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Igor Astarloa: Small, but with a big engine!
By Staff
Date: 3/29/2004
Igor Astarloa: Small, but with a big engine!

You were born in Ermua, Spanish Basque Country. Most people think of nationalism when they hear that. How justified is that image?

Igor Astarloa: Things have been peaceful in Ermua for a few years now, but in the past era bastante rebelde. Basque is my mother tongue, and my parents are both Basques by birth. My father was born in Mallabia, close to Ermua, and my mother in Elgueta, which is relatively far away from there. My dad was a factory worker and my mom has always worked as a waitress. Sheís currently working in a cafť belonging to a cousin of mine. Her mother had a stunning 12 kids, so you can imagine there being many different political views in my family. Iím not interested in politics myself though. I find that vivir y dejar vivir, live and let live, is a healthy philosophy.

From whom did you inherit the cycling virus?

Possibly my uncle, one of my fatherís brothers; he was a pro rider for some 2 years. But I started out doing athletics, football, swimming, and later on pelota vasca, the national sport of Basque Country. I rode my first cycling races when I was about twelve, and eventually chose to focus on cycling, as I was clearly lacking talent in all those other sports (laughs). Initially me and some buddies from school rode together, but they all quit, one by one. The only one who kept on riding together with me went to another school: Pedro Horillo, whoís currently riding for Quickstep. He used to live in the same neighbourhood as I, so we often trained together.

Did you have any idols when you were young?

Most of all I supported Marino Lejarreta, who is a Basque too. I admired his relentless fighting spirit and his working ethic. At that time, we only knew that there was a Tour and a Vuelta, however. Later on I would look in awe at the exploits of AndreÔ Tchmil and Johan Museeuw in the classics. Yeah, becoming a pro was a childhood dream of mine, since studying wasnít my strong suit. I started a 5-year course on micromechanics, but I gave it up after 3 years because I wanted to put all my efforts into my cycling career.

Did you win a lot when you were young?

Well, I managed some 10 victories each year. Apart from the Vuelta a Valladolid they were all one-day races, with Valladolid being a 3-day race, not exactly what you would call a tough stage race. Stage races arenít my thing, because I find time trials absolutely horrifying. When I rode the Giro two years ago I was on the verge of abandoning in the last time trial stage, thatís how much I hate them (laughs). What I do like however, is cyclo-cross. I was a two-time national champ when at the juniors. I also participated in the world championship in Koksijde back then, but I came in just a little bit short against the real cyclo-crossing stars (laughs).

When did you first realize that you could make your dream come true, that you possessed enough talent to become a professional?

Only in my last year as an ťspoir. Several guys I rode with before, and had often beaten, had made the step earlier than me and found their place in the pro peloton. A year before, I had been selected for the world championship in Valkenburg. I wanted to become a pro back then, but no team was interested.

You even had to go to Italy in your last year as an ťspoir, to the team of DS Bruno Leali, because you couldnít find a Spanish team. Care to explain?

Spain has a very peculiar cycling culture, a special mentality. The DS's there are only interested in riders that can win stage races, itís like they donít even know that one-day races exist. But cycling is more than the Tour, Giro and Vuelta, right? (raises his voice slightly) Look, in athletics you got specialists for the 100 meters, the 1500 meters and the marathon. Should 100 meters-runners throw away their spikes just because they arenít any good at a marathon?

In 1999 there were a few teams interested in you; apart from Mercatone Uno there were also Lampre and Mapei. Why did you choose Mercatone Uno, the least glamorous of the three?

Bruno Leali had advised me to choose for Mercatone. He knew Giuseppe Martinelli well, as he had been his DS in the past. There wasnít much pressure at Mercatone, and I was given the opportunity to grow as a rider in the shade of experienced riders like Stefano Garzelli, Marco Velo and especially, Marco Pantani. They were carrying the responsibility, so the younger riders could race without any stress.

What did they expect of you there?

In the races that he entered, everything was in function of Pantani. Mercatone Unoís philosophy was: Todo por Pantani y basta. Everyone accepted that without complaining. I got along very well with him, he even called me after the world championship in Hamilton to congratulate me. In the two seasons I rode at Mercatone Uno he was already getting into all sorts of problems, and youíd see that the entire team suffered from that.

What was your role in the races where Pantani didnít start?

In those races the other riders were allowed to show what they could. But I started my first year with very low personal ambitions, the switch to the pros was harder than I had expected, and I was already satisfied that I could hang on in the peloton.

But in your second season you did a lot more than just hanging on.

In the Tour of Basque Country I wore the leaderís jersey for one day and got 2 second places and one third place. I won the GP Primavera, a one-day race of third category, and finished 11th in LiŤge-Bastogne-LiŤge, 15th in the Amstel Gold Race and 7th in the HEW Classic in Hamburg. Those results were an important mental boost for me, they told me that there was still room for improvement. From that moment on I realized that Iíd, one day, be able to ride for glory in a world cup race.

