The End of Euskadi

With new sponsorship secured for several years, a plan in place and fresh management the future of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team is secure.

Yet in order to survive the team is changing so much that its identity and attitude could be gone. A team famous for its attacking style could now end up with the soul of a spreadsheet and the spirit of a rulebook.

Over the years the Basque team has been visible and it’s not just the bright jerseys. Often in a breakaways, the team’s riders have animated many a race. Whilst Samuel Sanchez and Igor Anton have been bigger names, the squad has always been one of the most modest in financial terms and has had to take risks to win, placing men in breakaways has been a routine strategy. This year Ag2r went the longest without a win but last year it was Euskaltel-Euskadi. Over the years wins have been slim. Here is the chart for how many wins they have taken each year:

Euskadi wins chart

The team also had a clear identity. Again it’s not just the orange kit. In a world where teams represent laminate flooring or bottled gas, this team had a regional vocation as the team only recruited riders from the Basque region, or at least those with close connections. A proud and wealthy part of Spain – complete with violent secessionists too – the Basque region has a strong tradition of cycling and is one of the hotbeds of Spanish cycling. The team arose out of this twin tradition: regional identity and cycling popularity. First created in 1994 it has been sponsored by Basque firms like Orbea bikes and Euskaltel, a local telecoms firm as well as a fan-based subscription system plus funding from the Basque regional government.

It couldn’t last forever. Teams with a specific vocation often seem unsustainable, whether it was the vegetarian Linda McCartney team or the diabetic Team Type 1 squad which is scaling back its ambitions for the years ahead. It’s time to quote di Lampedusa’s famous line from Il Gattopardo:

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change

In order to stay in the top tier of teams the team is having to change its ways. Gone is the policy of regional recruitment as the team hires riders from well beyond the reason. In some ways this is fine, few employers are allowed to hire on the basis of an accident of birth; imagine if, say, Apple only hired Californians. The shake-up means the team has secured €40 million in sponsorship for the next four years, impressive given the economic crisis in Spain. But it can no longer rely solely on local recruitment, the team is now signing foreigners. It marks a big change in what was once the de facto team for the Basque region and for some, an aspiring Basque nation. New joiners like Russia’s Sacha Serebreyakov will be in for a shock.

But this is only one change. Now the team is following the recruitment-by-spreadsheet policy deftly used by Ag2r last year and hiring riders for their points haul. Take Ricardo Mestre, a Portuguese rider who won his home tour in 2011. It’s a big race but Mestre is 30 and not had many other wins, he is no talent to develop. Instead he comes with points. A deal wasn’t signed but the team tried to hire Oscar Freire on the deal where he could still enjoy retirement, all whilst lending his UCI points to the team.

The dash for points is not too surprising, the team have spent the latter half of the season trying to hunt down points and in a way if they get relegated we could trace the moment back to Liège-Bastogne-Liège when Igor Anton fell in the neutral start and broke his collarbone, ending a crucial chance to score points in the spring and early summer.

Now recruitment is being directed towards foreigners with points rather than Basque riders with attitude. Amets Txurruka was told he wouldn’t get a contract so he’s joining Spanish team Caja Rural, the kind of rider you’d think the team would hold on to. And the worry is that hiring riders for their past points doesn’t do any good. See how Ag2r fared this year with just four wins all season and now they’ve executed a total change by hiring exciting riders like Domenico Pozzovivo and Carlos Betancur who, even if they might not fit in, provide fireworks. Indeed new team manager Igor González de Galdeano says hunting foreigners for their points is a temporary solution, telling Biciclismo the signing of non-Basques “is nothing more than a transitional phase” and that they could revert if the local talent comes through.

Basque in the glory

Finally a note to say the changes are to the pro team. The underlying Fundación Euskadi will continue to support Basque cycling, fulfilling the role it has done for the past 20 years.

