneven and has smoother sections upon which, according to Intxausti himself, it is even possible to use the large chainring.

The first four kilometres or so run along a wide two-way road in the middle of the forest. In fact, the treetops provide almost total protection from the sun’s rays and make the climb pleasant even on a hot day. On a small piece of open land, next to a group of logs piled up in the ditch, is the junction to the left where the pass completely changes in character for the remaining five kilometres. It becomes a narrow road, mostly made of concrete and with very steep gradients. Although it is a usual suspect in the training of cyclists in the area and on cycle touring routes in the Urdaibai area, it is a somewhat unknown pass for the professionals. The Vuelta a España has come here once, in 2018, when the Canadian rider Michael Woods won an agonising final climb.

Mount Oiz is a physical challenge and, at the same time, a place that captivates us with its views. The constant ramps of more than 10 per cent, and stretches that are well over 20 per cent, are counterbalanced by a simple glance at the hypnotising snapshot of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve and the estuary in the background.

Also by a natural environment in which the only sound is the birdsong, the native fauna, the pedalling of the bicycle and the wheel on the concrete and asphalt. As we get closer to the top, the trees begin to disappear and the terrain opens up to a land devoid of vegetation.

“That’s why I like to call it the mini Mont Ventoux,” laughs Intxausti, because of its similarity to the mountain in French Provence. Although the wind is not as strong on Oiz as it is on Ventoux, it can still gust at 100 kilometres per hour. This explains why there are huge windmills atop the summit. And among this modern landscape, a small, solitary hermitage marks the start of the final 600 metres over rougher concrete on the way to the antennae.

Halfway along, we can make out the marks of what used to be the finish line of the Vuelta, but at the top the only spectators are some horses enjoying the tranquillity and freedom, as if they were the owners of the place.

A bird’s eye view of Bizkaia

After a demanding ascent to Oiz, it is time to rest, catch our breath and, above all, enjoy the panoramic view not only of Urdaibai, but also of the whole of Bizkaia. From the summit we can see the Urkiola Natural Park, the peak of Anboto, the Ibaizabal river basin with towns such as Durango, home to one of the most prestigious classics on the women’s calendar, the Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria, and, in the distance, you can also glimpse part of Bilbao, the capital of Bizkaia.

The descent takes place along the same road, allowing us to enjoy Oiz from a different perspective. The return to the wider roadway softens the intensity of the descent and leads us to the Balcón de Bizkaia. This location can be a less strenuous alternative, avoiding the climb to Oiz, and it also offers an exceptional view of the whole Urdaibai. It is an explosion of different shades of green in the middle of spring.

The return to Gernika is a pleasant and winding descent signposted as a regular cyclist’s route, which gives a greater sense of security. These last kilometres pass through a series of rural villages such as Urrutxua, Albiz, one of the oldest parishes in Bizkaia, Marmiz and Elejalde. It is precisely in the latter where the legs will have to overcome a final challenge in the form of a steep slope in Mendata, before the finish in Gernika.

The Urdaibai environment brings together everything you need for road cycle touring: a wide network of secondary roads with little traffic, versatile routes where you can adapt the level of difficulty, challenging climbs, cafés and taverns where you can enjoy the famous Euskadi gastronomy and a landscape full of contrasts with the mountainous environment playing a central role.

The route through this natural area allows you to lose yourself, to stop and enjoy the countryside in a leisurely way, without haste or constraints. Urdaibai is a place with multiple perspectives. And the beauty of it is that each cyclist finds their own.

If you wish to know more about Urdabai, please visit urdaibaibikereserve.com


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