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End of era? Euskaltel likely to sign non-Basque riders

The hunt for UCI points and Spain’s economy could spell the end of an era to one of cycling’s most distinctive teams

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The hunt for UCI points and Spain’s crippling economic crisis could spell the end of an era to one of cycling’s most distinctive teams.

Euskaltel-Euskadi management admit that they will likely be forced to sign non-Basque riders who pack a lot of UCI points if they hope to remain among the elite ranks of the international peloton.

Team manager Miguel Madariaga, speaking to the Spanish sports daily MARCA, said the UCI points system that’s one of the decisive criteria for the WorldTour league is threatening to undercut the team’s unique legacy as a Basque-only bastion within the peloton.

“Of course it is, but not only from an economic standpoint. With our philosophy, we cannot sign these outside riders who have so many points,” Madariaga told MARCA. “We might have to sign (non-Basque riders). It all depends on what kind of sponsors we find. It seems like those from outside like us more than those inside the Basque Country. We need to have at least 9 million euros if we hope to aspire to be a competitive team.”

Madariaga said the team is desperate to shore up its budget after key Basque government backers have reduced their annual contributions to the team. Pinched by decreased government spending and the hunt for UCI points, Euskaltel could see its Basque tradition compromised by the reality of the modern peloton.

Euskaltel-Euskadi is one of cycling’s most distinctive teams because it’s been founded on the principal of nurturing and signing only riders who hail from the hilly Basque Country. Traditionally, that’s meant the majority of the team’s riders have come from the Spain’s País Vasco in the northeast corner of Spain along the Spanish-French border.

There have been a few exceptions, with the arrival of French riders who come from the French side of the Basque Country, most recently in the form of former U23 champion Romain Sicard. Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez, who hails from nearby Asturias, has been the team’s only rider who is not Basque, but the team signed him because Sánchez had strong links to the squad and the Basque Country ever since his amateur racing days.

That Basque-only feel of the team is likely to change next year as team management struggles to scrounge up enough points from the existing talent pool of Basque riders to retain a spot in the elite, 18-squad WorldTour.

Madariaga also said the team’s annual budget of about 7 million euros is the lowest in the WorldTour league, a figure that hasn’t budged in five years.

Budget cuts from regional governments means that the team will have to search out additional sponsors and Madariaga admitted it’s tough to convince Basque businesses to step up when Spain is suffering through its worse economic crisis since Franco’s death, with unemployment topping 20 percent nationwide.

“We’re trying to find a new sponsor to make up for the budget cutbacks. I don’t believe we’ll have problems this year, but we’ll have to find something for the future,” he said. “Nothing’s decided yet. The first thing is to find a sponsor. If that allows us to continue with our same philosophy, great. If not, then we’ll have to rethink everything. What’s sure is that we’re not thinking of closing down the team.”

Euskaltel-Euskadi enjoyed its best–ever season in 2011, with stage victories in all three grand tours and a spot on the Tour podium with Sánchez, who won the King of the Mountains jersey. Madariaga is hopeful that the team will be around long enough to see it through the latest financial troubles.

“Perhaps I am not the best person to answer this, but I believe that cycling (is on the right path),” he said. “The new system takes cycling beyond its traditional frontiers and head to where the money is. Cycling cannot just sit still during the economic crisis.”