Never the strongest team, Euskaltel-Euskadi compensated with hi-viz kit and long-range attacks. But there’s only so much this could achieve, without a sprinter wins have been scarce and they’ve been especially reliant on Samuel Sanchez for success. The result? They’re fighting Saxo Bank to avoid relegation from the UCI World Tour. Like a hot air balloon where the passengers are cutting loose the ballast sacks to stay up in the air, Euskaltel-Euskadi is jettisoning its identity to stay in the sport. Or if not throwing it away, diluting it.

The team has always been changing. It ditched the Basque flag for the orange colours of sponsor Euskaltel but the plans for 2013 mark a fundamental change. We should salute the innovation shown by management and sponsors to keep the team going, happily the squad’s financial problems appear to be behind them. And also recruitment based on birthplace is a form of discrimination that, if not outrageous, can be questioned. But it’s time to mark the passage of an old way and observe how a traditional team is trying to stay afloat in an era of rising team budgets. Maybe this is not the end of the Euskadi spirit in pro cycling but we have seen the final year of the old format.

42 thoughts on “The End of Euskadi”

  1. Great piece overall, but I disagree that recruitment based on birthplace is a form of discrimination. Look at the other teams, e.g. Omega Pharma, Rabo or Sky who have a clear preference for local (in this case Flemish/Dutch/British) riders, apart from pleasing the home crowd it simply makes sense for the sponsors who are mostly local companies.

    • I think the difference was that this was a stated policy and under Euro laws it’s questionable from this perspective, it’s not just been “we prefer Basques”, it’s more been “Basques only”. But fans will not worry too much. Sport has some unique treatment and exemption from laws, see the Athletico Bilbao football team too which operates in a similar way.

  2. Very sad that one of the great traditions in cycling is over.

    Looks as though they’re aiming for a more rounded team with the signings of Lobato and Serebryakov (sprinters). Aberasturi also.
    Mestre can be a useful helper for Sanchez, Anton, Nieve.
    Lobato and Serebryakov have had some wins in small races and are still young. Kinda doubtful of what they will be able to do at this level though.

    Basque journalist Benito Urraburu said that these transfers will bring in 300 points. Seems quite high given that the Sanchez et al only have 381.

  3. Interesting and potentially exciting times for Euskaltel – but as above I think the ‘only basque’ riders policy, far from being discriminatory, actually added a certain charm and character to the team and to cycling whilst also giving names a chance in the top flight that otherwise wouldn’t have made it if the WorldTour was made entirely of ‘superteams’ that just splash cash and hire the best.

  4. Right now I’m happy to see the team continue, we need teams with culture and history in the peloton. Igor Anton didn’t shine this year and Samu was luckless too for the most part of the year which is a big reason for their relegation form. I hope they pass through this transition phase successfully to regain their true Basque identity.

  5. Excellent piece, as always.

    The news about the team’s funding is great. It’ll be fascinating to see how the new recuitment policy works, both in terms of performance in races & reception by Basque fans.

  6. I think they can retain some form of regional identity.

    Many pro teams have an ‘identity’ which is not always reflected in the riders.

    SKY is regarded as a British Team, US Postal (remember them…), was a USA team, AG2R is French, Orica-Greenedge is Australian, etc.

    Like SKY, Euskadi can maintain a regional aspect, and develop riders from that region, but bring in appropriate ‘big hitters’ to get results.

    I think in European Football there was talk of limiting the number of ‘foreign’ players in a team, but this was up against European employment law.

    • I was thinking the same thing. If they gave up WorldTour status, they would still would be more or less guaranteed wildcard invitations to all the major Spanish races, and enough other important races to give their riders some opportunities. It’s not like their sponsors are in need of exposure in other markets. The only downside I see is if they had a potential Tour winner on their team, he would want the guarantee of being invited, but I’m not sure they could afford such a rider anyway.

    • the only reason I can think of is the TDF. The organizers give 3/4 wildcards to French teams and relying on the last one coming their way is risky.

  7. Will Romain Sicard remain? He’s French and has been on the team for 2-3 years? He was the U23 World Champ and Tour de L’Avenir winner that showed so much promise but floundered on this team.

