My First Fortnight in Spain
After I finished my pursuit of a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering, I decided to find a new pursuit, which happened to be when I heard about United Mint Campus' Cycling Program based in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. United Mint Cycling is a flagship athletic program at United Mint Campus and is the first higher education program in the world to blend daily cycling talent development with top flight university academics.
After 19 hours of traveling, including 20 minutes of dog petting at the Mumbai airport, I set foot in Bilbao, Spain - with three layers of clothing on, expecting the chill of Atlantic winds. To my relief, this ended up being two layers more than what was necessary as the weather turned out to be a toasty 27 degrees!
I was greeted by the friendly staff and students of UMC and we set off to Vitoria-Gasteiz, home of United Mint Cycling. Vitoria is a picturesque a city of exceptional urban design and is the capital of the Basque Country (or as I like to call it – cycling paradise)
First exposure to Spanish cuisine
It was in Vitoria that I had my first ever experience with Pintxos! Pintxos are the most common food item found in the Basque country. They are the "dosas" of this region - a common snack with 3 or 4 ingredients that can be eaten as a meal but CANNOT be eaten with a fork!
What Pintxos look like!
That evening I checked into my UMC apartment with my roommate –Ethan Egglestone – who turns out to be one helluva strong rider from Australia!
Meeting my coach and The Vuelta al Pais Vasco
The next morning I met with my coach Allan Davis for the first time in person. Allan is a legend in the sport with wins and podiums in some of the toughest races like Milan-SanRemo and the Road World Championships. He has an Indian connection too with his win at the Commonwealth Games road race in New Delhi. It has been an honor and a steep learning curve working with him.
Allan at CWG 2010
The same day, Allan took Ethan and me to the race start of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, the most important race in the Basque region of the year. It was inspiring to meet and talk with some of the top cycling pros, all thanks to the VIP passes that Allan had got us.
Heading to the race start with Ethan (L) and Allan (R)
Joseba Beloki (L) and Allan Davis (R)
Yours Truly (L) and Ethan (R)
Sticking to my race day tradition, I spent most of the time hanging around the Orica-Scott Team bus. If you know me well, you know that as the temperature drops to the single digits, my tongue swells and I have a bit of difficulty speaking.
At 15 degrees: "Hi Jack Haig! Best of luck for today's stage"
9 degrees: "Bes-tuth of luck for today'th th-tage, Gerro!"
7 degrees: "Valbatheene! Gwedt goun at yetedayth th-tage. Gwedt veen!"
Michael Albasini: "I'm sorry… what?"
Me: *Very slowly* "Kongraatulashuns on duh ween!"
Michael Albasini: "Oh right. Thanks!"
On Thursdays, United Mint Cyclists head up to Oiartzun, near San Sebastian, for training, strategy and nutrition reviews with Allan. I packed some of my biking kits and got on the commuter bike and headed towards the Bus station with Ethan. The weather turned from bright and Sunny to "Clasica San Sebastian" on the way there. When we arrived we met Allan and he showed us a bit around San Sebastian.
Heading to San-Sebastian
Later that afternoon, Ethan and I kitted up and went out for a ride. The San Sebastian region has so far been the best place I’ve ever ridden a bike. Setting out from the urban areas you’re spoilt for choice with regards to terrain: rolling hills to the south-east, a flat valley directly south and more flat roads out towards France along the coast to the north-west towards the sleepy surf town of Biarritz. Our first stop was Biarritz which ran along the coastline. It was a sunny day, with perfect riding conditions at 18 degrees.
Grabbing some Vit-D along the French coast
After reaching the nearby cliff and stopping for photos we turned back and decided to head towards the climbs around Oiartzun. This was my first ride on a road bike in over a week, so it was great to have my legs feeling fresh and responding well to the challenge of the climbs.
Climbing around Oiartzun
After a pintxo lunch, it was time to head back to Vitoria-Gasteiz. A missed bus, and 90 minutes later, we arrived at the bus station. Partly due to a freak accident in the space-time continuum and partly due to poor planning, we found ourselves having to transport 3 bikes and a cricket bat from the bus station to our apartment. As Ethan tugged along with the frame of his bike and me with his wheels, we were stopped by the Spanish police, whose curiosity was piqued by our poor planning and the space-time continuum accident. After a bit of "Sorry, Habla no Espanol" from my end and some broken Spanish from Ethan, we were let go.
Skiing and Cycling at Altitude
UMC places a huge emphasis on Work-Life balance and one of their mottos is "Learn (Hard). Work (Hard). Play (Hard)." In accordance with the third point, we headed out on Friday morning to the Spanish town of Baqueira for a weekend of Skiing! The previous night I had received my race bike, so we were able to get that onto the car, ready for an exciting weekend of riding uphill (and skiing downhill) at altitude.
First ever snow sighting!
This was my first experience with snow and I was as excited as a Golden retriever spotting a tennis ball, when we arrived. After picking up the rental skis, shoes, and helmets, the rookies in the group - Ethan and I - headed to our beginner lessons.
Heading to the ski session with the UMC crew!
Skiing is one of those things that looks very easy, and every beginner goes - "Oh this looks so easy. You just move your legs like this. You turn your arms like that. Pah, anybody can do it."
As a beginner I had the same approach and was proved horribly wrong as I repeatedly landed on my rear end and got stuck frantically moving my legs while digging into the snow, which kept me from moving anywhere. Luckily we had a very enthusiastic (as well as gentle and patient) French instructor, and I picked up the basics quite well. She confessed though that she had difficulty pronouncing my name and we decided that she could just call me "Raj".
"Yes, that is very good, Roche. Put your weight on your outside leg while taking the turn, Roche."
"Roche, now we will be descending at a faster speed, so focus more."
"You need to bend your knees more, Roche."
"Erm..How do I move?"
On Saturday morning the ski lessons were scheduled for 10:00AM, but I was keen on riding before that, so I had to head out at 6:30AM. Getting up that early at a ski resort means being greeted with a temperature of 1 degree! I put aside my cycling helmet and instead opted to ride with the rented ski helmet. I looked like an absolute dork, but I was a very warm dork.
Later that day in the ski session, some of my muscle memory from my roller skating days kicked in and I was keen to reach new heights (or descents) faster than the instructor would have liked.
"Roche, slow down!!"
"Roche. ROCHE!! Slow down, or you are going to crash!!"
As I tumbled down the snow slopes more times than I could count and noticed the frustration in the instructor's voice slowly growing, I figured I should call it a day. I decided to give it one last shot though as I joined my (more learned) friends from UMC for a run down a higher slope of the mountain. After receiving a couple of key pointers on weight distribution, off I went, faster, more unstable and slightly more scared than I would have liked to, but soon I found a good rhythm and enjoyed the thrill of skiing, so much so that I did the run again!!
At the base of the ski resort
Sunday morning involved a later start to the day and I set about exploring the mountain from the other side, by bike. I climbed up the mountain and did some efforts, afterwards which I descended down the other side where I was treated to spectacular views, some of which seemed similar to the ones I saw on TV at the Giro d'Italia!
View from the other side of the mountain