Euskaltel-Euskadi: an idea as much as a team

Beginnings: Roberto Laiseka

Somewhere buried in a box in my basement, I have the forms and certificate that Euskadi sent me sometime in around 1994 or 1995 to fill out and become a socio [supporter] of the squad.

Inside the bulging white envelope they sent me were a plethora of team badges, bumper stickers, fridge magnets and the usual slightly dubious-looking set of team postcards with riders with slightly inane grins and de rigueur folded arms you used to get at team launches. There were promises of news letters and a big poster. They clearly wanted to convince you they were up to something important – and you could be part of it.

Being a socio appealed because this was a new – and unique – idea in cycling. In June 1993, a group of Basque cycling fans, headed by former taxi driver Miguel Madariaga, and a Basque politician, José Alberto Pradera, decided to form a professional team through tens of thousands of fans each paying a small amount, and a larger contribution from a host of Basque companies. Their reasoning was that given the limitations on sponsorship in Spain at the time and the consequent difficulties for young cyclists from the Basque Country to find a team, they would create a squad via what was effectively crowd-funding before the Internet.

My finances were overly rocky at the time so I opted out. But fortunately some 3,000 Basque and/or Spanish fans were better placed to cough up the €60 a year it cost to be a socio, whilst 100 or so companies each paid up €3,000. This, together with some regional government backing, allowed a team to be created with a budget of around €300,000. The indispensable condition for being a Euskadi rider was to have been born inside the Basque Country or to have raced for at least three years in a Basque amateur or junior team. Beyond that, to be a good racer, of course, and – given the budget restrictions – not to cost too much.

And on 6th December 1993, at a mass in the Aranzazu sanctuary, where all Basque teams traditionally receive a blessing, it could be said that Euskadi was formally ‘born.’

Euskadi hit the road in 1994 with Txomin Perurena, a former bike rider, as the main director. And although the first win went to the late Agustin Sagasti in the morning sector of the home race, the Vuelta al País Vasco, that April, from then on victories were comparatively few and far between. Inexistent in the Classics for years, their first ‘Grand Tour’ stage win came in 1999 in the Vuelta a España, and their first Grand Tour leader’s jersey only arrived in 2008.

But that, at least initially, was not the point: the point was that a team operating on such a shoestring budget could only afford to keep its riders for a while before they were snapped up by the bigger squads. Up until 1997, the rumour mill in race press rooms persistently said that Euskadi was on the brink of financial collapse. The story of how Madariaga had to fend off the bailiffs when they came round to impound the team vehicles for outstanding debts has been retold in many versions, but the original is true.

For the first four years, Euskadi’s top pros were riders like Juan Carlos Gonzalez Salvador, Pello Ruiz Cabestany, Juan Tomas Martinez, Ramón Gonzalez Arrieta, or 1992 Tour de France stage winner Javier Murgialday: riders who in the main had had their moment of glory in the late 1980s or early 90s and then did a couple of seasons with Euskadi before retiring.

“I was the first rider to sign for Euskadi,” Juan Carlos González Salvador told El País newspaper earlier this week. “I had better offers, but Txomin [Perurena] called me up and if Txomin says he wants you for his team, you can’t refuse, even if you have all the doubts in the world about its future. And all there was about Euskadi’s future was doubt.

“But we felt like we were the home side and what we didn’t win in money, we earned in pride.”

So much for the ‘greybeards.’ Sitting down on the other side of the table in the Euskadi team hotel would be the young guns: Alvaro Gonzalez de Galdeano was one such rider. The first time I saw the elder of the Gonzalez de Galdeanos was in 1996 in Vitoria in the Vuelta al País Vasco, as he ploughed a lone and probably quite miserable furrow as a breakaway ahead of the pack before being reeled in for a bunch sprint. (That race was also where Jonathan Vaughters’ Santa Clara team perfected the tactic of, as he told me, ‘all deliberately getting dropped at the start so they could team time trial it to the finish and thus guarantee none of them got eliminated.’ But that’s another story).

And that was pretty much Euskadi’s role: as rabbits dressed in the Basque green, white and red team colours for the bigger greyhounds of the peloton. But if you stayed away long enough, and effectively enough, it could earn you a place in a bigger team. For Alvaro and his brother Igor (of whom more later), that was Vitalicio Seguros, where Igor got second in the Vuelta. Joseba Beloki, third in the 1998 Tour de l’Avenir and fourth in the 1999 Dauphiné Libéré, moved on to Festina, and went on to finish on the Tour podium three times. Aitor Osa, the elder of the Osa brothers, signed for Banesto in 1997 after two years with Euskadi, and went on to win the Vuelta al País Vasco in 2002.

But by Beloki’s time, Euskadi had already changed, thanks to the sponsorship of Basque telecommunications company Euskaltel at the Vuelta of 1997. The squad also switched to smart blue jerseys at that time, which later changed to the team’s most emblematic colour, orange. Euskaltel provided a huge increase in sponsorship finances, a new director with Julian Gorospe (formerly a Banesto pro for Miguel Indurain), a new team name – Euskaltel-Euskadi – and a much increased emphasis on results, rather than appearances. Ironically enough, though, the rider first responsible for their breakthrough was the only one who had been with the team since its inception in 1994: Roberto Laiseka.

