Haimar Zubeldia once made the short-lists of podium favorites before every Tour de France during much of the 2000s.
The Basque rider had twice finished fifth in the Tour and was always among the candidates to challenge for the final-three come July. But having the pressure of carrying the team colors of Euskaltel-Euskadi, the homegrown Basque team where he rode from 1998 to 2008, proved too much sometimes.
So when Zubeldia got an offer from Johan Bruyneel in 2009 to join Astana, Zubeldia was more than happy to make the switch. But with that change came the sacrifice of giving up his own GC aspirations in the Tour and transforming into the role of super domestique.
For some proud captains, making that shift is difficult, challenging and even humiliating. Yet Zubeldia has taken on his new role with gusto. In fact, when you listen to him talk, he almost likes it more.
VeloNews.com caught up with Zubeldia earlier this year to talk about his transition from Tour podium contender to helper as well as the merger between RadioShack and Leopard-Trek; here’s what he had to say:
VN.com: How did the RadioShack riders take the news of the merger with Leopard-Trek?
HZ: Well, we had heard a few things, so once we had confirmed the news, it was a bit of a surprise, but once we thought about it, we realized we were going to be part of a great team. There was a little bit of uncertainty about how everything was going to fit together, but we are confident how Johan (Bruyneel) would handle it. From already what we’ve seen, we can see that the sense of teamwork and identity has come together very fast. We notice a good atmosphere. That’s very important for the future.
VN.com: On paper, the team will be simply stacked for the Tour de France …
HZ: Not only for the Tour, but almost any race that we go to. We have a caliber of riders that are big riders. That’s part of the idea, we have to take this chance seriously. On paper, we know we have a great time, we have to respond when the moment comes.
VN.com: For Andy Schleck, this strong team will be a huge help for him, no?
HZ: With the Tour that we have ahead of us this year, we know that Andy will need a strong team. For the past three years, he’s been right there to win. One year it will be his. In theory, it’s not an ideal Tour for him, because of the long time trials, but on the other side, he’ll have the best team he will ever have in the Tour. Johan knows how to move the race and that’s all in our favor.
VN.com: For you, you will be on the short-list to make the Tour team. What will be your role?
HZ: Well, that’s the idea. There will be a group of us who will be working to be ready for the Tour. Sometimes things might not go your way at the last moment and you miss the Tour. I have a lot of experience that I can bring to the team. I like riding for a captain and having someone like Andy who can win the Tour will only motivate everyone that much more to work harder.
VN.com: You were twice fifth in the Tour, so you’ve given up on your dreams of winning the Tour?
HZ: Yes, this phase of my career is already behind me. In the past few years, I’ve been on some big teams with some big riders. There are still other options to have your chances to try to win in other races that are not the Tour. There’s the Vuelta a España, which is still important for me, there’s the Vuelta al País Vasco, which is home for me. This doesn’t bother me at all. Once I had the idea to change the ‘chip,’ say riding for my own chances in GC to helping others, well, I assumed that new role with the same professionalism that I have always tried to have. I have accepted that. It’s a new role, a new type of work.
VN.com: Was it hard to go from being the captain on Euskaltel-Euskadi, your home team, to being a helper at a foreign team?
HZ: Well, it’s very different. At Euskaltel, there were a lot of people paying attention to me. When you’re at home, the people are on top of you. You cannot help but notice that pressure. It’s part of the job and now it’s completely different. To be on a foreign team, things are calmer for me. I am enjoying this very much. This is a team that let’s you get on with your job. They confide in you, they know you’re a professional and they give the space to do your job. You feel satisfied to be on a team like this.
VN.com: Is it perhaps an ideal situation for you, you can do your job as you please, but not have all the attention that came with being a Basque GC rider on Euskaltel?
HZ: A little bit, you don’t have that pressure. The truth is, the past few years have helped me to recover some of the motivation to train and race. I am seeing another type of cycling, another manner to understand the sport, and this helps me out as a person as well. I am very much enjoying these past few years.
VN.com: For 2012, what are your top goals?
HZ: Well, for the first part of the season, between the Basque Country tour, the Ardennes classics and the Tour of California, I hope to hit a bit of good form. I’d especially like to do well at Basque Country. We’ve won it the past two years in a row, so perhaps now it’s my turn! Later in California, we will be helping Chris (Horner), then we’ll get ready for the Tour de France. Then there’s the Clásica de San Sebastián and then the Vuelta, so as you can see, there’s no shortage of opportunities to do well during the season.
VN.com: What are your expectations for the Tour?
HZ: We should see a real showdown. You see that (Cadel) Evans has made his team stronger. We can count on Andy and Frank, Chris and Klodi (Andreas Kloden), and Cancellara. It’s an impressive team. We’ll get better and better as the Tour approaches and see who is going to be ready for the Tour, but we can all expect it will be a big battle, just like the Tour is every year.