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Race returns to area for first time since 1978
The Vuelta a España, which will start on Saturday in Benidorm, is facing protests from separatist Basque movements. For the first time in 33 years, the race is going to visit that region of Spain on stages 19 (Noja-Bilbao) and 20 (Bilbao-Vitoria).
Thursday, Basque militants from ESAIT did a press conference to blame the cities hosting the race. That local lobby has fought since 1995 for recognition of Basque sport and the creation of official Basque teams in international competitions.
They said the two Vuelta's stages are "the consequence of a political decision from the PSE [Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, left wing] and the PP [People's Party, right wing] to show a political normalization". They also claimed that the race is not welcome "because Euskal Herria [the Basque Country] is not a community of Spain, but is a nation".
ESAIT added, however, they "totally respected" the Vuelta's riders and denied that they had claimed a race "boycott".
For two months, some Basque organisations have presented a hostile position toward the race.
On June 24, separatist coalition Bidu castigated local involvement as "a waste of money". They pointed out that the organisers wouldn't give the authorities a return on their invested money by having the race entourage sleep in the area after stage 19, as a transfer was planned to the final stage in Madrid.
Bidu suggested that the cost of €109,700 to host one stage could be invested in local amateur sport.
On July 20, the same separatist coalition protested the Vuelta using two former cyclists as spokesmen. Unai Extebarria, a Venezuelian-born but Basque assimilated, a professional with Euskaltel-Euskadi from 1997 to 2007, supported the campaign against the race in which he won a stage in 2004. Bidu's other spokesperson was Josune Artolazabal, the 1992 Olympic Champion in the women's race.
Both former riders accused the local authorities of "making symbols confusing and denying [Basque Country] is a nation".
Around the same time, hostile posters appeared in Basque towns and cities, with no political organization's signature. The posters read: "Que se den la Vuelta" (which roughly translates into "They have to go home", using a play on words with "Vuelta" interpretable as "U-turn").
The poster is a photo montage including the logo of the race's organiser, Unipublic, the map of the 2011 Vuelta, and presumed symbols of "Spanish domination": policemen from the Guardia Civile, and Albert Contador exhibiting a Spanish flag and wearing Tour de France's yellow jersey.
A Facebook group has been launched with the same slogan. It counts 120 members.
It's hard to say whether the race will be seriously affected.
Officially ESAIT and Bidu don't want to disturb the Vuelta and preferred to launch a popular bike ride, on September 3, between Gasteiz and Bilbao.
The most dangerous threat has cooled since the ETA, the armed Basque nationalist and separatist organization, announced a "permanent, general and verifiable" ceasefire on January 10.
In any case, the context is very different from the last time when the Vuelta explored the Basque Country in 1978. That year, the first two Basque stages happened normally. Spaniard José Enrique Cima won in Bilbao and Bernard Hinault won in Amurrio.
The following day was a nightmare for the riders. In the morning, they stopped during a morning stage to San Sebastian because protesters had thrown logs to the road, and they had to go to the final velodrome by car. The illusion of sprint was captured by Basque Domingo Perurena.
In the afternoon stage that day, local supporters blocked Jean-Rene Bernaudeau's passage in the time trial, and the stage was cancelled. That was the final day of the race.
The year after, organisers sold their event to Unipublic and the Vuelta decided that for the next 33 years, it would neither start nor finish in the Basque Country.