Wednesday 22 May 2013

Emakumeen Euskal Bira 2013

06-09.06.2013 Official Site
Euskadi/Spain, Four stages, 296.9km
UCI 2.1

Once upon a time there were three Grand Tours in women's cycling, just as there are three in men's cycling. They were the Grand Boucle (also known as the Tour de France Féminin, Grand Boucle also being a nickname for the men's Tour de France), the Tour de l'Aude Cycliste Féminin and the Giro d'Italia Femminile (better known as the Giro Donne and now renamed the Giro Rosa).

The Tour de France Féminin was last held in 2009, by which time a lack of sponsorship had left it a pale shadow of its former self - trimmed down to just four stages (in 1985, when Maria Canins won, there had been 17 and a prologue), only 66 riders started and winner Emma Pooley joked ruefully that it had become the Petite Boucle. The Tour de l'Aude Cycliste Féminin, which had grown from four stages to ten and developed into perhaps the most beautiful women's race of them all, went the same way for the same reason a year later. Then only the Giro Rosa was left (and it came close to disappearing in 2012, too; fortunately, new organisers and sponsors came onboard and the race has been saved).

Fans, riders and team officials are united in wanting more women's Grand Tours; either new versions of those that have vanished, completely new events or bigger, better versions of races that already take place. The third option is the most practical for three main reasons: an experienced organising committee is already in place, the race has an established name that fans already know and those same fans already look forward to the race. How would such a new Grand Tour be developed? Simple, really: as ever, it's down to money - money from the UCI (and all indicators suggest they could afford it), then even more money from sponsors once the sport gets that financial kickstart and begins to look more attractive to the bean-counting suits who get to decide whether a company is going to sponsor something or not (sadly, very few companies genuinely care about women's sports; one example is Boels - everything between this set of parantheses exists merely to give mention to them, simply because they deserve it for being as willing as they are to put money into women's cycling when so many other firms are not).

That leaves one question: which races would be a good choice for development? Why not copy men's cycling's example and have one in Italy (as is the case), one in France (La Route de France, which has massive unrealised potential) and one in Spain? The Emakumeen Bira would be a fantastic choice for the Spanish Grand Tour: imagine that it was given the funds to expand to ten stages with four in the autonomous Basque Country of Northern Spain, two in the stunningly gorgeous Haute Pyrenees, then four in the French Pyrénées-Atlantiques Basque region Iparralde - what a superb showcase not just for women's cycle but for professional cycling in general that would be.

One day, perhaps. In the meantime, the Bira is already a superb race with a unique character all of its own; so enough of that for now and let's have a look at the 2013 race. (Oh, and by the way - the organisers are superb, too. When I emailed them to ask for details of the race, they sent back large scale profiles and route guides from the race manual. Thanks, Roberto!)

Past Winners 
1988 Imma De Carlos, 1989 Maria Mora, 1990 Josune Gorostidi, 1991 Joane Somarriba, 1992 Lenka Ilavská, 1993 Elena Barillová, 1994 Elena Barillová, 1995 Jeannie Longo, 1996 Teodora Ruano, 1997 Hanka Kupfernagel, 1998 Hanka Kupfernagel, 1999 Hanka Kupfernagel, 2000 Leontien van Moorsel, 2001 Joane Somarriba, 2002 Edita Pučinskaitė, 2003 Mirjam Melchers, 2004 Joane Somarriba, 2005 Svetlana Bubnenkova, 2006 Fabiana Luperini, 2007 Susanne Ljungskog, 2008 Marianne Vos, 2009 Judith Arndt, 2010 Claudia Häusler, 2011 Marianne Vos, 2012 Judith Arndt.

The Parcours
Like mountains, do you? I'm guessing almost certainly so because all cycling fans like mountains, and for that reason you'll be pleased to know that this race has mountains. Proper ones in the Pyrenees, with the first categorised climb - a Cat 3 (and the Bira organisers don't tend to use quite so much poetic licence when categorising the climbs as organisers at some other races do) - comes in the first 60km of the first stage. Don't go thinking that an ace grimpeur such as Pooley, Vos or Moolman is a sure-fire winner though (on the other hand, any one of those three could very well win), because this parcours has been cleverly designed to include plenty of opportunities for other kinds of riders to push their names a few places up the General Classification listings each day.

