Just when you think doping has killed cycling, in come several more big sponsors. Just when you think the Muur is the most sacred road in the sport, it's out of Flanders. Just when you think the disc brake or the carbon clincher or the electronic shifter can't be done for the top pros, they're done. Everything you think can't change? It can.
Take the Euskaltel-Euskadi team. Their name tells a story, specifically that they are a creation of a local Basque foundation where fans send in money to help run the team. I'm not the Staff Historian, so how unique this arrangement is from the perspective of geologic time, I can't say, but a fan-funded team in 2013 is all sorts of Awesome. And yet, they are also the product of a traditional corporate sponsor (telecommunications, again). Two competing agendas, really, one international and another so classically insular. For a long, long time the latter has ruled this team. Until now.
Gone, as of this year, in exchange for the continued existence of Euskaltel-Euskadi as a World Tour entity, is the old team rule that it would only take on riders who were either certifiably Basque or who had some other close connection, e.g. Samuel Sanchez who migrated over from Asturias at age 18 to pursue cycling in Basque development teams. Gone is the prioritization of cultural identity, replaced instead by a renewed pledge to be a top World Tour team, in all respects. Gone is the Fundacion from the active management of the team (they formed the team and had long handled logistics; now they're a minor funder). Manager Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano spent the winter talking of becoming a global elite cycling venture, professing to have discovered the value of pursuing results "from second thru tenth," as opposed to going for the win or going home. Actually, I'm not sure this is a good thing. Whatever it is, it will still be very, very Basque.
But the riders won't necessarily be. Incoming are Slovenians Jure Kocjan and Robert Vrecer, Moroccan Tarik Chaoufi, Germans Andre Schulze and Steffen Radochla, Greek Ioannis Tamouridis, Russian Alexander Serebryakov, Portuguese Ricardo Mestre, and non-Basque Spaniard Juan Jose Lobato. In one offseason, Euskaltel-Euskadi have gone from striking homogeneity to a diversity that's unusual even in cycling. They've also added sprinters like Lobato, Kocjan and Schulze as well as a classics leader in Serebryakov. No more skinny climbers in Paris-Roubaix, right?
Whatever it turns out to be, it'll be different.
What We Thought Coming In
Erm, we haven't done much on the car... uh, the boys in Orange. But for good reason: the team had settled into a comfortable pattern of stage-hunting success and high finishes or near-misses in the Vuelta and the Tour de France. Pretty standard stuff for a regional team focused on climbing past throngs of their adoring fans. So, had we set some expectations, they probably would have centered around Igor Anton maybe making it through a Vuelta intact, or Samu Sanchez defending his Tour placings and Olympic gold medal... not that the latter was ever likely, on that course.
What We Got
Meh. Lots of meh. A grand total of eight victories, capped by Samu's overall Vuelta al Pais Vasco title, a smattering of stage wins, very little presence in the Vuelta, and the emergence of Ion Izagirre. Basically, a down year for a team which prides itself on results in the Spanish one-week tours and the Vuelta, plus an insurgency or two in the Tour de France.
But that bit about Izagirre... this was a pretty big deal. Gorka's younger brother, in his second season at the top level, exceeded his performances from the U23 days (he turned 24 last weekend), with a stage win at the Giro d'Italia, a short time trial victory in the Asturias, and a strong challenge in the Tour of Poland. This last bit is interesting: the kid gets it when it comes to UCI points. Further proof? He just finished fourth in the TDU. If this isn't exactly what Euskaltel needed, then I'm not sure what is.
[I know the UCI points system isn't beloved by all and there was some chatter earlier on that Euskaltel were making odd choices in the name of points, but in Izagirre at least they have a guy who racks up points, and kicks ass.]
Sanchez remained the team's cornerstone, despite a dropoff in points from his consistent production which saw him ranked between 4th and 10th in the world for five of the last six years. His run of good luck and health ended with a broken collarbone on stage 8 of the Tour de France, which snuffed his hopes of at least showing up to defend his signature title, the Olympic road race gold medal he won in Beijing. He did recover to earn his customary second place at Lombardia, so things are back to normal now.
Anton, the team's other star, suffered through another disappointing campaign, the highlight of which was a nice ride in the Vuelta a Burgos, on the eve of the Vuelta a Espana, which nicely did the job of setting his fans up for disappointment again. Anton felt chipper after a relatively consistent ride, but his time trialing left him off the podium, and he conceded time in dribs and drabs en route to a ninth place overall. Granted, the Vuelta has gotten very competitive again in the years since his ill-fated demise in 2010, when he had the race in his pocket before crashing out entirely in a split second. But as he approaches his 30th birthday, it's time to keep expectations permanently low.
Top Three Highlights (besides the whole continuing to exist thing)
- Izagirre's Giro stage win. This was one of those modest mountain days, a 170km ride with no signature climb but a long uphill drag to the finish in the Dolomites. Izagirre crushed his break-mates in the last 3km, soloing home to a victory in his first grand tour. Given the team's standing (including not having sorted out its continued existence for 2013), this was HUGE.
- Romain Sicard fifth at Bola del Mundo. With hope of a big day in the Vuelta all but gone, at least the team got a very exciting performance from its young French climber on a somewhat legendary course. Or, put another way, 2012 already sucked, so finding out that maybe 2013 won't was a good thing. Anyway, for his first grand tour that was a nice third-week performance.
- Sanchez' victory at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. That's called holding serve.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Victor Cabedo killed in training accident. It doesn't get much worse than this. The kid had talent; how much we will, sadly, never know. Read more about him here.
- Sanchez crashes out of the Tour. Bad timing. And Sammy was his usual, semi-awesome self before and after. He's 35 now, so any lost time is a big loss.
- Anton drops 30 seconds in first major Vuelta mountain stage. To Contador and Froome, no less, guys who can crono? Game over.
What Comes Next?
More of the same, only slightly improved, with a longer-term outlook for things to get even better. Maybe Mikel Nieve (10th in Giro, 5th in Suisse), slightly younger than Anton, will find the Tour de France more to his liking than the punchier slopes of the Vuelta. Maybe Anton, the Izagirres and Samu will make an unbeatable team in the Giro and/or Vuelta. Izagirre, with his abilities against the watch -- not totally hopeless, at least in Spanish races -- will open some doors.
Longer term, with eight riders under 25 and a budget that just (supposedly) tripled, it will be interesting to see where the roster goes. Sanchez won't be around forever, so his dollars will come off the books. Euskaltel's first offseason venture into the foreign market wasn't exactly a show-stopper, but Serebryakov was a solid pickup and the rest are mostly young and/or useful. This is a unique team -- not rich and powerful, not vastly influential, but as smaller World Tour teams go they can offer a story and a rabid fanbase. Given a full year to recruit talent, will the 2013-14 transfer season be more exciting? Quite possibly. I wouldn't call them a team to watch in 2013, but beyond that, all bets are off.
Oh, and if you're a fan of this team, bookmark the Basque Cycling News website. You'll never lack for English updates again.