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Dauphiné Libéré
Photo ©: Sirotti

The Mountains are Alive with the Sound of Orange

A look at the Euskaltel-Euskadi team

By Martin Hardie, Cyclingnews correspondent

It's the second weekend of the Tour and two Tour topics are back on the agenda, the confrontation with the Pyrenees, which for the last few years have seen the Ikurriñas (Basque flags) augmented with a fair smattering of orange, and speculation as to who is going to sign with whom for next season.

Team prospects in the Tour

Haimar Zubeldia
Photo: © Jeff Tse

What can we expect from the orange armada between now and Paris, especially as the race heads to the Pyrenees and passes through their beloved Basque Country on its way to Bayonne?

The team leader for the past two tours is the lanky 67 kg, 1.84 m Haimar Zubeldia, who even with his brilliant Prologue performance which signaled from day one that something was stirring within the orange ranks at this year's Tour. Up until Friday's time trial, Zubeldia has been a little hidden in the shadow of the younger Mayo. But now he has come to the fore with a solid fourth in the TT and third in the first Pyrenean stage to move him up to fourth overall.

Zubeldia believes he is returning to the form that he promised three years ago. He is no slouch against the clock, as his Prologue and time trial performance shows, and he also finished third in the Dauphine time trial behind Botero and Armstrong last year.

Before stage 13, he commented that, "I believe that I can still go for the top, especially after what I saw on Alpe d'Huez. When they attacked I remained in the group."

Zubeldia feels he is climbing better than Ullrich, Basso or Mancebo, and with the final time trial thinks he has a real chance of improving his position. "Against the clock, I defend myself very well," he noted.

Iban Mayo
Photo: © Sirotti

If Zubeldia has not quite been in the media's focus up until now, the great orange hope, Iban Mayo certainly has. After his victory on Alpe d'Huez, Iban Mayo has been making every effort to convince us all that his stage victory was all he sought: it was - and would be - enough for this Tour. But even with all the humility he continues to display, he will acknowledge that, "If I am well, I will also make a move in the Pyrenees."

Mayo, who is sitting in sixth overall after stage 13, does not feel like one of the leaders of the Tour. "I did not come to the Tour with that in mind," he says. "The leader of the Tour is the one who is ahead when the race finishes...When the Tour finishes, and if I finish towards the top, yes then I will be able to say that for the coming years I am a candidate, but at the moment I am not."

"I did not come feeling pressured. I came only with desire and hope, but I came calm, because I had already done things before the Tour...it is certain that the win on Alpe d'Huez gave me a little me more tranquillity, and that I now confront the Tour in another way."

If and when Mayo attacks it will be in order to take the advantage. "You do not attack for the television or the crowd," he says. "And when you attack you do not think about mortgaging anything". So if he cracks, "then it does not matter, because I have already had a great year, there are more Tours to come and in addition, I will be able to prepare for them better, calmer and in better conditions."

Regarding the remainder of the race and the podium in Paris Mayo only had to say that there would be changes. "I believe that almost everything in the general classification will change, I do not know if first position, but the rest yes. With the chrono and the Pyrenees there will be many changes. In favour of whom? I do not know".

Who's staying, who's going?

The question of who is interested in signing the great orange hope, the Prince of Arratia, the new King of Alpe d'Huez, Iban Mayo, is high on the agenda. We hear talk of Rabobank (are they orange enough?), and others are certainly in the picture. We also know that this year many contracts come to an end in Bilbao and the future of what has been cycling's "odd team out" is up in the air. Even ONCE-Eroski Director, Manolo Saiz, has been offering advice over the last week.

Euskaltel-Euskadi is a rare animal in the modern world of professional sport. Firstly, it is a team that is "owned" by a club or foundation, insofar as it has members or "socios" who pay to join the club. It's got more in common with your local cycling, cricket or football club than it does the mega-businesses of U.S. Postal or the Mapei of old.

In the first place the team is funded through membership subscriptions, anyone can go to the Txirrindularitza Iraskundea - Fundacion Euskadi website, pay their 100 euros and sign up as a socio. Secondly, Euskaltel-Euskadi is without doubt, openly and proudly a national team, even with the odd immigrant in their midst [Samuel Sanchez, who was born in Asturias but grew up in the Basque Country] and Unai Etxebarria [born in Venezuela of Basque heritage, has lived in Durango most of his life and reportedly only holds a Venezuelan licence because he doesn't want a Spanish one!].

