Life after Euskaltel-Euskadi was always going to be tough for Samuel Sánchez. The Basque team was all he had ever known as a professional cyclist – 13 years in the distinctive orange kit and the best part of a decade as their leading light. Yet, after a turbulent couple of years since the team folded in 2013, the 37-year-old claims to have found a “new family” at BMC Racing.
Sánchez exudes calm and contentment as he sits down with Cyclingnews at the American team’s winter camp in Spain in mid-December. It’s a state of mind that can be attributed to having a contract in the bag before the season has actually begun, a luxury he hasn’t enjoyed since the fall of Euskaltel.
In fact, this is Sánchez’s first winter camp with BMC. He first signed for the team in February 2014 after a period of uncertainty for all involved with the Euskaltel team, and last winter he failed to come to an agreement for a renewal, eventually re-signing late in January 2015. However, just six months passed before he was once again putting pen to paper, the BMC management so impressed with the work he was doing for Tejay van Garderen at the Tour de France that they handed him a 2016 deal before they’d even reached Paris – where he ended up 12th overall.
“For me it’s the perfect situation, knowing your future before the new year,” Sánchez says of a state of affairs the vast majority of cyclists take for granted. “I’m at the team camp, I’m relaxed, and I’ve been able to get to work knowing that my future is on the bike.
“Jim [Ochowicz – BMC general manager – ed.] is a person with whom I can speak very directly. At every point since the start of the year he told me that the decision to continue would be mine, that I had a place in BMC. I had the space to focus on my cycling.”
Euskaltel-Euskadi was a team that carried a sense of identity that is hard to come by in a sport where sponsors come and go, teams change names, and kits change colours. Its Basque-orientation, sponsor, name, and orange kit were all constants during Sánchez’s 13-year spell there and, at 34-years of age, he’d have been forgiven for wondering if he’d ever settle anywhere else again.
“For me BMC is my new family, and I’m loving being here,” he says of his new home, putting any such fears to bed. “My teammates are great, they see me as an immortal figure, like a father, even if my mentality is like that of a child receiving his first bike.”
Tejay van Garderen helps BMC teammate Samuel Sanchez to a snack (Tim de Waele/TDWSport).
Motivation, the former Olympic champion tells us, is “something that comes from within”, but it’s his new environs, and broadened horizons, that have enabled that motivation to blossom anew.
“The amount of people that I’ve got to know in these last years with such an international, global team… it’s an experience that has allowed me to rediscover much of the motivation that I had.
“That’s such an important part of being a person and being a cyclist – having that excitement, to get to know new people, countries, different races, new ways of seeing things.”
Consequently, the Samuel Sánchez who looks ahead to 2016 is a world away from the weary figure that at the start of this year was trying to keep himself in some sort of shape, but seriously considering calling time on his days as a professional cyclist. As well as the mental side of things, the newfound optimism is in no small part due to the physical, with an encouraging string of performances under his belt once his 2015 season did swing into motion.
The highlight was, of course, the Tour de France, and Sánchez describes the team time trial victory on stage 9 as “the happiest day of my season”, filling another gap in the palmares. More significant, however, was the fact that after 16 stages of the race Tejay van Garderen sat second on GC – having usurped the pre-billed ‘fab four’ – and looked good for a podium spot in Paris. Sánchez had shepherded him throughout, especially in the mountains, but the American was cruelly forced to climb off his bike due to illness on stage 17.
“That was a body blow for all of us,” Sánchez says. “We’d worked so hard, him and I, in the Pyrenees and the Alps. We were combining really well, I was up there with him in all the Pyrenean stages, and to pull out three days from Paris was really tough to take.”
Sánchez found himself as the de facto team leader and, despite losing time in the opening week when he would drop off the front late on to conserve his resources, he fought on and ended up 12th overall by Paris.
“I felt very strong, and it showed that even at 37 I can be up there with those at the front,” he says with a mischievous grin.
The BMC management were convinced, and so too was Sánchez on a personal level - any lingering thoughts of retirement well and truly allayed.
“As sportsman who trains, looks after themselves, and makes sacrifices, when you go to a competition and you have results, and you see the product of your efforts, it makes it worth the while,” he says.
“I told myself ‘why not continue another year?’ While the mindset and the motivation are there, there’s no sense in getting off the bike.”
So, what does this next year hold in store for Samuel Sánchez?
“I think that 2016 will go much better than 2015,” he says, optimism still shining through, “because I’ve already begun to train well, I’m really relaxed, and I don’t have the uncertainty of not knowing if I’m going to race or not.”
High up on the priority list is the Vuelta al País Vasco, a race where he has always performed well, and he hopes to carry that form through to the Ardennes to rekindle the Amstel Gold-winning partnership of 2014 with Philippe Gilbert. Then there are the new experiences – the Tour de Suisse for the first time in his career, along with his first taste of racing in the US at the Tour of California.
“There’s a tough year ahead, with many objectives to fulfill, but they all motivate me, because the bike is my passion. As long as my head’s in the right place, and physically I get the recompense from the work I put in every day, then I’ll carry on racing my bike.”
As our interview concludes, Cyclingnews wishes Sánchez well for the season ahead and, beaming, he tells us that he can't wait for it, his 37 - soon to be 38 - years of age doing little to dampen the youthful exuberance.
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