Biarritz and the Basque Country

 
 

“Oddly, Biarritz isn’t a destination much thought of when it comes to cycling, being primarily associated with surfing, yet it has lots to offer. I should know, as I lived and trained there for seven years.”

 –David Millar

In a 2017 article in The Telegraph, David Millar, former professional cyclist, listed Biarritz and the surrounding Pays Basque as one of his top ten greatest cycling holidays. This charming corner of France, now nicknamed “little California”, has been attracting the well-heeled and hip alike for centuries. It was cool in the days of Napoleon, then Hemingway and grows more popular every day thereafter, especially with surfers and shoppers and sunset watchers. Yet, in 2019, the magnificent roads and stunning climbs of this little-known cycling paradise still seem to belong only to the thousands of sheep dotting the deep green landscape. The locals know how good they have it and they haven’t exactly been shouting it from the rooftops. Already inundated in the summer by throngs of surfboard-toting hipsters or the ageing elite from Paris or London, the high season in Biarritz can be dizzying…narrow streets and a compact city center choked with rental cars, post-card beaches packed to the gills. Beginning in early July, there’s not an available hotel room or bar stool until late September. It bothers local cyclists little. They simply pedal deeper and deeper into the Basque heartland, swapping palm trees for centuries-old oaks and softly-swaying pines. Border hopping between the foothills of the Pyrenees where the roads ribbon carelessly from France to Spain and back again, they return to the city to watch the sunset, side by side with the waves of tourists, aperitif in hand. Nestled comfortably between the mountains and the sea, Biarritz and the Basque Country is perhaps the best kept secret in all the world’s cycling.

Since the collapse of the pro team Euskaltel–Euskadi in 2013, the spotlight on Basque cycling has dimmed, leaving the region without a World Tour presence but also without much interest from the growing bicycle tourism industry. Places like Mallorca or Girona still bear the burden of restless roadies wanting to test their legs on Europe’s “big” mountains and perhaps brush elbows with one of the myriad local professionals. Though times are slowly changing and the trend seems to be inevitably swinging westward again. Basque fans along the roadside of Tours de France cheered far louder than any other voice, their beer-drinking and folk-singing legendary. Gone may be the days of the famous orange army but the siren-song of the region is being heard once more. In 2015 a new professional team was born, Euskadi Basque Country-Murias. In 2018, the Tour de France returned to Pays Basque with a time trial ending in Espelette, home of the famous pepper by the same name.

It was this stage that also brought Nicole and Scott Davison to the Basque Country. It took about 24 hours for them to decide this was as close to paradise as they’d ever find…and they have no intention of leaving.  In the winter of 2018 they opened Capra Velo, a small bicycle boutique. Capra Velo is not unique in the modern age of cycling cafes. Nor is it the only bike shop in town. (Neighboring Bayonne even has a super cool, progressive co-op called Txirrind’Ola where for a 20 euro membership fee, you can build your own vintage bike from literally millions of donated parts.) However, Capra Velo is the first shop of its kind in Biarritz and they certainly hope it won’t be the last. The bright, minimalist interior with potted plants, natural light, a tiny coffee bar and a smattering of Tour memorabilia seems to please the locals. Having owned a larger shop in the US, one specializing in both handmade bicycles and third-wave coffee, they were no strangers to the dual concept. They also realized the Internet couldn’t be beat for consumer-direct bike sales and inexpensive accessories, so they shunned slat-walls of stock and instead focus on repair and custom builds. They also offer a full size run of high-end rentals from unique brands such as Parlee and Moots, to encourage more brand conscious cyclists to visit and explore the local roads they have come to discover and love. Coffee is still an important part of their day and the shiny Rocket espresso machine is probably the hardest working member of the staff. We’ll happily pull you a quick espresso before you hop on a bike and head out the door. Pedal a few kilometers and you’re cycling right through the rip curl of green hills with the mighty Pyrenees dominating the not-too-distant horizon. Want to bring your own rig to Biarritz? They can have it unpacked and ready to ride before you can finish your cappuccino and tighten your cycling shoes.  

