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Eusebio Unzué is cycling’s ultimate survior

EUSEBIO UNZUÉ STEPS OFF an air-conditioned bus on a hot summer morning. It’s midway through the 2017 Tour de France, and Unzué is hosting a VIP event at the bus of Movistar Team, the squad he manages. As attendees look on, the team’s Colombian star Nairo Quintana attacks into a four-man breakaway alongside Alberto Contador, Warren Barguil, and Mikel Landa. Unzué’s guests cheer with excitement.

“Hombre! We couldn’t have picked a better day to come to the Tour!” one shouts.

Quintana survives the climb, but loses the stage in the sprint. The lack of a victory is disappointing, yet the day brings a major accomplishment for Unzué: The VIPs walk away happy, having witnessed an exciting and dramatic stage.

For Unzué, keeping sponsors happy is just as important as winning races. For nearly 40 years, he has been handling both sides of the equation with proficiency.

At 62, Unzué’s longevity within cycling has allowed the Spanish manager to see it all — and survive it all. In a sport where teams come and go like thieves in the night, Unzué’s roots run as deep as a Spanish oak tree. His Movistar squad of today, after all, traces its origins to the 1980s and the formative years of Spanish cycling, when Miguel Indurain dominated the sport for the Banesto squad. In fact, the Movistar franchise is the longest-running operation in pro cycling.

And that is largely due to Unzué.

“In cycling, you either win or you’re learning lessons,” Unzué says. “In this Tour, we learned more than a few things. To survive in this sport, you cannot stop learning.”

UNZUÉ IS CYCLING’S ULTIMATE survivor. With a combination of pluck, hard work, discretion, and business savvy, he is the longest-running sport director and manager in the peloton.

Unzué’s run began when a regional amateur team in Spain’s Navarra region turned pro in 1980. And though the sponsor names on the jerseys have changed — from Reynolds to Banesto to Illes Balears to Caisse d’Epargne to Movistar — Unzué has been a constant presence the entire way.

“Every year, I always find new motivation to keep going,” Unzué says. “I always have the passion, and the energy. And we’ve always had the luck of finding sponsors who’ve [had confidence] in our team.”

Unzué deserves a place among cycling’s luminaries. From the legendary directors of the past, such as Cyrille Guimard and Peter Post, to his contemporary rivals, such as ONCE’s Manolo Saíz and U.S. Postal Service’s Johan Bruyneel, to today’s barons of the modern peloton, including Quick-Step’s Patrick Lefevere and FDJ’s Marc Madiot, he’s outlasted them all. No one has as much durability as Unzué.

His success arcs across generations, from Pedro Delgado and Indurain in Spain’s golden era of the 1980s and 1990s, to today’s post-modern peloton, with Colombian star Nairo Quintana poised to carry the franchise into the next decade.

“You can really see why his teams have been going on for so long,” says Australia’s Rory Sutherland, who joined the team in 2015. “He respects people. That’s not to say other teams don’t, but you can see that there is a base of riders and staffers who are always here. You have your Nairos and Alejandro [Valverde], but everyone is valued here.”

Unzué’s journey to the pinnacle of the peloton in many ways reflects the journey of modern Spain. He grew up in a small village on the outskirts of Pamplona, a city made famous by Ernest Hemingway and his love for Spanish bullfights. Unzué’s rarely seen the popular “Running of the Bulls” celebration that’s part of the city’s Sanfermines festival. Why? Because it always coincides with the Tour de France. Cycling is where Unzué’s passions lie.

Growing up under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, Unzué was hoping cycling would lead to a future beyond his village in the shadows of the Pyrenees. A professional career never took off, and he began coaching amateur riders when he was still in his teens. This was in the 1970s, and Eddy Merckx and Spain’s KAS team were kings of the peloton. Unzué could have never imagined how far he would go.

“I was just an average racer, and my former director told me very diplomatically as much,” Unzué told a Colombian newspaper. “He convinced me I could be a better director. I could read races, and I knew tactics. I never looked back.”

A good talker and natural leader, Unzué was better suited for the team car. By the mid-1970s, he made a fateful decision, and linked up with a local amateur team run by legendary Spanish manager José Miguel Echávarri. The team finagled the backing from the Spanish distributor of Reynolds aluminum foil. It became a professional outfit in 1980 and has been in the elite peloton ever since.