In this respect, Euskaltel-Euskadi is indeed the odd team out in the world of globalised commerce. Indeed Euskaltel-Euskadi was created by Manager and President Miguel Madariaga with the idea in mind to help project Basque values in the face of the negative press the country (that's "country" with a small "c" for the sensitive) receives often at the hand of the Spanish press and government. The drama over the use of the Basque language, Euskera, in next week's stage to Bayonne is just the tip of an iceberg.

Last year, David Etxebarria told Cyclingnews that the team is close-knit and supportive, which helps them cope with the demands of life as a pro. "The atmosphere is very good. To be all from the same region, having the same way of thinking, these things make it very easy for us to get on well together. The pressures that you face as a pro also depends on one's age and if they have ridden before in another team. Only a few can endure it."

On the question of nationality, Etxebarria was clear. "We do not think of Euskadi as a country within another country [Spain], but like a country within the world. Ninety nine percent of the team thinks this way and it is for this reason they are in the team. Sport is a part of Basque culture, and also the suffering and sacrifice has more influence and is more deeply rooted than in other cultures. It is because of the repression through which we have lived."

It was not surprising then when earlier last week Manolo Saiz suggested that Mayo's future as a Tour winner depended upon him staying where he felt comfortable and supported.

Boost from the government

As the Euskaltel-Euskadi team heads into the Pyrenees for the "orange invasion", its future is starting to become clearer than it has been for a long time. This week the Basque daily, Deia reported that two Basque institutions, the Basque Government and the Provincial Government of Bizkaia, have decided to increase their economic assistance to the team, and that a third, the Provincial Government of Gipuzkoa, has practically decided to support the orange armada in order to keep it afloat.

The current contract between Euskaltel, the Basque telecommunications operator, and Fundacion Euskadi expires at the end of next season. In principle, Euskaltel is reportedly disposed to extend its sponsorship until 2006. The position at the moment is crucial, not only in relation to the retention of Mayo, but because 18 of the 24 cyclist's contracts expire this year. The majority are not disposed to sign for only one year, which is all the Fundacion could offer up until now.

Without cementing new sponsorship the Fundacion risks losing riders like Iban Mayo, Haimar Zubeldia, Samuel Sánchez, Roberto Laiseka, Alberto Martínez and Mikel Artetxe. And of course Mayo's market price is on the rise and this complicates the situation further. If the Fundacion wants to retain a cyclist who has the promise to do great things, it will need more money than its €4.5 million budget for 2003. Euskaltel-Euskadi is a challenger (even if they deny it) in this year's Tour on a budget that is around a third of that of US Postal's and half of the majority of the big teams out there in the peloton.

When the team was selected for this year's Tour, José Antonio Ardanza, the President of Euskaltel, announced the hope that the company could extend the term of the contract, but in doing so he hinted that the monetary amount of around €3 million, would not be increased, and urged that any further money would need to come from other sources. According to Deia, the Basque Government will probably double its contribution of €300,000 to €600,000 annually, while the Provincial Government of Bizkaia will also substantially increase its contribution, and for the first time the Provincial Government of Gipuzkoa is disposed to support the team. The amount contributed by both Provincial Governments would be around 1.2 million Euros, which would increase the team's 2004 budget to €4.8 million.

Iban Mayo told Cyclingnews just before the Tour that "money is not the only thing that matters in life...I am 26 years old so I am not looking for a contract to set me up for life; right now it is more about sport. With whom I race depends on many factors, not just economics. It's complicated. I am enjoying my racing, in that I feel confident. I would like to carry on as I have this year; when something is going well, why change it?"

Future rosy (or orange)

As hundreds of thousands of fans head for the Pyrenees this weekend and Euskaltel-Euskadi's future lies in the balance, we can only be left to ponder that if team sponsorship was based upon "bums on seats" as they say in rock'n'roll, i.e. the number of fans that a team draws to the race, there would be no doubt that Euskaltel's future would be a very rosy one indeed.

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