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Economic crisis, drug scandals chip away at Spanish teams, races

Once a major force across Europe, Spanish cycling is a shadow of its former glorious self in the 1980s and 1990s.

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Lost in Wednesday’s announcement of the latest round of Pro Continental licenses for 2013 was the uncertain future of Spanish squad Andalucía.

Unable to find a co-sponsor, team management confirmed Thursday it could not meet financial guarantees required to retain its second-division license. Team manager Antonio Cabello vows to keep racing, but dropping to cycling’s third division means it will not be able to race in WorldTour events.

It looks to be a rather inglorious end for a team that’s been a staple of the Spanish peloton since forming in 2005, with such riders as Fran Ventoso, Javi Moreno and the late Xavi Tondo coming through the ranks.

The squad has been a consistent performer in Spain, racing in the Vuelta a España every year since 2006. In 2012, it won nearly a dozen races, including a stage in its “hometown” race, the Ruta del Sol.

Yet its absence from Wednesday’s list — UCI officials said the team could apply for a Continental license — underscores a growing crisis within the Spanish peloton.

Once a major force across Europe, in terms of teams, races and riders, Spanish cycling is a shadow of its former glorious self in the 1980s and 1990s.

Spain was long the home to dozens of vigorous, Spanish-backed squads, from the top level to the development ranks. Over the past decade, however, that number has dramatically shrunk.

Squeezed by a crippling economic crisis, with unemployment nearing 25 percent, and bashed by an endless string of doping scandals, cycling has lost its cachet with media and sponsors.

“Things are going badly in Spanish cycling and it’s because of the economy,” said ex-pro Pedro Delgado, now a commentator on TVE. “Spanish cycling is strong, but the money is not there to support the teams. No one has seen it so bad as this.”

Spain once boasted four major teams, but in 2013 will field only two following the demise of Geox-TMC in 2011 and Liberty Seguros in 2006.

Only Euskaltel-Euskadi and Movistar survive in the WorldTour.

The new economic reality also forced Euskaltel to abandon its unique Basque-only policy to ensure its future, signing a four-year deal with its title sponsor that insisted the team remain in the WorldTour. To do that, due to the UCI points system, it had to reach beyond the narrow strip of the Basque Country to sign riders.

“We had to evolve to survive,” said Euskaltel team manager Igor González de Galdeano. “The team remains Basque in spirit, but we want to remain among the top of the sport, so we needed to change.”

Movistar, the legacy from the Banesto franchise, is entering its final year of a three-year deal with the telecommunication giant. Its future is anything but certain.

Luis Abril, the executive who helped save the team in 2009, recently left Movistar in a shakeup of top-level management, meaning the team will not have a major ally when it comes time for the company to reconsider its sponsorship.

At the Pro Continental level, things are even bleaker. Six years ago, there were five second-tier teams. With Andalucía missing the cut, only Caja Rural remains.

Worse yet are the third division and amateur teams. As many as 20 smaller feeder squads once thrived; today, that number has halved.

That means it’s harder for Spanish amateurs to turn pro. And once they do, finding a permanent place in the peloton will be a struggle.

“Today, fans can choose between many sports. Cycling needs to do a better job selling its image,” said Movistar pro Pablo Lastras. “Cycling is a great sport, but it is facing new challenges [since] I turned pro in 1998.”

Many Spanish riders have gone to foreign teams, but most of them are established pros with winning histories. For younger pros trying to break in, times are tough south of the Pyrénées.

A similar diminishing effect in the Portuguese peloton — where Spanish riders often found refuge — means it’s harder than ever for Spanish riders to find a contract.

And don’t look for good news on the women’s side of the sport. Anna Sachis, winner of the Spanish national title and the top women’s rider, said on a blog that she “has nothing to show” for her racing season.

Things are equally bleak for Spanish races.

Spain once boasted the most vibrant and complete stage-racing calendar in Europe, with a string of five-day to weeklong stage races from February through June. Riders loved the warm weather and good racing conditions to warm up for the spring classics and major stage races.

That racing calendar now has some major holes as one race after another has shut its doors. Among the major events gone are stage races in Valencia, Madrid and Aragon as well as Setmana Catalana and Euskal Bizikleta.

Rather than racing at home, the troubled Andalucia team found itself racing in Azerbaijan, China and Chile because there simply were not enough races to keep their riders busy.

Officials at the Ruta del Sol in Andalucía have announced a “crowd-funding” online fundraiser to try to save the 2013 edition.

Other races have shortened to trim costs. The former Vuelta a Rioja, a three-day race, is down to one day. The five-day Mallorca Challenge will be down to two days for 2013 and the same goes for the Vuelta a Murcia.

Even the more established races are hanging by a thread. The Vuelta a País Vasco was saved by a final-hour cash payment from the regional government, while Spain’s oldest stage race, the Volta a Catalunya, also faces a dire future.

“The economic situation is very grim,” said Basque Country race director Jaime Ugarte, who retired after this year’s edition. “I’ve literally been begging for the past four years to keep the race alive. We’ve struggled to find sponsors and the money is simply not there.”

Only the Vuelta a España — thanks in large part to ASO, which bought a controlling interest five years ago — seems to be hanging on.

Spain’s economic crisis makes it challenging for businesses to spend money on cycling sponsorships when they’re slashing payrolls.

For more than a decade, local savings and loans banks and regional governments buoyed teams and races. Both are now under heavy pressure. Spanish banks were among the hardest hit in the fallout from Spain’s housing boom and now governments face budget cuts of up to 40 percent.

The Spanish cycling federation likewise faces heavy debts and a major reduction in its budget as the government looks to slash expenditures.

New president José Luis Lopéz Cerron, elected earlier this month, said that his primary challenge is shoring up the federation’s finances.

Lopéz Cerron also organizes the Vuelta a Castilla y León, but it seems likely that his hands will be tied when it comes to trying to help strapped teams or events.

Ironically, the sport’s troubles come just as Spanish cyclists are enjoying a revival.

Joaquim Rodríguez, Samuel Sánchez, Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador — the latter two back from racing bans that seemed to have little impact on their popularity with fans or media — are winning races at the sport’s highest levels.

Contador seems to be the one rider capable of lifting the sport, at least in the eyes of the media and fans.

Cycling has been squeezed out of the newspapers due to doping scandals and rising competition for pages from Formula 1, tennis, Moto GP and NBA, sports where Spanish athletes are having success.

But Contador’s comeback victory in the Vuelta in September put cycling back on the front pages for all the right reasons.

There are no quick fixes for Spain’s woes. Economists expect Spain’s recession to worsen in 2013 and see no signs of economic recovery for at least four years.

It remains to be seen how much of the Spanish peloton will be around to greet that brighter day.