Local hero – Electrifying victory for Igor Antón in the 2011 Vuelta a España in Bilbao
From the window of his home near Bilbao, former pro Igor Antón can see almost the entire outline of the Alto del Vivero mountain, from the verdant fields and woods scattered on its lower slopes to the abandoned fairground and the clump of radio antennas at the top.
And he knows that on Wednesday the Vivero will be lined with thousands of Basque cycling fans, cheering the riders on as they double up the key Vuelta a España climb on Wednesday’s Stage 5.
But Antón also knows that the Alto del Vivero was where just over a decade ago he was a key player in one of the most important pages of the Vuelta’s 86-year history. . And whatever happens on Wednesday, whether another Basque wins or not, that memory is Antón’s only one.
As a reminder, 2011 was the year of the Vuelta’s return to the Basque Country after a semi-enforced absence of 33 years for a tangle of political and economic reasons. But he returned in style as Antón, racing for local Basque side Euskaltel-Euskadi, led Vuelta into a break as they raced through the region, first crossing his hometown of Galdakao at the foot of the Vivero , then in the nearby city center. in Bilbao.
Applauded and encouraged by a huge crowd of local fans, given the importance of the stage, this effort alone would have earned him at least a mention in the Vuelta history books. But then Antón did it all again, having dropped his breakaway companions with 18km to go and solo at the top of Alto del Vivero.
He was on his way to a victory that, in terms of rider, result, team and race course, ticked all the boxes for maximum possible emotional impact, all in one fell swoop.
Antón hasn’t moved, geographically speaking, still living where he grew up and close to where he won the most important victory of his career. But even if he had left Galdakao, and arguably even if he hadn’t won in Bilbao 12 years ago, in many ways the importance of El Vivero would nonetheless remain intact for him.
“Since I was a child, El Vivero has been the mountain that trained me as a cyclist and where I also grew up as a child,” says Antón, who retired at the end of the Vuelta 2018 . Cycling news.
He recounted elsewhere that he and his classmates played in the Spanish Civil War-era trenches – nearly a century earlier – that criss-crossed El Vivero and that he would cross the mountain on his way to his family’s small farm. Grand parents.
Then, later, he says, “we would go up to El Vivero and ride mountain bikes, or we would walk there from home, just for family excursions or for whatever reason. There is a picnic area the best local families use a lot for barbecues and spectacular views over Bilbao and we used to go there all the time.”
“An experience I will never forget”
Antón has always been a runner with a strong sense of sports history. On a rest day at the 2005 Giro d’Italia, rather than do the sensible thing and, well, get some rest, he and teammate Roberto Laiseka commandeered a Euskaltel-Euskadi car and drove off to pay their respects to the grave of Marco Pantani in Cesenatico.
It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Antón was delighted when he learned at the end of 2010 that the Vuelta would return to the Basque Country.
“I was really delighted, I knew how important it was for the Basque Country and for the sport. Then when I heard that the Vuelta would pass through my village, passing through the Alto del Vivero and then on to Bilbao , well, that was even more amazing.”
As Euskaltel-Euskadi team manager at the time – and after a bad crash at the foot of the Peña Cabarga climb snatched the Vuelta lead from him in 2010 – Antón was always certain to run the race again. Vuelta the following year to settle unfinished business, if nothing else.
But both the team and Antón had a very poor start to the 2011 race, and with the Basque stages of the final race weekend fast approaching, the pressure on Euskaltel-Euskadi to improve their game against other bigger teams in the WorldTour was rising rapidly. .
“My first goal in the Vuelta that year was to aim for the overall, but I got sick and I wasn’t in great shape form-wise. So I had to forget about the GC and lose a bit of time to make it easier to take breaks.
“But then I finished sixth on the Angliru and then when we got back to Peña Cabarga, where Chris Froome won, I finished fifth. So I felt a lot more confident and decided to trying to take a break on the stage in Euskadi. For me, taking a break has always been very, very difficult. But I was determined to do it and I succeeded.”
