Nationalism and pro cycling in Spain – part two
How bike races were used as a political tool in a time of dramatic change. (A flashback to RIDE #46, published October 2009.)
We continue the story of cycling’s influence on Spanish culture by Mark Johnson and James Stout…
Euskaltel-Euskadi & Vuelta al Paìs Vasco
Basque displays of regional self-determination and identity exploded back into public view after Franco’s death. Today this national identity is manifested through the Euskadi-Euskaltel ProTour team, the Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco stage race and the Marena Naranja – Orange Tide – of fans who line the routes of the Vuelta a España and Tour de France.
During Franco’s era elder generations of these orange-clad fans attempted to subvert the dictator’s nationalistic narrative by supporting Basque riders and throwing both verbal abuse and rotten fruit at others who deigned to win Basque stages of the major cycling events in the region.
After Franco’s death Basque cycling, a long-standing symbol of power through the union of working man and cycling machine, flourished. Not only were fans able to unfurl Basque flags as their riders toiled over mountains, but the Vuelta Ciclista was back on the calendar along with the San Sebastián one-day Classic and the six-days of Euskadi track event.
The Basque country has always been an economic powerhouse and a centre of Spanish cycling. Indeed, the GP de la República started and finished in the Basque city of Eibar, whose BH and Orbea cycling factories had converted from building pipes and guns to making bikes.
Those brands remain mainstays in the pro peloton. Much as the Guggenheim Museum has converted public perception of Bilbao from a grim port city to a must-see cultural mecca, BH and Orbea’s global marketing push over the last five years has made these brands an iconic cycling presence from Grand Tours to local amateur criteriums around the planet.
During the industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century the bicycle liberated the urban poor in industrial areas, allowing them the freedom to travel.
Given its favourable social and economic place in Basque and Catalan history, it is not surprising that the Basques exceeded the rest of Spain in their support for and participation in bike races.
For 33 years the Vuelta a España either finished in or crossed through Bilbao. During those years Bilbao was to the Vuelta as Paris is to the Tour de France today – a must-visit city that, because of its role as the capital of cycling on the Iberian peninsula, was fundamental to the race’s ethos.
Due to its position as a magnet for immigrants seeking work in factories and mines the Basque country, like Catalonia, has a rich history of working-class sporting associations.
These clubs were a way for immigrants to forge a sense of place and belonging beyond the factory floor. For example, after British sailors introduced football to Bilbao in the 1890s, locals picked up on the game and eventually formed their own club in 1901, Athletic Bilbao. Then, and now, the first division pro football club, like the Euskaltel-Euskadi ProTour cycling team, is an expression of nationalism that only recruits players native to or raised in the region.
Further, Athletic Bilboa depends on a cantera, or quarry system where youngsters from the Basque regions are identified and supported by local sporting clubs.
Bilbao’s industries triggered a huge influx of job-seeking immigrants. Almost half were from other parts of Spain and Europe which caused a xenophobic backlash from the isolated, rural and tradition-bound population.
Basque nationalists saw this flood of outsiders as a threat to their cultural and ancestoral integrity. In 1924 this protective impulse took to the area’s verdant, rugged mountains and soaring ocean-view roads in the form of the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco.
The stage race was designed to spotlight key sites in the Basque region and thereby reinforce what some saw as a threatened Basque cultural identity. The events in País Vasco highlighted ties between the region and its land – a mythic projection dear to Basques and which holds the rural shepherd as their traditional model.
Further, the Tour of the Basque Country dramatised the industrialised Basque nation’s ideal of the relationship between toiling men and steel. The image of the solitary, native man on his geared machine confronting mountains, wind and rain is a potent illustration of the Basque nation’s role as a mining and bike-building powerhouse.
Today the Basque love of cycling and country has evolved into the Euskadi-Euskaltel team, signature orange images of which are broadcast into homes around the world.
The team came about in 1993 as a unique funding phenomenon in professional cycling – a “national” team that relied on public subscription for the bulk of its funding.
While its charter was to nurture the cantera of young riders into future cycling greats, the Euskadi foundation was also meant to put a more acceptable and benign face on Basque nationhood that, in the public eye, had been hijacked by ETA.
Because Franco had ruthlessly zeroed in on the Basques and Catalans and attempted to erase the cultural identity that was the foundation of their pride (and a threat to his power if left unchecked), at its start ETA had good reason to subvert his regime. However, it’s said that a silent majority of Basques take issue with the deadly ETA’s methodology that persisted even after Spain’s conversion to democracy.
During the last month in which the Vuelta entered the Basque country, May 1978, 22 people fell victim to political violence in the region.
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The Euskadi foundation was the brainchild of a former parliamentary deputy for Vizcaya, one of the provinces. José Alberto Pradera, along with retired star Marino Lejarreta (a tireless 1982 Vuelta-winning Basque rider who finished all three Grand Tours four times in his career and who took three Clasica San Sebastián victories) set up a team funded by a non-profit foundation supported by subscribing fan donations.
The pro team and its supporting foundation was a peaceful, grassroots, education-focused and publicly funded alternative to the Basque nationalism of ETA.
Lejarreta, now a Basque TV cycling commentator, says he was motivated to create the Euskadi foundation because he saw great cycling prospects in Basque youngsters. “I wanted to make a team with sporting potential.”