“The entire budget of our first team, with 13 riders and four support staff, was $80,000 for the entire season,” he says, almost laughing in disbelief. “Today, we have almost 60 people counting riders and staff, and our budget is $19.5 million. Cycling is a world sport now.”

Things were different in those days. Riders would often sleep in bunk beds in dormitories and take showers in local high schools. Unzué was only 28 when Reynolds started its first Tour in 1983.

“The biggest change in these four decades is how well looked after the riders are,” he says. “Today, we have physiotherapists, nutritionists, and doctors to help the riders with their recovery. If they can avoid a major injury, that’s why riders can race into their late 30s. In those days, a rider would be burned out by the time they were 30.”

With Echávarri as manager and Unzué as sport director, the team helped delight a nation with some of Spanish cycling’s most glorious moments. Banesto, a growing Spanish bank, came on as title sponsor in 1990. The team was poised to revolutionize cycling.

It is difficult to appreciate today what cycling meant to Spain in the late 1980s. Back then, Spain ruled the peloton, first with Delgado and then Indurain. Bars would be packed each afternoon. The nation would stop in its tracks to watch their heroes tackle the Pyrenees and Alps.

Indurain’s five-year reign at the Tour enraptured the entire nation. In many ways, Indurain’s success reflected a modern, forward-looking Spain that emerged from years of dictatorship to embrace democracy and the European Union. Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympic Games in 1992, and Spain was riding a high, with a booming economy. Indurain’s success was similar to what would later happen in the U.S. with Lance Armstrong or in the United Kingdom with Bradley Wiggins. Indurain was king of cycling, and Unzué was his ambassador.

“Cycling was nearly as big as soccer during the Indurain era,” says Josu Garai, a veteran Spanish journalist who covered the Tour for the sports daily MARCA. “Indurain popularized cycling and gave it prestige. The public adored how Indurain dominated the Tour, but let others win as well — and how he never raised his voice, neither in victory or in defeat, and never lost his humility.”

Indurain was Unzué’s high-water mark. He was a “homegrown” product, also from a small village near Pamplona. The gentle giant became the first rider to win five consecutive Tours from 1991-95. Unzué also recalls how the yellow jersey became a burden.

“The Tour went from the pleasure of winning to the pressure of not losing,” he says. “It almost became unbearable in the end. The only pleasure came in Paris when you could leave that pressure behind for one more year.”

Eusebio Unzué
Eusebio Unzué managed the Banesto team during Miguel Indurain’s run of five Tour de France victories. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

AFTER INDURAIN FELL SHORT of a then-record sixth Tour in 1996, and later retired that season, Unzué and Banesto entered uncharted waters. It was a voyage that wasn’t entirely unwelcome.

“We had been fighting so hard for the yellow jersey, first with Delgado, then Indurain, that it had become an obsession,” Unzué says. “It was almost a liberation to race for victories again. We could race for pleasure, not obligation.”

By the late 1990s, cycling was becoming far more international. Once dominated by a few core European nations, the peloton was soon populated with riders from Australia, England, and the United States. French was no longer the language of the bunch.

Unzué had to adapt. He won the Vuelta a España with Abraham Olano in 1998, and had a steady stream of consistent performers, including the ill-fated José Maria Jimenez, who would die of a cocaine overdose in 2003. Unzué even managed to lure Alex Zülle away from longtime rival ONCE, but the glory of the Tour would be like a mirage.

By 1999, Armstrong and Bruyneel appeared on the scene, and the Spanish became bit players in the race they used to dominate.

No conversation about cycling’s past can avoid the topic of doping. From the Festina Affair in 1998 to Operación Puerto in 2006 and the excesses of the Armstrong era, cycling was left roiling from one scandal to another.

On the front lines of the sport for decades, Unzué and many of his stars did not remain untainted. Indeed, few escaped those years without having the stain of scandal touch them one way or another. Unzué prefers to look forward rather than dwell on a past in which, he admits, “everyone made mistakes.”

“I refuse to fall into nostalgia. I am a defender of the past, but what excites me is the continual evolution of cycling.”
– Eusebio Unzué

“The most important thing is the sport had this point of inflection, and we were capable of moving on,” says Unzué, switching to speak for the collective of the peloton. “Now everyone can race with the assurance that no one has an unfair advantage.”

