By Hedwig Kröner in Cuneo, Italy
The Basque team of Euskaltel-Euskadi is still on the hunt for a stage win at this Tour de France. Unlucky in its home region of the Pyrenees, the orange-clad outfit now hopes to vindicate itself in the Alps.
"Together with Samuel Sanchez, we're well-placed on the general classification," said Mikel Astarloza, one of the squad's leaders, to Cyclingnews before the start of stage 15 in Embrun on Sunday morning. "But our main goal is to win a stage, which we haven't achieved yet. So we will continue trying in the Alps."
Euskaltel had one of its riders, Egoi Martinez, in the four-man break heading towards Prato Nevoso in Italy. But Martinez lost out to Simon Gerrans' track-like racing tactics in the final sprint and finished second.
"We will try again, also with Samuel," continued Astarloza. "For the team, it's great if we can hang onto our overall placings or improve them, but a stage win has even more value. In this way, we have two goals. Sanchez' goal is to finish top five in Paris, but also to win a stage."
The former AG2R rider was happy to share the responsibilities with a team-mate rather than being a lone leader. "This way, both of us have less pressure. We're happy with how the Tour went for us so far, but we still miss a victory."
Astarloza was happy to take a break from the race during the rest day in Cuneo, Italy. "I do feel tired, that's only normal," he said. "We've come to the third week now, and it starts to get harder. But for the moment, everything is fine. It's good that we've come to the Alps now; I like the Alps better than the Pyrenees. From my time with AG2R, I know these mountains very well. The climbs are longer, less steep, so they are a bit less demanding. They suit me better, too, as I'm a tall guy."
With two high mountain stages on the menu for Tuesday and Wednesday including the event's queen stage up the 21 hairpins of L'Alpe d'Huez - the fantasy of every climber, including Astarloza. "If I could choose which stage I'd like to be in front, I'd take L'Alpe d'Huez. It'll be the most difficult stage of this Tour, and it's a mythical mountain. If you ask me to dream, then I'd dream about that..." he said.
Knowing that many others will ride hard to the summit that day, the Spaniard predicted a fast race that day, decisive for the overall classification. Yet he hoped to come out of the Alps in a good enough condition to excel in his other specialty: the race against the clock. "Normally, I'm quite a good time triallist," continued Astarloza. "It's true that my performance at the first time trial of this Tour wasn't so great. I was a bit disappointed that day, as I was on one level with all the other GC contenders [he finished 27th 1'42 behind winner Stefan Schumacher - ed.].
"I had hoped to gain some time on them that day. Now, I think about the last time trial to move up on the classification. It's longer, too, so it should be good for me. In theory, it's my specialty, so it should be a good opportunity to gain some time."
Finally, the Spaniards's ambitions are realistic, and he is does not measure his performance in terms of his final raking in Paris. "Whatever the outcome of this Tour, I will be satisfied," he said. "I say this in the sense that I always give everything that I have, so there's no reason for regrets. Which means that the final result is not so important. Sure, I would like to improve my ninth placing of last year, but my dream is to win a stage. I'm a rider who doesn't win very often, unfortunately, so a victory at the Tour would be absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, it's also the most difficult to achieve!"