Stage 1 (Iurreta-Iuretta, 06.06, 91.3km)
Click to enlarge
Many roads and locations in the Bira will be familiar from its sister race the Emakumeen Saria, which takes place two days earlier. Among them is Iurreta, where Stage 1 begins by the car park at 14 Maspe Kalea with 200 flat, straight metres to a tight right turn leading onto the N-634 heading east. The route climbs slightly to the next junction, where the riders turn right to head south over a level crossing to pass Matiena before continuing past a large industrial estate (where, as is always the case on any road regularly used by heavy trucks, there's a possibility of hazardous diesel spills on the road surface) and on to Abadino, where the terrains begins to climb more steeply - nevertheless, expect early attempts to break away from the peloton as those riders who aren't here to do battle on the mountains to come try to get into a position to bag the best points at the first intermediate sprint, 10.5km from the start on the San Fausto Kalea leading into Elorrio.

The race turns north and keeps climbing, reaching a point 250m above sea level some 13.8km from the start in the woods between Elorrio and Miota. At Olakueta, the road passes under the AP-8 motorway before leading into the village, then the riders immediately follow a bend to the left and travel back under the motorway to rejoin the N-634 which will take them downhill via Eitua and Matiena and back into Iurreta at 22.5km. It's downhill for the next 5.8km to Euba, then an easy climb gains 50m over 6.5km en route to Gumuzio where the race leaves the N-634 behind and heads north to Larrabetzu. Another climb, without GPM points, begins here and gains approximately 100m in 3.7km to Astoreka 44.9km from the start; the ascent isn't tough enough to give the climbers any serious advantage but the descent, which drops 150m in 4.9km to Fika and is considerably steeper than the average gradient of -3% in places, may put them at a disadvantage - something any heavier riders, who are able to maintain better control on a descent than the featherweight grimpeurs, will have noted.

Euskadi has many industrialised areas, some of which are
visited on this stage, which has enabled it to remain more
prosperous than Spain during the current recession.
However, modern and ancient sit comfortably side-by-side
and there is much to interest tourists, such as the medieval
buildings in Elorrio.
However, at the end of the less steep descent over the next 3.5km to Elgezabal, the tables are turned when the race arrives at the first categorised climb - a Cat. 3 ascent of 160m in 3.3km, average gradient 4.8km and steeper in places. This climb, being approximately two-thirds into the parcours with more climbs to go, might turn out to be decisive: if a good all-rounder (which could happen; the grimpeurs could decide to save energy for the bigger climbs in later stages, and this isn't a hugely taxing climb) or a climber who didn't lag behind on the descents earlier on (and doesn't do so on the one just ahead either) gets to the top at Arritugane, 57.7km from the start, first they may do so with a sufficient lead on the pack to stay away for the remainder of the stage. If not, the descent - 150m in 3.5km at -4.3% - is opportunity for the pack to reduce a leader's advantage.

There's a flat section of around 3.7km between Derio and Zamudio which will see some jostling for position because as the parcours starts to climb again at Lezama, 68.9km from the start, the riders arrive at the second intermediate sprint. The route passes through Larrabetzu again at 72km, then Gumuzio at 79.5km where it rejoins the N-634. The next 6.5km to Euba descend gently, then the final 5.3km climbs around 50m to carry the peloton back to Iurreta and the finish line at the same location as the start on Maspe Kalea.

Stage 2 (Aretxabaleta-Aretxabaleta, 07.06, 103.5km)

Yesterday, the riders faced climbs right from the start; today is entirely different with hardly any climbing at all in the first 39km. There's no reason to think this is a sprinters' stage, though: that long, flat section terminates with a Cat. 3 ascent and then, in the final 20km, there's a harsh Cat. 1 gaining 350m in 6km at an average gradient of 5.8% with several steeper bits on the way to the summit. If a climber can leave the pack behind on the way there, she'll only have to stay away 15.5km to win the stage - but the descent over the next 9.5km is steep too, and many climbers don't like descents. Add a far more gentle descent over the final 6km back into Aretxabala into the equation and the eventual outcome is far from certain.

Aretxabaleta is around 11km south (as the crow flies) from Elorrio, the southernmost point of Stage 1, and the race begins there at 32 Durana Kalea. The riders first take a complex route south-west via Errota Barri to Eskoriatza and then back to Aretxabaleta, north to Arrasate, back to Aretxabaleta (with the first intermediate sprint at 18.5km, hence probable breaks in the first section) and Erroto Barri again and north once more to return to Arrasate after 25km before heading north-east, then south-east to Onati.