By instinct, Unzué says that digging up the ghosts of cycling’s past does little to help the narrative of the present. In many ways, Spain was a haven for doping, but authorities started to clamp down. By 2006, police had broken up Eufemiano Fuentes’s Puerto ring, and politicians passed a tough, anti-doping law. Another milestone came with the introduction of the biological passport in 2008, which Unzué insists helped the peloton turn the page on its scandal-ridden past.

“This sport lives under the stigma of our past, but the reality today has changed forever,” he says. “The mentality has completely changed inside the peloton. 70 percent of today’s riders have always raced under the biological passport, and they are part of this new culture. There are new rules of the game in contemporary cycling, and everyone is respecting them.”

Unzué admits those were treacherous waters to navigate. There were hazards both on and off the bike. By 2005, Banesto ended its long-running sponsorship. In 2008, Echávarri retired, and Unzué assumed ownership of the team under Abarca Sports, a holding company he owns.

Then Spain’s economy cratered in 2008 in the wake of the international banking crisis. Money dried up, and many teams and races shuttered. While Spain once boasted four WorldTour-level teams, when Euskaltel-Euskadi closed in 2013 only Unzué’s Movistar Team remained.

Cycling’s ultimate survivor outlasted Spain’s worst economic crisis in a century.

Eusebio Unzué
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

EACH DECEMBER, MOVISTAR GATHERS in a posh hotel built on the remains of a medieval castle overlooking Pamplona. It’s an opportunity for riders to pose for photos and get fitted for new equipment, while directors huddle to finalize racing schedules for the upcoming season.

Unzué holds court like a happy father over an ever-growing brood. Most of his staff have been with the team for years, from the mechanics and bus drivers to the sport directors and soigneurs. His passion for cycling still runs deep. Today he marvels at how far cycling has come since he began almost 40 years ago.

“The evolution of cycling never ceases to amaze me,” he says. “The ’90s were better than the ’80s, and I am sure the next decade will be better than this one. The material, the level of training, the professionalism — cycling is a sport that is continually changing and advancing. You cannot stand still in cycling, or you will be left behind.”

Unzué doesn’t spend much time inside the team car anymore. In fact, it’s been years since he was an active sport director. He leaves that to a new generation. Former Banesto rider José Luis Arrieta is now Unzué’s lead director.

“Working with Eusebio comes naturally,” Arrieta says. “He lets us do our work. His input is always precise. He knows racing better than all of us but leaves it up to us to make the calls.”

Arrieta is among several riders who raced under Unzué and who are now sport directors. Chente García and Pablo Lastras raced their entire careers with Unzué, and now call the shots from inside team cars.

For Unzué, the allure of cycling is what happens out on the open road. He bemoans how the sport has become more controlled and less unpredictable. The arrival of Quintana to the team in 2012 has helped Unzué rediscover his long-held belief that no other sport can deliver such raw emotion as cycling. The “sueño amarillo” — the yellow jersey dream — still burns bright.

“Nairo can do magical things,” he says. “With him, we can dream of winning the Tour again. He’s already won two grand tours, finished three times on the Tour podium. He’s matured very fast, and I believe his best is yet to come.”

The team nearly collapsed in 2010 when French bank Caisse d’Epargne ended its sponsorship. It wasn’t until August that summer, late by cycling standards, that Spanish telecommunications giant Movistar stepped up.

The stars are lining up yet again for Unzué. South America is one of Movistar’s most important markets. Quintana’s emergence as Colombia’s superstar fits in perfectly with Unzué’s plans for the future. With Quintana, Unzué has helped secure the team’s future at least through 2019. He refuses to revel in the team’s glory days.

“I refuse to fall into nostalgia,” he says. “I am a defender of the past, but what excites me is the continual evolution of cycling. I am not going to be one of those who are going to say it was better in the past. What lies ahead is always more interesting.”

Unzué has dodged some bullets, weathered many storms, and lived the highest highs that cycling can offer. Yet most of those things are only memories now. When VeloNews spoke with Unzué in late July, he was busy outlining the team’s plans for the Vuelta. He is particularly excited to see what Spain’s latest jewel, Marc Soler, can do in his home grand tour. [Soler’s best result was third in stage 5. Movistar did not win any stages in the 2017 Vuelta -Ed.]

For Unzué, it is, and always has been, about the next race. Maybe that’s why he’s lasted so long: always looking forward; wheels always spinning; never on the brakes.

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