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Once more Euskaltel-Euskadi have secured a Tour de France wild card entry, and once more it is thoroughly deserved. The all-Basque squad have had some brilliant early-season performances that made them an obvious pick for the centenary Tour. Yet this race is probably the most important Euskaltel will ride, as the sponsorship of the team hangs in the balance of this race. Having won ‘only’ one Tour stage (in 2001 with Roberto Laiseka on Luz-Ardiden), a good performance – a stage, a jersey or a high GC showing – is therefore vital. But with the team this year, I am certain they will obtain at least one of those achievements: this is the best Euskaltel lineup ever at the Tour de France. And anyway, it's very hard to miss their fluorescent orange jerseys! Alongside ibanesto.com, these Basques will be the ‘climbingest’ squad at the Tour this year. Watch out for all the Euskaltel men in Stages 13,14 and 15 in the Pyrenees: they won’t get much closer to home and a win there will be epic, cheered on by thousands of similarly-orange Basque fans swarming over the border. I can’t wait to see them soar up mountains ahead of the pack: Mayo, the Etxebarria brothers, Zubelida and more...
Mikel Artetxe (no picture)
Born: 24th September 1976, Spain
Professional Since 1999
Artetxe is probably the best Euskaltel man in a flat sprint situation, although he’ll be lucky nonetheless to get into the top 15! Although he could get into a break in the first week and sprint from there, I doubt the sprinter’s teams will be so lax in their chasing or – barring that – he may get dropped from a break. However, Artetxe is also a good domestique and will work diligently to defend any jersey or to set up a fellow team-mate. Only 26, he can also gain some valuable experience here, and see what his limits are.
David Etxebarria (Alkorta)
Born: 23rd July 1973, Spain
Professional Since 1994
Etxebarria is definitely the ‘showboater’ of the peloton – his latest stunt I recall lying down straight, stomach down, on his bike and controlling it somehow with team-mates whizzing around him (not in a race, but still!). However, this Basque offers a lot more than that: he is a real rouleur of the peloton and can climb and sprint well. He’s won once so far this year, sprinting from a group of 10 including Beloki, Rumsas and Casagrande to win in the first stage of the Euskal-Bizikleta. Other than that victory, it’s been a quite year for a loud man… but it could all change at the Tour. If he picks the right break, there’s a serious chance a sprinting victory could be his. Etxebarria’s birthday is on the tough Stage 16 over the Col du Soudet and Col de Bagarui. And what’s more he said recently “the stages in the Pyrenees are important for us and the 16th stage to Bayonne is good for me. But even so I hope to do well before then". He’s definitely one of Euskaltel’s biggest threats here, so watch out.
Born: 21st July 1972, Venezuela
Pro Since 1996
Unai Etxebarria – although with the same name as the slightly older David – is very much different. For one, he is the only foreigner in the squad, but I believe he has Basque connections in his family tree. Etxebarria’s ‘race’ is Fleche Wallone, having finished 2nd in 2002 and 3rd this year. However, he will be hard-pressed to win in this Tour – despite being a great climber, I feel he cannot win on the big stage, having had just 4 wins in 7 years – the last being in 2001 in a Dauphine stage. Nonetheless, he will keep attacking and I reckon he can do well enough to finish in the top 30 on GC. Either he or his namesake will place high in the Mountains or Combativity contests!
Born: 17th June 1969, Spain
Pro Since 1994
Laiseka has been with Euskaltel from the start in 1994 and has only won three times. Not so great, eh? But there’s a twist – he’s won three times in Grand Tours: twice in Vuelta mountain stages and in Tour 2001 swarmed by Basque fans atop Luz Ardiden. This veteran is not going to conform to the ‘experienced, wise’ stereotype – he disregards training schedules sent by the team, turns back home if it starts raining and is generally quite eccentric! But years of missed training may be taking their toll on Laiseka – this Tour will be make-or-break for him too. He’s had some good form of late, coming an excellent 5th on GC of the Euskal-Bizikleta. It would be an amazing moment if he won in the Pyrenees (looking at Stage 13,14 and 15) amongst home fans, especially on Stage 15 finishing high on…Luz Ardiden, again. Laiseka is (or was) arguably the best, pure climber on this team but if it rains or if he has a bad day then forget about anything. If not a stage, then a high King of the Mountains placing is possible for him too. Let’s just hope the sun stays!
