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Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean a man wakes me. He is graceful and handsome in a way that is quintessentially European. Besides that? He is wearing a neckerchief and making it work.
Scarf-man speaks to me in Parisian French, which sounds different than the Canadian French I have been listening to for a week. I don’t understand either one. I have been asleep for eight hours and I cannot remember the French words for “I am a stupid, English-speaking American.” In my sleeping-pill-and-white-wine hangover, the only thing I can think to say is, “Why are you all so beautiful?” I am talking about the flight attendants.
“Excuse me?” he says earnestly.
Fortunately, he’s missed my question but picked up on the fact that I am a stupid, English-speaking American.
“We’re preparing to land.”
I want to say, “I love you!” but resist.
Instead, I mumble “thank you” as I sit up slowly. Bed-head hair and sleepy eyes. I look like hell and I am flying into Paris from Montréal. Final destination? Spain. Fast bicycles await me. I want to kiss everyone.
Apparently, flying to Europe to ride top-secret bicycle machines makes me a little emotional.
The flight from Charles de Gaulle dumps me unceremoniously at the Bilbao Airport where no one even bothers to look at my passport. I stand by the conveyor and realize that I have too much luggage. There’s a woman in a Zipp hoodie and an Aircast and she also has too much luggage. Next to her is a tiny blonde with good skin and the manicured look of a Californian.
“I bet these are my people,” I think as I watch the tiny blonde maneuver a very large suitcase. Outside on the curb my suspicions are confirmed and we introduce ourselves as we wait for our hosts from Specialized to swing through and whisk us away. The Californian turns out to have a name: RaeLynne. The Zipp hoodie woman? Courtney.
Later in the car we’ll talk about bikes a little and then fall silent as the lush green hills of Spain’s Basque Country fold around us.
Overcast. Rainy. Low-hanging clouds. This place has the feel of mystery and quiet. The hills shoot out of the ground in a straight-forward fashion, sparing no consideration for grade or subtlety. They have the look of pain.
“I guess those are the hills from the elevation profile,” RaeLynne says, sighing a little. “Tomorrow’s ride should be a good one, huh?”
We laugh nervously and spend the rest of the car ride observing as the jagged edges of the landscape change shape around us. The van pulls in front of a hotel in Durango and we find rooms, roommates and showers. In the lower level of the building, covert black bicycles are labeled with our names and countries of origin, pro-style.
In the courtyard, we are introduced to the 2012 Specialized Amira, detail by detail. A photographer circles, snapping images. The engineer of the bike takes us through the tech specs. The director of women’s marketing leads us through the historical progression of research and development.
This trip is about a bike, but bikes are always about life, so we put away our notes and pile into vans in search of some of the women who make the bikes worth building: the HTCHighroad professional women’s team. They are here to ride the Emakumeen Euskal Bira, a four-day stage race. When you tell people about this race, most have never heard of it. When you tell them it’s been running since 1988, they react with the same kind of shock and disbelief that they do when you tell them that there are women who race bikes professionally.
The road to HTC-Highroad’s small hotel is one hundred kinds of curvy, heading skyward in a hurry. The grade averages just above 10 percent. HTC-Highroad must be staying in heaven tonight, I think to myself.
Then I ask, “Are we climbing this thing tomorrow?”
Mercifully, the answer is no.
Later at dinner I take a seat at the long, family-style table next to Ina-Yoko Teutenberg. Ten seats down from us, the younger riders on the team are politely declining red wine as journalists begin to pour from bottles. Their DS is sitting directly across from them. I hesitate for a moment and reach for the bottle of water while gesturing to Teutenberg, but instead she reaches brusquely for the wine: “Are you crazy? You better believe I am drinking wine tonight.”
Good to know I picked the good end of the table.
Over a simple dinner of chicken and salad we discuss the profile of the next day’s stage. When I inquire about the climbs she laughs: “Climbs. What climbs? Tomorrow is a sprinter’s stage. It is flat for this area. Even I can make it over tomorrow. The next day? The next day will be different—time for those little girls to go up the road. I will come in later with the laughing group.”
Teutenberg has a refreshing, no-bullshit demeanor and a quick wit. Midway through our third glass of wine, she makes me giggle until my stomach hurts. Something about finding her “inner castle” in a yoga class.
