Trek-Segafredo's Markel Irizar will retire at the end of this season following a 16-year career in which he has dedicated his talents to helping some of the sport’s biggest names achieve their dreams. Professional cycling is made up of leaders and helpers, and Irizar told Cyclingnews that he realised early on in his career that he would not belong to the former.
Irizar has two victories on his palmarès: a stage of the 2010 Tour du Poitou-Charentes and the overall title at the 2011 Vuelta a Andalucía. However, he attributes his long career to making the early decision to sacrifice his own ambitions and become a domestique.
"I think you understand that if you're not a big talent then you are not going to be a 'killer'," Irizar told Cyclingnews.
"There are some things that you should do if you want to survive. I understood from the very beginning that I was not going to be a winner, so I was thinking about how a leader would like to be treated and working for them. I was trying to do my best and trying to help someone to give 100 per cent. I was lucky to be close to some big leaders and, thanks to having those big leaders, I could have a long career.
"I've won only two races, and it's not easy to survive in this world for 16 years," he said. "But it's thanks to a number of people that I got the opportunity to do this."
Irizar's move in 2010 to RadioShack – which would later become Trek-Segafredo – eventually linked him up with two of his strongest leaders, Fabian Cancellara and Alberto Contador. Cancellara joined a year later and, bit by bit, Irizar worked his way into the Swiss man's Classics team. In 2013, Irizar helped Cancellara to the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix double, and was there again when Cancellara won Flanders the following year.
Irizar only spent one season with Contador, which turned out to be the Spaniard's last as a professional, supporting him at both the Tour de France and Vuelta a España.
"Alberto is probably the person that I've met with the most confidence in himself. Even if he crashed one day, his morale would be super high, and he was super confident. He had a really strong and positive personality for racing," said Irizar.
"For me, the strongest teammate I ever had was Fabian at the Classics. As a team, it was often us against QuickStep, and sometimes Fabian was alone against three of them and he was able to fix what all seven of our riders were not able to do. He was special, and the Classics with him were unbelievable."
Coming back from cancer
Nicknamed 'Radio Vasca' for his chatty and amenable nature, Irizar has been a firm fixture of the peloton since his arrival in 2004. However, it can be easy to forget how close his career came to never happening at all.
In 2002, when he was on the brink of stepping up to professional level, Irizar was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He recovered, and it was thanks to the support of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team that he was able to begin his pro career. He believes that his diagnosis played a part in his long stint in the peloton.
"Maybe if I didn't have cancer then I might not have been a professional, because it gave me an opportunity," he explained. "I could have been a professional before I had cancer, but then I was sick and the boss of Euskaltel-Euskadi, Miguel Madariaga, promised me if I got better he would give me a chance. He did, and I'm really thankful for that.
"Again, in 2009, when I was in Euskaltel, I had the opportunity to go to RadioShack and that was because Lance Armstrong knew my story because he sent me a letter when I was sick. If I hadn't had cancer, I probably wouldn't still be here as a pro."
Irizar is currently racing at Tirreno-Adriatico and will race at the Volta a Catalunya, the Itzulia Basque Country and the Tour de Romandie in the coming months. He is on Trek-Segafredo's long-list for the Giro d'Italia but is not certain of starting. In the summer, he is down to ride the Adriatica Ionica Race before his final outing at the Clásica San Sebastián.
"San Sebastián will be the end of my career. It's going to be special because it's my home, the Basque Country, and San Sebastián is always a special race, even if it's hard for me. But I'll give 100 per cent just to be fit and be on it. Then I will have a big party with all my friends," Irizar said.
There are no firm plans set in place for Irizar once he hangs up his wheels, but he told Cyclingnews that he would likely remain with the team and Trek Bicycles in some capacity.