If you love smooth rolling pavement and want more than just a coffee ride, they’ll refer you to a friend, Xavier Lopez.  A former French National cyclist with Basque family roots, Xavier founded a cycling tour company in 2013 called Bike Basque. Growing up riding and training here, he knew how special a place it was for cyclists. Between quiet roads, rolling elevation and proximity to some serious climbing, all the ingredients exist for an exceptional cycling holiday. Along with gourmet Basque Country tours and Tour de France weeks, his company focuses on leading guests across the entire Pyrenean range. Originating in Biarritz, riders can tackle the famous RAID Pyrenees route, stretching all the way to the Mediterranean. Reasonably priced, his 8-day tours are fully-supported, complete with experienced guides, a support van, luggage and ground transportation transfers, high-quality hotels and memorable meals both on and off the bike. He also offers road bike rentals for guests not wanting to lug their own. The brand? Well, Orbea of course. 

More of the adventurous type? Then you’ll love Capra Velo’s backroad, gravel, bumpy, weird, off-the-beaten-path tours. The fully-supported B-road tour is sure to appeal to anyone searching for an alternative to perfect pavement or a chance to put their favorite new gravel bike through its paces. Yes, it will be hard but there will be plenty of liquid recovery to sooth tired legs and you’ll see views only captured if you’re up for the occasional single-track mountain pass. There’s a women’s only option for all of the tours as well as a unique vintage week, where brave and nostalgic cyclists can retrace classic Tour routes from Biarritz to Pau. If you don’t have your own vintage road bike, Capra Velo can build up an affordable option from the nearly endless supply of original frames at Txirrind’Ola.  

You certainly don’t have to book a week-long tour to discover the wonders of cycling in the Basque Country. One day on the bike and you’ll be hooked for life. Especially if the sun is shining and the ocean is its usual brilliant blue. The colors are almost too much to bear. Grassy fields are impossibly green, the faraway mountains a soft shade of purple. An occasional shadow will play across the road from the rotund clouds building up strength over the mountains, but the light-play between sun and shade only highlights the pastoral scene, expanding  the depth of the landscape like some fairy tale popup book. Book a room in a hotel of any preferred flavor: seaside Art Deco splendor or downtown modern boutique, self-catering apartment or beachfront studio. The prices, even at the height of summer, are lower than other bicycle hot-spots in France and Spain and the city offers plenty to do for non-riding members of the family. The coast prevails and hours can be spent sun-bathing on the numerous public beaches or watching surfers of all abilities hang-ten. Waves along the Basque Coast are world-class and there are several annual competitions that draw professionals from across the globe.

The season in this most south-westerly corner of France is a long one, as are the days. The sun rises early on summer mornings and doesn’t set until after ten pm, meaning a long stretch in the saddle (or on the sand). Begin with a coffee from a seaside cafe or swing by Capra Velo’s local roaster’s place, La Torref in neighboring Anglet where the shots are properly pulled and the menu reads as well as any third-wave haven. Cycling through the compact city is simple…keep the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other and you’ll find it nearly impossible to get lost. Cars on the crowded streets can’t move as fast as those on a bike, so the traffic is tolerable even for the squeamish. In a handful of kilometers, the roads get quiet and you’ll count more sheep than cars. There are a number of well-trodden routes to escape the elegant seaboard metropolis. Ranging from 30 to 50 km, they offer a good combination of big ring cruising and a handful of short, punchy rollers. On a typical weekend, you’ll pass scores of locals: numerous clubs, some local professionals and even a Tour de France cyclist or two. Head further afield, and you’ll find yourself buried firmly in Basque farmland. Keep pedaling and you’ll cruise right across the Spanish border into Navarre.  A 100 to 120 kilometer ride can easily include parts of the ’18 Tour de France TT and more than one categorized climb. A word of caution to those who think only the high Pyrenees hold the climbing treasures…the almost un-pronounceable names of the cols in these parts have caused many a professional cyclist grief. The mountains are as wild as the local feral ponies they shelter. Many Basque climbs are infamously steep, the roads leading to their wind-swept and rain-soaked summits as rough as they come, providing no rhythm or reason to the laboring legs of a flatlander.

