Team Profile, February 5, 2005
The forces of the weather in the form of a snowed-in Basque Country saw the Fundacion Ciclista Euskadi presentation delayed a week, but it finally got under way on February 1 in the seaside border town of Hondarribia, nestled on a bay with France across the other side. The presentation took place in Hondarribia's Poli-Deportivo centre, a bit down market after last year's bash at the World Heritage listed Palacio Euskladuna. It is a community indoor and outdoor sports facility, with bars, a restaurant, auditorium-cum-basketball court and more, soccer fields and even an indoor swimming pool.
It was packed with the locals on this wet, gray Tuesday evening, with families sitting in the bar above the pool watching others doing their laps below. Mixed with them tonight were Euskadi foundation club members, the team and staff, ordinary fans, the Orbea and Etxeondo gangs, along with a veritable who's who of Basque cycling: new Orbea continental team director and ex-Kelme and Banesto pro, Jon Odriozola; five time Tour winner Miguel Indurain; and the whole Euskaltel family including a complete Iturriaga clan featuring a glamorously outfitted Eneritz Iturriaga.
Absent from the event were the team's two biggest patrons - the Basque President Juan Jose Ibarretxe and his predecessor and current head of the telecommunications company, Euskaltel, Snr Ardanza. The influence of both counts a lot towards ensuring the orange armada stays afloat. However, the same day as the delayed presentation was the day that Ibarretxe was to present his plan for further Basque autonomy to the Spanish parliament. Ardanza was at his side in Madrid.
Nevertheless, despite the senior patrons' absence, the snow, the rain and the constitutional crisis in Madrid, the show got under way. It kicked off with some introductions from the MC's and the first appearance of the Bertsolaris. Bertsolaritza is the improvised art of singing rhyming verses in the Basque language, Euskara. It is an improvised form of verse commonly sung in competitions where the singers are given the topic from which they are to improvise on the spot. Tonight the Berstos improvised around the theme of the team and its coming year, the verse building as the Berstos passed the responsibility of the lead back and forth between each other. "We are not asking that you win for us," sang one of them, Ángel Mari Peñagarikano. "Just that you give it a try."
Hearing and probably feeling this call was Iban Mayo. No matter what Mayo achieved in 2004, and in retrospect that was of quite some consequence - his string of victories in May and his conquest of the Ventoux record should not be underestimated - it will always be overshadowed by the disastrous Tour. He told us that, "It would be unjust that the people who were with us last year should have to continue with a sour taste as result of the Tour not going well, but that is how it is: you give the Tour it all and the Tour takes everything. For this reason, to try and get rid of that sour taste, this year I want to return and try and arrive in July as good as possible."
Mayo will be Euskaltel's leader for the French assignment in July. His co-leader last year, Haimar Zubeldia, will be focusing his season a little earlier this year. Friendly as ever, Haimar told us that his objectives "are the same as in 2004, do the best that I can even if our plans have changed overall. With the UCI Pro Tour, the team has other needs this year. We have had to re-organise our forces, and for me it looks like I will be heading to the Giro. I like the task, and I will look forward to finding my form in April, from the time of the Vuelta de Pais Vasco onwards."
Joining Mayo and Zubeldia in centre stage for the night, and hopefully for the season, is new recruit Aitor González. Gonzalez was born in Zummaraga in Guipuzkoa but he grew up with his mother in Murcia around Alicante. He seems however to be enjoying his return to his birth place with gusto. "I came to this team because I wanted to regain some of my hope and inspiration, and I can say that I have already done that. I know that it's possible to have a very special year and I hope that I can toast along with the fans of this team a large number of victories, because, as they say, this team has the greatest supporters in the world."
Aitor continued and told us that his goals are "the Vuelta and for the rest of the year to help the team ...my best form should coincide with the Vuelta a España which will be my objective, but I want to do it well throughout all of the year: when I can't win I will be there to help the team."
At the steering wheel for the eight season is Julian Gorospe. In this first year of the Pro Tour he took time to seek forgiveness from the smaller races in which Euskaltel has grown up - races like the Vueltas de Aragon, Murcia and La Rioja, which this year because of the new calendar they will not be able to compete in.
As head honcho, Miguel Madariaga announced, "This is the year of the UCI Pro Tour. How will it be the Pro Tour? The truth is that we don't know whether it will open more doors or less, because we just don't know how the Pro tour will go. I have my concerns, but nobody has wanted to stay outside of the Pro Tour. And we are within it on our own merits."
To wind up a low key launch for the new year, the Bertsolaris, Sustrai Colina sang: "I don't want to even try and imagine the smile of Madariaga on the highest step of the podium in Paris." Madariaga in response mustered, "All I ask is that the year give our riders luck, because we are going to need it. And I hope that the warm reception we have received here today in our presentation at Hondarribia stays with us throughout the long calendar of the year."