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Analysis: Cycling’s Spanish armada is slowly sinking

Retirements and the nation’s financial crisis are having a devastating effect on the peloton

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MADRID (VN) — Juan Antonio Flecha, Spain’s most successful clasico-mano, rides into the sunset this week at the Tour of Beijing.

Flecha’s retirement at 36 closes a chapter on Spain’s best and most consistent classics rider, and underscores a major problem facing the Spanish peloton: age.

The Spanish armada, which has dominated and influenced the international peloton over much of the past two decades, is taking on water fast.

While Joaquim Rodríguez’s victory at the Giro di Lombardia and Spain’s two-medal performance in the elite men’s road race at the world championships last month proved that Spain remains a force, the country is facing an imminent crisis as its established stars are pedaling toward retirement. And more troubling is that there is almost no one coming up behind to replace them.

Rodríguez, speaking in an interview with the Spanish daily ABC, said Spain is enjoying a sweet spot right now.

“We have a big generation of riders and we deserve to be at the top,” Rodríguez said. “In Spain, we have a lot of true number ones — [tennis player Rafael] Nadal, [basketball player Pau] Gasol, [Formula One driver Fernando] Alonso, the national soccer team. My number-one ranking represents that Spanish cycling is still alive.”

But for how much longer?

Since the late 1980s and through the golden era of Miguel Indurain in the early to mid-1990s, Spain has consistently been a major force in the peloton.

Indurain represented the high-water mark as his five consecutive Tour de France victories energized and enchanted an entire nation. Behind Indurain came a generation of riders who emerged as major players in the peloton.

From riders such as Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), and three-time world champion Óscar Freire, who is now retired, Spain was all but assured of having one of its own bubbling near the top of the results sheet in just about every major race.

That consistency and dominance is starting to fade as the major stars push into their mid-30s.

Rodríguez is 34 and Sánchez, who is 36, has no guarantee of finding a team following the demise of Euskaltel-Euskadi at the end of this season. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is 33 but will be fighting to defend his position on the team with the emergence of Colombian talent Nairo Quintana.

Those three riders will surely have another year or two of major success, but not everyone is a rider like Chris Horner, who became the oldest grand tour winner in history at age 41 at the Vuelta a España.

The Spanish stars of today have been pushing heavy racing schedules since their late teens, and will be hard-pressed to keep racing at a high level for much longer.

Even Contador, who has been the lone rider to capture the media attention and fan loyalty rivaling Indurain, turns 31 in December.

Saxo team boss Bjarne Riis believes Contador is still improving, but the arrival of Chris Froome and the Sky juggernaut will make it hard for Contador to win as prolifically as before.

“Alberto can still improve,” Riis told VeloNews during the Vuelta. “He is still ambitious, he still wants to win. We are working even harder.”

Riis and Contador have scheduled a press conference Thursday in Madrid to announce a likely arrival of a new sponsor to help fill the gap caused by the acrimonious exit of Russian businessman Oleg Tinkov.

Even if Contador and Riis can find a stopgap to carry them into 2014, Contador already admitted he needs to change his style if he wants to take on Froome. In a recent interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport, he said he will race less and focus more on the Tour de France next season.

That’s a reflection of Contador’s new maturity and an admission that he needs to raise his game if he hopes to knock back Froome and Sky.

Contador is the youngest of the established big Spanish stars, and what’s troubling to many within the Spanish peloton is that there is not a lot of talent coming up through the ranks.

There is not a new young rider, such as Quintana in Colombia or Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) in the United States, for Spain to rally around.

Emerging riders such as Igor Antón (Euskaltel) or Beñat Intxausti (Movistar) have not quite been able to deliver on early promise.

A major problem for Spain is a lack of funding and support for cycling at the grassroots level.

Spain’s economic crisis is having a devastating effect on Spanish cycling. Much of the support for teams and races came from financial backing from regional and federal governments. Money has evaporated in the face of austerity measures.

The Spanish cycling federation faced a 50 percent budget cut, and its new national team manager, veteran director Javier Minguez, recently led Spain at the world championships without taking a salary. The same story repeats itself across the peloton. The five-day Vuelta a Murcia has been reduced to a one-day event. Others have disappeared, including races in Valencia, Catalunya, and Basque Country.

“It is very difficult to find sponsorship money right now for cycling or any sporting event,” Spanish cycling federation president José Luis López Cerrón told VeloNews in an interview earlier this year. “Everyone is cutting back and we must find new solutions to our funding challenges. Everyone is doing everything possible to survive the crisis.”

The long-running Euskaltel squad is a primary victim of the financial crisis. The local government pulled out of the multi-million-euro deal, forcing the end of the team dating back 19 years.

Efforts to save the team with the arrival of Formula One driver Fernando Alonso collapsed, leaving Spain with just one UCI WorldTour team — Movistar — and only one Pro Continental team in Caja Rural.

That’s in sharp contrast to 2006, when there were a combined nine teams at the WorldTour and Pro Continental levels.

“There is a big problem now because there is no place for young Spanish riders to find a contract,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “Before we had four big pro teams, and another half dozen or so second-division teams. There was plenty of places for young riders to get a contract. Now it is much more complicated.”

New powerhouses are emerging, thanks to major backing at the grassroots level that is overshadowing Spain.

Australia, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia are spending much more money on developing young riders than Spain is right now.

The Americans have pushed a steady stream of young pros into the peloton thanks to its highly successful under-23 program of bringing over young pros to race in Europe. The same goes for the Australians, as the country has a world-class track program that funnels top talent onto the road. The UK squeezed unforeseen talent out of its track and road programs. Russia has both a development team (RusVelo) and an elite team (Katusha) that provide a clear pipeline for emerging talent.

Spain, however, is heading in the opposite direction. Its track program is all but dead, and it is equally bleak at the amateur level. There is little money available to send riders to international events, and financing remains elusive to build substantial training and development programs for young riders.

Smaller, feeder teams are also a dying breed in Spain. The third-division continental level once boasted five squads in 2006. That number shrank to just two in 2013, with Burgos-BH and the Euskadi team. The latter is also facing a budget shortfall of 400,000 euros that is threatening its presence for 2014.

“We have to have the money by the end of [October] to ask for the racing license,” team manager Miguel Madariaga said last week. “If we don’t, it could be the end of everything. It would be a shame for Basque cycling and the future of the sport.”

There are signs of hope, however. The Tour de l’Avenir is an established benchmark of future success, and a Spanish rider won this year with Ruben Fernández, a promising talent on Caja Rural.

What’s clear is that Spain is a fading force in the peloton. It will certainly go down fighting, with the likes of Contador and Rodríguez sure to win more than their fair share of races, but the Spanish armada is slowing sinking.