Wednesday, July 25, 2012

(Mis)adventures in the Basque Lands: Bilbao

Traveling is always fraught with unexpected challenges and bizarre experiences, never mind when you are a female traveling alone, with a bike bag that practically weighs more than you, and to a country where you do not speak the language.

And so my (mis)adventure to the Basque Lands began....with a few loops thrown my way and some unforgettable moments.

Rather than go on a tirade about how airlines treat bikes (anyone who travels to races has been through this) and how blase they are about missing luggage, notwithstanding how personally meaningful the contents of said luggage are, I will take a pass.  Daisy arrived after a little side trip, messy but unharmed, and 48 hours after my arrival in Bilbao, the universe was as it should be.

The first four days of my trip to northeast Spain were spent in Bilbao, a gorgeous little city with stunning architecture, great public spaces and amazing food.  I was suitably impressed with the location of my hotel directly across the street from Frank Gehry's titanium masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum.  The Spanish do urban design like its no ones business.  The streets, walkways, buildings, public spaces....amazingly planned, and stunning.
A giant puppy made out of flowers?  Awesome! 
The indescribable Guggenheim and walking paths along the river
Even the pool that I swam at, located in a wine warehouse from 1909 that had been coverted into an arts and leisure complex, was designed by Philippe Starck.  Seriously....a designer 16-lane glass bottomed pool with a sun terrace overlooking the city?  I can love that kind of swimming!

The architectural pool at Alhondiga. 
Notwithstanding that the Basques have produced their fair share of professional cyclists and triathletes, and that it is the homeland of the Orbea brand, Bilbao is not exactly a friendly place to ride.  I made an enquiry at the front desk and she happily gave me a 6k "bike route" around the river.  When I said "road bike", she looked at me in horror.  I am used to this, but in this case, she was right!

Knowing that Sunday morning traffic would the the lightest, I set out for an adventure.  Indeed, the first 5k out of town were more than a little interesting and not bike friendly at all.  Bilbao's unique geography (crushed between some seriously steep hills) and bizarre road system meant I immediately got lost and found myself riding up a 8% grade in a tunnel on the freeway.  Oops!  Luckily, there was very little traffic, and I was able to negotiate my way back down to the local road leading out to the coastal suburb of Getxo.

I was very relieved to see a number of cyclists as soon as I got out of Bilbao.  Not surprisingly, Orbea was the most popular brand with about 50% of the riders on the brand.  Good to fit in...although less so with the tri bike.

I spent an awesome, sunshine drenched morning doing a "tourist ride" along the coast, checking out a few of the beaches and taking in the breathtaking Basque countryside.

Pretty beach at Plentzia!
My ride was also not without a number of funny incidents and interesting observations about riding in Spain....
  • A riding first: getting stopped at an alcohol check-stop by the local police!  While I assumed I could ride through...they actually pulled me over and asked for my licence.  I think they were messing with me!  :)
  • Although the roads are distressingly narrow and cobbled in places, the traffic was extremely respectful of road riders in general.  The Europeans have traffic flow totally figured out - traffic circles just make so much sense and are much more civilized than lights.  And where there were traffic lights....let's just say I was the ONLY one stopping.
  • If you make a wrong turn in Basque country, you are best off to drop into the small ring immediately.  It is a seriously, seriously hilly place.
  • While riding the local brand seemed to earn some respect with the roadies, who let me follow them, they most certainly did NOT appreciate being passed by a woman on the hills.  Learn how to climb like a Canadian, eh?   

There is absolutely nothing like a sunny ride to wipe away jet lag and stress.  But then again, anyone who rides knows that already!  After an amazing post-ride lunch and some rest in the sunshine, I was rejuvenated and ready to take on my next (mis)adventure in the Basque Lands - traveling to Vitoria-Gasteiz for pre-race prep and taper!

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