An ongoing conversation with Unai Extebarria, February 28, 2004
Although considerably taller than his namesake, Unai Etxebarria, to some extent, lives in the shadow of his neighbour, team-mate and training partner David Etxebarria. While David's prominence is most likely a result of his years with ONCE and his pair of Tour de France stage victories, Unai, on the other hand, has spent his years as a pro solely within the ranks of the Euskaltel-Euskadi squad. Cyclingnews' Martin Hardie crossed paths with him for the first time a few weeks ago, and managed to learn about yet another emerging star from the Basque country.
I have seen Unai around for a few years now. By that I don't mean on the television, but on the street, either out on his bike or out for a late afternoon or evening walk, as is the population's passion in the town of Durango. But it wasn't till this January, when I managed to pick up some glass and puncture on a ride out on the road to Abadiño, did our paths cross and we spoke for the first time.
What I found out is that Unai is, as they say in Spanish, a "tipo muy majo", a real down to earth guy. The more we chatted, I found that he was a guy who was willing to talk about lots of things and that he would be an ideal candidate to write a diary for Cyclingnews! But I also know that the life of a pro cyclist can at times make it a bit hard, to find the energy and the dedication to sit down and pound out a diary at the computer. So after a bit of discussion, what I proposed to Unai was a bit like a diary and a bit like an interview... a sort of ongoing conversation about the season and things that we wanted to talk about as time went by.
"I am no longer a sprinter, and I don't climb that well, so I have to try my luck a little." - A frank Unai Extebarria on his Stage 5 victory at the recent Challenge Illes Balears in Mallorca
When I am in Durango and during these slow days of the year, I like to hang out a little at Ciclos Iturriaga and chat with Alberto Iturriga, who runs the shop and the Ciclos Iturriaga team. The walls are covered with the usual bike company promo material, along with a huge map of the Durango district with a fair smattering of photos of local riders, both young and old. But it serves me well, my perverse sense of humour, to waste my hours watching Alberto work and chastise kids as they bring their dirty bikes into the shop for repairs. Alberto likes to terrorise these kids into taking a bit more care of their machines. It's fun to watch and I am not alone in killing time there and having a laugh. More often than not, one or more of the local cycling community is also hanging out on a winter's afternoon in Cliclos Iturriaga. So I asked Unai about Alberto and his shop:
Cyclingnews: Unai, there are a lot of photos of you on the walls in Ciclos Iturriaga, but I noticed some old black and white photos of someone who looks a little like a young Alberto in a KAS outfit. Was he a professional?
Unai Extebarria: No, Alberto wasn't a pro, he was a really good aficionado (amateur) with a team called Karpy, among others. But he is best known for his many years as a mechanic for professional teams and from that time on, he has given a lot of his life to support cycling. He has contributed an enormous amount to local cycling and one of his main achievements has been the amateur, juniors and womens teams that he has directed and sponsored over the years.
CN: Yeah I know the team colours, the bright pink jersey with blue lettering, he gave me one, which I proudly wear every other day. (I alternate it with my TIS/Cyclingnews jersey, of course!)
UE: In fact, I was in the team for two years as a junior, he was one of my directors. It was in the time when I weighed a bit more and was a sprinter...
CN: I hear that is when you used to beat David in the sprints - who else has come up the ranks through Ciclos Iturriaga?
UE: Well, of course his daughter Eneritz, state champion of Spain for the last two years, was in the women's team. And Eneko, one of Euskaltel's mechanics was also a junior. But along with them, and myself, in the juniors were Eusklatel's Gorka Arrizabalaga and Herkaitz Elkoroiribe, who is now the manager of Cafés Baqué, and of course the current world champion, Igor Astarloa, rode for Iturriaga juniors. Now as we are speaking of the Ituriaga family, and of mechanics, those photos you saw in the shop that looked a little like Alberto... well that's not him in the KAS jersey...
CN: Who is it?
UE: Well, it is actually another mechanic. It is Jose Nazabal who was a professional rider and is now working as a mechanic for Euskaltel with Eneko Iturriaga. He is a wonderful guy and he was a great racer. I know him better as a person than as a racer, but he achieved something that has to be one of every Basque rider's greatest dreams.
CN: Tell me about that.
UE: Well, he won a stage of the Tour in 1977 when he rode for KAS. Not only did he win it, he came in 5 minutes and 15 seconds ahead of the chasers that included Eddy Merckx among them! It was Stage 3 of the 1977 Tour. It started in France, crossed the Pyrenees and finished in the Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz, 248 kilometres later. As you can imagine, it is a dream of all of us to win a stage of the Tour, but even more so to win a stage when it finishes in our own country.
CN: Wow, that's pretty cool. I haven't met Jose, the only mechanic of yours I know is Eneko, who seems to always have one of Iban's (Mayo) bikes on the workstand! Now you mention the Basque country there, can I ask you about your nationality? You see, sometimes people get a little confused because they see you listed as a Venezuelan rider. But you ride for a team that is composed of, or has a policy of only including Basque riders. I even heard the English TV commentator Paul Sherwen call you Brazilian last year! So are you Brazilian, Venezuelan, Spanish or Basque?
UE: Ha, Brazilian? Hey, that's good! Well this is the story, I was born in Venezuela, my parents are Basque, our family is from around Axpe on the slopes below Anboto, or really the Arana part of the family is from there, anyway. We came to Durango when I was about three years old. So I have grown up here. So legally I am Venezuelan, and I maintain my Venezuelan nationality, but I consider myself, and well, in my heart I am a Basque. But because I have a Venezuelan passport, I ride on a Venezuelan cycling licence.
CN: So with that clarified and the season underway I turned to what Unai had been up to so far this year. You have ridden in Majorca and Andulacia so far this year - we becoming used to seeing you in breakaways and after your win last year in the Vuelta. I have this picture of you always winning with the peloton breathing down your neck - it is a nice way to start the season, but was it a typical way of winning for you?
UE: I don't think it is always my style to try and win the way I did in Majorca, but I am no longer a sprinter, and I don't climb that well, so I have to try my luck a little, sometimes in the last few kilometres before the finish. In Majorca it worked and yes, it was very nice - beautiful to win that day.
CN: Majorca is the beginning of the season in Europe, but you really started your training last November in Brisbane, Australia, didn't you?
UE: Yes, for the last four years I have gone to Brisbane to train at the end of the year. I have always liked Australia and I have always wanted to go there. It's nice to get out of the winter and have some sun in order to get my basic endurance training done.
CN: It makes it a long season though, from November right through to the end of the European season is a long time. Still ahead are the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, the Belgian Classics, the Euskal Bizkleta, the Tour and the Vuelta. Is it possible to keep your winning form for that long?
UE: I don't think I am in form yet... I am still working my way up and I would really like to be in form for the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Belgian Classics. But in the meantime, I have to get ready to ride Paris-Nice. After that, I hope to be fit for Pais Vasco, which is of course always important for the team."
CN: OK, thanks for that, you better get back on the job. Because it is about time that we had that Belgian win. Let's talk soon.
UE: Sure, anytime is fine; if you or the readers have any questions, let me know and we can do some more soon.