Cycling’s Tour de France, with its vast caravan of teams, media, publicity and security, was visible everywhere around the Spanish city of Bilbao Thursday, with riders poised to embark on the epic 21-day race to Paris.
The 22 teams comprising a total of 176 riders will parade around a short downtown circuit starting in front of the Atlantic port’s landmark Guggenheim museum later Thursday.
A year after a hugely successful three-day Grand depart in Copenhagen and Denmark, the Tour de France will spend three days in the Spanish Basque Country.
The region’s rolling green hills should provide for a thrilling start with stage 1 a constantly undulating run of 182km from Bilbao and back.
“This kind of start here in the Basque Country means the guys trying to win the race can’t relax at all,” said France’s Julian Alaphilippe, one of the attack-minded riders expected to go for the stage 1 win Saturday.
“They’ll have to be ready right from the first day.”
Bilbao is decked out with Tour de France images on the sides of buses and in the metro stations, but that is nothing to what is expected along the roadsides of the route in one of road cycling’s heartlands.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme described the region as “the yellow jersey of spectators”.
Local rider Mikel Landa of the Bahrain Victorious team, who grew up speaking the Basque language, beamed with pride when asked how he felt ahead of the race.
“There are seven of us (riders) from the region, the excitement and passion for cycling of the Basque people is huge,” said Landa, who finished fourth on the 2021 Tour and is expected to challenge again this year.
His teammate Pello Bilbao, from the Basque town of Guernica, said he, Landa and the six other Bahrain Victorious riders would be doing their best to honour Gino Maeder, who died aged 26 following a fall in the Tour of Switzerland earlier this month.
“Every day we’ll be riding in memory of Gino,” he said of his Swiss former teammate.
The Tour also takes in the neighbouring coastal town of San Sebastian, which hosted the Grand Depart of the 1992 Tour.
Sunday’s stage embarks from the town of Vitoria passing through the region’s salt valley and nearby Rioja wine vineyards, while stage three starts at Amorebieta-Etxano and takes the peloton away from the Spanish Basque Country across the border with France to Bayonne on a largely flat 185km run.
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