To call Laiseka a character is something of an understatement: he once turned up at a training camp bearing a baseball bat, rather than a bike, and among his hobbies listed ‘staring at the sea’. When I interviewed him for Cycle Sport magazine back in 1999, and asked – only half-seriously – if he would mind mucking around in a kiddies play park for the photographer, after taking the pictures, we could barely get him off the swings.

Larking around apart, Laiseka was also an excellent climber. And towards the end of the 1999 Vuelta, on the climb to Abantos just west to Madrid, six kilometres from the summit Laiseka – in the bright blue kit Euskaltel used at the time – managed to break away, shooting up the right hand side of the road from the leading group of favourites, just as Jan Ullrich slid backwards. For all that the late Frank Vandenbroucke, racing in his tinted blue sunglasses and in a class of his own that week, romped past local hero Jose Maria Jiménez and came within 20 seconds of Laiseka, this was a win that would not escape the 30-year-old. It was the first of the Basque rider’s career, the first for his team in a Grand Tour, and taken ahead of a fair selection of the big names of the time: Roberto Heras, Ullrich and Alex Zülle. Not even Jiménez later deriding his victory as ‘taken by a half-Spaniard’ could ruin the party.

But Jiménez had a point, albeit badly expressed: increasingly towards the end of the 1990s, Euskaltel-Euskadi gained a huge degree of nationalistic support, as a team that was so clearly 100 percent part and parcel with Basque roots could hardly fail to do so.

The team’s change of kit, from the 050 plastered on the rear side of their shorts to Pais Basque, underlined that change and in 2000, as the so-called ‘orange tide’ of Basque flag wielding, Euskaltel-t-shirt wearing fans began to appear regularly on the roadside, the team suddenly hit boom-time.

The team went from four wins in 1999 to 15 – their best total bar 2010 – with another win for Laiseka in the Vuelta – at Arcalis, this time – the Euskal Bizicleta for a very young Haimar Zubeldia, the Dauphiné prologue for Alberto Lopez de Munain and the Tour de l’Avenir for a very young Iker Flores. With that kind of track record, the next stop was bound to be the Tour de France, where the team was finally given a wildcard ahead of Marco Pantani’s Mercatone Uno and Mario Cipollini’s Saeco in 2001. Again, Laiseka delivered, taking the team’s first stage win in their first appearance in the race.

In what became perhaps the team’s greatest victory of all time, Laiseka’s victory – taken at Luz Ardiden, and with tens of thousands of Basque fans waving their national flags and wearing those orange Euskaltel-Euskadi t-shirts – was won alone at the line after attacking ten kilometres from the summit and passing earlier escapee Wladimir Belli.

The last time Laiseka had been up there to watch a bike race, he had stopped at the kilometre-to-go sign and tried to take pictures only to find his yoghurt had spilled into the camera. This time, he was the centre of the images, and provided a marked contrast to the hyper-controlled press conferences given by Lance Armstrong. Laiseka was so delighted by his victory and happy to talk that the Tour’s press officer finally had to call time on his post-win conference.

Great expectations: Iban Mayo

Some time early last decade I got a phone call from a Basque cycling journalist friend of mine one day, who – without even introducing himself- simply yelled Iban Mayo es Dios! - Iban Mayo is God – and then hung up.

For a while, before Mayo’s doping past emerged, and the team’s image was tarnished by the expulsion of team doctor Jesus Losa in 2004, the positives for Iñigo Landaluze and the ill-fated signing of Aitor Gonzalez, it must have felt like that for Basque Country cycling fans.

It certainly appeared as if Euskaltel-Euskadi were en route to becoming a world power in cycling. Even to the point where they could challenge Lance Armstrong. And at the centre of it all was Iban Mayo.

Mayo was a curious character: skinny as a whippet, with a strikingly angular face and, when you talked to him, as nervous as a street cat. Three wins in his second year as a pro, in the Classique des Alpes, the overall of the Midi Libre and on the key mountain stage of the Dauphiné in 2001 made it clear he was on the up. But although notoriously inconsistent, a fifth place overall in the Vuelta 2002 showed he could have Grand Tour potential and by 2003, even an overall victory in the Tour de France did not seem inconceivable.

Mayo’s crowning moment of glory came on Alpe d’Huez that year, as Lance Armstrong slid backwards and the attacks rained down on the American. Beloki, Zubeldia, Hamilton and Vinokourov all tested Armstrong. Mayo, though, was the one who went the furthest clear.

How much value can be given to a rider’s victory when he later tested positive for EPO? Answers will range from zero to as much as any other in that era. But at the time, before the scales were whipped from our eyes, Mayo’s victory more than two minutes ahead of the American felt like a breath of fresh air after years of Armstrong domination.

