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Samuel Sánchez was unique in the 17-year history at Euskaltel-Euskadi in that he was the only rider on the outfit who was not Basque.
For 2013, the “asturiano” will have plenty of company as the team has ditched its Basque-only philosophy to sign foreign riders in a bid to assure its place in the elite 18-team WorldTour league.
Sánchez backs the management’s decision to open the team’s roster to non-Basque riders — eight are set to join for 2013 — because he says it means the team will remain among the elite of the peloton.
“We have to change to stay at the highest level. It’s evolve or die,” Sánchez told VeloNews. “It’s just like the NBA, Formula 1 or Champions League. This is the same thing. If the changes are in order to be at the highest level, then they’re more than welcome.”
Euskaltel-Euskadi is turning the page in its unique, long-running team history as a breeding ground for Basque cycling talent.
It’s partly driven by UCI rules that have forced the team to sign riders with points if it is to snag a ProTeam license for 2013. But the evolution also reflects major, behind-the-scenes changes within team management.
Longtime sponsor Euskaltel, a regional communications company, has taken over ownership and management of the team from the Euskadi Foundation, the regional group that created the pro squad in 1994.
Igor González de Galdeano, a former pro who took over from Julian Gorospe as lead sport director in 2006, has replaced team manager Miguel Madariaga.
Without the influx of international riders, Euskaltel-Euskadi would all but certainly lose its WorldTour status. Of the team’s roster, only Sánchez, Mikel Nieve and Igor Antón had any significant points.
And the decision seems to have borne fruit. In the latest UCI ranking, released last week in anticipation of how the 2013 ProTeam licenses will be awarded, Euskaltel-Euskadi was safely inside the top-15 to receive the first round of licenses.
González de Galdeano insists the team’s spirit will not change and its identity will remain Basque, yet the 2012 season marks the end of an era for one of the most unique teams in the peloton.
For Sánchez, the evolution is the next chapter in his long career with Euskaltel-Euskadi, dating back to his rookie season in 2000; it has included stage wins at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España as well as the gold medal in the 2008 Olympic Games.
“The team is changing. It’s becoming more global,” Sánchez said. “Now we can sign riders who did not come through the ranks in the Basque Country. We have to see how things play out, but change is good when the ultimate goal is to remain among the elite of the sport. That’s what I want and that’s where the team wants to be.”
Sánchez, 34, has been the consistent anchor for the team,. which has featured such flamboyant characters as Aitor González, David Etxebarria, Iban Mayo, Haimar Zubeldia and Roberto Laiseka, the elusive climber who won the team’s first Tour stage in 2001.
Euskaltel-Euskadi fed off the talent-rich Basque Country, tapping the top riders and making its trademark orange jersey and T-shirts synonymous with the Pyrénées as thousands of brightly clad Basque fans lined the roads of major climbs.
The team made an exception for Sánchez, who was born and raised in nearby Asturias, because he spent so much time as a junior and amateur in the steep green hills of Spain’s Basque Country that he became an honorary “vasco.”
“Samu” has remained loyal to the end, turning down big-money contracts after winning the gold medal in Beijing to stay with one of the most unique teams in the peloton.
“I have three more years with the team,” Sánchez said. “Next year, we will have to see what happens, to see how the new project shakes out. I am optimistic. Change in life is good.”
Sánchez is also keen to put a challenging 2012 season into the rear-view mirror. After barnstorming to victory at the Vuelta a País Vasco on “home” roads and a solid spring that included seventh in both Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Amstel Gold Race, his dreams of defending his gold medal came crashing down in the Tour de France. He crashed out in stage 8 with a broken hand and clavicle.
“I had a season full of ups and downs,” he said. “To renounce the Olympics for external reasons was very hard. I wanted to go, but my healthy simply would not allow it. The shoulder was completely immobilized. It was impossible. When your health says you cannot go, you just have to accept it, but it wasn’t easy.”
The intensity of the London race, won by Alexander Vinokourov, shows how important the gold medal has become among the top pros, said Sánchez, who races with golden shoes and a helmet to match his golden Olympic earrings.
“The Olympics is gaining more and more importance among the pros. There are only a few who have won the gold medal. You could see the race in London, it was the ‘hostia!’ Everyone wanted to win,” he said. ” The Olympics are something special, something beyond the limits of your sport, so it’s a bigger impact among the general public.”
Want proof? Sánchez’s hometown of Oviedo has built a statue and named a street in his honor.
“It marks you for the rest of your life, even if you do not want it, it’s something that’s part of you for the rest of your life,” he said. “Even something like the Olympics is already something special, but to win a gold medal, for any athlete, is the maximum you can dream for in your career. It’s something bigger than your sport and it’s something more global.”
For next season, Sánchez will remain a centerpiece for the team despite the big changes. He, Antón and Nieve will likely split up the grand tours, but he said his 2013 racing schedule is still to be determined.
Sánchez still has some unfinished business with the Giro d’Italia and says he would like to take a run at overall victory at some point before retiring.
Sánchez has twice finished on the Vuelta podium (third in 2007 and second in 2009) and was bumped to third in the 2010 Tour following Alberto Contador’s disqualification, so he would like to round out his palmares with a Giro podium.
“What really motivates me before ending my career is to climb onto the Giro podium and win a stage at the Giro,” he said. “That would give me podiums in the three grand tours and stages in all three grand tours, so before I end my career, I would like to give the Giro a serious shot.”
Sánchez says cycling remains eternal, despite the success and the seemingly endless string of doping scandals.
“Each day we have to fight and suffer, this never changes in cycling,” he said.