Goodbye Zarra from the gruppetto and the fans

Basque cyclist Mikel Zarrabeitia retired at the end of 2003 at the age of 33, after a long career...

Agur Zarrabeitia, January 13, 2004

Basque cyclist Mikel Zarrabeitia retired at the end of 2003 at the age of 33, after a long career devoted to the service of others. Zarra only counts 9 victories in his palmares, but he was a highly valued teammate, especially for the members of the ONCE squad. As such he was given a fine send off in his home town of Abadiño, and Martin Hardie was there to record the moment.

Nearly all week the rain had kept me confined to the spare room and the indoor trainer we had got for Christmas from the Basque version of Santa, a pipe smoking, black bearded, old bloke called Olentzero. So when I rose last Sunday I was a little apprehensive. Saturday had been wetter and greyer than most of the week, and at 9 a.m. Sunday didn't look much better. But then within the hour things started to get dryer with even a hint of blue giving a tinge to the clouds.

It was important for the local cycling aficionados that Sunday, January 4 was one of the rare fine days we have had in the Basque Country over the last couple of weeks. It was the day of the Mikel Zarrabeitiari Omenaldia Abadiñon - the day the village of Abadiño, no bigger than your average American shopping mall - paid homage to one of its two loved members of the pro peloton: Mikel Zarrabeitia, who announced his retirement a week or so before Christmas.

So with the skies clearing a little I headed off the three or four kilometres to Abadiño to join the celebrations. The day was organised by the Abandñoko Txirrindulari Elkartea (the Abadiño Cycling Club) and Peña Zarrabeitia (the Zarrabeitia fan club) and advertised as including a Lagunarteko martxa (a casual 25 km ride amongst friends), dantzariak (traditional dancing with flags and swords), trikitilariak (a group of girls playing folk music on accordion and tamborines), bertsolariak (verses sung in praise of Zarra) and opariak (gifts for the local hero).

One the way out of the old part of Durango I picked up a little glass in my tyre, left behind no doubt from a party the night before. One the crest just out of town, with cold fingers fiddling with a new tube and pump, I was passed by another local, Unai Etxebarria of Euskaltel Euskadi. Unai, recently back from a couple of months in the Australian sun, asked me if I needed a hand. I told him I was O.K. and that I hoped I wouldn't be too late. I wasn't, as I picked up another local wheel on the way and we got there in time to settle in at the plaza with the rest of the folks and checked out who was there.

Accompanied by the sounds of trikitilariak, various local dignitaries greeted Zarra, including one from not that far away who was dressed in a cap and a very warm looking, fawn ski-type jacket. Today, he, Joseba Beloki, was not going to ride. But his brother and teammate Gorka was, maybe giving us all the first glimpse of a Beloki in their new red outfit of La Boulangère.

Abraham Olano took charge of getting the ride on its way and soon Zarra was up the road alone being introduced and photographed, he was soon accompanied by his home town mate, David Etxebarria and by Abraham Olano. And then shortly after 11 am we set off on the vuelta a Miota, a usual part of the local training route and often included in local racing.

This little group of friends from around the area numbered around 200, local fans, amateur and junior team members, and more than the odd pro. Together with Zarra, Olano, the Etxebarrias, Gorka Beloki, Eneritz Iturriaga (Spanish women's champ 2002 and 2003), Mikel Pradera, Isidro Nozal, Bingen Fernandez, Pedro Horillo, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, Francisco Gutiérrez, Ruben Gorospe, Aitor Bugallo, along with a whole bunch of other Euskaltels including Iban Mayo on a more than beautiful Orbea Orca, we headed out towards Mateina, turning up the road to Berriz, over the gentle climb of Miota and then down into Elorrio before turning back towards Abadiño. From there we did another loop through Mateina, to Durango and back again to Abadiño for the remainder of the day's celebrations.

Back outside the town hall in the village plaza we were met again by the sounds of the trikitilariak while Zarra snuck off home to change into his street clothes. People caught up with each other and chatted. I managed to say g'day to Igor G-G in person for the first time. I had been translating his CN diary during the Tour and the Vuelta but until then our only contact had been through email.

Alberto Iturriga, father of Eneritz and Eneko, the Euskaltel mechanic, and owner of our local bike shop, came up and hugged me and then tapped the guy next to him on the shoulder and said to him "this is the guy Eneko spoke to you about" and introduced me to Iban Mayo. Feeling a little startled and tongue tied with my Spanish we arranged to meet in the shop over the next week. Then after chatting with local photographer, Iban Gorriti, the Etxebarrias and snapping a few photos myself, the interlude was over. The local gruppetto were all removing their front wheels, leaning their bikes up against cars and preparing for the reappearance of the changed, retired, Mikel Zarrabeitia.

The gruppetto with wheels held high formed a guard of honour for Zarra as he came through the plaza to the stage set up in front of the town hall. I was thinking about how many times I have seen Zarra work himself into the ground for his team leaders during his 13 years as a pro. A team rider of the highest degree, and as such the kind of guy that cycling could not survive without.

In that time he has dragged and driven the peloton in order to keep his man in the prime position, Jalabert, Olano, Beloki and Gonzalez de Galdeano among them. He started himself with the promise of being one of the greats when in his 4th season as a pro he finished 2nd overall in the '94 Vuelta. But injury and bad luck never saw him reach the heights many expected of him.

Two races come to mind. The 1999 Vuelta with that first climb of Angliru, won by El Chaba, Jose Maria Jimenez, but in which Zarra fought and struggled in the rain and fog to try and keep Olano in contention. We recall Olano's crash that day of taking him out of the race for the victory, but it was Zarra's work that put him within reach of it to begin with. And then of course the 2002 Euskal Bizikleta which Zarra won from Rumsas. A legendary win in the annals of Basque cycling, with Beloki attacking on the last day, solo, over four or five climbs in order to ensure Zarra's triumph.

Then in an instant he was on the stage before the gathered crowd, now swelled with what seemed like the whole of Abadiño and more. Our ride earlier, a leisurely cruise had seen people out on the streets cheering him, cars parked at the top of Miota, waiting for him, and now a town square jam packed to bid him farewell from the peloton. Zarra stood, it seemed a little in disbelief at all the attention.

Three young guys started the show, the bertsolariak, each singing , solo, a verse, written in dedication. Next came the dantzariak. A group of men dressed in the traditional white with red txapelas (berets) and scarves, bells on their shins, swords and one with the huge red, green and white flag of Abadiño. The speeches and opariak (gifts) from a number of locals before the likely lads, David Etxebarria, Mikel Pradera, Isidro Nozal and Iban Mayo took the stage.

Pradera, who was holding a picnic basket, had to have his enthusiasm restrained by David. But, then on cue from the doyen and joker of the Basque Peloton, Pradera commenced: "Mikel, we make these gifts in the hope that they can serve you in your new life". And out they came. A very modern walking stick, made out of either carbon or fibreglass, for use on those summer days out hiking in the mountains. A basket for collecting wild mushrooms. A couple of books on hiking and bush walking. A beach towel and a very flash looking pair of swimming shorts.

It was then for Zarra to respond. With his heart obviously full of emotion he wanted to say thanks to everyone. He started, "Eskerek asko..." [thank you very much]...he struggled to continue and the silence was broken with applause from everyone present. He summoned up the strength to finish "Until another time". Zarra always spoke louder with his bike than with words, and with this he finished his 13 years as a pro and descended from the stage to disappear into the crowd and whatever his new life may bring.

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