One of the most iconic jerseys in the peloton in the past 15 years has to be the orange of Euskaltel-Euskadi*. We now know that the team will race again in 2013, but it wasn't that long ago that Euskaltel were threatening to pull the proverbial plug. In order to keep their main sponsor, González de Galdeano has announced a "new beginning" for the Basque squad; a "New Cycle." So, Euskaltel stays, but at what cost? The changes that they have announced in recent days may seem extreme to some (especially in Euskadi), but it may just be what the team needs to do to survive, right? Maybe a more diverse roster will give the team better results, while still keeping some sort of regional identity. That's what Rabobank did and... oh, wait, never mind.
In the Beginning...
The idea of having a team comprised of riders from a specific geographic area, or from a specific ethnic background in order to promote and help local cycling development, is a complicated proposition. For one, you significantly reduce the pool of available talent for the team; plus, you run the risk of appearing divisive, xenophobic and even racist. Yet, in June of 1993, that's exactly what Miguel Madariaga (coach for an amateur team) and José Alberto Pradera (a deputee for the province of Viscaya, in the Basque Country) did. They started the Fundación Ciclista de Euskadi (The Euskadi cycling Foundation) with the idea to form a professional team around which to build a structure for the development of local cycling. I'm not gonna get into the socio-political issues and complications surrounding the Euskadi area, or its relationship with the rest of Spain, but let's just say that the team, and its idea of only employing Basque riders, wasn't exactly welcome with open arms in the rest of Spain. The Foundation only recruited 5000 members that year.
In 1994 the Euskadi-Petronor team was unveiled. Their jerseys where white with red and green accents. The same color as the Ikurriña. Veteran San Sebastian native Peio Ruiz Cabestany was the team captain. Their first years weren't exactly filled with victories and the team suffered financially, but they prevailed and in 1999 Basque telecommunications company Euskaltel came in with all the money the team needed to continue. Not only did they bring in much needed capital, they also brought in the now iconic orange jersey*. In 2001 they were invited to the Tour for the first time and Roberto Laiseka gave them a victory in stage 14 to legendary Luz-Ardiden. (See video below)
The team has had various levels of success throughout the years and there's no doubt they have given cycling fans plenty to be excited about, cheer for, and talk about. But has the team, the experiment, as a whole been a success? Even more importantly, has it been sustainable?
* Note that the first Euskaltel-Euskadi jerseys were not orange, but blue and white. When the Basque
company partnered with Orange (France Telecom) in 2000 the French company's corporate color was adopted by Euskaltel and the cycling team.
Euskaltel-Euskadi announced in the last week that as part of their "New Cycle," they will be signing nine new cyclists for the 2013 season. For the first time in its history, the Team will feature non-Basque-born or non-Basque-developed cyclists. You can see a list of these riders below and form your own opinion as to why and how Euskaltel-Euskadi are taking the next step. Is it to please the sponsors with more victories? Yes. Is it to expand the pool of potential talent? Yes. Is it to gain valuable UCI brownie points to remain in the Pro Tour? Yes. Is there anything wrong with doing any of the above? No. Well, yeah...
I'm a bit of a sentimentalist and a traditionalist. I'm jaded that way. The idea of an all Basque team seems somehow noble and charming. Euskari is a region rich in cycling history and their fans deserve their own team. I know the reality of cycling today isn't as benevolent as it was 15 years ago. I know that the lack of results is threatening the existence of the team. I know about their financial hardships and their sponsor's hesitation to continue pouring money into a sport that has been battered and dragged through the mud. I know that the team was invisible for most of the season and in today's competitive Pro Team division that just won't cut it. I know all this, but if you're gonna bring in foráneos, bring in some good ones, dammit! Breaking your own tradition, just to continue to be a mediocre team? What does that do for anyone? None of these guys (with the exception of maybe Serebryakov) has much of a future in the sport. André Schulze is 38, for the love of God! So you think they only did it for the points? Once you realize that the new signings racked up a total of 35 wins last year, compared to the six the whole Euskaltel-Euskadi team got, then you can answer with confidence: Maybe.
How is this growing the team for the future? They will have to continue to rely on Sanchez and the odd race where Nieve or Anton do something. Yeah, great.
I hope it turns out I'm totally wrong and these band of mismatch riders from all kinds of crappy Continental teams somehow gel and make this a memorable season for the Team. I wish Igor González de Galdeano's team the best for 2013, but I'm sure it will be weird the first time I see a German wearing the iconic orange jersey. I hope they don't start riding Treks.
Jure Kocjan, 27 (Team Type 1-Sanofi) Slovenia
Fast rider, may feature in the Classics. Won two stages in the Tour de Limousin, after spending the first part of the season injured. 23 top ten finished last year. Last two seasons in Team Type 1 and before that Carmiooro, Perutnina and Radenska. In 2010 he won the GP Pino Cerami and in 2009 he won two stages at the Étoile de Bessèges and one in the Tour of Qinghai Lake.
Ricardo Mestre, 29 (Carmim-Prio) Portugal
In 2011 Mestre awon the Volta a Portugal. This year he won, for the second consecutive year, the International GP Torres Vedras-Joaquim Agostinho. He comes with plenty of UCI points.
Steffen Radochla, 34 (Team NSP-Ghost) Germany
A veteran cyclist, Radochla raced with Festina (2001), Coast (2002-2003) and Caisse d'Epargne (2004) during the early days of his career. More recently he was in Continental teams Wiesenhof, Elk Haus, Nutrixxion and NSP-Ghost.
André Schulze, 38 (Team NetApp) Germany
The veteran German sprinter had three wins in 2012, including the Neuseenclassic (1.1). He comes from NetApp (2012), CCC Polsat (2011) and PSK Whirpool (2008-2010).
Alexander Serebryakov, 25 (Team Type 1-Sanofi) Russia
The only one in the list with some future potential, Serebryakov earned five victories and a total of 18 top 10s last year. Of note was his fifth place in the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, behind Cavendish, Hutarovich, Van Hummel and Demaré. In 2010 he won the U23 Giro Lombardy.
Robert Vrecer, 32 (Team Vorarlberg) Slovenia
Seven victories in 2012. Most impressive his second place in the GP Nobili, behind Di Luca, and his third place in the Tour of Austria, behind Fuglsang and Morabito. He's not a bad climber and he's Slovenia's time trial national champion.
Tarik Chaoufi, 26 (--) Morocco
Chaoufi was ranked #1 in the UCI Africa Continental ranking, so he comes with lots of points. he had six victories last year, and he's Morrocco's National Champion. Other than that, I know nothing. I couldn't even find out what team he raced for last year.
Ioannis Tamouridis, 32 (1980, SP Tableware) Greece
Tamouridis is a very fast, strong time-trialist. Three times Road National Champion, seven times TT National Champion. Too bad he's old.