After blowing kisses and waving to the crowd as he reached the summit, Mayo said “who cares about the time I have lost? I don’t care at all. That’s nothing compared to what I felt. This was a unique moment, maybe one that will never be repeated.”

Sure enough, it was not to be repeated. Mayo won the 2004 Dauphine Libéré, but Armstrong went on winning, while Mayo abandoned the Tour that July in a bizarre, will-he-won’t-he-quit series of events on the Col d’Agnes before finally heading for home in the first stage into the Alps. He then struggled with health issues in 2005. His moment of glory had come and gone all too briefly and in 2007, complaining of excessive pressure, he left Euskaltel-Euskadi for an even more irreversible decline at Saunier Duval.

Looking back in 2007, Mayo described 2003 and the first half of 2004 “as the most beautiful chapter of my career... [but] since then, the Tour has been nothing but a disappointment for me.”

For Euskaltel-Euskadi, though, Mayo’s performances raised the game enormously. This was no longer about snaffling the odd top stage win here: instead the squad began to look seriously at the overall classification of the Grand Tours and major Classics. And with Haimar Zubeldia’s early success then morphing into steady rather than spectacular performances, it was up to Samuel Sánchez to step up.

The new era: Samuel Sánchez

First the bad news: Samuel Sánchez has never – to date – won a Grand Tour or a Classic Monument. And for the most diehard of Basque Euskaltel-Euskadi fans, being born outside the Basque Country was a point against him.

On the other hand, there was no denying that Sánchez, for all he was born in Asturias (but spent a large part of his amateur career in the Basque Country, which enabled him to sign for Euskaltel-Euskadi), was the figurehead of the squad from around 2006 through to its folding this year.

Igor Antón might have taken some blistering uphill stage wins in the Vuelta and even led it in 2010, as well as winning on the Zoncolan in 2011 in the Giro, Mikel Nieve has taken mountain wins in the 2010 Vuelta and the 2011 Giro’s ridiculously hard Val di Fassa stage and Ion Izaguirre was arguably the team’s most promising rider. But Sánchez has provided consistency and was far and away the team’s best-known rider internationally. Even in a lacklustre 2013 for Euskaltel-Euskadi, Sánchez still took the team’s biggest win abroad, the hardest stage of the Criterium du Dauphiné.

Sánchez’s gold medal in the road race in Beijing’s Olympic Games had a lot to do with that international prestige, even if his scintillating riding style in the Vuelta was what impressed the Spanish fans the most.

Samu’ s breakthrough win arguably did not come in the 2005 Vuelta, when he scored his first Grand Tour victory at the Sanctuario de Amparo after Maurizio Ardila confused the finishing banner with some advertising hoardings, but on a scary downhill section through the old quarter of Cuenca in 2006, where Sánchez’s daredevil attack earned him his second Vuelta stage as well as easing him towards seventh overall. After the Vuelta in the space of a few weeks, the Asturian won the GP Zurich, his first big Classic, placed second in the Tour of Lombardy – the first of four podium spots there – and second in the ProTour classification.

Much more was to come, as Sanchez netted Euskaltel-Euskadi’s first Grand Tour podium finish in the 2007 Vuelta – again, partly thanks to his downhilling skills in Granada – then clinched the Olympic Games road race in 2008, another Vuelta podium in 2009, behind Alejandro Valverde, a third place in the Tour (following the disqualification of Alberto Contador) in 2010, the King of the Mountains title in the Tour in 2011 and the Tour of the Basque Country – never previously won by Euskaltel-Euskadi in 18 years – in 2012.

But his most memorable victory came at a ski station which was already part of Euskaltel-Euskadi’s history, at Luz Ardiden in the 2011 Tour. It was Sánchez’s first win in the Tour de France and came on the same ascent as Roberto Laiseka’s win ten years before. History, as it were, had come full circle.

The most dramatic win on home soil for Euskaltel-Euskadi, though, was yet to come – in Bilbao for Igor Anton, as the Vuelta returned to the Basque Country for the first time in over three decades. Attacking on a climb he would often use in training rides, Anton claimed a historic victory as Spain’s biggest race returned to its country’s cycling heartland.

It fell to Juan Jose Lobato to take the team’s last ever victory, in the GP Getxo near Bilbao, a low-level one-day Classic, but appropriately enough, just an hour’s drive from the Aranzazu sanctuary where the team had effectively begun on December 6th 1993.

“We finish with the feeling of a job well done.” Alvaro Gonzalez de Galdeano, latterly a director with Euskaltel, said after the Tour of Beijing, and certainly none of the fans who received those bulging white envelopes way back in 1994 could ever have imagined the team would get so far – or that the gap that Euskaltel-Euskadi leaves behind could be so big.

Footnote: Just four of the 21 riders have a contract for 2014: Nieve at Sky, Ion and Gorka Izagirre with Movistar and Mikel Landa at Astana, whilst Romain Sicard is all but certain to sign for Europcar. However, neither Sánchez nor Igor Anton, as well as a further 16 riders are currently placed in 2014. The team management and back-up staff, meanwhile, are all looking likely to join the Basque Country’s dole queues as well.

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.