Astarloa on the podium of the Klasica Primavera de Amorebieta 2001.

At the end of that season you were the only rider that accompanied Martinelli when he moved to Saeco.

Yep. I think we both were very happy with the cooperation. I already had an offer from Cofidis back then, while Banesto, Fassa Bortolo and again Mapei and Lampre were also interested. But Martinelli had given me the opportunity to become a professional, which certainly influenced my decision. And Saeco had a very strong team too. On the one hand the transfer to Saeco was a big step forward, but on the other hand it also raised the pressure.

It didnít seem like you were affected too much by that. You won a stage and the GC of the Brixia Tour in Italy, and most importantly: you twice only just missed out on a World Cup win, in San Sebastian and Hamburg, plus you finished 7th in Paris-Tours, making you 4th in the overall ranking of the world cup. Did those results exceed your expectations?

Kinda, yeah. Thanks to those results I also got more respect within the team, as there were many riders with the ability to win big races.

So, you were 2nd in a World Cup race twice. The most ungrateful place, as they often say. Or did you see it differently?

Overall, I was satisfied rather than frustrated. You have to keep in mind which riders out-edged me in Hamburg and San Sebastian: Johan Museeuw and Laurent Jalabert, not really small fish, aye? (laughs) Of course Iíd rather have won, but I was only 26 after all. Y ademŠs yo creo: before you can win, you have to know what its like to be 2nd or 3rd.

Last season you made it your goal to win the overall ranking of the world cup, but you ended up 16th. Do you feel like you aimed too high?

Mirko Celestino was 2nd in Milan-Sanremo and Danilo Di Luca was 3rd in the Amstel Gold Race, which didnít make things easier for me within the team. Despite my victory in the FlÍche Wallone - at that moment the greatest win of my career - the team had decided to make Di Luca team leader for LiŤge-Bastogne-LiŤge. I obeyed the team tactics and rode in his service, making it so that I could more or less forget about getting a good overall ranking in the world cup. In Hamburg I managed to come in fourth, but a week later, at the fortnight of the ClŠsica San SebastiŠn, I got feverish. I managed to get 11th in the scorching heat, but the world cup was lost. But on the bright side, I could focus completely on the World Championship from then on.

Astarloa wins Fleche-Wallone 2003. Photo courtesy Cannondale.

ďOscar Freire is the team leaderĒ, said Spanish national coach Paco Antequera in Hamilton. Was that a diversion?

I donít think so. Alejandro Valverde and I were given a free role. When we were going into the last round, I spoke to Freire, he told me to keep an eye on Paolo Bettini, and that heíd wait out a possible sprint himself because he didnít feel strong enough to make a jump. We Spaniards are probably more honest that way than the Italians, or rather, we ride more like a team.

Which thoughts popped into your head when you crashed with only two laps to go?

It might sound strange, but I didnít think much at all at that moment. I wasnít thinking: damn, now I can forget about winning this race. I was so focused that I barely realized I had crashed, afterwards, de verdad!

When did you know: Iím the new world champ?

Only in the last turn. No, not because I was afraid Iíd crash again (laughs). But the difference was only a few secondsÖ(eyes beaming) I cannot describe the feeling I had when I was standing on that podium, wearing that jersey. My thoughts went out to all those people that helped me along the way, from my parents and friends in Ermua to the people that guided me as a pro.

After the race you said in an interview: ďIím gonna ask Oscar Freire how a victory like this changes your life.Ē Freire told us that his life changed completely after that first title. Did it for you too?

Thereís no escaping that, I guess. Without that title Iíd be holding a siesta now, instead of giving an interview or posing for a photo session (laughs). But itís a pleasant experience. Iím aware that many pro riders can only dream about this.

On the podium in Hamilton. Photo by Scott Schaffrick.

You caused a big fuss when you said that Bettini had offered you money on the last climb, offering to escape together and afterwards make out whoís the strongest between the two of you. A day later you said that your words were misinterpreted. Now, what happened exactly between you and Bettini?

Nothing, realmente no pasů nada. A Spanish reporter asked me a dubious question and interpreted the answer as he saw fit. Besides, you donít sell a world championship. Both because of the sportive honour and because youíd have to offer a ludicrous amount of money to get anyone to do so. When I saw how my words had been twisted I immediately thought of Bettini. He was the big favourite before the race, and then seeing your name being soiled like that afterwardsÖit angered me. Bettini wasnít too happy with it either, obviously, but when I called him the next day to explain what had happened he could live with it. That ďaffairĒ didnít leave any permanent traces, as far as weíre concerned.