Inigo Landaluze (no picture)
Born: 9th May 1977, Spain
Pro Since 2001
Landaluze will be here to gain opportunity and to work tirelessly for the team – he hasn’t won anything in three years and I’ll be very surprised if he gets on the board here, in the centenary Tour. Nonetheless, he is a hard worker and might get his personal chance to do well in future Tours – keeping in mind he’s only 26 years old.
Alberto Lopez de Mundain
Born: 12th March 1972
Pro Since 1996
Lopez de Mundain broke through in 2000 and 2001 with stage wins in the Dauphine Libere and the Vuelta a Asturias, but since then he has not won. In fact, it’s been quite a struggle for ‘Albe’, but he has regained good form just when it matters – now. He had a superb Dauphine Libere this year, using his full climbing ability to gain 10th overall at the finish. In mid-May, he came 3rd in the Subida al Naranco, having previously finished 10th in the Vuelta a Asturias. Although not with such good ability as in previous years, Lopez has come back and will be a valuable domestique for Mayo and Co. He may attack on climbs, but I think it would be wiser to help his leaders. A stage win here would be a dream for him (and all the riders in the Euskaltel team) but he’ll need a sizeable piece of luck to achieve that.
Born: 19th August 1977
Pro Since 2000
This is the man everyone is talking about – the man who was effectively dropping ‘Big Tex’ Armstrong on the Dauphine Libere climbs. Iban Mayo is not just the hope of Euskaltel, nor of the Basque country but of Spain! The question is can he hold on to the brilliant form we saw in the Dauphine, where he constantly attacked and dropped Armstrong several times in an attempt to win. He won the Prologue and Stage 4 there, and earlier on was superb in winning a trio of Tour of the Basque Country stages. In my opinion, Mayo will either have a super Tour or a very bad (by his standards) one. There have also been many rumours about what the 25 year old will go for: in a Cyclesport interview he said he would go for a stage, but a top 10 GC placing or even the King of Mountains jersey are accessible options for him! In the past year, he has improved his time trailing drastically, though Euskaltel will lose him at least three minutes in the TTT and he will still lose quite a bit to Armstrong and Co. in the longer TTs. But this curly-haired star is an excellent climber and I expect Stage 16 or the one atop Luz Ardiden will suit him. Indeed, I expect some pressure might shift to other contenders during the Tour which is a benefit – as is Mayo’s down-to-earth attitude, acknowledging Armstrong is ‘unbeatable’ (and he’d know!). Whatever happens, it looks likely Mayo will leave his mark on the centenary tour – with a jersey (King of the Mountains or Young Riders), with a stage or even with a podium finish in Paris. Mayo is the future of Spanish climbing, and hopefully his team of Spanish climbers will have a future, due to his talents…
Born: 5th February 1978
Pro Since 2000
Sanchez is another discovery for Spanish cycling and Euskaltel alike, and he’s had an excellent season to date – albeit a winless one. He can time trial well when forced to, and this helped him to a sensational 3rd overall in the Tour of the Basque Country. He also fought out a battle with Sylvain Chavanel for the Paris-Nice Young Riders jersey, eventually losing out by 24 seconds but still obtaining 9th overall. It was ‘deja-vu’ as Chavanel had also beaten him to his first pro victory, cruelly, in the Tour of Haut Var in February! Nonetheless, Sanchez will surely get his first win here and you can bet he’ll attack when the road goes up – he has the climbing ability to do well in the Young Riders competition though I think his leader Mayo has that wrapped up, barring a bad crash. Only 25, this young rider has a chance to gain experience for future Tours, where he might have a larger role. I think a stage could be his if tactical astuteness does not desert him.
Born: 1st April 1977
Pro Since 1998
How the mighty have fallen – or rather tripped. After finishing 2nd in the 2001 Dauphine, Zubeldia was the talk of the cycling world: just like his leader Mayo is now (surely not an omen?). However, he had an awful Tour that summer and although he didn’t vanish, ‘Zuzu’ couldn’t recreate that form. Yet there is a chance he could win a stage here (it would be his third career win) because he is getting back towards that 2001 highpoint. He finished a narrow 4th overall in the Euskal-Bizikleta behind the ‘supermen’ Pecharroman, Beloki and Casagrande. Hopefully Zubeldia can make a step in regaining his former status as one of the best climbers around – the King of the Mountains jersey is a possibility (although a small one). Like most riders on this team, he will be eyeing an attack on one of the trio of Pyrenees mountain stages.
Thanks to the great http://www.ciclosmaestre.com, www.cyclingpictures.de, www.dewielersite.net, http://www.gara.net and http://marca.recoletos.es sites for info and photos (mainly photos!)