Discussion moves to our mutual distaste for climbing and she inquires about my gearing then scoffs amicably when I admit to a compact crank with an 11–28 cassette: “Ah! With 34×28 you make it up anything! I used this in the Giro last year.”
No more sympathy from Teutenberg.
The next day we ride the “flat” stage in the morning (it actually is quite manageable) and then go to watch the start and, later, the finish of their race. At the start in Durango, the peloton is a collection of bright colors, impressive musculature, diamond earrings and carefully matched bar tape. The local people lean on their balconies above us, laundry dancing in the breeze. Teutenberg appears relaxed. She’s laughing. She wants to win this stage.
She won’t. Hours later as the announcers turn down the throbbing Euro-pop dance music long enough to call the final meters, she loses the sprint to Marianne Vos. I can hear her swearing under her breath as fans offer her words of consolation just past the finish line.
I like a woman who does not suffer losing easily.
On Day 2, the weather calls for rain. I look outside and the sky is clear. I feel optimistic. I even leave my gloves in my hotel room. How could these Spanish skies rain on me when I had come so far just to ride this bike up these hills? It wouldn’t do that, would it?
Yeah, it would. And it does. Rain in heavy drops settling on my eyelashes. Rain in my shoes and through my light wind jacket (optimistic-denial strikes again). We hit the first long climb of the day and stretch out into a string of slow-moving misery. We are studies in saturation. The low clouds feel like insulation around me. I am riding through lush, green hills and sprawling geometric farmland, but I can’t see any of it. “Fine Basque weather,” I call out as I catch up to Kyle Chubbuck, the engineer responsible for the pedal-powered rocket ship underneath me. “Just like home!”
My hands are slick with rain. They look up at me and say: “Smooth move with the gloves, Swift.” They look a little pathetic down there on the tops. “You know when the road goes up like this it always comes down again. You know that, right? We’re not cold now, but we will be soon.” Shut up, hands. How long is this climb again?
Chubbuck eases up his pace a bit to ride with me.
“How’s the bike?”
“I like the bar tape.”
“Jesus Christ—that’s all you got? The bar tape?”
“I’m messing with you, Chubbuck.”
Engineers are adorable.
The road is tiny and sweet and narrow and never-ending. Around the bend a set of mountain dogs is trotting home. They are the size of small horses—so impressive we actually stop riding to get a closer look. Around the next, a whitehaired farmer in tall rubber boots and the traditional Basque beret. He is standing behind a wheelbarrow, hands on hips. He makes no actual motion but salutes us nonetheless with an approving gaze. This is a country where people ride bikes and believe that it’s the right way to live. Kilometer after kilometer, and when the occasional car rolls up behind us it sits patiently through curve after curve until it’s safe to pass.
At the top, we reach a crossroads dotted with a few buildings. One of them is a café with warm seats and hot coffee. An old man finishes a bottle of red wine in the corner. I order café solo and get generous with the sugar. We study maps and dry out but when it’s finally time to throw legs back over bikes, the rain is falling harder.
I look down at my hands and say: “You are not hands right now, you are brakes. Brakes do not have an opinion about the weather. Brakes do not get to experience a sensation of cold or wet. So shut up and get ready to slow me down when I tell you to.”
The descent goes on absolutely forever. Halfway down we’re shaking our hands hard, forcing blood into them. When the grade lets up just a little, we sit up and tuck them into our armpits. My lips are blue and my hands are red, but behind me some of the others are even worse off. We are sailing down out of the clouds. We are shooting down toward the ocean. Visibility returns with every plummeting meter and when we stop, we are looking out over the town of Gernika. This is the Spain I imagined: a tiny town dotted with colorful rooftops and old, stately buildings.
Support vans roll forward and a few riders abandon. Frozen solid, spirits sapped, soaked to the very soul. It’s a cold one for sure but you’ll have to drag me kicking and screaming to get me off this bike; this is just getting good and I can tell something better is coming.
I’m right. Next stop: Lekeitio. We find the restaurant where we plan to eat lunch and lose another chunk of the peloton to the warmth promised inside. Five of us set out to ride another loop, the part of today’s stage that promises to be the most scenic. We set out on the road heading north out of town. We’re chatting quietly when someone shouts, “Look!”
