Nestling in a verdant valley on the road between Besain and Zumarraga is the small town of Ormaiztegi. Water is very much a theme in this typically Basque habitation, full of white painted baserriak, standing as it does where the rivers Estanda and San Lucia connect, swelled by abundant streams which tumble from the heights of Ukarreo and Monte Española on either side. Wikipedia’s Spanish-language entry on the town speaks of another variety of water, in the context of its climate, which is "temperate and humid, with no major seasonal contrasts", for "prevailing winds are north and northwest, making a plethora of rain".
It is perhaps appropriate therefore, that one of Ormaiztegi’s most famous modern residents, Euskaltel Euskadi rider Gorka Izagirre, whose surname means in Euskera ‘a person living in a place exposed to the wind’, should be rather fond of the rain. In an interview published in Deia, team chief Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano described his young charge as being ‘motivated by bad weather’. At a winter team camp, he tells us, Izagirre was the last man standing on a wet, cold day, still desperate to test himself for three hours even though most people’s sense may have dictated a rest day indoors. His first professional win, as if by design, came on a hideous day at last year’s Tour of Luxembourg. So who is this resiliant, hardy young Basque, and how did he come to occupy his rightful place at the zenith of Euskadi’s Generation U25?
Gorka Izagirre Insausti was born on 7th October 1987 into a cycling family. His father is José Ramón Izagirre Mendizabal, twice the cyclocross champion of Spain, and a notable BMX rider. His mother Nekane Insausti, recalls in discussion with Deia, that she never wanted her sons to be cyclists (Gorka’s younger brother Ion joined him at Euskaltel last year), covered in blood and mud, and exposed to the pain and exhaustion which frequently hung around her husband. But Gorka did not take to football or pelota, so often the sporting recourse of small boys growing up in rural towns such as Ormaiztegi. Instead, he directed his boundless energy towards his mountain bike, and later, like his father, a cross bike. By his teenage years, the bike, both on the road and in the mud, was his life. Nekane recalls how sad it once made her when her son stayed in after dinner, leaving his friends to party like ‘normal’ young people, but she came to appreciate and admire his boundless devotion to his sport. His brother describes him as ‘dedicated, stubborn and methodical’, even to the point of eschewing his mother’s Christmas dinner in favour of a healthier option, though he always made sure she knew how much he loved her.
The young Gorka’s determination and talent did not go unnoticed, and as national junior champion he was selected to represent Spain at the World Cyclocross Championships in 2004. He managed only 51st, eight minutes down on winner Niels Albert, but by now his steely brown eyes were straying to the road. After progressing prolifically at Seguros Bilbao, and riding for the national squad at various events, he signed as a stagaire for the Swiss team NGC Medical-OTC Industry Porte towards the end of 2008. He started the Tour de l’Avenir for Spain that year also, but crashed and abandoned on the first stage. In 2009, he progressed to his first professional contract with Contentpolis-Ampo. He failed to register a victory in his solitary year with them, but took his place in several major events, and impressed with his attacking style and lack of discernable fear. He failed to finish the Tour of the Basque Country, but the following weekend finished 47th in the Klassika Primavera, 2.23 minutes down and in decent company. His next race was the Vuelta a Rioja, in which he scored a highly creditable 17th, part of an experienced main chase group. 58th in the San Sebastian Classic, 35th in the Tre Valli Varesine and 47th at the U23 Worlds are hardly results to set the world alight, but his drive and attitude, as well as his eagerness to grasp a race with both hands, attracted the attention of Euskaltel Euskadi. By 2010, the 22 year old Izagirre had reached the big league.
