The vast majority of tifosi fell into two distinct camps as Ion Izagirre Insausti romped to a solo win into Falzes on Stage 16 of the 2012 Giro d’Italia. All over the internet and probably all over the run into the line that day, people asked ‘who’s he?’ with brows furrowed and eyebrows raised. Even Lars Bak, who spent the day in the break with the orange clad Basque and finished 9th, prefaced his congratulations to Izagirre with ‘I have no idea who he is, but…’. Albertina sighed copiously and attempted womanfully to prevent her inner grumble from spilling out into a Twitter-based lecture. But Yours Truly was not the only one to know all about young Ion, who has been very much on the radar back home in Euskal Herria for some considerable time. While most of the world appeared a tad baffled of visage, a significant proportion of my Twitter timeline went completely bonkers. As the EiTB commentators bellowed ION! this and ION! that (he’s a local so familiarity is fine, no?) they were echoed by cyber-shrieks of AUUUPAAAA ION! AURRERAAA TXIKI! EUTSI! GORA EUSKALTEL! and finally in a blissful and doubtless kalimotxo-soaked apotheosis, IIIZAGIIIREEEEE TXAPELDUN!!!!!!!! And no, that was not just me. As the unassuming little Euskaltel star battled up the steep finishing climb and hung on up the flat straight at its top, hair everywhere and comical pirate-earring flapping in the Südtirol breeze, the hash tag #IzagirreRockStar was born. Now a rock star needs fans, right? And fans need to know who they’re cheering for. So who is Ion Izagirre? Allow me to assist.
Giro d'Italia 2012 - Stage 16 - Final kilometers (via CyclingFlash12)
Izagirre is 23, born on 4th February 1989, and hails from Ormaiztegi, which is in Gipuzkoa and about fifty kilometres south west of San Sebastian. I wrote all about this rather remote little town in my article a year ago on Ion’s older brother Gorka but I have since actually been there. When I was in the Basque Country about a month ago in my role as possibly the only international pelota writer in the whole wide world I spent a day on local trains exploring the off-the-beaten-track parts of Gipuzkoa, ever keen to avoid the normal tourist trail and pop up attempting to speak Basque in places where foreign girls are rather rare. I spent the larger part of the morning in Tolosa which does at least feature in some guide books on the region, but as I worked my way south, I stopped off in Ormaiztegi for no reason other than the fact that it is the home of the Izagirres. Oh dear, what a terrible Euskie geek I am. As I alighted at the deserted little station in absolutely torrential rain, even the sheep thought I was barmy. I walked down the steep hill into the little town, whose inhabitants number no more than 1,400 and attempted to get into the museum (I was baffled that they had one to be honest), but siesta time had started so it was shut. The church was also shut. One taberna was open but I wimped out of going in for a drink as it looked so terribly ‘local’ and all the linguistic bravado I had managed to muster in Tolosa had disappeared down the drain along with the never ending precipitation. So that was that. Ormaiztegi. Nice enough place, but there was nothing to do but walk around the block and head back to the station and off to Zumarraga. It was not until I got back to Bilbao very much later that night that I learned Ion Izagirre had that very day scored his first professional win, in the time trial at the Vuelta a Asturias. If only I’d mentioned his name to those men in the taberna perhaps we could have shared a txakoli in celebration.
Izagirre’s journey towards this inaugural triumph started at home. His father is two-time Spanish cyclocross champion José Ramón Izagirre and from an early age he and his brother eschewed football and pelota, eager to follow in his footsteps. Ion was known in his younger years as a cyclocross rider. His first eye catching result came in 2006 when can third in the Spanish junior championships, an achievement which earned him a place on the national team at the worlds. Two years later he was crowned the cross champion of Euskadi at under-23 level but by then, the road was starting to feature more heavily in his future plans. That same year he was signed by Orbea, Euskaltel’s continental feeder team, a contract which came on the back or some impressive displays in 2008, which he finished as a stagaire, including a third place in the national under-23 championships and victory in the provincial under-23 time trial championships. Triumphs in UCI races proved hard to come by his first year with Orbea but he won repeatedly on the domestic scene, taking the plaudits in Bergara, Markina, the fourth stage of the Bizkaiko Bira and the Memorial Angel Mantecon.
In 2010 he started a move into the bigger leagues. His highest finish of the year came with a 5th place finish in the prologue at the Circuito Montañes, won by Martijn Keizer, but solid rides at the Trofeo Inca, Asturias and Burgos, where he mixed it with some notable names, hinted at more to come. Euskaltel saw the potential and offered him a contract for 2011. His progression continued as a neo-pro with 24th overall at Tirreno Adriatico and 7th in the time trial Vuelta a la Comunidad de Madrid (22 seconds behind Castroviejo and on the same time as former national champion Jose Ivan Gutierrez). He also scored an excellent fourth at his local race, the Prueba Villafranca de Ordizia, a race which had marked this first professional win of his brother the previous year. Izagirre made an escape group of five and appeared as strong as anyone before being outsprinted to the line by Julien Simon, Dani Moreno and Pablo Lastras but holding off a charging Angel Madrazo. He also rode excellently for fourth at Poitou Charentes when he showed quite some turn of pace to set alongside his ability in the hills and against the clock, out-kicking Hutarovich, Sanz, Rojas and Sebastien Chavanel. All looked set fair for further advances in 2012.
He turned heads, or at least Basque ones, early with third in the Boucles du Sud Ardèche in February behind Pauriol and Vichot. After a very solid 16th in Tirreno Adriatico, he was thrown into the Euskaltel hell of the northern classics but far from giving up with a long face, he astounded many by landing 15th in Gent Wevelgem. An orange non-Rabobank jersey in the lead group of such a race is unusual to say the least. He then proceeded to finish Paris Roubaix, albeit in 13 minutes down in 79th, but with a group of respectable cobbles warriors. His last race before the Giro was the Vuelta a Asturias and it was here in a rain soaked 14km time trial that he broke his professional duck, beating eventual overall winner Beñat Intxausti into second by six seconds. He was robbed of a chance to challenge for the GC podium by a crash in stage three which looked a lot more serious than it turned out to be, but there was a sense of something dawning in Basque cycling, an environment where every young talent is scrutinised for their potential to be the next big thing and to carry the pride of a people on their shoulders.
As far as the majority of observers were concerned, certainly those outside a small northern corner of the Iberian peninsula, Euskaltel’s Giro campaign was all about Mikel Nieve and while a high placing for their GC leader was the main objective there were many that sensed Ion Izagirre could be a factor. Coming into stage 16, the Basque team had nothing whatsoever to cheer them, a disastrous TTT having left Nieve grovelling his way back towards the top ten from afar. It was depressing to be an Euskaltel fan, depressing to have to absorb the mockery which accompanied an awful display against the clock yet again, and I imagine the atmosphere at the team hotel cannot have been too positive either. But then, from the shadows, along came Izagirre, unknown to most of the world, but about to crown a progression which his countrymen had been following with patience and hope for years. When he returned to Ormaiztegi he was greeted as the hero it was always hoped he would become. Ion Izagirre, rock star.
Jon Izagirre txirrindulariari ongietorria Ormaiztegin. 2012 maiatzak 30 (via Goierrikohitza)
(The cyclist Jon Izagirre is welcomed back to Ormaiztegi on 30th May 2012)