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BURGOS, Spain (VN) — Kiko García, a former professional and European marketing manager for Oakley, couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
Spanish cycling was crumbling right in front of his eyes. After a string of team closures, race cancellations, and doping scandals, cycling in Spain was on the skids. To make matters worse, Euskaltel-Euskadi, the venerable Basque team with its trademark orange jerseys, was on the verge of collapsing. It was the latest blow for a once-mighty sport that inspired a nation during the heyday of Miguel Indurain.
Acting on a hunch, coupled with a touch of desperation, García picked up his cell phone in late August and sent a SMS to the one man he believed could single-handedly turn things around. He punched in the number of Formula One superstar Fernando Alonso, and hit the send button.
“He replied right away. Alonso was preparing for the race at Spa, but he and his people got back to me right away and mentioned their interest,” García told VeloNews. “I was surprised how fast they answered. In fact, you could say I was shocked.”
That one SMS was the spark that unleashed a quickly unfolding chain of events that delivered the news last week that Alonso would take over ownership of the floundering Euskaltel team, saving it from extinction and at the same time providing a huge jolt of excitement to Spanish cycling.
Alonso and his manager, Luis García Abad, quickly put things into motion. García put Alonso’s people in touch with Igor González de Galdeano, the current Euskaltel-Euskadi team manager, and the point man at Euskaltel, the Basque telecommunications company that backs the team.
With a UCI deadline breathing down their necks, they had to move fast.
“If we wanted to keep the WorldTour license, there is a lot of paperwork and obligations we have to meet already at the end of September,” García said. “So it all happened in a matter of days.”
García went to Galicia for the start of the Vuelta a España and met discreetly with Galdeano. With the team already looking at closing at the end of the season, the arrival of Alonso seemed the perfect solution, not only to keep the team and its riders in the game, but to also save the jobs of the support personnel behind the team.
There was a flurry of phone calls and e-mails flying back and forth, all as the Vuelta was kicking into gear. Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez, who also hails from Alonso’s home region of Asturias and has trained with the F1 driver on several occasions, was one of the few riders in on the possible deal.
Alonso spoke about his acquisition of the team last week at a press conference ahead of the Italian grand prix.
“There’s been a lot of work, with batteries running out of cell phones, but the deal is done,” Alonso said. “We will build a solid project, with big ambitions to fight against the biggest teams.”
Within days of García’s SMS, Euskaltel was “saved” and the team will continue into 2014 and beyond, with the backing of one of Spain’s top sports personalities.
“This just shows you that life can change from one instant to another,” García said. “I didn’t know what to expect when I sent that SMS. I knew Alonso was interested in a team. I just told him there might be an opportunity, and they took the ball and ran with it.”
The formalities of the take-over are complete. Alonso, or at least some sort of holding company, will hold the rights of the WorldTour license going into next season.
After finishing second in the Monza Gran Prix over the weekend, Alonso is traveling to Spain this week to hammer out more details. He is expected to attend the Vuelta, likely watching the Anglirú stage on Saturday.
For Euskaltel riders, the news came as a salve.
“I had a contract for next year, but with the team closing down, I was looking at retiring. The arrival of Alonso saves a lot of jobs, not just for the racers, but also for the support staff. All of us have to pay mortgages,” Egoi Martínez told VeloNews. “It’s big for cycling, because Alonso is such a popular figure. It will bring new excitement into the sport.”
The 32-year-old Alonso has a huge media profile in Spain. In fact, his rise to prominence over the past decade has helped pushed cycling off the front pages of the sports dailies.
The two-time world champion Formula 1 pilot on the Ferrari team, Alonso is one of Europe’s highest profile sports figures. His move into cycling would be akin to Michael Jordan buying the Garmin team in the U.S.
“This is great news for Spanish cycling,” García said. “Alonso has a very high media profile, and he’s passionate about cycling. He trains a lot on the bike, and follows the sport closely. When I sent that SMS, I never thought it would happen so fast.”
García and Alonso go back three years, when Oakley became the driver’s sunglass sponsor. As a former pro, racing in the 1990s on the ONCE team, García said that Alonso would always ask him about happenings in the cycling world.
In 2008, Alonso was very close to forming a cycling team, with Banco Santander, a major Spanish bank that sponsors him on the Formula One circuit. That effort fizzled out, but the seed was planted.
Alonso’s representatives will move quickly in the coming weeks to put everything in order behind the scenes. For the team, García said the structure would look similar next season. Big changes are in store in the coming years, however.
Alonso, meanwhile, has offered the job of team manager to García.
“Next year will be a transition year, so the team will largely stay as it is,” García said. “By 2015, 2016, the idea is to have a major team, drawing on some big riders. All that depends on what kinds of sponsors we can find.”
Rumors are already flying that Alberto Contador, currently under contract with Saxo-TInkoff through 2015, would be the ideal rider to head a new Spanish super-team. Bjarne Riis shot down those rumors, telling VeloNews this week that those reports are “speculation.”
Alonso, meanwhile, ran his cycling plans past his bosses at the Ferrari racing team, where he is under contract through 2015. The Italians gave their blessings, and though Alonso will continue to focus on his racing career, García expects him to be heavily involved in the team.
“Cycling is his other great passion in life. Now he is racing, and that’s his full-time job, but he will be certainly involved,” he said. “He is very excited about the project.”
Alonso said once in an interview if he were not an F1 driver, he would like to have become a professional cyclist.
Since his racing career has made him a very wealthy man, he can now do something nearly as good: own a team.