Five years after the demise of the Euskaltel-Euskadi squad, Basque cycling is back in the pro ranks in 2018, with locally-based teams racing at Pro Continental and Continental level.
This Thursday, in the first of the four one-day races that make up the Challenge de Mallorca, a small but important landmark will be reached. The Euskadi-Murias team will race for the first time as a ProContinental squad, while Fundación Euskadi, a separate squad in the Continental category, will be making their debut in the same race.
The 'promotion' of both teams is more than welcome news for both Basque and Spanish cycling, which has seen race after race disappear and sponsors dry up in the country’s worst economic crisis in half a century. But in 2018, even though some races like the Vuelta a Murcia are experiencing economic problems, there are some encouraging signs.
Movisar are still the only Spanish professional team in the WorldTour, but at Pro Continental level, the number of squads has tripled from just Caja Rural-Seguros RGA to three, with Euskadi-Murias and Burgos-BH both moving up a level to join the long-standing Navarran squad in cycling’s ‘second division’. At Continental level, two new squads have moved into the category: Alberto Contador’s Polartec Kometa and the Fundación Euskadi.
For fans, there could be some confusion, given that Euskadi Basque Country-Murias is not the only professional Basque team with the name Euskadi this season. Previously run by Miguel Madariaga, the former Euskaltel-Euskadi general manager, as an amateur squad after the professional team folded in 2013, the Fundación Euskadi – like Euskadi-Murias – also works closely with the grassroots Basque cycling scene.
Given that Mikel Landa, a former Euskaltel-Euskadi rider, has taken over as the Fundación’s president, the team seems sure to generate interest. At its 2018 launch last week, Vuelta a España boss Javier Guillén was among the VIP guests.
For now, however, Euskadi-Murias are the only Basque squad racing in the fully professional Pro Continental category, and already have invitations to the Vuelta al País Vasco, the Clasica San Sebastian and Volta a Catalunya. An invite to the Vuelta a España, while yet to be formally confirmed, looks extremely likely. And they, too, had some top cycling names present at their 2018 launch, with retired Basque cycling stars Abraham Olano and Joseba Beloki among the audience.
Euskadi-Murias have also had a major overhaul, with 10 new riders in a squad of 20. Their three seasons in the Continental category produced scant results, with just one victory - in the Volta ao Alentejo - in that time. New riders like Jon Aberasturi, who has taken a string of wins with Japanese Continental teams in the Far East, are expected to change matters, and the team will race around 180 days of competition.
At the same time, Euskadi-Murias are backing, for the first time, a women’s team this season after reaching an agreement with the Bizkaia Durango squad. The squad will have 13 riders in their line-up and are targeting both the Spring Classics and, they hopes, the Giro Rosa. The total budget for both squads is said to be around €3 million.
Team manager Jon Odriozola remains on the hunt for sponsors. When the team’s advance from Continental to Pro Continental was announced in May 2017, Murias already warned that they "could not be backing the team for many years" without additional financial support. But on Thursday, the project will move forward again at its highest level to date.
"We made the announcement back in last May so we’d have time to put everything together as well as possible," Odriozola told Cyclingnews. "We have to be realistic and keep our feet on the ground; this is our first year at this level. But we want to be as ready as possible for the big objectives like racing in the Vuelta al País Vasco, where for the first time in five years there’ll be Basque team taking part, and we want to live up to the expectations of what will be a historic moment."
Although Aberasturi will be one key name, Odriozola says the team can be divided into three.
"Initially we’ll want the veterans to provide the best results: Julian Loubet [winner of a stage of the Route du Sud and Tour du Finisterre last year], Mikel Bizkarra, Mikel Iturria and Eduard Prades, riders who have the experience. Then there are the sprinters, which I think is a first for a team racing under the name of Euskadi. Aberasturi’s the fastest, but there’s also Enrique Sanz and Mikel Aristi. And finally there are the young riders, a group of five who will be looking to progress."
The team’s initial plan is to continue – as Euskaltel-Euskadi did for most of their professional existence – to focus exclusively on signing riders who are either Basque or whose formative years as an amateur were with Basque teams.
"But that could change depending on what a future sponsor wants us to do," Odriozola said. "The idea is for this project to last for many years, but we need that extra backing."
The WorldTour is not, in any case, an objective. "Our example, as I’ve always said, is [long-standing French Pro Continental squad] Cofidis. We want to be in the Grand Tours, in the top races, but being Pro Continental and working as hard as possible with Basque cycling at grassroots level. Although you can never rule anything out if we got a sponsor with a lot of money, I’d prefer to stay Pro Conti for five years than spend one year at WorldTour level."
Although there’s been speculation among race organisers that Euskadi-Murias and the Fundacion Euskadi squad could fuse for some races at least, for now the two are very separate teams.
"Anybody wanting to join our project will find our doors are open. But for now we have to concentrate on getting the best racing schedule for our team, and look for sponsors and show what we can do, both in the best tradition of Basque racing and Basque society in general," Odriozola said.
"There’s no problem for now if there’s a team which has a similar name to ours because we’re racing in different categories. What wouldn’t work is if, in the future, there were two teams called Euskadi racing at Pro Continental level, both taking part in top events like the Vuelta a España or Vuelta al País Vasco.
"This is our first year, and if we started saying we wanted to win a certain number of races, it’d be a little bit unrealistic. First, we want to be a team that’s got a good personality and that works well together to regain what Basque cycling has lost."
In other words, a leading position in the sport.
Listen to the Cyclingnews podcast below, and for more episodes, click here.