Magically, a harbor appears to our left. The whole of the town wrapped around a little arc of water. In the middle of the blue, an oval-shaped island with a grove of towering palm trees swaying in the middle. It’s lit by hazy, post-storm sunshine, the kind that falls in columns and makes you believe in God if you don’t already. It looks like a painting and we’re pedaling right through the middle of it.
We pull over. We high five. We take pictures. We still have to climb out of here and we still have a ways to go, but we celebrate like we just won the goddam Emakumeen Bira.
And just like that, the heart is renewed. Spirit full of sunshine and rainbows exploding out of our legs. We climb and attack and get dropped and attack again, rolling back into the restaurant more than an hour later with arms flailing along to storytelling. Salad, pasta, steak and wine are applied generously to hungry bellies before we race off to try to cut the pro women’s peloton off at the pass so we can cheer for HTCHighroad at the top of the last of four categorized climbs.
We miss them. They are scorching through the 115.6-kilometer stage at an average speed of 38 kph (23 mph). Even our drivers seem unable to believe they could possibly be riding over this mountainous terrain so fast. Such is the magic of the professional superhuman women that very few cyclists even know exist.
Later, Vos will win again and Teutenberg will finish with the laughing group, only 1:30 back. Her teammate, the legendary Judith Arndt (Olympian and former world champion in road and individual pursuit), comes third on the day—exactly where she will end up on the GC when all is said and done.
I do not get another chance to talk to the team to see how they feel about the outcome. Instead, I go into the city of Bilbao with our little group and drink red wine. I collaborate on dessert strategy with the engineer, who has finally figured out how to tell when I am messing with him. At the end of the night, standing in the middle of a wide sidewalk, the entire group says goodbye for good. They file into a van and I walk along the riverfront back to my hotel. They’ll fly out tomorrow.
In the morning, I’ll decide where to go next. I’ll stalk my breakfast prey of strong coffee and a potato-and-chorizo tortilla (which is not the flour wrap you’re thinking of, but an omelet-like potato pie). The trip has officially switched from bikes to food. There are eight days until my flight back to the U.S., and I plan to eat my way through every one of them.
Sunday in Spain. Let me tell you how it works. Everyone exhales. There is a collective glance toward the sky. The sun appears on cue. Families stream through parks and walkways. Most everything is closed, save for a few convenience stores and strategic restaurants. We need our pintxos, after all. Okay, perhaps I cannot speak for all of Spain, but this is what happened in Bilbao.
I walk through the shaded streets of downtown, ghost-like in their Sunday quiet. Parks and open spaces see all the action on these days. Tourists flock to the Guggenheim Museum, which is open on Sundays. Built by Frank Gehry and opened in 1997, it is the crown jewel of this city. Out front is a gigantic, 43-foot-tall dog created by Jeff Koons. Puppy (Pupi) the terrier is made entirely of flowers. The presence of the towering topiary canine is almost as whimsical, sweet and unexpected as the city itself.
The next morning, I pick up a rental car at 8:30 in the middle of rush hour traffic. The Tiptronic transmission in the Citroën feels a little funny and everything is out of place. I take a moment to get my bearings then ask the guy for a quick tour of the key elements. Squeezing through an opening that is just barely big enough, I poke the front end out into the smallest road in the entire world. He’s stopping traffic for me and as I’m leaving he grabs the window. He says, “Everything good?” in a way that means, “You’re going to fuck this car up, aren’t you?”
And I say, “Everything is perfect!” in a way that means, “You bet your ass you’ll never see this thing in one piece again.”
Then I lurch into traffic, make a right turn into a roundabout that is four lanes wide and play merry-go-round car until I figure out how to maneuver into the exit that I actually need. Driving in Spanish cities requires similar skills to cyclocross: guts, confidence, love of danger, steel nerves and a tranquilo disposition (everybody calm the fuck down!). By the time I stop white-knuckling the steering wheel, I’m halfway to my secret destination: a little surfing town between Bilbao and San Sebastian.
It takes me 3.4 seconds to fall in love with Zarautz. In fact, it may have taken less because I was probably distracted by some stunning surfer shaking his head back and forth beneath the beachside showers.