View of Kurtzebarri from Aretxabalete across Apotzaga
Just east of Onati is the Cat. 3 climb, complete with four hairpin bends in the forest on the way up - if you're lucky enough to be able to visit the race, the second hairpin is a very good place to watch it go by due to a spectacular view of the mountains (the third bend is a better choice if you want to paint riders' names on the road, though). Following a descent likely to be too short for the pack to catch up with leading climbers, the race reaches Legazpi 50km from the start and begin a less taxing climb of 100m in 5km; the descent that comes after it loses 300m in a little under 7km on the way to Bergara and could see the climbers lose time, giving the others time to catch up on the far gentler incline over the next 20km via San Prudentzio, Arrasate (with the second intermediate sprint at 73km), Aretxabalete and Eskoriatza. After 81.5km, the parcours turns right at Aingeru Guarda and heads to Marulanda, beginning the Cat. 1 climb at 85km; the summit and GPM points are 3km ahead.

Although the climb is sufficiently challenging to make it entirely possible for a climber to get away and build up a lead, the descent has the potential to change everything - in parts, it's much steeper than the average gradient of -4.5%. After arriving back at Eskoriatza, there are 6km of far less steep descending via Aretxabaleta and Mugarri, then back to Aretxabaleta to reach the finish line located at the same point as the start on Durana Kalea.

Stage 3 (Orduna-Orduna, 08.06, 13.4km Time Trial)
Time trials are usually fairly flat - but there isn't much flat space in Euskadi and this is the Emakumeen Bira, so this time trial has around 300m of climbing along its 13.4km.

The stage gets underway at Orduna's grand Foru Enparantza, a civic square that looks as though it belongs to Bilbao, Paris, Rome or one of Europe's other great cities rather than to what is, despite its official city status, a town of only a little over 4,000 people; and it leaves by heading west out of the city along narrow streets and then turning north to join the Tras Santiago Bidea for a straight 0.7km section to the next turn - a good place for those riders who know they'll be slower than the climbers on the two hills later in the stage to get their heads down and bank a few seconds. The Arbieto Auzoa leads off to the right, continuing for 0.45km to a sweeping right-hand bend; as it passes the car park for the football ground on the left (football being another Basque passion), it begins to climb. Just around the bend the road becomes the Vista Alegre Auzoa and the riders stay on it for 0.5km, traveling south to a sharp left turn leading into a gently curving 0.3km section that begins to climb from 0.15km, bcoming steeper in the final third prior to a very tight right onto the Ibazura Auzoa. The following 0.7km section is straight but climbs steeply in the first half, giving the climbers a chance to gain time on their rivals; it descends gradually in the second half but riders will need to brake towards the end in order to take the extremely tight right turn leading into the next section, a steep 0.3km descent ending with a 90-degree left turn at a crossroads. They climb gradually for the next 0.3km to arrive at a junction between three roads where they turn left again, heading uphill along the Aloria Entitatea for half a kilometre to another crossroads where they turn right and continue south for 0.86km, crossing another crossroads on the way to a left onto the BI-4907. Climbing for the next 0.7km brings them to a tight right turn just north of the little village Artomana, followed by a 0.5km descent to a left at a crossroads and a straight 1.68km section along the Artomana Entitatea - it descends in the first half, then climbs slightly in the second and the view at the end, where Delika nestles among the mountains all around, is remarkable.

Delika Canyon
A surprisingly high percentage of cycling fans say they don't like time trials. Some of them say this is because a stage races can be all too easily won with a good trial time, which is a fair accusation - nobody wants to see a rider who hasn't performed well in other stages snatch victory from a rider who has on the back of one short stage (well, unless it's Fabian Cancellara, since we all love him) but the majority aren't able to give a reason, disliking them for some other reason that they perhaps don't know for themselves. I'm willing to hazard a guess that, for a good few of those in the latter category, it's because time trials aren't usually routed along roads chosen to show off an area's natural and architectural beauty, as other stages tend to be - and we all love professional cycling as much for the places as much as for the sport, hence the "chateau porn" at the Tour de France. This isn't going to be a problem in the Bira because this time trial goes past one of Europe's most incredible and surprisingly not very well-known landscapes - the vast Delika Canyon, carved out of the rock over millions of years by the Nervion River that plunges 300m into it, creating one of the world's most spectacular waterfalls. Just a pity the race won't be televised so we could see it, isn't it?

