Moments before the start of the the Basque one-day Clásica San Sebastián, I slip into the team car and ask Garmin-Cervélo director sportif Bingen Fernandez how many times he has done this race. He shakes his head and smiles. “Phewwww…too many!”
Fernandez knows this 234-kilometer course from the Atlantic beaches of San Sebastián, over five categorized climbs in the surrounding mountains and back to the beach. He raced it often during his 14 years as a pro. One thing that changed this year is that the organizers now have the riders attack the iconic Alto de Jaizkibel climb twice, rather than once.
Today Bingen is directing a squad that includes Andreas Kleir, David Millar, Julian Dean, Ryder Hesjedal, Matt Wilson, Gabriel Rasch, Murilo Fischer and Johan Van Summeren.
Standing in the middle of one of San Sebastián’s regal seaside boulevards, the Paris-Roubaix winner tells me he’s still hurting from a run in with a car last week while training in Belgium. When the car hit him, Van Summeren didn’t break anything, but injured ligaments in his shoulder make it tough to ride with his full force.
Shortly after 11am the race rolls past shirtless and bikini-clad fans who line San Sebastian’s glorious La Concha beach.
Almost immediately we jolt up into the hills that surround the city like a green glove. 12 kilometers in a break gets away. Brazilian national champ Murilo Fischer is in it with five others. While the peloton pulls over for a mass pee-break at 15 kilometers, the break works well together and builds a three-minute gap.
It’s been a rainy summer in San Sebastián, but today it’s hot, sunny and humid. The temperature is already 24 degrees (73 Fahrenheit). Bingen doesn’t use the radio much, but he does call the riders to remind them that it’s hotter than it seems, and to keep drinking.
Because he’s a Basque who grew up in the nearby town of Bermeo, everyone seems to know Bingen. A couple of Movistar riders say hello. “Tranquilo!” he shouts back as they sprint through the cars. The director of the Andalucia team slows along side us to talk. He also has someone in the break and he is on his way up to visit his rider. “You have a chat, then I will come up for a while” Bingen tells him in Spanish.
We pass the Pukas surf shop in Zarautz, a famous Basque surf town. The main street is packed with barefoot beachgoers. Binghen points to a building up the street and tells me it’s a good spot for the local white wine, Txakoli.
After Zarautz we turn inland onto the day’s first category two climb, the Alto de Garate. Julian Dean drops back to the car and asks if we have an extra pair of sunglasses. Victor Villalba, the mechanic in the car with us, roots through the back of the car but comes up empty. Bingen offers Julian his glasses, but because they are not Transitions sunglasses, Dean turns them down. “Matt Johnson (Slipstream’s president) will fine me if I wear those,” the New Zealander says with a smile.
Toward the top of the Garate we pass thick Txakoli vinyards growing on nearly vertical hillsides. Compared to the vines growing in the flat, dry, rocky terrain of Provence we saw earlier this month at the Tour de France, these vines look like a jungle canopy. With obvious pride in his Basque heritage, Bingen explains that the combination of steep hillside terroir, rain and ocean breezes from the Bay of Biscay give the white wine a taste unlike any other.
The break is now eight minutes ahead. The race director’s car gives us the OK to pay Murilo a visit. The Brazilian is in good spirits, smiling as usual. He takes two water bottles.
We drop back and park on a curve in the road where the approaching peloton can see us from afar. Victor grabs an armload of water bottles and heads up the road a few hundred meters while Bingen waits with more bottles by the car. The field passes, but it’s strung out and no one risks their position to take on bottles.
Back on the road, Andreas Kleir drops back to the car to load up with bottles. He fills his pockets, then front and back of his jersey with CamelBak bidons. “One more,” Binghen tells him. “The sticky one.” Klier grabs one more bottle with a long handoff then heads back up the road to distribute the fluids to his teammates.
72 kilometers into the race it’s nearly 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Driving through the town of Zumarraga a clot of kids yells “Garmeeeeen!”
At 1pm, Matt Wilson drops back for another load of bottles. The race merges onto the N1 motorway. Police have stopped all the traffic on this major highway and people sit on the hoods of their cars and cheer as the race surges past.