Rather than being a top-level pro team, the aim was to create a springboard, to inculcate young riders with a sense of Basque pride that they would carry into their cycling careers. In Pradera’s words, the riders were groomed “to sell the country and the country’s products and prove that we aren’t just a place where people throw bombs at each other”.
Unlike Pradera, Lejarreta says he did not see the team as an explicit attempt to project a non-ETA version of the Basque Country. For Lejarreta, ETA’s violent demands for Basque independence and the team he founded “are different things. They don’t have a relation with one another”.
In 1994 Euskadi made its debut in the pro peloton. Uniquely for a sport largely dependent on corporate sponsorship dollars, their jersey displayed only the Basque Ikkurina flag with sponsors listed in the team’s press brochure. By 1995 there were nearly 7,000 individual sponsors paying the equivalent of about 100 euros annually.
What differentiates them is that they were not looking for advertisement or personal aggrandisement.
Rather, their backing of the team was out of a sense of national obligation, love for cycling and sporting pride.
In 2000 Euskaltel, a Basque internet and telephone company, came on board, heralding a change in jersey colour that eventually resulted in today’s iconic orange uniform.
Although the team moved away from its Ikkurina colours, the new orange quickly became as much a part of Basqueness as the Ikkurina, the txapela (the distinctive beret) or the Euskara language itself. The changing of colours was symbolic of the Euskadi foundation’s ability to redefine what it meant to be Basque. In the eyes of the outside world, Euskaltel-Euskadi took Basqueness from the preserve of ETA’s terrorists to being a legitimate, cross-class and peaceful national identity.
This national support manifested itself in the so-called orange tide which flowed at its highest in 2001 when Roberto Laiseka took stage 14 of the Tour de France at Luz Ardiden.
Thousands of orange-clad fans lined the slopes that day to watch his victory in a manifestation of support which Laiseka himself described as “unbelievable”. La Vanguardia reported that it seemed as if the whole Basque people had appeared on the slopes of the climbs in the Pyrenees to watch the fulfilment of “el sueno Vasco” – the Basque dream. The article continues to describe the multitudes posted on the side of the road, teeming with Basque flags and Euskaltel T-shirts, “all to see Laiseka, one of theirs, conquer the heights of Luz Ardiden, just as Delgado and Indurain had done in their day.”
Laiseka’s win was poignant to Basques. He was born in Guernica and rode for Euskadi his entire 13-year pro career.
As millions around the world tuned in to witness Lance Armstrong battling Jan Ullrich, they were treated to a stage where the true victors may well have been a people still coming to terms with Franco’s reign of terror.
It was a day Euskaltel-Euskadi could call their project a success.
Today Euskaltel-Euskadi is a ProTour team and a fixture in the Tour de France and Vuelta. Its star, 31-year old Samuel Sanchez, earned the team its first Grand Tour podium spot at the 2007 Vuelta in which he was third. He stepped one rung higher this year when he finished runner-up to Alejandro Valverde and ahead of Cadel Evans.
‘Samu’, as the popular, down-to-earth rider is known to his adoring fans, represents both the power of cycling to modify Basque representations of identity and the potential for a team driven by nationalism to deliver athletes to the pantheon of their sport.
Although born in the nearby province of Asturias, Sanchez raced from a young age in the Basque Country and has stayed with Euskaltel for his entire career. After taking the gold medal in the road race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he fielded offers for bigger contracts.
Yet he stated that “I see myself with Euskaltel” and refused to negotiate with other teams.
(Note: Sanchez would see out his career with the BMC Racing Team in 2017. But his exit from the sport was not a glamorous one; he tested positive for doping and was sacked by the US-registered squad.)
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When asked about having a non-Basque star on the Euskadi squad, team founder Lejarreta declared: “He grew up with the Basques. Inside the team there are riders like Sanchez who have grown up with Basque teams and so they can ride with the foundation.”
After placing second at this year’s Vuelta, Sanchez had this to say about his squad: “We are a small, tough team who have learned our lessons well, and this allows us to make the best of whatever comes our way.”
The ability of Sanchez’s resourceful, cantera-grown squad to defeat American, German, Italian and Russian juggernauts at the Grand Tour level says a lot about how Spanish and Basque cycling has changed Spain’s sense of self-worth over a century of cycling history.
Orbea sponsors the Euskadi ProTour team. Like Lejarreta, Joseba Arizaga, Orbea’s marketing director who lives in San Sebastián and has a long association with Basque cycling business and culture, feels the Euskadi foundation does not have overtly political motives. But Arizaga, whose business takes him all over the planet, feels the team does project Basque culture to the wider world. “The Basque people,” Arizaga explains, “have always wanted to share their culture.
The Euskadi foundation is just one of numerous ways that have allowed us to introduce the world to Basques. Sports are part of the Basque nature, in particular cycling which has always had Basques at its highest level. In that respect, the Euskadi foundation has projected an image of Euskadi.”
From 1965, when even an Australian could find himself in one of Franco’s dank prisons, to today, when an Asturian rides for a gold medal on a Basque pro squad and when Orbea and BH bikes are sold around the world, the notion of Basqueness has evolved and, perhaps more than anyone could imagine, cycling has been a driving force behind this evolution.
– Mark Johnson and James Stout