Samuel Sanchez gives struggling Euskaltel-Euskadi a much-needed boost

Sánchez used his racing acumen to smash his way across the line to victory for the first time this season

If it looked like Samuel Sánchez was happy after crossing the line victorious Saturday, high in the French Alps at the Critérium du Dauphiné, he was.

Some were quick to suggest that the 2008 Olympic champion was hamming it up for cameras, both during the final climb and after, but the 35-year-old Sánchez had plenty of reason to celebrate.

Wins don’t come easy in cycling, especially for an all-rounder, non-specialist like Sánchez. And this victory comes at a good time both for Sánchez and his Euskaltel-Euskadi team.

“It’s never easy to win at this level,” Sánchez told VeloNews last month at the Giro d’Italia. “For every time you win, there are a dozen times you don’t. You just have to keep trying.”

Sánchez entered this week’s Dauphiné with that in mind; to keep trying.

Despite three top-threes at the Giro, he already forfeited on a shot at the Tour de France, meaning that after the Dauphiné he will take a break before reloading for the Vuelta a España and a run at the world title in Florence, Italy.

Sánchez wanted to take full advantage of his form and of race dynamics at the Dauphiné. With Chris Froome (Sky) firmly in yellow, the GC favorites were in a standoff at the end of Saturday’s difficult stage, which included an early climb up L’Alpe d’Huez.

Sánchez found an ally in Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) in the finale, and despite the Dane looking stronger, Sánchez used his racing acumen to smash his way across the line victorious for the first time this season.

“I’ve been close a few times this year, but things didn’t go my way,” Sánchez said. “The only thing you can do is keep working.”

Just like his team, Sánchez has been nipping at the edges of a big win all season.

Coming into the Dauphiné, he posted five top-fives, including second at a stage at the Vuelta a País Vasco, losing to Richie Porte (Sky), and second at the climbing time trial at the Giro, when Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) blew him and everyone else out of the water.

The win will serve as a salve for both Sánchez and Euskaltel-Euskadi.

The Basque outfit has been languishing near the bottom of the ProTeam rankings with just two wins, tied with Vacansoleil-DCM and Saxo-Tinkoff, until Sánchez burst across the line to give them a third win on the year.

Euskaltel’s rather abysmal haul so far has triggered tremendous debate with the cycling-crazed Basque Country of Spain.

Last fall, in part as a desperate effort to remain in the 18-team WorldTour league, the team ditched its long-running policy of signing only Basque riders or riders with very strong links to the Basque Country. In fact, Sánchez, who hails from nearby Asturias and does not come from Basque heritage, had been the lone exception to that policy. Sánchez grew up racing in the Basque Country and was considered an adopted son of sorts by the team.

That changed last fall when Euskaltel brass was running the numbers. They knew without signing riders with UCI points, there was no way they would stand a chance to retain a place in the WorldTour league.

So for the first time since the team’s founding in 1994, Euskaltel signed seven non-Basque riders. They ditched longtime Basque rider Amets Txurruka and signed such riders as Jure Kocjan (former Team Type 1), Tarik Chaoufi, a Moroccan rider with points, and aging Germans Steffen Radochla and André Schulze, 34 and 38, respectively.

Those new signings haven’t brought much glory to the team. Going into March, Euskaltel remained winless, and it wasn’t until the Vuelta a Castilla y León in April that the team notched a pair of stage victories, with Pablo Urtasun and JJ Lobato claiming the flowers in the opening two stages.

Even worse for the team, one of its new signings, Russian rider Alexander Serebryakov, tested positive for EPO in March.

Serebryakov, another former Team Type 1 rider, absolved the team of any responsibility, but the news was disastrous for Euskaltel.

Team manager Igor González de Galdeano, speaking to El Diario Vasco in the wake of the Serebryakov positive, defended the team’s new direction, saying that the squad had signed on a new trainer and reminding everyone that the Basque riders have never been prolific winners.

On Saturday, Sánchez said his victory is the fruit of hard work over the past several months by everyone on the team.

“It will be a good way to go into the Tour de France with a victory in a prestigious race as this one,” Sánchez said. “I know the team needed a result like this, because we haven’t won a lot this season, so it’s just perfect to win like this.”