As part of the foursome move, Antón passed through his hometown of Galdakao on the same day, by happy coincidence, the town began its annual party.
“A lot of my friends told me they were planning on seeing the race anyway and going to the parties. But when they saw on TV that I was on the break, they all went out even more. early to watch her pass and cheer me on a bit.”
With Antón being an added attraction for the fiesta celebrations, it was no surprise that the climb to the Alto del Vivero and much of the route that day was lined with huge crowds of Basque fans dressed in orange to cheer on their local boy.
In fact, Antón said that the first time he went through the Vivero he had other thoughts on his mind than winning, given that there was still a long way to go.
“It was more about enjoying the moment. I could see my family on the side of the road, even exchange a few words with my friends as I walked past them. The thing is, I didn’t really think that we could win the stage because the group wasn’t that far back, so I wasn’t pushing.”
“But the second time around, I was totally focused on winning, and I didn’t notice anything at all. Either way, it was an experience I’ll never forget.”
Analysis of the Alto del Vivero
As for the climb itself, which the Vuelta peloton will face again on Wednesday, Antón says: “There are four access routes, but they climb on the same side as me and twice, like in 2011.
“The climb starts in an area called Bengoetxe, which houses the school in the town where I studied as a child, and it is the most difficult of the four climbs. But a big difference is that it is the 5 and when I got up there it was stage 19.
“So it won’t be such a challenge and the band won’t be breaking up as much as it did in 2011. But it will still hurt and if you get caught napping or not being at your place, you pay.”
4.6 km long with an average of 8%, it is classified in the second category. “Keeping in mind there’s a bit of a flat part in the middle and how that affects the overall average, it’s actually quite difficult.
“The first part, about 1.5 km before having that break, is difficult, but the second part is really difficult, with inclines of 10% or more.
Road surfaces, he says, are generally very good. “Maybe a few small ruts but nothing major. And it’s two lanes wide so it’s not like if someone punctures the team car won’t be able to get to them quickly.”
“The start of the climb is a bit tricky, there is a tunnel just before. But it’s not like some climbs which are like a narrow funnel, and you either have to be in front or have to put your foot down.
“Having said that, it’s never the same to be ahead 50 or 60 as it is to be further back when you embark on a climb, knowing that you’ll have to push hard to make up lost ground just to be in contention. . So there will be something of a battle for sure.”
As for the descent, being all two-lane roads, Antón says there are no really tricky parts.
“The descent to Bilbao is very fast, a maximum 4% gradient and big loops. There are 14 km from the top to the finish, so you will have to keep pressing the pedals if you want to stay clear and you have to remember to save some energy for that.”
In the last kilometer and a half of descent, the gradient steepens significantly, going from 4 to 8%, but then there are about 5km of flat to go until the finish in Bilbao, located on the Gran Via where Antón won , and close to Athletic Club’s San Mamés Football Stadium, or as the locals call it, “The Cathedral”.
“You are practically in the main part of Bilbao at the foot of the descent, but there will be a series of wide boulevards before you get to the finish. So a team with a sprinter behind could start to organize themselves and try to withdraw the movement,” warns Antón.
“But anyway, there will only be 40 or 50 riders at most in the sprint. That’s if someone doesn’t stay away like I did back then,” he predicted.
11 years later and with victories on some of the Giro and Vuelta’s toughest climbs – like the Zoncolan and Calar Alto – to his name, as well as the home win in Bilbao, Antón has remained linked to grassroots sport. in Galdakao since he retired.
He works with a local cycling school to train young children in basic racing and riding skills. He also spent most of the year overhauling and rebuilding a motorhome, partly as a hobby, partly so he could take his family on road trips across Europe.
But on Wednesday afternoon he will be on Spanish television, once again recounting his experiences from the 2011 Vuelta and hopefully enjoying his moment in the spotlight.
To remember what he has done, however, Antón need only look out his house window at the mountain above.