As 2014 draws to a close, Spain's Juan Manuel Garate (Belkin) is probably one of the very last riders this year to confirm his retirement from the peloton - an announcement he made official in a press conference on Monday in San Sebastian. The Spaniard touched on some of the highlights of his career; stage wins in all three Grand Tours, including the toughest mountain stages of both the 2009 Tour de France and 2006 Giro d'Italia, however, he also noted some of the regrets that he has as his career comes to an end.
"Winning on the Ventoux in the 2009 Tour de France will remain my most special victory," Garate, 38, told Cyclingnews. "My team at the time [Rabobank] hadn't had a good Tour, even though we had had a great line-up but it had all gone awry from day one. So that stage was the last chance we had to do something before the race got to Paris the next day, and that made it even more special."
Garate raced 26 Grand Tours in total, and ever since he clinched fourth overall in the 2002 Giro d'Italia as a third year pro, it was clear where his talents lay. He also secured three more top-10 placings in the Italian Grand Tour, with a seventh place overall in 2006, together with the King of the Mountains classification and victory in a seven-hour mountain stage over the Pordoi and Fedaia, culminating in the Passo San Pellegrino summit finish, his best-ever all-around performance.
His final year has been anything but straightforward, as a drawn-out row with Belkin over his contractual rights has meant he has not raced all season. Nor has it been an easy decision to take to retire.
"It wasn't easy, because in a long career like mine, you always wish for it to have had a different kind of ending," Garate said. "But I've thought it over, there wasn't any chance for me to continue as a pro in any case and I had to take this decision, valuing the good moments and not thinking about what has happened too much in this last season."
Winning on the Ventoux ahead of Tony Martin understandably looms large amongst those career high points, "it had a big impact on all of the second half of my career, and after having so many near-misses, it was a win I appreciated even more," as do his different triumphs in the Giro. But there were other important moments, too, like winning the Spanish National Championships in 2005, or his Vuelta a España stage victory in Vinaros in 2001.
Garate's career, curiously enough, has been almost entirely with non-Spanish teams, barring a single year with Saunier Duval-Prodir in 2005. "I joined Lampre as a neo thanks to Jose Mari Eceiza, a person here in San Sebastian who helped me out hugely as a young pro and I would say, at the moment when I'm retiring, how grateful I am to him for that help."
"A sentimental link was forged between me and the Giro"
Garate explained his consistently good results in the Giro as being due "to racing there from very early on in my career. In my first ever Giro in 2001, my role was to be the [Lampre] team worker in the mountain stages, who was able to handle the pace on the longest on the climbs, as a support rider for Gilberto Simoni, who won the race outright. That experience made me appreciate the race a lot and at the same time want to do well there myself. A sentimental link was forged between me and the Giro and I got the measure of it from an early age."
His own trip to the final podium in Milan, when he won the Giro d'Italia’s King of the Mountains prize in 2006, was not a question of him setting and achieving a pre-race target. "It was more because I was fighting for stage wins than, like the one I won that year on the San Pellegrino and we went over a load of climbs beforehand, and I got a lot of points for that classification.
"I ended up third in the KoM classification as a result of San Pellegrino and I knew that if I did all right on the last mountain stage that year, I could win. But before the San Pellegrino stage, I hadn't even thought about the KoM as an objective - in fact I went over a lot of the climbs that day, before the final ascent, without fighting for the points."
On the downside, apart from the final row with Belkin, Garate says his other main disappointment that will linger in his mind was finishing second in 2007 in his home race, the Clásica San Sebastian, "when I messed up the final sprint. It was a race I knew and loved ever since I used to go up the Jaizkebel [the Clasica's main climb] as an amateur to watch it go through."
As Garate heads into retirement from professional bike racing, he has no plans, as of yet, regarding what he will do in the future. "This has been a very difficult year for me, I'm not in a great place...
"Until recently, I wanted to go on racing. So I haven't stopped to think what will happen to me after January 1, although I've done a course as a sports director and I think my experience as a pro could be of use if I decided to try to do that. So we'll see."