I wanted to have a chat with Bira’s organizers (the only UCI category race held in Spain nowadays) in order to know details about the race, its origins and other matters regarding this great event which takes place every June on Basque roads.
While following the race, I had a very interesting time with Agustín Ruiz Larringan, general coordinator of the Iurreta Emakumeen Bira, and here is the conversation that followed.
Notice that B is me (Babelia) and AR is him. Just in case you took B for Bira ;)
B –Hi, Agustín and thanks for your time. Tell us a little about yourself, your functions within the race
AR -I am the coordinator of all administrative issues: contacts and contracts with teams, hotels, logistics management, coordination of working groups, etc.
B -In general terms, how has the XXVII edition been?
AR -Regarding the organizational field, this year was one of the best editions. As regards teams’ participation, we expected more teams but in the end one could not make it. It's a pity that we cannot help economically, and we know that in these hard times some teams are going through difficulties.
B -Can you specify what team or teams were in this situation?
AR -Swedish Firefighters Upsala dropped from the list of teams a week before. I can not tell if the reason was economic or otherwise, in fact his coach, who is English, told us that three riders were sick and they couldn’t make it. Whatever it was, we always search for a race with the maximum number of squads, so we always try to bring the best in quality and quantity.
B -CAF Transport Engineering -local team who sponsors the race and obviously in the startlist with an interesting international participation-did not start, apparently because mixed teams are not allowed. It’s more than surprising that the team did not know this beforehand, being a sponsor ...
AR -No, this was not the reason. They were not allowed due to some "defect" in the licenses. The technical jury, consisting of a portuguese president and two spanish, checked all licenses on thursday morning and decided that the CAF team cannot take part, having all the right individual papers, permits, federal licenses though
B -Very disappointing news for the team directed by Eneritz Iturriaga. In fact, I was searching for her or someone from the team in Iurreta with no luck.
Related to this, some of us thought, when we saw some junior riders up in the podium, that this was a sort of "revenge" for not being in the race!
AR -No, not at all. It had been previously arranged that the CAF girls came out onto stage to handle the prizes to their idols. But onTthursday it was decided that they would wear the team outfit. You cannot imagine how happy girls are when they can share the podium with the riders they look up to, to be up there next to Marianne Vos for example, it’s tremendous for them. Last year we invited Sheyla Gutieérez, and Alicia González as well. We want to satisfy sponsors and show them we are grateful for their support.
B -How long have you been part of Bira’s organization?
AR -From the beginning, I've been here for 27 years. Now, it’s only me from the original coordinators. There were 2 or 3 more till very recent years, but now these people are not involved anymore. Our first edition consisted of 1 stage, in Bérriz, and Ismael Lejarreta organized it. The victory went to Inma Carlos.
B -I know all of you organizers are pure cycling enthusiasts who do this voluntarily, without getting any euro from it
AR -Yes, exactly, it’s a hobby. We are fortunate that people around us are committed, cycling associations in villages where the race starts and finishes give us a helping hand. You have to bear in mind that we are the only UCI race held in Spain right now, so we have to keep it as it is, no matter how tired we are sometimes. In fact, if a race of similar characteristics appeared in Spain, we’d consider quitting.
B -And how do you manage to find sponsorship in these days when no one seems to be interested in cycling, let alone women’s?
AR -Well, with many difficulties. In our case sponsors are mainly public institutions: City Councils, District Council and the Basque Government. These provide nearly total sponsorship. The rest, private firms, contribute with much smaller amounts. For example the advertisements displayed in the magazine of the race, they cost 80, 100 or 150 euros, depending on the size.
B -Tell us how you begin to prepare the 2015 edition, the steps you will follow. Well, please tell me first that there will be Bira in 2015, or am I rushing too much??
AR -No, be quiet, there will be a 2015 edition, hehe. In fact, today I received the first phone call from a city council for a future stage, but it is still a bit too soon to start. It is usually in September, October when councils' budgets for the following year are approved. At that time, contacts and initial arrangements take shape.
B -Tell us how do you manage to get the best riders and teams year after year.
AR -Well, the main thing is that there is already a tradition. In the history of the race there is a list of top level participants and winners, and that attracts a lot.
Secondly, it is UCI regulations. We invite the top 10 teams and top 5 national ranked teams. This year we’ve had the first 8 teams and only 1 national team (Germany). This is because almost all the australian and dutch girls are in Orica and Rabo-Liv / Liv-Shimano respectively, so they are part of their official teams.
When it comes to Rabo-Liv, for example, the team comes to win. I always talk to Rabo’s director and Marianne and himself are always committed to this race, they like it very much here, both the race and the Basque Country.
B -Why not an ITT this year? Many people have missed it, it’s a beautiful stage, and the best way to clear the GC.
AR -It came out like this this year, without ITT. But we saw from the first stage that you can make differences in this terrain, it’s being shown. The 3 Rabo-Liv riders broke away and no one was able to follow them, so in the end it has been clear that you don’t need an ITT to determine who is/are the best.
