The novelist Bernardo Atxaga once described the Basque Country as “labyrinthine, heterogenous, vast and complex”, and he might equally have been talking about the Tour de France. “This is not a territory,” he said of this hilly and rough-hewn region of stone, iron and green. “This is a world.”
Atxaga created a fictional universe for some of his works, which he called ‘Obaba’ and based in the valleys and villages of Guipúzcoa at the foot of Mount Hernio, inland from the north coast and Bay of Biscay, and it was through this rugged landscape that the 2023 Tour’s second stage wound its way from the regional capital of Gasteiz to the finish in Donostia. Atxaga put a postmodern twist on folk tales and culture, relying heavily on magical realism, and you could argue that Victor Lafay taking a first stage win for Cofidis in 15 years in Donostia was no less surreal a sight than a boy transforming into a boar in Atxaga’s Obabakoak.
The journalist Paddy Woodworth, who covered the Basque Country and Spain for The Irish Times, pointed out in his book The Basque Country, A Cultural History that while the rural hinterland of the region represented the essence of Basqueness as promoted and defended by Basque nationalists, the cities are adaptable, modern, outward-looking and, these days, full of trophy architecture and Michelin-starred restaurants. The Basque Country is a region in which tradition and modernity coexist easily, without contradiction, and it is therefore the perfect location for the Tour de France, which writes new history over old history every single year, without ever quite erasing what has gone before: narrative laid over narrative laid over narrative. Lafay’s victory in Donostia was an unexpected twist, a popular win with people who like happy endings. It also took quite a lot of attention away from the quiet battle which is the biggest subplot in this Tour de France and looks likely to define the race.
* * *
Like the British, the Basques have many words for rain. The enbata is a storm front from the northwest, and the locals refer to summer rain and blizzard rain, depending on the strength of the downpour. There is also sirimiri, a persistent subtle light misty drizzle, and it was sirimiri that gently enveloped the peloton and moistened the roads through significant parts of stage two. UAE Emirates opted to control the stage, denying Neilson Powless, who was in the break, the chance to take the yellow jersey off their hands, and for most of the day, a long line of UAE riders sat on the front of the peloton, the letters on their jerseys looking like annoying vowels on a Scrabble rack and a counterpoint to the impenetrable consonant-heavy town and village signs of Euskal Herria.
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
Their assertive riding was the front for a two-pronged strategy which involved defending Adam Yates’ yellow jersey, and putting Tadej Pogačar in a position to continue his assiduous gathering of bonus seconds: eight at the summit of the Jaizkibel and four more for coming third in Donostia. Meanwhile Jumbo-Visma are doing everything to do the least possible: for the second day running Jonas Vingegaard and Pogačar crested the final climb of the day clear of their rivals, and for the second day running Vingegaard sat tight, declining the opportunity to work with the Slovenian and press home their advantage. The Dane is attempting to dampen Pogačar’s incendiary riding style like summer sirimiri. At some point, it will become clear which is the cleverer strategy: Pogačar’s constant goading, attacking and pinching of seconds or Vingegaard’s conservative approach, but at the moment, UAE Emirates are first and second in the GC, while Jumbo-Visma are fielding criticism for putting four riders in the final selection of 24 into Donostia, including Wout van Aert, and not winning the stage.
The sense of history repeating itself, of writing new narratives over old, wasn’t just found in the divergent approaches of Vingegaard and Pogačar, which were an echo of last year’s GC battle. The 2023 Tour is only two days old, but the Basque Country stages have so far been a heady mix of the best of the race’s recent Grand Départs. They have managed to combine the passionate fan fervour of the 2022 start in Denmark, the entertaining racing of the 2021 openers in Brittany, without the crashes that blighted that year’s first week and the difficulty of the 2020 start in the Alpes-Maritimes. Other storylines have repeated: there has been a solo EF-EasyPost rider wearing polka dots off the front (Neilson Powless today; Magnus Cort in Denmark last year); Powless, a previous winner of Donostia Klasikoa, has been in a position to wear the yellow jersey before being chased down in a tactically questionable fashion (by UAE Emirates today; by his own team-mate Alberto Bettiol in 2022); and Ben O’Connor lost time after being delayed by a crash.
As cycling fans we often make the mistake of thinking that this year’s race is going to be the same as last year’s race – cycling is so conscious of its own history that everything gets compared to what has gone before, whether it’s Vingegaard and Pogačar contesting the GC in 2023 as they did in 2022 and 2021, or Victor Lafay winning the first stage for Cofidis since Sylvain Chavanel in 2008. But the opening two stages of the 2023 Tour have been unique. The punchy climbs of the Basque Country have provoked more GC action than the tough terrain of the 2020 and 2021 openers (with none of the danger), the backdrop of green mountains rising up out of the sea has been stunning, and the fans have been noisy, passionate and numerous. The Basque Country is labyrinthine, heterogenous, vast and complex. And so is the Tour.
Cover image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix