MADRID (VN) — Cycling loses something special with the demise of Euskaltel-Euskadi this week.
The orange-clad Basque team shutters its doors after 20 years of history, bringing a sad end to a long-running tradition as well as a reflection on the rising costs of running a top-level cycling team.
Euskaltel fell victim to an economic crisis engulfing Spain that left one of cycling’s most unique teams with neither sponsorship funding or a future for its home breed of cyclists in Spain’s hilly Basque Country.
What began as a dream for Miguel Madariaga, president of the Euskadi Foundation, more than two decades ago — that of having an all-Basque team racing in Europe’s most important races — unceremoniously faded to black when the team finished its final race, the Tour of Beijing, this week.
The squad was born from Madariaga’s dream of fostering cycling in the Basque Country, unquestionably one of the European hotbeds of cycling. Nearly all Spanish pros race in the region as amateurs and dozens of top pros have climbed out of the verdant green hills to win in Europe’s biggest races.
The squad was unique in that club members, or socios in Spanish, helped fund part of the team’s budget. Up to 4,000 fans each season paid into the team’s kitty.
Other pro teams have come and gone with the same idea that spawned Euskaltel. Two decades ago, 7-Eleven was hailed as an all-American team. Today, Katusha, Astana, and Sky are national projects along the lines of Euskaltel, with the Russians, Kazakhs, and British, respectively, promoting and developing their national riders.
Yet none of those teams is as pure and authentic to its pedigree as Euskaltel. Until this season, 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez was the sole rider who was not Basque either by birth or family links. Sánchez, who hails from nearby Asturias, was an adoptive son of sorts because he began racing in the Basque Country as a teen, and never left.
Madariaga dreamed of reaching the ultimate arena — the Tour de France — with a band of spindly Basque climbers. And he finally realized that dream in 2001.
There were many big names that came and went through the Euskaltel franchise. Igor González de Galdeano and Unai Etxebarria were some of the earliest riders with success. Later came the likes of Haimar Zubeldia, who rode to a team-best fifth in the 2003 and 2007 Tours, and who recently re-upped with Trek Factory Team for 2014. Others included Aitor González and Iban Mayo, the skinny, flashy climber who dared to take on Lance Armstrong at the height of the Texan’s rule at the Tour, only to disappear into obscurity.
The latest crop includes Igor Antón, former under-23 world champion Romain Sicard, Mikel Nieve, and the Izagirre brothers.
Laiseka leads the first Basque Tour
Perhaps no rider, however, represented the allure and mysticism of the Basque climber more than Roberto Laiseka. The skinny, reclusive mountain specialist was the first team rider to reach major success, winning mountain stages in the 1999 and 200 Vueltas A España.
By 2001, the riders were wearing the team’s trademark orange jersey that became synonymous with the team (but had nothing to do with the traditional colors of the Basque flag, the ikurriña, but rather the branding colors of title sponsor, Euskaltel), and the Tour de France proffered a long sought-after invitation.
In that first Tour, a sea of Basque fans poured over the border to clog the roads of the Pyrénées, lining the route 10-deep on the upper reaches of the steepest climbs. Drinking wine and partying all day, the rowdy fans waited in delirium for their boys to come spinning past.
And they did, led by Laiseka, who attacked alone and from afar on the road to Luz Ardiden. This was during Armstrong’s third Tour, and the Texan was intent on smashing all comers, yet Laiseka, who posed no GC threat, spun away to victory.
It was a colossal victory, both for Laiseka and the team. From then on, the Pyrénées would become Basque territory for a few days every July as the orange-clad hordes would return for their summer migration. When Mayo was making noises about challenging Armstrong, fans jeered and even spat on the Texan. Armstrong rode stubbornly through the wall of hate, and left a demoralized Mayo in the dust bin of history.
Laiseka never won another Tour stage, yet he managed one more run for glory, winning a stage in the 2005 Vuelta, up the Cerler climb in the Spanish Pyrénées.