  8. Despite I understand that in financial terms they cannot be neither viable or competitive with other teams (or their training programmes) but I really really love the regional character of the team!! The Basque country is one of the special places for cycling in the world and we all know the thousands of fans that hit the Pyrenees at each TDF, so I think representation not only in colour but also in essence (only Basque) and philosophy (underdog going for the break) is great.

    They also ride GREAT bicycles!!!!!!!

  9. This is just another downside of the UCI points system. The World Tour is a competition that no one cares about, especially the teams. But if they want guaranteed entry, they have to play the game.

    Ironically, it is the regional factor that often appeals to fans and casual spectators, which builds the sport. There are plenty of Pro-Conti squads that would be delighted to fill the void left by Pro Teams who do not desire to compete in the fringe races (ex. Beijing).

    The World Tour system is hurting the sport via shenanigans to acquire and retain points. It also causes teams to require deeper pockets to be able to support a program that takes them to areas where they don’t want to be. Do we really believe anyone on Euskatel looks forward to lining up ant the Ronde or Paris-Roubaix? Yet, they are forced to allocate part of their meager budget annually in order to do so. Yet, there are plenty of teams who want to be there, but can’t due to the obligations. The teams don’t like it, the fans don’t like it, the race organizers don’t like it…

    The sport needs more smaller teams with regional identities in order for stability to form from which growth can occur. The fact that we are starting to lose these shows that the UCI is putting the cart in front of the horse.

    • Absolutely. The World Tour must be attacked with more determination. On the other hand, why Euskaltel pays so much importance to the World Tour is impossible to understand. They could be a Pro Conti just fine, doing the Spanish calendar, and getting invited to all the races for climbers. It’s all about the Tdf… which Samuel Sánchez has already said he’s not interested in doing next year.

  10. On a slightly pedantic note, when the team “ditched the Basque flag for the orange colours of sponsor Euskaltel” they did so via a rather bland, turquoise-blue kit for a season or two. Nasty.

  11. I have been a big fan of Amets Txurruka. Always attacking on climbs too long or too steep but with passion nonetheless. Or, burying himself to bolster a teammate’s chances. Amets represented everything that was good and right about cycling. Sure, sport is a business but the business is broken if solid foot soldiers are cast aside for lesser riders from satellite tours who come with points of questionable quality.

    Euskaltel use to stand for more, for better. No longer.

    I will cheer every time Amets makes the break in the strip of Caja Rural. I will no longer care when I see the now faded orange strip.

  12. As a fan of the pro scene for over 20 years I can honestly say I have never given any notice of the points a rider/team collects, to me it is completely utterly meaningless. I know who won Roubaix, Paris Nice, Dauphine etc. and that’s what the season means to me. Wouldn’t know if Tony Martin had 40 points or 4000?? I wonder If am alone in this!

  13. National teams could therefore be considered a form of discrimination, if a regional team like Euskatel is labelled discriminatory. To take political correctness to the extreme, one could argue that national teams should practise non-discriminatory policies and be open to all comers from around the world. Personally, I think teams from distinctive regions like the Basque country are what cycling in Europe is all about, and what makes it so much more interesting than cycling in other countries (i.e. US, Australia etc).

  14. Adopt or die. The men in Orange are my favorite team. I love the spirit of Basque cycling, the fans, the tradition of races and champions, their kit. It is a testament to the strength of that tradition that they want to modernize to stay in the game. I applaud it.

    Their Basque-only policy was not discriminatory, it is because the Basques are a nation and Euskaltel is their national team. Is it wrong for Italy’s national football team to be made up of only Italians? No. the same applies here. But change is needed and that is why they are opening up. So demand that they remain a romantic version of their old selves is not only paternalistic but naive about what it means to be Basque. The Basques have a tradition of resilience and of self determination and this is another example. They will continue to be a team that attacks, climbs, and brings the passion of a country in a way that very few other countries can. Belgium, Holland, and Italy being the closest examples.