But soon, a second affair popped up. A French sports paper wrote that suspect substances had been found in the urine of some riders, among which the world champion, Igor Astarloa.

I was furious. I had been checked for doping 12 times that season, one of them took place right before the world championship, even. All 12 were negative. They soiled my name before they even knew what they were talking about. After a week of turbulence the tests showed that there wasnít anything wrong, but that entire charade did put a bit of a smear on my world title. Reporters should check their sources better, before they go around making someone look bad. After all, itís often very serious allegations that theyíre making.

You signed a two-year contract with Cofidis in August. Why did you leave Saeco?

Halfway into June I agreed to an extension of my contract with Saeco manager Claudio Corti. A few days before the Tour I had to come to Italy to sign everything, but when I got there Corti told me that heíd have Gilberto Simoni and Danilo Di Luca sign first, and that heíd contact me 10 days later. I didnít hear anything from Saeco for an entire month, and then Cofidis knocked on my door with an interesting offer.

You donít make rash decisions in situations like that, after all my cooperation with Martinelli had been very successful for 4 years. But Cofidisí offer was both financially and sportively very attractive. Francis Vanlondersele wants to make me team leader in the classics. At Saeco youíd have Celestino, Di Luca, Pieri and Salvatore Comesso, all of whom can claim team leadership. There was a chance that Iíd have to ride in service of one of them. Now Iíll only have to do that when I feel I canít fight for victory myself, in which case Iíd be more than glad to ride for someone else.

You arenít afraid that youíll have less assistance at Cofidis?

No, thereís sufficient quality in this team. And if I want to win, Iíll still have to do it with my own legs. (smiles)

You signed before you won the world championship. Was your contract changed afterwards?

Yeah, I had a clause put in my contract, since I was focusing on the championship at that time anyhow. You never know, I figured, and lookÖ

You rode for an Italian team for 4 years, and now youíre at a French one. Is there much of a difference?

Not that much, no. At Saeco they spoke Italian, over here they speak French (laughs). Despite me being from Basque Country, I barely speak any French anymore. But thatís something that Iíll certainly be learning to do again in the next few months. What I donít understand however, is that I havenít received a matching bike or outfit, except for one jersey and one pair of shorts. No es normal, es imposible! The world championship was on the 12th of October, you would think that theyíd have had enough time to make hundreds of matching bikes. When I was at Saeco I was riding around in the Tour of Lombardy on a matching bike with matching helmet, only a week after the world championship. (sighs) So be it, Iím not someone who keeps himself worked up over something.

What are your ambitions for this season?

Finishing as high as possible in the overall standings of the world cup, and winning a world cup race. Apart from that Iíd like to play a role in the Olympic road race and the world championship, but Iím aware that those races are on the wish-lists of many other good riders.

Is the ClŠsica San SebastiŠn a home-game, the classic race youíd love to win most?

Itís a special race for Basques, but if I really get to pick then itíd be LiŤge-Bastogne-LiŤge. Iím also riding the Tour of Flanders for the first time this year. Primarily to learn, I donít have any objectives in mind there. Weíll see where I end up, but thereís not much you can do against the Belgian cobble-specialists when youíve never ridden the race before, I think. The Tour of Flanders is almost magical to them, lo tienen en la sangre.

Did you train more than usual this winter, in order to prove yourself a worthy world champion?

No, less, actually, because I had so many obligations. But Iím not worrying, I wonít be super in the first month of the year of course, but a season is long. I donít feel any extra pressure now Iím world champion, and I donít believe in the so-called ďcurseĒ that is connected to the jersey.

You seem to be almost immune to stress.

Well, not completely, of course, but you knowÖ.Iím a laid-back guy. Life is more than cycling alone, which isnít to say that I donít want to make sacrifices in order to practice and enjoy my sport. I used to be training-obsessed; raining or not, Iíd make my miles. Daniel Clavero, a team-mate at Mercatone Uno, taught me to look at things from a different angle. Since then my results only got better. I donít weigh myself anymore either, nor do I use a pulse meter.

Last question: your girlfriend is training along with you guys here at the training camp. And she can keep up with you, but thatís not much of a surprise, is it?

No, Virginia (Berasategui) is world champion too. Sheís small, but she has a big engine, just like me (laughs). She won the world championship long-distance triathlon in Ibiza, last April. We havenít been together very long though; only for a month now. So everything is still great, so far (laughs).

Original article courtesy Gazet van Antwerpen. Translation by Jan Janssens.

Editor's Note: Igor's participation in the Tour of Flanders has not been confirmed, as a result of an auto accident he was involved in last week.

Astarloa wins the World Championship Road Race at Hamilton. Photo by Scott Schaffrick.

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