Racing in Spain, a phrase you often hear is “el que gane pasa a los pro” – the winner passes to the professionals. The phrase is used to describe one or two of the most prestigious races on the amateur calendar: whoever wins will become a professional. It is often said about Trofeo Iberdrola and La Subida Gorla. To be honest, most cycling fans say it about their local race. Memorial Valenciaga is one of these races. In fact it is widely considered the most important race in the calendar. Speaking to one Basque rider, he described it as the race you have to be at your peak of form to ride. He said it was the only race you could be on your peak of form for and not even notice because everyone else has also built their season around it. As well as its reputation and being in the Copa España series, Valenciaga’s position in the cycling calendar makes it an obvious target for most riders to build up for. It comes just before a small race break around Easter which offers riders a chance to recover and begin preparing for the next block of races.
This year’s edition of Valenciaga has gone back to the usual route. In recent years the race has approached the finish town of Eibar from the North. This made the final climb of Ixua more decisive in the race but meant it was tackled from the longer more gradual side. The 2017 edition would include the 1st category climb of Ixua from the more traditional, shorter, steeper side climbing out of Eibar. Being the penultimate climb, Ixua would determine the final selection, but the result would likely to be decided on the 3rd category climb of San Miguel 20km from the finish. While the early climbs and route to the coast and back would test the field, it was clear the race would start proper after 100km on the climb of Elgeta. Speaking to riders who had raced several Valanciagas and looking at the race profile, I estimated we’d tackle Elgeta with around 180 riders in the bunch. This meant positioning would be key. I knew if I could make it over Elgeta the rest of the race would just be a matter of hanging on to the leaders for as long as I could and getting to the finish in the best group possible.
On Saturday night in the hotel we sat down for our team meeting. The team director explained he was impressed with how the team had raced in the previous round of the Copa España, our 3 best climbers had forced a selection of 15 riders over the final climb, proving that they are in great form. Unfortunately for us, the race had come back together before the finish. While we may have 3 of the strongest climbers in the Copa España, a group finish does not suit us. So taking this into account, our plan was to try and get over the climb of Elgeta with as many of the team as possible in the front group and then make the race hard between the climbs. We were confident that if we could prevent the race from regrouping, we had the riders to contest the win.
On Sunday morning conditions were biblical. The rain was coming down hard in Eibar and not looking like stopping. While we had said the real contest would start after 100km on the climb of Elgeta, just getting there would be a race in itself. The conditions made everyone nervous. As we completed the loop around Zumaia, there were several crashes. I don’t think anyone enjoyed the first two hours of the race. We went through the feed zone and approached Elegeta and most riders were relieved to finally be getting onto the climbs. As well as being able to grab a bag of food and drop off any kit, feed zones are important to receive instructions. Our team car can hear news of who is in the break away and how much of an advantage they have from the race radio and pass on any instructions to the soigneur in the feed zone. 10km from the climb of Elgeta I grabbed a bag of gels and bars and was told to work the front of the bunch. The breakaway had built up a big gap on the bunch and included some dangerous riders: we needed to bring them back. At the front of the bunch, I held a constant pace, while I wanted to help bring the break back I knew I needed to get over Elgeta with the leaders. I watched my heart race monitor to gauge my effort. I knew as we got within 5km of the climb the pace of the bunch would increase as riders would begin to move forward fight to stay at the front. I just had to hold the pace until we were in sight of the climb then I could sit up and allow other riders to take over on the front.
I suffered climbing Elgeta but I managed to get over the top in touch with the front selection. On the descent the team regrouped. We had all managed to make it over Elgeta. Having 7 riders in the front group put us in a great position. As planned, me and another rider from the team got began taking turns on the front to keep the pace high to prevent riders from catching up to the front group. Having 7 riders in a group of 60 is a lot better than having 7 riders in a group of 100: for us, keeping the race hard is a tactical no brainer. When we hit the 3rd category climb of Areitio 40km from the finish, my race was over. Having been working on the front, me and my team mate were swallowed up by the bunch as riders began to attack. On my way back through the bunch I took unwanted kit off of my teammates and offered them bars and gels I had left. I managed to hang on to the bunch till the penultimate climb of Ixua where I joined up with a group of other dropped riders and we began working to make it to the finish within the time limit. I rolled in 86th.
I caught up on the race with the rest of my team at the finish. Our 3 protected riders had gone over the final climb in a small bunch but unfortunately one teammate of mine had crashed on the descent. We ended up with 6th, 7th and 16th. The team were pleased overall: while the result could have been better, our performance was good. Everyone had done their job to execute the plan.
Valenciaga marks the end of the first phase of the season. Most riders have a weekend or two without racing before the rest of the Copa España races and the start of the Vueltas in May. I will find out which races I have been selected for in the coming week but I won’t race again until the 22nd of April at the earliest. This gives me a chance to get back on top of the training and plan ahead for the rest of the season.
Video of the race: