The Vuelta a España returns to the Basque Country on Friday and Saturday for the first time since 1978, with race organisers hoping for a celebration by Basque cycling fans rather than protests and road blocks that affected two stages in the 1978 Vuelta.
The politics and the struggle for independence has changed in recent years, with the armed separatist group ETA declared a partial ceasefire last September. Cycling hopes to play its part in the peace process, bring the sport to the Basque Country and allow the cycling crazy Basque fans to enjoy the final days of racing.
Friday's stage finishes in Bilbao, with the final 100km of the stage in the Basque Country. Saturday's 185km stage starts in Bilbao and ends in the regional capital Vitoria after a twisting route through the Basque mountains.
"It’s very important for the Vuelta to visit the Basque Country again after an absence of 33 years," the Vuelta General Director Javier Guillén said.
"It's where Spanish cycling gets the best support in terms of quantity and quality. The Vuelta has to go where cycling is popular. There’s an obvious link between the Vuelta and the Basque Country. The Basque newspaper El Correo Español was the organiser of the Vuelta for many years and the race is always associated with history of the sport."
The political tension and protests during the Giro di Padania in Italy has brought back memories of how politics and sport often cause stages to be disrupted.
In 1978 protesters forced a road race stage to be cancelled by blocking the road, and the time trial in San Sebastian was also affected and no times were included in the official results. Bernhard Hinault won overall, ahead of José Pesarrodona and Jean-Rene Bernaudeau.
"While there could still be some people protesting for independence along the road side, I'm pretty sure nobody will try and stop the race," Basque journalist Benito Urraburu from the Diario Vasco newspaper told Cyclingnews.
"The Spanish football teams travel to match with Basque teams all the time and so I think it's only right the Vuelta visits the Basque Country too. I'm sure it won't be like the Giro di Padania, it'll be a celebration of cycling."
Former Rabobank rider Pedro Horrillo is from the Basque Country. He retired after his terrible crash in the Giro d'Italia and is now a regular expert columnist for the El Pais newspaper.
"For the Vuelta this signifies a return to its roots," he told the Reuters news agency.
"The Vuelta was organised by a paper from here, and there were always stages through here. So it's an obligatory return, and it's also a homage to the race itself. For the Basque Country it's a symptom of political normalisation because fortunately the problems with ETA are decreasing and political tension is at a low point."
Race organisers avoided making bold statements about the Vuelta returning to the Basque Country at the route presentation last December and there has been no talk about a bigger police presence. Everyone is hoping the two stages will be a celebration of cycling rather than of protest and politics.
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