Postcards from Pays Basque IV

Saturday morning we rode down to the start of the Classica San Sebastian and secured a position as close as possible to the sign-on and team

Crowd pleaser

presentation. This is a race which attracts a great field and almost all the big names who rode the Tour were here, save Contador, Menchov and Evans. Not unnaturally, the mainly partisan crowd’s loudest cheers were reserved for the Spanish and particularly the Basque riders. However, it was clear that Andy Schleck and Alexandre Vinokourov are held in high regard.

Andy Schleck

This is also a race which is generally won by a rider who’s just completed the Tour as they’re in fine racing form. Having seen the peloton set off, we headed out of town to watch them ride the final loop around the Altos de Jaizkibel and de Arklare. Our vantage point allowed us to watch the peloton advancing through the village of Oiartzun and up the Arklare twice before we sped back to San Sebastian, over the same finishing straight as the peloton, to watch the finish. We were not alone. A large number of riders, whose day was done, headed back into town with us.

We found a tv screen in a local bar just 75 metres from the finish and watched the final and decisive attacks. One of the things I love about watching Vinokourov race is that he’s never there to make up the numbers, he always tries to win. The leading trio of Gutierrez, Garate, Verdugo and Florencio had been whittled down when Vino attacked and formed a leading group with Rodriguez, Roche and Sanchez. Richie Porte had tried to bridge but was eventually caught by a larger group who were leading the chase. As the two groups were about to merge on the second ascent of the Jaizkibel, Luis Leon Sanchez accelerated away. Only Vino and Sastre were able to stay with him. These three worked to establish a sensible lead on the last descent into San Sebastian. While the chasing group was larger, it was less organised, and despite the efforts of Gesink, it failed to make any impact on the leaders.

Vino attempted to time trial away from LL Sanchez where there’s a slight uphill drag on the run in, but couldn’t shake him off. As they rode the final few kilometers to the finish, the three re-grouped and Luis Leon just pipped

Almost there

Vino on the line. Later I learned that Vino had arrived in San Sebastian in the early hours of Saturday morning having competed the night before in a criterium in Belgium. He wasn’t the only one, but the others, including Andy Schleck, were DNFs.

We watched the podium celebrations before cycling back up that hill to the hotel. The assembled throng were delighted with the Spanish win. As ever, my beloved and I had enjoyed riding over the same terrain as the professional peloton, albeit at a more sedate pace.

Triumphant trio

(All photographs courtesy of my beloved)

Postcards from Pays Basque III

For the last few days of our vacation we moved to a hotel in San Sebastian or, more specifically, a hotel on a hill (10% gradient) overlooking San

View from hotel

Sebastian. The morning we arrived it had just started to drizzle. Undeterred, my beloved set off on his bike to explore the neighbourhood with me in hot pursuit. As you know, I greatly dislike cycling off into the great unknown without either a map or a specific route in mind. My beloved shares none of my inhibitions and after we’d twice circumnavigated an industrial estate and the university, it started to pour down in earnest.

Enough, I decided to beat a hasty retreat back to the hotel but not before my beloved managed to leave me stranded at a traffic junction. Fortunately, the rain cleared in the afternoon and we were able to explore the town on foot, descending via a rather quaint funicular railway. I also managed to persuade my beloved to acquire a map of the area so we wouldn’t get lost again.

Friday dawned bright and sunny and, with the aid of afore-said map, we set off to explore the roads west of the hotel. It was a truly scenic ride along the cliffs to the town from whence cometh Txakoli. As is normal in this region,

Harbour view

the road was particularly undulating. In fact on the reverse trip my beloved advised that I’d scaled short inclines of  22% and  20%. I can’t wait to get back and ride Col de Vence.

Friday lunchtime we dined at Arzak, a three michelin starred restaurant which has been in the same family for a number of generations. Getting a table had not been easy. After a number of rejections I had finally told the restaurant when we’d be in San Sebastian and they had advised when they had a free table. They had then rung me no less than three times in the last ten days to confirm the booking.

As the taxi drove up outside the restaurant, I had a frisson of alarm. From the outside, it resembled an Italian restaurant stuck in a 70s time-warp. Fortunately, the interior was much more reassuring. Everything was beautifully and thoughtfully put together. Nothing jibed and the whole performance was wonderfully choreographed by the staff. We were able to assemble our own tasting menu by having halves of two different dishes for each course. The pre-lunch nibbles and petit fours were truly divine (my long time bell-weather test of a good restaurant), as indeed was each of the courses. It was so delicious I was almost (but not quite) tempted to lick the plate so as not to waste a single drop. It was truly a feast for the senses. My beloved said it was like visiting a modern art gallery where you got to eat the exhibits. I’ve bought the cookery book (fortunately in Spanish not Basque) so that I can marvel once again at the ingenuity of the dishes and incorporate a few of the ideas into my own cooking. However, these are not dishes that you can easily replicate in a domestic environment, even if one had the requisite skills. As a nice touch, we were presented with copies of the menu of our meal as we departed, replete and happy.

After a long walk, we returned to the hotel still sated. As we did so we saw a number of riders for the following day’s Classica San Sebastian out stretching their legs on the bike and familiarising themselves with the run in to the finish.