When he retired in 2006 with a knee injury, Euskaltel seemed to lose some of its mystical soul. Others came in his wake — Sánchez, Antón, and Mikel Nieve — but none seemed to capture the imaginations of the Basque fans as much as the mysterious Laiseka.
The team was not immune to doping scandals, and it’s hard to imagine that it could perform at a high level during the EPO era without being part of the do-what-it-takes-to-win mentality. Mikel Astarloza and Iñigo Landaluze were among the doping cases to haunt Euskaltel, though the latter skated on a testosterone positive over procedural errors.
With a new decade, new problems for the Basque
Fortunes began to change for the team entering the new decade.
Madariaga, the godfather of Basque cycling, was unceremoniously shown the door as Igor González de Galdeano, who had taken over team management from Julian Gorospe in 2009, looked to modernize the team.
By the 2012 season, the writing was on the wall, and the team was told by local government backers that the same amount of money simply wouldn’t be available for the coming season. With local governments facing major budget cuts in health, education, pensions, and other public spending, it was impossible for the Basque Country regional government to rationalize spending 5 million euros on a cycling team.
Galdeano seemed to save the day when Euskaltel, the regional telecommunications company and long-time sponsor, stepped up its commitment to keep the team alive for 2013.
Intent on staying in the WorldTour, management was pressured to sign riders who could bring points to the table. Galdeano ditched the team’s long-running Basque-only legacy, and brought on seven new international riders. Most came cheap from two-bit, second-division teams, but they packed points that allowed the team to ride in the WorldTour this year.
Early this season, Euskaltel struggled on the road, perhaps sensing it had lost its way. The team’s first wins didn’t come until April. Weeks later, the first whispers of gloom were heard inside the team bus. This summer, the local government confirmed it would not continue to back the team, and then Euskaltel said it could not afford to pick up the difference.
By the end of the Tour, riders were quietly told to search for new teams as management scrambled to try to find a stop-gap funding source.
Then, out of the blue came a prince on a white horse in the form of Formula One driver Fernando Alonso. Tipped off by Oakley European marketing manager Kiko García about the team’s imminent demise, Alonso, an avid cycling fan, moved quickly in early September to buy Euskaltel’s ProTeam license and take over the team, saving jobs for many of its riders and staff, and keeping alive, at least in some form, the team’s legacy going forward.
Alonso’s team of advisors moved quickly, even promising to sign riders for next season, Vuelta a España winner Chris Horner among them, but negotiations turned ugly between the two parties. What started out in good faith went sideways, especially over financial obligations to existing riders and staff, and contracts for equipment sponsors and where the team headquarters would be located. Just as quickly, in what looked to be a salve turned into a disaster. Both parties bitterly announced the deal had unraveled. Alonso vows to build a team for the 2015 season, but the hope of saving Euskaltel ended with acrimony from both parties.
Today Madariaga looks back bitterly at how his dream and vision were kidnapped. After losing the WorldTour team, he kept his fingers on the Continental Euskadi team, but even that squad is facing a budget crisis. Madariaga said if 400,000 euros were not found in the coming weeks, even the amateur feeder team would fold.
With the collapse of Euskaltel, gone is one of cycling’s most important pipelines for young Basque talent. Promising Basque riders will have a harder time punching into the elite peloton, not to mention having a chance to race in their hometown jersey.
Spain is left with just one major team, Movistar, with Caja Rural the lone survivor at the UCI Pro Continental level.
Gone, too, is an important part of cycling’s heritage. The romantic notion of a small-time team of locally developed riders taking on the world is now fading into the pages from history.
Super teams with budgets four times the size of Euskaltel’s are dominating the sport. Led by Sky, Astana, BMC Racing, and Katusha, these new super teams are well-funded, with deep pockets to spend on signing the top riders, bringing on the best material, and adding important backroom staffers of trainers and coaches.
Cycling has gone international, with riders from the Americas, Australia, the United Kingdom, and even Africa dominating the sport.
As the saying goes, evolve or die. Euskaltel tried to evolve, but fell short for a variety of reasons. Whether the sport will ever see another team like Euskaltel remains doubtful. Bigger, faster, and richer is not always better.