Izagirre impressed from the gun in 2010, always eager to make the breaks in the Tour Down Under, where he finished a noticable 27th. As is the right of passage for most young Euskaltel signings, he was sent to the northern cobbled hell in the spring, perhaps like many of his comrades, dreaming of the more palatable prospect of Pais Vasco. He made it round the Three Days of De Panne, and reached the Roubaix Velodrome, albeit outside the time limit, but the Tour of Flanders proved beyond him. No matter, for he was about to charge, rain-drenched, into the world’s consciousness. Stage four of the Tour of Luxembourg started under fair skies. However, by the time the peloton reached the capital city, conditions were positively apolcalyptic, with gargantuan drops of rain hitting the river-like streets and bouncing back in the direction from whence they came. The crowds, such as they were, huddled into doorways, cowed and shivering. But this was Izagirre’s world, harsh and sodden. With gritted teeth he unleashed a devastating burst, with no thought to his wellbeing on the treacherous tarmac, and easily out kicked all that was left of the group. Behind him were Ivanov, Carrara, Flecha, Gerrans, Leukemans and Casar, all hard men left drowning in his wake. It was a win notable for its sheer stubborness and refusal to lie down.
Izagirre’s second red letter day came on 25th July at the Prueba Villafranca in Ordizia, barely 10km from his home town of Ormaiztegi. He attacked with Mancebo, Pardilla, Lana and Herrada over the last of the day’s seven climbs before escaping on the descent with 4km to go. The chasing bunch received the same time, thanks to his leisurely celebration, but the win was never in doubt once the finish was in his sights. It was an emotional triumph for the local boy, who had begun his serious training in the cycling school of the very same town. He had won as an under-23 in nearby Urretxu, Zumarraga, Segura and Besain, but never in Ordizia, the place where it all began. On crossing the line he was greeted by his boyhood coaches and his parents, as well as nearly thirty friends, soon to be joined by his brother, who finished 22nd. It was quite a homecoming.
There were no further podium finishes for Izagirre in 2010, but he continued to impress, especially with a huge attack over the hills in the Tour of Poland, and with some fighting performances at the Eneco Tour in August. All seemed set for a further step up in 2011. He began the current season at the Tour Down Under, where he was once again in attack mode, picking up enough incidental points to net 9th in the mountains classification. He also threw himself into some sprints, demonstrating that while not a sprinter per se, his finish is not to be sneezed at. In Stage 3, won by Michael Matthews, he was 7th, just behind Ventoso, and ahead of more bona fide sprinters in Allan Davis, JJ Rojas, Greg Henderson, Robbie McEwen and Elia Viviani. He finished 12th overall. He hit form in Majorca at the Trofeo Deia, where he finished 2nd to Rojas in a tough-man’s sprint, where the top ten also included Langeveld, Martin, Ventoso, Hesjedal and Di Luca. Other top tens in bumpy stages with classy fields have included 7th in Stage 8 of Paris Nice, won by Voeckler, and 6th in Stage 1 at Haut Var, where he was 10th overall, behind Dumoulin.
While winless thus far in 2011, Izagirre is fast developing himself as a potent threat in tough sprints and bumpy races suited to attackers. He is not yet the finished article; as Galdeano, quoted in Deia, said, "Gorka has a lot to polish….above all he must control his impulses…but he is still young, and has time to calm down". He is clearly going in the right direction however, and is finding greater consistency. Speaking to Gara after his near miss in Majorca, he stated that although he not yet done anything special in 2011, he felt his level was now a notch higher and that he was improving all the time. When he is going well, he said, he feels at ease on the climbs, without being a real climber; this ability to survive the hills, combined with a serious kick, promises to net Izagirre much success in his career to come. There is very little information out there about his future objectives, or even his race programme for the remainder of 2011. He starts in the Vuelta Ciclista Asturias today, but beyond that, his schedule is a mystery. Wherever he ends up however, and whatever he does, I will track his performances and attempt to report back to Project U25.
For all things Izagirre, look at the brothers' fanpage on Facebook. You can also, theoretically, follow Gorka on Twitter (@izainsausti), though he doesn't use it much (I would link his account, but Twitter is freezing at work today...I'll amend it later!).