A weekend at the Emakumeen Bira

Marianne Vos' bike - Saul/

So here I am, writing my very first post on Podium Cafe after being encouraged by the über-fabulous Sarah Connolly to do so – thanks Sarah! It might sound outdated to write about a race that finished more than three weeks ago, but better late than never! My goal is to describe the atmosphere of the race both as a fan and reporter, and also trying to explain why women’s cycling is so satisfying from a fan perspective.

Emakumeen Bira is the only UCI race for women in Spain. Being Spanish myself, I just had to go. I write for the site Cobbles & Hills, so it was a great opportunity to make a more detailed report and, hopefully, a few interesting interviews. Women’s cycling is especially unknown in Spain, and we’re doing our best to promote it.

My first experience with women’s cycling was last year at the Durango classic, which is kind of a prologue to the Emakumeen Bira. I didn’t write for C&H back then, so it was just a fan visit, but it was incredibly satisfying. I was there with some friends and we had the chance to talk and take pictures with every rider we wanted. We won’t forget how friendly and accessible they were, especially Annemiek van Vleuten and Emma Johansson, big stars of this sport who seemed to be happy to spend some time having a chat with us fans.

So I was really looking forward to repeat the experience this year, but this time striving for more! The plan was to be there the whole weekend and to watch the last, decisive stages: ITT on Satuday and the queen stage on Sunday. I had to drive 400 km, but with my Basque roots it’s always nice to visit again that beautiful region. It was good that the stages started so late, as I needed to arrive early to get my press acreditation as soon as posible.

I arrived in Orduña just in time to see the first vans and team cars getting there, and my first cycling sight was the Vos family: mom, dad and brother were already preparing the Rabobank bikes for the warm up. Not a bad start at all! A bit later, when I was about to enter the bus office where the press acreditations were to be found, I saw Sharon Laws asking something to some security guy. Sarah Connolly, who had recently interviewed her, had asked me to say ‘hi’ to Sharon if I met her, and so I did. Sharon looked so genuinely grateful to hear that! We spoke a few minutes about her recovery. It was the first time she was using the TT bike this year and didn’t look very comfortable with that, but she was in good spirits anyway.

I spent most of the time before the ITT started tweeting pics and trying to share the atmosphere. I was enjoying the moment and didn’t mind the rain and bad weather overall. I recall a funny moment when I saw Pauline Ferrand Prevot and couldn’t help but show the fan in me and ask her for a photo. DS Koos Moerenhout was there, and when he saw me putting my hand on her shoulder for the pic he said ‘hey, touching her is 5 euros!’ so I asked him ‘so what if I put my hand on her waist?’ We laughed but I didn’t do it anyway, as Pauline seemed to be very shy. She said ‘Thanks!’ to me (in Spanish) after the photo, which I found very cute, as I was the one who should be grateful instead!

My view at the start line of the ITT

It was time to go to the start line as the first riders were already there. I was waiting for a friend of mine, who was about to arrive. Meanwhile, I had been talking for a few minutes with the race doctor. A very nice guy who told me a lot of interesting things about the race. You could be as close as you’d want to the girls who were about to start the ITT, and it was interesting to see their different behaviours. For example, Tiffany Cromwell looked very nervous, with her hands shaking. Vos was incredibly focused, however Evie Stevens was relaxed, similing and making jokes. Anna van der Breggen looked relaxed as well, but on a different way. She looked peaceful.

Once the race leader Emma Johansson took the start we ran towards the finish line, which was barely 300 metres away from the start, so we could see the best riders finishing. When Elisa Longo Borghini arrived, she stopped and asked us about her finishing time, as she didn’t know it. She was pleasantly surprised to know she had finished exactly on the same second as Ellen van Dijk. Then Emma arrived with a crushing ITT but Elisa was satisfied anyway.

Waiting for the podium, we saw Anton Vos, ready to take photographs as usual. My friend, who is a massive Marianne fan, didn’t hesitate to go and speak to him. Since Anton looked very friendly, I joined the conversation too. I actually don’t remember a bit of what we talked about, but it was a nice, friendly chat. And we met Marianne herself after the podium, which was truly an honour!

After a quick drink, it was time to go and rest for the next stage, which was going to start a lot earlier. We drove early in the morning to be in Fruiz, a very small village, before the final stage started. It was raining again, but that didn’t seem to affect the riders, who looked happy and smiling as they were gathering at the start line. Evie Stevens was near us and we obviously went there to say ‘hi’. I’m sure everybody would think she was going to be nice and funny, but she’s a lot better than that! I have no words to describe her, but just speaking with her makes you happy. I had an umbrella so I covered her until the stage started. ‘Good luck, Evie!’ and the riders went away.

Riders gathering at the start of the last stage

The stage was going to finish in Gatika, another relatively small Basque village just 7 km away from the start in Fruiz. We went there and entered a bar near the finish line. A few minutes after, Anton Vos came there as well. He needed a wifi connection to do his work, so he told me if I could ask the barman in Spanish about that. Luckily there was wifi connection indeed. My friend and I were drinking coffee and waiting, and then we suddenly thought: ‘why not trying an interview with Anton for Cobbles & Hills? It could be an original idea’. Anton liked the idea too so we improvised a fast interview, talking about his work as cycling photographer, his own views on the sport and also about his sister Marianne. You can read it here.

Still with dreadful weather, we went towards the nasty, uphill finish line a few minutes before the first riders arrived. Elisa and Emma looked happy with their respective stage and GC wins, but most of the riders’ faces were terrible. Marianne Vos and Martine Bras crossed the line absolutely exhausted – I’ve hardly ever seen such tired faces. It was so good to see Sharon Laws making it in the top 25 of the stage! We went right there to cover her with an umbrella and to ask her about her sensations. She was obviously very tired, but happy to see herself improving, especially after such a difficult stage. I’ve definitely become a big fan of her after this race.

We waited until the last girls crossed the line and then we got a good position to see the podium and take photos. There were some familiar faces there. Of course, Anton Vos again, but also CJ Farquharson from and photographer of the Orica – AIS team. Poor CJ was really struggling with the bad weather, but Anton looked happy and comfortable. I guess I was a bit in between. We all took tons of podium pics and my friend recorded some small videos too.

Just after all the jerseys and prizes were given, we went to the back of the podium to meet the riders and try some interviews for Cobbles & Hills. It was a bit late and many riders had to take a plane soon, so it was difficult. Evie Stevens didn’t have time for an interview, but you can’t imagine my face when she suddenly said ‘thanks for your support! This is for you guys’…and she gave us her trophy (from being the 3rd on final GC) as a present! I really couldn’t believe it and didn’t even know what to say at the moment. And still don’t know what to say now but a big THANK YOU!

There was no time for an Emma interview either, but she and Martin Vestby were nice enough to arrange the interview for a few days later. So I finally interviewed her just after the national championships. You can read the interview here.

It was an incredibly rewarding weekend overall. So everybody: if you ever have the chance to go to a women’s race, do it. Don’t be afraid to talk to the riders, they’re all friendly and close to the fans. I can’t wait to meet them again.

Photos by Saul/

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