On both sides of the border, the wider departmental roads turn into narrow chemins and for those hunting for gravel, you’ll find plenty. Double-track roads litter the forests and scar the hillsides, leftover remains from a time where smugglers avoided paying taxes on imported goods and the Resistance moved men and arms during long-ago but not long-forgotten wars. It’s good to remember a Basque saying: “3 + 4 = 1”. It means the border doesn’t really matter in these parts. Whether you ride in the three provinces of French Basquelandia or four provinces of Spain, it’s all just part of one Basque Nation. Whatever you may have heard about the history of this region, one thing is clear: there is a tangible love of the land and respect for the culture and bicycles play a large part of that. Every rider you pass will acknowledge you in some way with a wave or a nod or a smile. You may not be Basque but you are still a member of another kind of two-wheeled family, a brother or sister nevertheless. If you cycle here with a smile and an open mind, you’ll always find someone willing to lend a helping hand, with or without a grasp of the language. In Biarritz proper, nearly everyone in the hospitality industry speaks English, as do most your fellow tourists, though it never hurts to brush up on your French pleasantries.

Like much of France, lunch in the Pays Basque is serious business. If you’re cycling with abandon in the countryside, there’s one thing to remember:  stop between 12 and 2pm or you’re not likely to get a meal. You don’t have to go far to find a snack bar or small café. If you get a ride in before lunch, head back to the city. There’s an option in Biarritz for any palate. In Spain, lunch often starts after 1pm and lasts until 4pm. The Basque region is known for food. There are a rumored 40 Michelin starred restaurants between Bayonne and Bilbao and this sets a high bar for every other establishment in the area. The focus near the ocean is of course, on seafood. You’ll see chipirones, a local type of squid, best cooked on the grill with garlic and parsley. There’s the famous Bayonne ham, perfect on anything, typically served with a fried egg and a side of fries. Petite Basque and Ossau-Iraty are the most well-known local sheep’s milk cheeses and as such, lamb is found on almost every menu. Hearty country fare and traditional French cuisine is not all you’ll find. Biarritz is now known for attracting progressive culinary talent and now offers top choices in every conceivable category: vegetarian and local fish at Restaurant Le-C, authentic Mexican tacos at Los Tacos Chingones, creative ceviche at Saline, wood-fired pizza at Le Labo du Pizzaiolo, world-class burgers at trendy Bonheur or a market-to-table menu at L’Arty Chaud. (While you were out stretching your legs in the Basque foothills, they were gathering the day’s ingredients from Les Halles, a mouth-watering market in the center of town.)  There’s even a food truck pod down the road in the uber-hip surfing village of Bidart. All establishments are easily accessible by bike and plenty happy to have you in your sweaty kit.

Biarritz offers a simple solution for the world traveler. Its airport accepts daily flights on multiple airlines direct from London or Paris, and dozens of other European hubs. San Sebastian (with its famous pintxos) is another option and less than a half-hour by car or train. Major international airports can be accessed from Bordeaux and Bilbao, each a two hour journey. The Biarritz train station is small but hardworking and is accessible from nearly every corner of France, including a 4-hour TGV out of Paris. Perhaps that’s why so many Parisian cyclists are coming to the area to ride on the weekends, especially when there’s dry weather ahead.  All this verdant beauty though comes with a price. Rain is a part of life in the Basque Country and the forecast is never to be trusted. It rains consistently  in the winter, alternating between a gentle drizzle and a deluge. March and April is a roll of the dice. The summer yields warm, dry sunshine with a hint of salty sea-breeze. September and October can feel like a glorious extended summer and it isn’t unusual to wear short-sleeves on Christmas Day. The best advice? Disregard the weather report and pack a portable fender. Most months are warm enough that getting wet won’t be a burden if properly dressed. January is the coldest, wettest month when even the biggest fan of Biarritz is dreaming of a trip to Southern Spain. Though once you’ve ridden the roads of Pays Basque, no other will ever compare, not even a drier one.

Copyright Capra Cyclista 2019