After the kilometer 116 feed zone Binghen radios the riders. He directs them to start grouping near Ryder. “The race is going to start soon.”
We pass a Sky rider on the side of the road. He’s extracting a feed bag from his rear cluster. Later, the Sky team car comes up next to us and Bingen discusses the episode with their director in French. So far today Bingen has used Spanish, English, Basque, Italian and French. Language skills are a key pro cycling skill set.
That said, the riders don’t say much. They are too busy suffering on this cruelly mountainous course. I also have had a race radio in my ear throughout the day and the only thing I’ve heard the riders say is “water” and “agua.” That’s it.
100 kilometers from the finish, we approach our first ascent of the Alto de Jaizkibel. On the lower slopes a farmer harvests hay. A round hay bale spins on a machine that wraps it in white plastic. It looks like a giant wheel of Basque cheese. Ahead of us white clouds pour over the summit like a white tablecloth. The ocean spreads below us. Were it not for the wall of orange-clad fans surrounding us, this could be mistaken for California’s Big Sur coast. Spectacular.
At 3 pm, helicopters appear; time for the live TV coverage to start. Van Summeren drops back from the field. His face is scribed with pain. “My shoulder” he tells us. Bingen gives him water bottles and a Coke. The Belgian presses the icy soda can against his shoulder, hungry for relief for his torn muscles. Then Klier pops. Binghen gives him the OK to head back to the hotel with Van Summeren.
At the summit a fat man without a shirt holds out cans of Coke to the riders. He’s not associated with a team. He just loves cycling. This is his way of touching his heros in their point of most abject suffering. Behind him sheep graze in front of the ruins of a castle.
After we bomb down the Jaizkabel with the violence of a bobsled, a Basque radio motorcycle comes alongside and conducts an interview with Bingen through his open driver’s-side window.
About 165 kilometers into the race, David Millar packs it in. He looks fried. “It’s been too hard, this,” Bingen says of the race that comes just six days after the Tour de France.
I ask Bingen if he misses racing these tough days. Ahead of us, the peloton is a long thread with telltale spaces between riders at its end; guys at the tail end are chewing their stems to hang on. He gives a long pause, then tells me in Spanish: “At the moment, no. But that’s because my head is in another place.”
Nearing the second Jaizkabel ascent 187 kilometers into the race, Bingen presses his radio button. “We are four K from the base of the Jaizkabel. Make sure you keep Ryder at the front of the peloton. Good job. Good job.”
With Fischer still off the front in the break, it turns out that Bingen’s words only register with hard man Julian Dean, who at this point is the only Garmin-Cervélo rider left in the now-withered peloton with Hesjedal.
Olympic gold medalist Sammy Sanchez attacks the field on the Jaizkabel and bridges up to Fischer, who is now riding alone with BMC’s Karsten Kroon.
Bingen radios Murilo: “Allez, allez. Come on, come on,” he encourages the Brazilian champ. But after 190 kilometers off the front, Murilo is cooked, and he looses the Olympic gold medal winner’s wheel over the top of the summit.
It’s not for naught though. Seconds later race radio announces that Garmin-Cervélo’s Murilo Fischer has won the prize for the day’s longest breakaway, and that he should report to the podium after the race.
Murilo calls for water. Getting to him is a challenge, as the Katusha car keeps blocking the left lane. “It’s like NASCAR,” Binghen observes of the mass of cars fighting for position on the relentlessly curvy approach to the seaside finish. “Only the drivers are más cabrones.”
In San Sebastián, Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert takes the victory, while Ryder and Murilo roll in with the second chase group, in 19th and 16th places respectively. A smiling, but exhausted Fischer makes trips to the podium for his longest-break award plus two other combativeness prizes.
Laden with trophies and flowers, Bingen walks back to the team car along San Sebastián’s oceanside promenade. Another day in the toughest sport on earth is in the can, and the team can look forward to a return to these shores in September, when the Vuelta a España returns to the Basque Country for the first time in 33 years.
More photos from the Clasica San Sebastian:
In 2011 Mark Johnson is writing and photographing a book on Garmin-Cervélo to be published by VeloPress in early 2012. You can follow his travels with the team on Twitter @argylearmada