Another Giro, another weak team, another anonymous showing for Euskaltel? Or can a sprinter called Koldo change that?
No Samuel Sanchez, no Igor Anton, no Haimar Zubeldia? Even the most diehard Euskaltel-Euskadi fan would be forgiven for wondering how Euskaltel are going to cope in this year’s Giro d’Italia. Certainly, the compulsory three-grand-tour part of the ProTour is not designed for a team consisting entirely of Basques or riders who had their formative years in the Basque Country. They have options for both the Tour de France (Anton and Zubeldia) and the Vuelta a Espana (Sanchez), but this race is a strain on their resources.
They will be ploughing their efforts into helping out sprinter (these Orange Men aren’t all climbers, you know) Koldo Fernandez, getting men up the road and giving more experience to their younger riders… which is pretty much the same as last year. The figures from 2006 don’t make for happy reading: David Lopez was their best rider, finishing fourth from a breakaway on Stage 18 (their best stage result) and was also fortieth overall, just behind Iker Flores. Oh, and they were last in the TTT. Despite a few attacking flourishes, Euskaltel were largely anonymous, and the same is likely to happen this time round.
A Euskaltel man wins… a sprint? Not a doctored photo, just Koldo Fernandez celebrating stage glory Photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti
Well, you know Euskaltel are running low on options when their avowed intentions are to help out a sprinter. In all fairness though, fourth year pro Koldo Fernandez is probably the “best” fast man they’ve had in years, possibly ever. In the past twelve months, he’s particularly developed, winning the last stage of Tirreno-Adriatico this March – his only professional win - and scoring three Giro sprint-stage top tens last year. It would be a real surprise for Fernandez to win a stage, but he could pop up in the top five a couple of times.
So, climbing. The Orange Men, let alone Basque riders as a whole, are renowned for their ability in the mountains and, herein, shooting off like firebrands with vicious attacks when the gradient goes up. So how do they shape up for the climbs? In truth, not well at all. In Dionisio Galparsoro (fourth in the Vuelta a la Rioja), they have a decent climber but he won’t be making much of the running on any of the big mountains. Aitor Hernandez won the Tour of the Basque Country mountains classification and can be relied on for getting into breakaways. At the recent Giro del Trentino, they weren’t too bad – neo-pro Ivan Velasco took twenty-first, 2’44” down on winner Cunego.
This is probably one of the youngest teams out there though – the oldest man riding is Galparsoro at the sprightly age of 28. The Giro d’Italia will prove to be valuable experience for young riders. However, it is getting painful seeing their riders fade into anonymous positions time and time again. The glory days, the peak perhaps being the 2003 Tour de France with Mayo and Zubeldia, begin to feel like an age away when Euskaltel wheel out another stale, apathetic lineup like this one. The lack of strength in depth is conspicuous. On one hand, you have a bona fide star like Samuel Sanchez, finishing third in the Tour of the Basque Country and challenging in Paris-Nice, or someone like Igor Anton, laying siege to his rivals in the Romandy mountains. On the other, many of the riders in the squad only have mid-pack finishes in Classic races to show as their best results.
However painful it may be to criticise a team like Euskaltel, which has the best of intentions and is extremely likeable, it looks like they will just be making up the numbers for, essentially, a third year in a row since the ProTour’s inception – frustrating for cycling teams and cycling fans alike, when you look at the scrap for wild-cards for the 2007 Giro. A squad like Serramenti Diquiovanni, Unibet or even Barloworld would have valued a spot in this race much more, and would have come with a more threatening lineup. This said, the team itself is essentially blameless: it is the ProTour rules which condemn Euskaltel to riding a race they probably wouldn’t choose to ride in otherwise.
Euskaltel-Euskadi for the 2007 Giro d'Italia