Turning left leads them along the BI-4906 into Delika and they follow the road as it curves through the town, then negotiate a left-left-right series of corners to lead onto a bridge crossing a railway on the way out of town. The road climbs for 0.2km en route to a right turn, beginning the 2.48km section to Tertango; the first kilometre is mostly downhill, but there's a short and steep climb through the woods over the next 0.25km before more downhill in the final kilometre. At a T-junction just east of Tertanga the riders turn right (they'll be glad they don't go left - there's a series of seven hairpin bends carrying the road 200m upwards 2km further south) and begin heading back to Orduna. The first part is o.63km in length and downhill, passing under a railway bridge on its way to a left turn at a roundabout that leads into a 0.3km flat section along a new road, ending at another roundabout and a right turn onto the Gama Erripdea - the first 0.26km is wide, but it becomes far narrower over the final 0.6km leading past the bull ring (the Basques, fine people that they are, unfortunately share the Spaniards' love of torturing cattle to death) and into the city. Just beyond the left turn at the bull ring is a 0.34km section along the straight and wide Barrio San Francisco; it ends at a junction of roads followed by a final 0.16km along very narrow streets leading back to the Foru Enparantza.

Stage 4 (Fruiz-Gatika, 09.06, 88.7km)
There are 24km at the start of this stage - with both intermediate sprints falling within it, at 10 and 23.2km - before the rest of the race is handed over to the climbers to decide the outcome of the stage and, unless anybody managed to build up an unbeatable lead earlier on, the final overall General Classification: there are five big climbs in the last 63km, including one Cat. 3 and two Cat. 2s, as well as an uphill approach to the finish, making it a stage that needs to be ridden intelligently - if a rider uses up too much energy on the first couple of climbs (an easy thing to do after the last three stages), she could very easily burn out on the Cat. 2s and fall several places down the GC list.

The first 5km is downhill, then the terrain rises gently over the next five to the beginning of the first intermediate sprint at the Cafe Lekuona in Maruri-Jatabe; a situation likely to encourage early breakaways with domestiques battling one another for valuable points while the climbers and GC contenders preserve themselves for later. The following 6.8km is flat, then another gentle leads 3.8km to take the riders for the first time to Gatika, where another downhill section of 2.6km will probably see more attempts to break away as the race approaches the second intermediate sprint 23.2km from the start at Mungia - and, so far as those riders who can't keep up with the real mountain goats are concerned, that's the end of the race: from this point onwards, it's mountains all the way. The first, an uncategorised ascent of approximately 110m over 5km, leads to Meñaka, more a collection of hillside micro-hamlets than a village. The descent isn't particularly challenging but provides an opportunity for climbers who don't fear descending to gain a lead over those that do on the way to the next climb, a Cat. 3 175m in 5.4km ascent with an average gradient of 3.2% but much steeper in parts. The descent, lasting for 14.1km, takes the race into Gernika, the Basque spelling of Guernica - the town that was bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1937, an event that inspired Picasso's most famous (and, by far, most disturbing) painting.

The next climb, beginning at Gernika, is one of the most difficult in the race and, in the right circumstances, may even prove to the pivotal point that decides the winner. Rising 275m in 5km at an average gradient of 5.5%, a rider able to make a solo break to the top might be able to build up enough of a lead to stay away on the next climbs and get to the finish line alone. There's a descent over the next 4.2km to Atxika, followed by another climb which, at 75m in 4.9km, doesn't look much on paper but the fact that it's rated at Cat.2 suggests some sections much steeper than the 1.5% average gradient and some very difficult road surfaces; the name of the village at the top of the climb, Arrieta, comes from the Basque word harrieta, meaning scree - extremely slippery and abrasive stuff when it collects on bends and corners. With that in mind the descent, 175m in 2.7km (average gradient -6.4%), begins to look rather like it might be the most dangerous section anywhere along the parcours since the race started in Iurreta and the riders will need to tackle it with very great care.

Butroeko Gaztelua
There is still one considerable, if uncategorised, climb to go. Beginning at the foot of the Arrieta descent at Ibarra some 71.1km from the start, it gains 100m in 5.2km; an average gradient less than 2% but sufficiently steep to potentially affect the leadership order so near to the end of a mountainous stage. It leads back to Meñaka, where a 7.4km route differing to the one taken earlier continues back to Maruri and to the last uphill 5km section to the finish line at Gatika, a town famous for Butroeko Gaztelua, Butron Castle - which looks so much like a medieval castle is romantically supposed to look (a grand palace for a benevolent lord and place of refuge for his subjects), as opposed to how they actually look (grim expressions of military power also intended to suppress any revolutionary ideas among the peasants) that it seems too good to be true. And in fact it is - although it really is a medieval castle, it was extensively and radically remodeled by a romantically-minded 19th Century architect and marquis Francisco de Cubas, who made it look like a Bavarian mountain castle (that it manages to do so despite being surrounded by distinctly non-Bavarian palm trees is evidence that the Marquis knew what he was doing).