The town curves around a boardwalk littered with restaurants and cafés, so I pull up a chair and order a glass of txakoli, a slightly sparkling dry white wine made in the region. From my perch I can watch the waves changing as the surfers jog back and forth, unzipping their wetsuits to reveal good ink. Skaters roll by en route to the park at the north end of the boardwalk. Flat-billed hats, high-vis T-shirts and slouchy shoulders. Striped changing tents stand at attention, simultaneously circus-like and stoic.
The sun gets huffy and pink and I order beef tongue and oxtail pintxos (happy-hour-sized portions, like tapas). Later, a heart-stopping scoop of arroz con leche (rice pudding) gelato for the walk back through town. In the square, a large blue sign makes local politics clear: “You are in the Basque Country: this is neither Spain nor France.”
I sleep and dream of beautiful, benevolent cows that befriend and then turn on me. They would scream but they have no tongues. In the morning I decide to make the switch to seafood pintxos. The days are bright and clear and warm the way I imagined they would be before I came. I lie on the beach and people watch as a teenage couple spends 25 minutes “applying sunscreen,” the equivalent of sandy, sandy soft porn.
That evening I walk into crowded pintxo bars and elbow my way forward to shout an order. My order consists of fingerpointing combined with numbers (one of these, two of those) but brings me carpaccio de pulpo (poached octopus), bakalao a la bizcaina (filet of Basque cod) and txipirones a la pelayo (calamari with onion confit). I round it off with “Tinto!” which means “Let’s party!” or “Red wine, please,” depending on how you say it.
Pintxos–and probably Spain–are meant to be enjoyed with friends or loved ones, and all at once I have never felt so left out. Love is the way someone else admires how you put a bite between your lips and involuntarily close your eyes and moan. It’s hard to do by yourself.
I stay in Zarautz eating and moaning and watching beach porn for three days before I get a mysterious message from a “friend” on Twitter: “Meet me at the gas station next to the airport in Hondarribia. I’ll be in an unmarked white van with an unshaven face.”
That sounds totally safe, right? Right. So, I drive north to meet someone I’ve never met at a gas station near an airport in an unmarked van. The reason? Simple. He promised me bikes.
HONDARRIBIA AND HENDAYE
I’m writing this (and you’re reading it) so you already know that sketchy van guy checked out and I did not meet my untimely end. What happened instead was magical.
A long-ish, short drive up a tall road through green mountains. A stop for a view. A stop for wild horses. A stop to see an old couple look northward into France and fall silent, the woman momentarily unaware of just how unfuckingbelievable her bright red shoes are. The coastline sits there like a dare, begging you to find a better place to take it in. Wondering how you’ll find your way down to it.
France and Spain are two different countries but in this moment they are in the same vista—an image you want to mash onto a postcard and ship off to your friends: Wish you were here! Instead, I take a picture and throw my leg over a mountain bike. Doug and I climb, push, descend, bushwhack and laugh our way up and over the hillsides from the town of Lezo into the locals’ beach in San Sebastian. Doug is Scottish, residing in France, working in Spain, in love and living with a Basque girl. He runs Basque MTB, a company specializing in organizing mountain biking holidays in this region.
Later, I will dine with them in Hondarribia, a small town with twinkling lights, cobbled streets and a very big castle. Like Doug, I’ll fall in love with the fiery Basque girl—a stunner named Amaia. A few days later when I wake up in their little house in Hendaye, France, she will hand me the strongest coffee I’ve ever tasted before running out to pick up fresh croissants. She delivers perfect English in a lilting Scottish-Spanish accent and paints her stories with her hands as she goes.
We talk about Basque independence, Spanish oppression, political tension and the pioneering resurgence of traditional Basque culture by her generation. Her parents grew up during a time when speaking Euskara, the ancestral language, was forbidden in public (keeping it alive required secret homeschooling). Even Amaia’s name had to be legally changed to a Spanish spelling; traditional Basque names weren’t allowed. The sting of oppression still lingers and, as a result, regional pride is fierce. The Basque Country is now an official autonomous community (they have their own police body and manage their own public finances) and the Basque language is spoken everywhere and appears on official signage along with Spanish.
It’s a complex region, intensely rich and overtly passionate. When you’re here, you see that. When you meet Amaia, it lights you up.
