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Throughout the Vuelta a España, VeloNews will be talking to some of the unsung heroes in the peloton – those riders who battle on each day without the recognition the major GC favorites or sprint stars receive.
When Mikel Nieve was a kid, he dreamed of being like Miguel Indurain.
Indurain is from the Navarra region of Spain, which borders Nieve’s home region of the Basque Country. The Spanish star was in the midst of his run of five Tour de France titles when Nieve was getting into cycling, and he wanted to emulate his hero.
At about 13 centimeters shorter and approximately 30 kilos lighter, Nieve was never going to be quite the same as ‘Big Mig’ on the bike, but it was the Navarra rider and his success that helped the young Nieve get into the sport.
“When I was 10 years old, Miguel Indurain was winning the Tour. Cycling in the Basque Country was also very big, so I think every kid wanted to be Miguel Indurain,” Nieve told VeloNews before the Vuelta a España.
“He was the idol these times and he was one of the best cyclists in history when he was winning the Tour, the Giro, and so many races. I wanted to be like him and that was the beginning of cycling for me.”
Though cycling was hugely popular in the Basque Country while Nieve was growing up, Spain’s biggest race avoided the region. After the 1978 race was severely disrupted by Basque separatist protesters, the Vuelta would not visit the area for 33 years.
It would not be until the 2011 edition that Basque riders would be able to race on home roads at the Vuelta a España, with two stages through the region. Nieve was one of those present for the occasion, riding his second-ever Vuelta with the Basque squad Euskaltel-Euskadi.
It was a memorable moment for the then 27-year-old, who was fighting for a place in the top-10 overall.
“That was a really nice day because Igor Anton [his Euskaltel teammate -ed] won the stage, and I was also pretty good in the GC and I was fighting with the race leaders. It was incredible to feel the Basque crowds and how they and they were shouting for us and supporting us. As always,” said Nieve.
Basque fans, and the return of Euskaltel
This year, the Vuelta will not go into the Basque Country but we are bound to see some Basque fans on the roadside at some point through the race. Basque fans are known the world over for their passion for cycling and the vociferous way they show it.
Few riders will ever forget the sensation of riding through the teeming, screaming crowds, not least the home heroes. For Nieve, experiencing the roar of a home crowd gives him a little more energy to push on when things get tough.
“Is something special for us. I feel privileged when I’m riding in front of them because they always support you so much. Also, they respect you, or that they respect other riders, and they respect cycling. And yeah, I think almost everyone in the peloton loves the Basque fans,” Nieve said.
“It’s amazing, you don’t realize it until you are there, but it is incredible. I don’t know how to say it, but you feel like you’re stronger in front of them and with their support and everything. So, it’s very special. There is a lot of noise and sometimes you cannot hear the radio. But I know is a good noise.”
Nieve left the Euskaltel-Euskadi team when it disbanded in 2013 and had a spell on Team Sky before joining Mitchelton-Scott — now Team BikeExchange —in 2018. The Euskaltel-Euskadi name was revived last year with the support of Nieve’s former teammate Mikel Landa, and it is racing at this year’s Vuelta a España.
“I was in the very beginning of my career with them, and it was special to be in this team and seeing them growing up again and coming back to Grand Tour. It’s really good for the fans and also for cycling,” Nieve said.
Nieve is known by the nickname of ‘frosty’ in the peloton due to his surname translating as snow in English. It’s something of a misnomer as Nieve is one of the friendliest riders in the bunch and one of its most popular members, he’s also one of its toughest.
During his career, Nieve has ridden 21 grand tours — not including the ongoing Vuelta — and last year’s Tour de France was the first time he’d had to abandon one. It looked like this year’s Vuelta might be the second after a high-speed crash in the first week, but he is plugging along, despite being covered in bandages.
“It was a big blow for me. Yeah, because last year was different Covid and everything and I wanted to be good, but I crashed pretty hard on the first day and also again in the second week. It is just frustrating when you feel that you’re not able to give your level,” Nieve told VeloNews.
“It was the first time I had this limitation. I have had some crashes or some sickness sometimes but last year I couldn’t put any strength in my legs, and I couldn’t follow the peloton. Yeah, it was hard.”