Subject to change.

1 Emma Johansson
2 Tiffany Cromwell
3 Shara Gillow
4 Loes Gunnewijk
5 Annette Edmondson
6 Amanda Spratt

11 Ashleigh Moolman
12 Carlee Taylor
13 Marijn de Vries
14 Ann-Sophie Duyck
15 Kaat Hannes
16 Sharon Laws

Hitec Products-UCK
21 Elisa Longo Borghini
22 Emilia Fahlin
23 Mirian Bjornsrud
24 Rachel Neylan
25 Rossella Ratto
26 Cecilie Gotaas Johnsen

Faren-Let's Go Finland
31 Marta Bastianelli
32 Elena Cecchini
33 Christel Ferrier-Bruneau
34 Fabiana Luperini
35 Sara Mustonen
36 Patricia Schwager

Michela Fanini-ROX
41 Edwige Pitel
42 Liisi Rist
43 Katia Barazna
44 Mireia Epelde
45 Lara Viecel
46 Jutattip Maneephan

51 Emma Crum
52 Belen Lopez
53 Yulia Ilinykh
54 Eider Merino
55 Elena Utrobina
56 Alexia Muffar

61 Madelene Olsson
62 Jessica Kihlborn
63 Isabelle Soderberg
64 Hanna Nilsson
65 Martina Thomasson
66 Linnea Sjoblom

Cyclelive Plus-Zannata
71 Carla Ryan
72 Annelies van Doorslaer
73 Latoya Brulee
74 Annelies Dom
75 Monique van der Ree
76 Liz Hatch

Fassa Bortolo
81 Elena Berlato
82 Silvia Cecchini
83 Jennifer Fiori
84 Francesca Cauz
85 Chiara Pierobon
86 Francesca Stefani

91 Anna Sanchis
92 Joane Hogan
93 Ane Santestaban
94 Dorleta Eskamendi
95 Mayalen Noriega
96 Lourdes Oyarbide

101 Evelyn Stevens
102 Ellen van Dijk
103 Trixi Worrack
104 Ina-Yoko Teutenberg
105 Lisa Brennauer
106 Katie Colclough

111 Sarah-Lena Hofmann
112 Laura van der Kamp
113 Anouska Koster
114 Mieke Kroeger
115 Mascha Pijnenborg
116 Stephanie Pohl

121 Marianne Vos
122 Annemiek van Vleuten
123 Lucinda Brand
124 Megan Guarnier
125 Thalita de Jong
126 Pauline Ferrand-Prevot

Pasta Zara-Cogeas
131 Rosella Callovi
132 Inga Cilvinaite
133 Evelyn Garcia
134 Edita Janeliunate
135 Martina Ruzickova
136 Lorena Vargas

141 Lizzie Armsitstead
142 Martina Bras
143 Jessie Daams
144 Romy Kasper
145 Adrie Visser
146 Marieke Vanroij

151 Noemi Cantele
152 Simona Frapporti
153 Silvia Valsecchi
154 Alena Amialiusik
155 Daniela Levi
156 Alice Algisi

161 Charlotte Becker
162 Janneke Busser
163 Willeke Knol
164 Elke Gebhardt
165 Amy Pieters
166 Kirsten Wild

171 Anna van der Breggen
172 Julia Soek
173 Maaike Polspoel
174 Sofie de Vuyst
175 Christine Majerus
176 Evelyne Arijs

How To Follow The Race
The first point of call for race information is obviously the official race website - Bira organisers do a better job of keeping it all up-to-date than the organisers of, shall we say, some other races that took place over the last few weeks. Regular readers of this site will already be familiar with Karl Lima, the manager of the Hitec Products-UCK team - Karl somehow finds the time while following his riders at races to provide regular and detailed Tweets. Many fans rely on him to keep them informed as to what's going on in races and he's very much worth following. Anton Vos, brother of World Champion Marianne, also attends the big races in his capacity as a photographer, as does photographer and journalist Bart Hazen - both are also top-value Twitter follows.

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