So the orange clad mountain men of Euskaltel-Euskadi are no more – the team are disbanding at the end of 2013 due to the lack of sufficient sponsorship and funding for the future.
*****STOP PRESS – on 02/09/13 F1 driver Fernando Alonso reached an agreement to buy the Euskaltel-Euskaltel cycling team and save them from folding at the end of the year*****
I suppose they have been mocked over the years by some for their parochialism and refusal to join the real world – the world where teams negotiate their way through the market place of international pro cyclists – and until 2012 stuck rigidly to their Basque only policy; part funded by the Basque government, taking on only riders who were either born in the Basque country or had grown up in that culture, and so were steeped in the heritage. Other teams continue with this approach – Orbea and Caja Rural, for example – but not at World Tour level.
The passionate flag waving Basque cycling fans who line the roads, as their heroes attack the climbs and take on the world in an uphill struggle, have become one of the familiar sights of the Tour de France and La Vuelta; cycling is one of their outlets to display themselves, their culture and their spirit to the world.
I am saying this as a cycling fan from the north of England who knows very little about the Basque region, it’s people, and their history and culture. I am just celebrating the idea that for so long, Euskaltel-Euskadi were living proof that there was still a place in the world of top-level professional sport for a team of local heroes.
There are parallels through time in others sports. The Glasgow Celtic football team won the European Cup in 1967, the legend being that all 11 players in the starting line up were born within a 30 mile radius of Celtic’s Parkhead stadium – it doesn’t get much more local than that. And what a connection the fans must have felt to that team; men like them, who grew up in their streets, their working class heroes taking on the might of European football. The sense of pride must have been immense, the kind of force that sends men happily off to war, brothers in arms.
Anyone with at least some understanding of sport and the modern world can see why local teams no longer mean local heroes. We live in a world with fewer borders and the freedom to travel, earn a living or compete freely – and professional sports team’s are competing in a world market. The best local sports people will start off with their local club, but if their stock rises sufficiently money and glory will usually talk. Perhaps the Basques did well to preserve the purity of their team and compete for as long as they did at the top-level.
So what about the last rites of Euskaltel-Euskadi. They’ve had their share of success over the years with plenty of stage race wins, but never had a Grand Tour winner; they managed two top ten finishers in the Tour de France in 2003 (Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia), with their best Grand Tour finishes coming from Samuel Sanchez; 3rd place at the 2010 Tour de France, and 2nd overall at the Vuelta a Espana in 2009.
Despite producing a string of world-class riders – Samuel Sanchez, Pablo Urtasun and Igor Anton, in recent years – they were constantly hamstrung by the lack of decent Basque time trialler’s. Many of their potential Grand Tour winners over the years were bound to lose great chunks of time in individual and, particularly, team time trials – terminal proof of how their Basque only policy ultimately held them back on the biggest stage.
Maybe the lack of a big Tour winner in the end hampered them when looking for sponsor’s money? Or perhaps it was simply the reality of the Spanish economy biting? I for one will miss the orange shirts in the peloton, their fans at the roadside, and the uncompromising pride in how they chose to run their team and show off their character.
They managed to show for many years, defiantly, that there was a place in top professional sport for a team of local heroes.