B –Going on with the stage profiles’ issue, why don’t you ever have summit finishes? Let me tell you some pure climbers I talked to are desperate ...
AR -The reason for that is that no villages with those characteristics can provide us a financial support, and this is essential. Nevertheless, we’ll see what happens next year. And anyway, this year the finishes have been 4 or 5 km from the mountain tops, so you could almost say that it is an uphill finish, can’t you?
B -Well, not exactly, it seems you planned those finishes for Vos’ victory, knowing that she is a killer in the descent.
AR -Well, we did not have that in mind at all. It's quite complicated; other teams complain that there are no flat stages, you cannot please everyone, and the reality is basque terrain is a constant up and down, we cannot make flat stages out of nothing.
Another thing happening this year is that people complained the GC fight has been boring due to the time gaps from the first stage. Sometimes races are like that, people should remember Indurain in the Tour of France, for example, he was so dominating from the start.
B -How has Bira changed over the years? In terms of spectators, has it grown?
AR -Well, there is no growth in the number of spectators in Vizcaya, it’s the same. I am from Vizcaya myself and it hurts a bit, but this is the reality. In Guipúzcoa however there are always many more people, the whole province is much more involved in cycling. In Iurreta for example, where the race starts, there are few spectators. This year we had the initiative to hire a fanfare to see if people were encouraged, but not even this seemed to work.
B -Yes, it was stunning the difference between one stage and another, I was equally surprised both by the absence of spectators in Iurreta and by the great assistance in Oñati, with so many people and kids cheering! At one point it reminded me of what we saw last may in The Women's Tour!
AR -Yes, entire schools in Oñati came to cheer at the start and followed the whole stage enthusiastically, that gave a great deal of colour and warmth to the race. The same happened in Ataun, a very small town which responded with large crowds
B -Women's cycling is growing internationally and we know that this is happening much slower and lethargically in our country. The Women's Tour, The Course in Paris, Vuelta 2015 with the women’s last day race ... would you like that growth to happen here and Bira to become a much bigger event? Or would you prefer to keep it at this level, otherwise it’d be too big and difficult to manage?
AR -Well, I do not think things will change substantially in, let’s say, the next 5 years. I do not see it. But if it exploded as you are commenting, I would like to be part of an organization. And talking about the women’s race on the last day of the Tour, La Course, ASO will organize that with a ridiculous 1 or 2% of its budget, how on earth not making it happen? They know very well the cost is minimal and the benefits can be huge.
B -Changing the subject, some teams complained about the racing schedule: stages beginning at 4 pm, which is late for hotels, massage etc. And then the next day the start was given at 11, for example, or 10.20 on Sunday! Wouldn’t it be more balanced to start all stages in more central hours of the day?
AR -Have in mind that if there are few people in starts and finishes with this schedule you mentioned, imagine what it would be with more central hours as you say. With this country’s habits of lunch time, if we started stages around 14.00 and arrivals at about 16:30 or 17.00, no one would come. We try to avoid those hours and matching starts and finishes with the hours in which most people are out walking, shopping, having a drink on terraces.
B -And cannot end the interview without asking for the "secret bonuses". First tell us how you came up with the idea, and then we talk about the controversy ...
AR -It came this way: if you remember in the history of the Tour de France, back in the 1910s and 1920s, the stages were very long, 300 km or more and they were also riding during the night. The organization then thought about establishing some scoring bonuses, to prevent cheating, since plenty of riders were taking shortcuts so as to save some kilometers.
B -Fine, but you weren’t thinking that the riders at Bira would take shortcuts, were you? Haha
AR -No, hahaha, of course we were not thinking about that, but to gain competitiveness, the riders and the whole team had to be more attentive throughout all the stage, breakaways and being at the front would have become vital. It seemed a very good idea to us, but, hey, teams boycotted the idea.
B -Tell us briefly about that meeting with the teams to explain the idea to them.
AR -We had the meeting with the teams the day before the race, and they were reluctant from the start and refused to accept that these sprints were hidden bonuses. They thought it made no sense, that the results of the race would be altered, so we had to inform them of the exact kilometer of these bonuses. Teams are a bit particular, we had to cancel the original idea, but we did not like it ... I'm sure of one thing: if in the future the Giro or the Tour come with this idea, the teams are going to follow with no questioning, but in our case we were not allowed.
B -So, I guess no secret bonuses for next year.
AR -No, the truth is we won’t try next year hahah
B -And finally, a subject that has fascinated me: pets, teddies on podium. This year, a frog, last year an elephant ... how did it all started and how far will you go with your animal repertoire?
AR -Well, it was actually my idea when I was watching the lions on the podium of the Tour de France. We thought it would be cute to have an animal of our own, and if we think of a representative animal from the basque mountains, the bear was the first animal to come to us. Thus, in the first editions we had bears, and then we were introducing other animals.
And another funny feature we have introduced recently (started last year) are "fofuchas", traditional wooden dolls handcrafted in South America. They wear the different classifications jerseys, and the last day they are given to the final winners of these classifications. It seems that riders like them a lot!