I'm going to piggy-back on Drew's story about Iban Mayo, whom I regard as one of the symbols of the last several years for his country's participation in Cycling. While far from dying, Spanish Cycling in general has fallen to historic depths in the last 3-4 years, and it would be awfully nice to see things start turning around in 2007. Right now, Spain is atop the Pro Tour nation rankings, based mostly on Alberto Contador's mad dash -- anecdotal evidence given the long season ahead. But if they finish up there, and a few other things start to change, it could be one of the stories of the year.
On the flip:
Spain has long owned membership in the most exclusive club of Cycling nations. Belgium is the heart of the Classics season, in terms of races and racers. Their history is full of single-day (and occasional grand tour) glory, and in the modern era their top two or three teams tend to earn their keep. Italy is the most prolific talent factory, and tends to win on its home court if not so much elsewhere. Their current Pro Tour teams are well-stacked, enough that they can export the world champion and winners of five of the last six Giros overseas and still remain highly competitive. France is mired in a 20-year slump, but their history and ownership of Le Tour will earn them a little more grace period before writing them off.
But Spain? Their proud history stretches back to Bahamontes' Tour win in 1959. Ocana, Delgado and the great Indurain all have etched their name in Tour history. Spanish teams have been major protagonists seemingly every year that I'm aware of, going back to the Merckx era. They litter the KOM podium like no other nation, indicative of the national emphasis on climbing. This explains their non-existence at most of the Monuments, but they hold their own in the Vuelta and have five world championships by three riders since 1995.
More recently, though, Spanish Cycling has fallen on rather hard times. You have to go back to Angel Casero's win in 2001 to find a Spanish Vuelta champion who hasn't been kicked out of the sport. No Spaniard has taken a jersey of any kind at the Tour since Oscar Sevilla's maillot blanc in 2001, and the only podiums since the Indurain era belong to Joseba Beloki, Fernando Escartin, and Oscar Pereiro's odd placement last year. There are always Spaniards winning races - Oscar Freire being the best example, and Sastre is hardly done - but nothing like a great champion. [More on that in a moment.]
Meanwhile, where have all the teams and sponsors gone? Yes, the Pro Tour has three "Spanish" teams, but one is very clearly a Basque outfit (people who don't exactly call themselves "Spanish"), and the other two have French sponsors. Saunier Duval is a home heating company started by Charles Saunier and Maurice Duval, selling their product across Europe. Caisse d'Epargne's cycling team, headquartered in Pamplona, has a French URL to go along with their name. Where is the next Kelme or ONCE? Do Spanish companies not believe in Cycling anymore?
It gets worse. Last fall the UCI proposed to shorten the Vuelta to two weeks. Maybe there is/was logic to the proposal (dead for the moment), but the symbolism of dropping the Vuelta down to semi-grand tour status... I mean, can you imagine this even being mentioned about the Giro? There would be blood in the streets.
And that's not even talking about Operacion Puerto, which I suppose is the subtext for some or all of the above. All talk is about what the investigation itself is going to determine, but Operacion Puerto stands for much more: the history of lax enforcement that made it possible for Dr. Fuentes of the world to operate, while Italy and France were at least sorta cracking down.
Operacion Puerto should go down in history as a wakeup call to Spanish Cycling and others as well. Hopefully its effects will be a temporary destruction of the old regime and ways, to be followed by a rebuilding of the sport and its fan support across Spain. This is a bigger topic than I can explore now, or would even want to; let's just say that the sport as a whole can follow the T-Mobile model of cleaning house and starting over, the right way.
Which brings us to the riders. Spanish Cycling may be looking at its own wave of young mega-talent coming on line. Obviously we all know about Alejandro Valverde and his promise in both the classics and Grand Tours. He's 26. Recently we've seen what a few of his teammates can do : Luis Leon Sanchez just turned 23; David Lopez Garcia is 25. As for other teams... Jose Angel Gomez Marchante is 26. Francisco Jose Ventoso is 24. Koldo Fernandez is 24. Alberto Contador is 24. Sammy Sanchez, at 29, is last year's Danilo DiLuca, finally approaching his promise.
I'm painting in broad brushstrokes, though I appreciate people picking this apart for sake of accuracy; I don't know the Spaniards like I know the Italians or Belgians. Point is, things have gone seriously, historically awry... but if nothing else, Spain is currently producing the talent to lead a dramatic and very welcomed turnaround.