Chad Haga: Welcome To Pais Vasco, The Spicy Wings Of Bike Races

Matthews Attacks At Basque Country

Have you ever had a basket of chicken wings that knocked your socks off? One where you're sure the glaze and sauce will be too spicy for you, but everyone speaks so highly of them that you just have to try? 

The wings arrive and you dive in. They are delicious, but you’re starting to sweat and your face is flush with blood as you remember the four-chili rating on the menu. It’s too much, but darned if you’re going to put them down. Tangy and spicy with just the right balance! 

Not minding the runny nose and sweat dripping into your eyes, you lick your fingers clean and relish the suffering.

Welcome to Pais Vasco.

Day One

The first stage—if I’m sticking with my metaphor—was the appetizer plate of jalapeño poppers. The breakaway escaped with relative ease and the pace steadily increased as the stage wore on. We were optimistic that it would come down to a small bunch sprint after the extreme final climb and did our best to support Michael Matthews to that point. 

The climb proved too much for him in the end, but that’s not too surprising when talking about kilometers-long stretches of nearly 20-percent grades. I had been dropped by that point, but the environment on the climb was superb. 

The sensory overload was insane: noise from the shouting and clapping combined with the smells of burning moto clutches and burning weed (I’d forgotten that was popular here!), all while fighting cramps that threatened to seize me during every strained pedal stroke. 

After all the hype of Pais Vasco, I was a tiny bit disappointed that the weather had been spectacular all day.

Day Two

“Welcome to Pays Bask!” my compatriot and fellow-Texan Lawson Craddock half-jokingly said. 

We were 60 kilometers into stage two and the breakaway had finally escaped. Half of the peloton was a minute behind us after splitting on a high-speed, rain-soaked descent, the gap widening as attacks continued for another 40 minutes. 

It finally came back together, but the pace remained stuck at “quite uncomfortable” for the rest of the day until things exploded on the last climb. Michael Matthews was feeling a bit more spritely and even attacked a couple of times, but the goat-path climb was again too much for our climbing sprinter. 

My legs had been less than spectacular, but that was a real bike race and I had a blast. Again the spectators relieved some pain with their infectious enthusiasm, and the buffeting wind and rain on the descent to the finish reminded me that I had survived a real stage of the race I’d heard so much about.

Day Three

As our last and best chance at a win, stage 3 was circled long ago as the one that we would go “all in.” 

As the only team willing to do the work to bring it to a sprint on the longest stage of the race—and an uphill, headwind stage at that—our work was cut out for us. 

The first order of business was getting a small, manageable break. Our cap, if we could pull it off, was eight riders. If it wasn’t gone in the first 20 minutes before we reached the climbs, things would likely be out of our control. With help from Quickstep and Lotto-Jumbo, who wanted a respite from riding the front, eight riders were gone and the road was blocked. With the gap over a minute by the base of the climb, things were looking good until some riders broke through and the fireworks started again—because, Pais Vasco.

The fight would eventually end without any more riders joining the breakaway, but I guess at this race we like to suffer just to suffer. As the roll call of riders up ahead came through the radio, I had to laugh. It was eight riders, but we would be chasing some of the biggest engines in the peloton. I mean, just Thomas de Gent counts as four riders! 

With the unenviable task of chasing them back, we showed our commitment to the cause and set to work. Thanks to the unexpected contributions of Astana, the gap steadily fell (as did the rain, on occasion). After our veteran Laurens ten Dam and neo-pro Michael Storer were used up, I set to work. But I soon found that I wasn’t firing on all cylinders, and didn't last long.

With the win in sight, the peloton came alive and finished off the chase, but Michael was left unsupported in the closing kilometers. He was not satisfied with his top-10 placing, but winners never are. The rest of us aren’t bothered; as long as we keep working like this, the results will come.

Day Four

Today was the time trial, featuring a course so flat that we had to travel to the outskirts of the region for it. Seeing the power file from the previous stage and noting that I suffered much more than the numbers would indicate, I doubted my legs’ abilities today. 

Nevertheless, I gave it everything. I never felt great, but I enjoyed the race and got everything out of my legs, even if it was only good for 22nd place. I crossed the line today with legs and lungs burning, snot on my sleeves, and seeing through sweat-covered glasses. 

Those were some spicy wings!

Have you ever filled up too early at dinner, underestimating the size of the dishes you ordered? I’ve filled up on jalapeño poppers and three baskets of chicken wings, suffering all the while, and the table just shook with the arrival of the next course.

Welcome to Pais Vasco.

By Chad Haga

South America Could Sweep Grand Tours With Vuelta Win

A swathe of absentees leaves the door open for a first-time winner and a South American clean sweep of Grand Tour victories this season as the Vuelta a Espana begins on Saturday.

Report: Doping Threatens Colombia's Cycling Talent Production Line

Colombian cycling reached its zenith last month when pint-sized climber Egan Bernal became his country's first winner of the sport's greatest race, the Tour de France.

FloBikes To Broadcast Vuelta a España And World Championships In Canada

Join Pro now to watch the 2019 Vuelta a España live and on-demand.

Carapaz In Doubt For Vuelta Following Training Crash

Ecuador's Richard Carapaz, winner of this year's Giro d'Italia, has injured his shoulder and could miss the start of the Vuelta a Espana on Saturday.

Jakob Fuglsang To Ride 2019 Vuelta, Re-signs With Astana

Danish veteran Jakob Fuglsang penned a new two-year deal with Astana on Wednesday in a timely boost ahead of the Vuelta a Espana which gets underway this weekend.

The Best Climbers At The Vuelta a España

The Vuelta a España is known as the grand tour for pure climbers. This year’s Vuelta lives up to that reputation and then some. With 57 categorized climbs and eight summit finishes in the 2019 Vuelta, there will be no shortage of battles amongst the peloton’s top climbers throughout the three weeks of racing. 

The Top Sprinters At The 2019 Vuelta a España


The Vuelta a España is known as a race for the pure climbers, however the 2019 edition has included many opportunities for sprinting talent. There are six flat days for the sprinters in this year’s Vuelta, three of which come in the final week. 

Five Unheralded Riders That Could Win La Vuelta

The Vuelta a España is in many ways the proving ground for riders in the peloton in need of grand tour experience. The courses are as challenging (if not more so) than the other two grand tours, but with many of the marquee GC riders recovering after the Tour de France, the Vuelta stands as an opportunity for hidden talent.

Five Big Favorites For The 2019 Vuelta a España


For some, the Vuelta a España is a chance for redemption at the end of a trying season. For others, the Vuelta stands as an opportunity to make a first mark on grand tour racing. In 2019 the Vuelta has a line up of bonafide grand tour stars who have something yet to prove this year. 

Roubaix Winner Gilbert To Return To Lotto-Soudal

Philippe Gilbert, the 2012 road-race world champion, will return to Lotto Soudal next season at the age of 38 on a three-year contract, the team announced on Monday.