2021, Road Cycling, Ben Houlihan, Junior Tour of the Basque Country

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Last week I flew to Bilbao to compete in the Junior Tour of the Basque Country. A five stage road race through the hilly region of the Basque Country (Spain). The team I was riding for (Team Gaursa) was based in Durango, just East of Bilbao. Arriving two days before the race started to adjust to the climate; buzzing for the first stage to start.

Stage 1
As we rolled out of Balmaseda, you could feel the bunch was nervous. With people riding on pavements jostling for position. Within 3km of the race starting I had been brought down in a crash. After jumping back on my bike I then found my rear derailleur had been ripped off. Thankfully the team car had a spare bike for me to borrow. With the first climb starting within the next few kilometres, it was essential to get back into the peloton quickly. Using the race convoy I managed to draft back into the race, just before the climb!. It was an interesting start to my race to say the least.

After a narrow descent, on continental brakes (switched over) I found my bike was locked into the hardest gear. At this point I knew there were many hills to follow with some exceeding 15%. So I focused on trying to minimise my losses. 40 kilometres of racing later and my gears started to work, this sometimes happen with electric gears. However by this point the race had split into groups. Finding myself in the 2nd group there was very little I could do, and eventually rolled in to the finish over 2 minutes down on General classification (GC).

Stage 2
Disappointed would be an understatement but I knew that with 4 stages left, I wasn’t out of the race. Stage 2 was arguably the hardest day of the race with 3 long hills. Setting a high tempo on the climbs, I wanted to remove any weaker riders who were potentially in front of me in the GC. No breakaway formed in this stage as the pace was so high. Resulting in a bunch sprint with around 15-20 riders. Considering 190 riders had started the race and only 20 in the final sprint, it had clearly been a tough stage.

Stage 3
Stage 3 was a shorter stage about 70 kilometres, however it would be followed by a time trial in the evening. With my team mate Adam 4th in GC, the priority was to focus on holding/increasing his position. Whilst still giving me the opportunity to go for the stage. The first short laps were around a town, featuring lots of road furniture (a big hazard in races). Holding front positioning was crucial as it reduced your chances of being caught in a crash, whilst also saving energy. A break away of around 5 riders got away. Which myself and another rider later bridged to. However, one of the riders in the break away was a threat to Adam’s GC position. So I was told by the director sportif to sit on the back and play for the stage. The finish line was at the top of short climb, which had a narrow run in. Positioning was crucial for in order to win the stage. I was 4th into the last corner and which set my place for the stage. In addition to this I had gained another 1.5 minutes in the GC taking my position up to 11th.

Stage 4
Going into the final stage I was situated in 11th on GC, with my team mate Adam 8th on GC. The pace was fast from the start, with a few crashes in the first half of the race. Thankfully good positioning meant I stayed clear of any issues. Throughout the race the size of the peloton was slowly decreasing. To which in the final 20 kilometres there was a peloton size of around 30 riders. Finishing with 2 ascents of a 4 kilometres climb, we knew the final selection would be hard. I got into the front group of around 15 riders on the first ascent. With the rest of the riders being dropped. However it was the 2nd ascent up the climb which would be decisive. Leading into the base of the climb I dropped positions and a group of 4 riders attacked off the front. They would lead to gain a 40second advantage to the finish (5km) of our group of 11 riders. After a sprint from our group I would go on to finish the race in 11th place.

After a mix of emotions throughout the race it was great to have finished. Not the result I wanted however I minimised my losses and leaned a lot of lessons. I look forward to potentially racing in the Basque Country again soon. A massive thank you to team Gaursa as none of this would have been possible without them. In addition a huge thank you to the Jack Bloor fund for helping support my trip to such an important race.