As the rain fell on the crowd at the 2023 Tour de France team presentation on Thursday evening, one began to really appreciate how much this event matters to the people of Bilbao, the people of the Basque Country.
Anywhere else, people would have dispersed, gone home, sought cover. In front of the Guggenheim in Bilbao on Friday night, the crowds stayed, the fervour over the Tour built, and the final riders got their chance to say hello to the fans.
On television, the team presentation must seem quite bewildering, a messy affair which goes on for quite a while without any real purpose. In person, however, the passion is clear, even in the pouring rain.
Due to the inclement weather, it might not have had quite had the same impact at last year's Copenhagen equivalent, which seemed more like a gig in Tivoli Gardens. This was not quite the beery festival that that was, but it was still interesting, and gave an insight into the state of many of the riders.
The evening began with one of the hosts, who switched between Basque, Spanish, French and English, promising that it would be an evening the crowd would never forget. This was hyperbole, but it was far from dull.
Bahrain-Victorious were first out, in order that a minute's silence could be held in memory of Gino Mäder, who died at the Tour de Suisse a fortnight ago; the moment was impeccably marked by the respectful crowd, with the team appearing to appreciate the gesture. After this, it was on with the show.
Every rider was presented with a Basque beret, a Txapela, which had their race number printed on it. While some riders looked great in the headwear, some chose to forego it for sponsorship reasons, which isn't really buying into the spirit of it, is it, Alpecin-Deceuninck?
The Basque riders were the favourites, obviously, with Bahrain's Pello Bilbao loved by the crowd - he is from just down the road in Guernica after all, and has the city in his name.
There are seven Basque riders in this year's Tour, with each greeted with adulation. Alongside Bilbao, there's his teammate Mikel Landa; Gorka Izagirre and Alex Alanburu (Movistar); Jonathan Castroviejo and Omar Fraile (Ineos Grenadiers); and Gorka's brother Ion Izagirre (Cofidis).
For many teams, those without a star rider or a Basque among their number, there was no time for pleasantries, with the likes of Intermarché-Circus-Wanty and Cofidis ushered off the stage before they could even say hello to the crowd. The hosts were officious at keeping to schedule, cutting off Mark Cavendish (Astana-Qazaqstan) before he could even get into what he really wanted to say or telling riders to depart with the phrase "thank you, you can leave the stage".
Despite this, there were funny moments, like Lawson Craddock screaming into the microphone, and Peter Sagan wheelie-ing up to the stage and overshooting the yellow carpet. Some teams had bottles and hats to throw the crowd. Others just had time to wave.
The real star of the show, however, was not Basque. UAE Team Emirates were the penultimate squad who rolled onto the stage, and Tadej Pogačar was greeted with a roar. The 24-year-old is not just the world's best bike rider, but a showman as well, and showed how easy it is to wow a crowd at a team presentation. The personality contrast with his main rival, Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma), was all too clear here.
Just like the crowd at Wimbledon's Centre Court, anything a rider said was greeted with acclaim, but Pogačar had tailored his message for the Basque fans.
"Aupa Bilbao," he said. "Aupa Athletic. Gora Euskadi."
Come on Bilbao. Come on Athletic. Long live the Basque Country.
If the race was won on charm and panache, then the yellow jersey is already Pogačar's. Roll on Saturday.
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