On the day that Doug and I took mountain bikes over the lush hillsides between Lezo and San Sebastian (officially named with both the Basque “Donostia” and Spanish “San Sebastian”), we finished on Playa de Gros, killed two cans of Keler beer and sat with our legs dangling over the side of the seawall. Down below, a bikini-clad girl in her early twenties shifted positions every 90 seconds, much to the delight of the skaters lounging to our left and right. An old man in striped swim trunks invoked an age gone by and small groups of teens lounged in heaps of gangly bodies, playing with one another’s hair or sharing cigarettes.
Later we rolled through the bustling downtown on bikeways and bike lanes, found our stop for the train back to Lezo and then killed another 20 minutes drinking golden, sparkly beer in a tiny alleyway outside the bar we’d purchased them from. It was rush hour and the city was in a hurry. I made a mental note: not a good place to drive a car.
When I went back by myself, I found out I was right.
Driving in San Sebastian is such a nightmare that by the time you’ve made a loop (or 17) around town, you’re actually begging to shell out 35 euros a day to ditch your car somewhere in the bowels of the city. Which is exactly what I do.
Then I walk. And walk and walk and walk. Through the crush of Parte Vieja—the old town tourist district, past the harbor filled with boats full of rich people and up a small stone path shaded with jungle-worthy foliage. It leads me up and up through an old military fort: iron gates, cannons and lookout towers. I am climbing Monte Urgull and walking toward the stone statue standing on the top of the hill. It looks like a woman and I want to know who I am dealing with here.
When I finally reach the top and the boats had turned to tiny toys in the distance, I see that the stone woman is actually Jesus. Can I admit to being disappointed? From his perch he looks down scornfully toward the main beach in town, Playa de la Concha. I recall the groping teenagers in Zarautz and suck my breath. Jesus has his work cut out for him. Laterm as I descend at dusk, the lights at his feet roar to life, setting him alight. I walk faster.
Down in Parte Vieja, the bars are packed with locals and tourists alike. From the windows I observe the civilized crush of humanity as crowds lean into the bar, raising their arms to order. I walk back to the other side of town where I’d already checked into a small, quiet hotel outside of the tourist district. Around the corner, I slip into a relatively calm bar and find my way to the front. There is no menu (a good sign) and the pintxos in front of me are the simplest I’d seen: traditional combinations like sardines and crusty bread, marinated anchovies and pepper relish, blood sausage on tiny toasts and monkfish brochettes. I order a tinto and get to work.
Three days later, I know why San Sebastian is considered one of the pre-eminent culinary hot spots in the world (not only because it has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin stars). These are tapas raised to the 100th power—an art form, a craft, an obsession, a cult. After I get over my initial shyness in the crazy-crowded locations, the high-density of top-notch pintxos bars lining the narrow streets of Parte Vieja feels kind of like a foodie red light district. Every once in a while, a tinge of guilt sweeps through me as I sample myself to near sickness.
Sorbet made with anchovies and garnished with a wafer of deep-fried fish bone, fresh sea urchin (erizo de mar), spider crab flesh cooked and stuff into tarts, an espresso cup of “ham soup”? Even when I can’t quite figure out what I am eating, the delicacies steal my whole heart. And my stomach.
I spend my time mastering the art of txikiteo: roaming from bar to bar while offsetting my tinto or txakoli intake by eating bits of food along the way. I even stumble upon a txoko, a type of gastronomic society that dates back to 1843, in which men would gather in private clubs to cook elaborate dishes, sing and drink.
In an attempt to offset my extravagant calorie intake, I wake up at dawn to walk the beaches and jog in the trails leading up the surrounding hillsides. The city is eerily quiet until about 10 a.m., when all hell breaks loose. A storm rolls in and smears the sky above the beach with black. I’m sitting beachside enjoying an afternoon txakoli when my notebook blows away. As the servers run frantically back and forth collapsing and removing umbrellas, I know it is time to leave San Sebastian. Besides the downpour, there is also the pesky issue of my return ticket.
“Will they recognize me?” I wonder out loud as I pack my bags. I wager that I must certainly be humongous. Back at home my boyfriend lies politely but my road bike does me no such favors. This time, it’s my legs with the smart-ass commentary: “Nice one, Swift. You’ve taken us from dump truck to tractor here—all torque and no speed. How are we supposed to haul you up the west hills with all those extra pintxo pounds?”
“Shut up, legs!” How long is this damn climb again?