Year in and year out, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme comes on Radio Tour in the opening kilometres of each day to give a general presentation of the stage. And when he does so, he always announces “le regional de l’étape” – the rider who hails from the region the race is currently crossing. But on stage one of this edition of the Tour de France, the regional riders will be the unlikely band of Basque cyclists like Mikel Landa, Pello Bilbao, Omar Fraile, Jonathan Castroviejo, Alex Aranburu, as well as Ion and Gorka Izagirre.
“I can’t wait,” Landa told Rouleur while racing in the Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this month. “This is really going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. It is going to be a Tour start like no other for me!”
It is safe to say that all eyes will be on the 33-year-old when the Tour starts in Bilbao, as the 14-year professional grew up just outside the historic port city. He also carries the Basque Country's best chances in the overall standings of the Tour having finished in the top 10 on four occasions and twice finished as high as fourth.
When Prudhomme announced the 2023 route back in October of last year, he made it clear that the Tour was celebrating no single rider but rather the connections between this autonomous region of Spain and the Tour de France.
Much of this was based on the strong performances of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team in the 1990s and 2000s. In some ways, the team was little more than a regional squad. But the team consistently produced out-sized performances on the roads of the Tour, as the Basque riders went head-to-head with the world's biggest stars. And then there were the fans that flocked to the Pyrenees every year, turning the climbs into a veritable sea of orange flags and t-shirts.
“Cycling just has such a strong tradition in the Basque Country,” Landa explained. “We have always had very, very good riders for many years, and we have had some strong teams. That really made the fans crazy for cycling. The fans know a lot about cycling. They follow the sport all year, so they know all the riders and they support them all, from the first to the last. And then, of course, we like to party. We like food and wine, and it all comes together perfectly for us at a bike race.”
As a child, Landa himself was one of those fans, as he watched the Basque stars of the day racing in the Tour. “I always watched the Euskatel-Euskadi team, but I always had an eye on Iban Mayo. That is one of the reasons why I am a cyclist today.”
He adds that the roads and weather conditions in the Basque Country are ideal for cyclists. But when reminded that it often rains in this northern corner of Spain and is packed with hills, he simply laughs, adding: “The conditions are great to become a very tough cyclist!”
Landa, who currently rides for Bahrain-Victorious, first turned professional with the Euskaltel-Euskadi team back in 2010, and even today offers advice to the development squad, something he will likely do more of when he eventually retires.
But at the moment, he clearly has his eyes set on this year’s Tour de France with its Grand Départ in his back garden. On paper, the punchy opening stages in the Basque Country do not play to his strengths as a pure climber. Nevertheless, Landa couldn’t be more excited.
“Stage one is going to be tough,” he says, thinking about the 182km stage around Bilbao. “I know most of the climbs as they are close to my home, where I train. They are short climbs but plenty steep. No one will win the Tour here, but you could lose serious time, so the favourites have to be ready. One thing is certain there won’t be a big sprint at the finish.”
Stage two will be like a mini Clásica San Sebastián as it goes over the famed Jaizkibel climb, central to the historic one-day race. But Landa insists: “It is going to be very different from the Clásica because this is the Tour. I think the big favourites will be watching each other. I think the racing is going to be more controlled.”
While Landa’s own goals are further down the road, as he dreams of finally stepping onto the podium in Paris, the Tour start this year will nevertheless be unforgettable for him. “These are my roads, my fans. Personally, I won’t be nervous, no. I’m just really going to try to enjoy those first few days.”
While Landa can’t wait for the Tour to start, he will also be thinking of his late teammate Gino Mäder, who tragically died just over a week ago in the Tour de Suisse.
“Our team was really touched by the loss of our friend and teammate Gino,” Landa said in a press release from the team this week. “We need to ride for him and honour him. We should give the best we have to give day in and day out.”