Yesterday's dominant performance by Igor Anton was as canny a display of cycling by the 27-year-old as you'll see in a straight-up mountain battle. Anton declined to match the violent acceleration by Ezequiel Mosquera at 10km to go, watching Joaquim Rodriguez and Vincenzo Nibali head up the road with his GC ambitions. But Anton bided his time, and maintained the pace he needed to eventually catch and pass his expended combatants. Nervy stuff.
What it means is that Basque Cycling may be due for a somewhat overdue moment in the sun. Everyone knows the Basque fans, storming the roads of the Pyrenees and waving the Ikurriña til they blot out the sun (or thunderheads, more likely). Their joy is such that it becomes ours too, and I get the sense that they welcome lots of "honorary Basques" when they encounter people who love the sport as passionately as they do.
So it kinda sucks that Basque riders haven't a longer track record of victories. Well, unless you count Miguel Indurain, from neighboring Navarra, which I gather is kinda sorta Basque-ish, historically at least. But while I have no insight into the answer here, the conventional wisdom apparently says no. Basque cycling history, therefore, consists largely of heroic stage wins at the Tour de France, and thankfully a few overall wins at the Vuelta by tried-and-true sons of the Pais Vasco:
- 2002: Aitor Gonzalez
- 1998: Abraham Olano
- 1982: Marino Lejarreta
- 1957: Jesus Loroño
Not a bad tally, really, as it puts Basques level with Italy for Vuelta palmares, one back of Switzerland, and only looking up at Belgium, France, and the rest of Spain. And of course this doesn't include a tally of stage wins, by stars like Roberto Laiseka, Joseba Beloki, Unai Osa, Mikel Zarrabeitia, any of several Extebarrias, and the overall champions themselves. It's enough to hope that Anton will remain the strongest rider in the race all the way to Madrid; his previous best finish was 8th in 2007, though recent Vueltas were compromised by his riding the Tour first. Whether Anton is to be the guy who finally brings home cycling's biggest prize, the maillot jaune, is for another day's Pyrenean dreams.
For a better flavor, see Buber's Basque Page and other sources I'm sure (cue Albertina in 3... 2...).