    The Inner Ring – not all secessionists in the Basque country are violent.

  15. I have to agree with Jack there is no discrimination to my eyes as effectively its like a national team forced to play in a club league. I can foresee the ‘foreign’ imports being temporary and the team reverting back to their old recruitment policy in time. Touriste-Routier makes some very good points about the peculiar points system which seems as though the UCI looked at other successful sports and thought ‘we should be doing that!’ Its clear that cycling needs to be treated very differently as it’s traditions make it an ‘event’ based sport and so any league format should reflect this, i.e. more points for prestigious races. In addition if the UCI want to follow the football system then surely they need to follow it fully and and introduce a European points league, an Australasia points league and so on? This allows teams to select races appropriate for points, travel and sponsors.

    I also think the fan subscription concept is very interesting and could bring stability to teams, inner ring do you have an article on fan based subs or ways to build strong local bases? I know Vaughters has mentioned things like this in the past

  16. The reason all (or almost all) the cyclists of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team are from the Basque region (or Country) should be obvious to anybody. The Basque region produces more cyclists per square kilometer or per million of population that any other region in the world. Consider that the area of the Basque Country is about 21,000 square kilometers, and yet, they can get a whole team (29 cyclists) out of that land, that is short of a miracle. Is not that they are discriminatory, is that they have an over abundance of cyclists and so they fill up the teams roll and export cyclists to so many other international teams. The fact that the Basque region is intimately bonded to the bike is undeniable and the fact that there has always been an abundance of basque cyclists in historical. Kas team was always there, for decades. They almost always had 5 or more members in the top ten of every race. Or the BH team with all its cyclist working at the BH bike factory, yes doing manual labor.

    The main problem for the team is that due to the geography of the Basque region, most local cyclist are obviously climbers, not sprinters. There is a easy solution for that. I am surprised the team of Galdeano has not figured it up without having to resort to hiring foreigners for the points. I would tell them, but they didn’t ask me. lol

      • Basque autonomous region (not including the whole of the Basque County): 7,234 square km, pro cyclists 72 out of a population approx. 2,155.000. Approx. 1 cyclist per 1,000 square km and 1 cyclist per 34,000 pop.

        Flanders: 13,522 square km, pro cyclist 200 out of a population approx. 6,300,000. Approx. 1 cyclist per 67 square km and 1 cyclist per 31,500 pop.

        So you are correct. Flanders produces more cyclist per square km than the Basque Country and also about 0.3 more cyclist per population.

        • Thanks for making the calculation. I did not look for the data, it was just a gut feeling. Overall, I also think cycling in Flanders has a way bigger social importance than in the Basque country. Basques love cycling but there are other sports that also get more attention, specially football. Mountain sports have also a lot of followers in the basque country, specially climbing. In Yosemite´s El Capitan, the camping site just at the base of the wall, is called the Basque campsite. In any case, sports in general are big in the basque country.

  17. It is a shame to see a regional team dilute its spirit and identity and the same would be said about Sky,GreenEdge,Rabo or any other if their identity was lost in the same way (forget the politics/law for a minute, this is sport).

    I do hope they use this as a transitional move as stated, in order to retain their key selling point which is ‘Pro Your’ at the end of the day. You dont have to have a global brand sponsor for that to be worth £££s to a sponsor, its the prestige involvment brings alone thats saleable.

    As for the point system – im not a fan, it doesnt seem to have many positives other than giving unknown riders from the lower ranks, the opportunity to ride in the top flight for a season. Whether they get the opportunity to stay there or even prove themselves is another question but with teams pockets only being so deep, youd think theyd use them fully.

    So many negatives of the points system and ive yet to hear of a Pro-Conti team getting the opportunity to move up because a Worlds team didnt have enough points….though the odd merger might benefit.

    Only thing we really dont hear much of is the supposed positive effects of the points system weeding out riders who under perform….anyone know how many,

  18. …how many, who and why…just points alone or did they point to a reason for letting them go.

    Has anyone actually been let go due to lack of points?

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