The boys from the Basque Country come to their first ever Giro d’Italia in desperate need of some kind of performance. Their season to date has been, quite frankly, appalling, with no victories and no notable results to speak of - nobody involved with the team wants this slide to go on, not least the fans. While it seems some other teams have heightened their standards to match the new-fangled competitiveness of the ProTour, Euskaltel-Euskadi – bottom but one in the standings - seem almost content with mediocrity for the time being, suggesting that there will be a great burden on the shoulders of Iban Mayo in the Tour or Vuelta this summer. Much loved by cycling fans (especially Crazy Jane) and with an orange jersey instantly recognisable in any peloton, the team management will just be hoping that at least one of their fluorescent flashes can mix it with some of the best - day in, day out.
However, with the team Euskaltel have brought to Reggio Calabria, it’s difficult to see where a strong result can come from. Unless their leaders Haimar Zubeldia and Aitor Gonzalez, or possibly veteran mountain goat Roberto Laiseka, can remedy erratic ways and channel good form into a stage victory or a solid overall performance, Euskaltel could end up with very slim pickings from this year’s Giro, leaving them with even more to do to resurrect their season.
Euskaltel-Euskadi for the Giro d’Italia
Spearheading their overall challenge should be Haimar Zubeldia (left), who is still fuelling Basque hopes after that brief glimpse of potential at the 2003 Tour, where he combined with Iban Mayo effectively in the mountains to eventually finish fifth overall. After winning the Euskal Bizikleta as a 23 year old, Zubeldia indeed had to carry a lot of pressure on his then-young shoulders. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his slightly fragile confidence, he then lapsed back into a few years of average performances before the centenary tour. His team will just be hoping that, after last season’s solid but by no means impressive displays, Zubeldia will have found his Grand Tour legs again for this race. On his day, Zubeldia is not only a strong time-trialist but an able climber – the only problem is, he will have to have ‘his day’ for almost two weeks of mountains. Ignored by most hardcore fans in favour of the many other more prominent three-week riders riding in this year’s Giro, he could still provide a shock.
The second ‘option’ is another rider capable of sporadic brilliance, Aitor Gonzalez Jimenez, who jumped ship from Fassa Bortolo to Euskaltel at the end of last season. He still remains a mystery after that brilliant Vuelta three years ago where he attacked his then-teammate Sevilla on the Angliru (not so brilliantly diplomatic) and won the overall after the final time-trial. After securing a lucrative contract with Giancarlo Ferretti at Fassa Bortolo and vowing to win the Giro the next year year, he delivered very little. While an opportunistic Tour stage victory last year put disguised what was still a poor season for Gonzalez, “TerminAitor” should recognise that he is in the last-chance saloon here. Nonetheless, the Giro is a happy hunting ground for him - in the past, he's won three stages in this race, including two in 2002 when he finished sixth.
Like Zubeldia, he climbs on power and does well against the clock. Both have shown little form thus far this season, and both are notoriously inconsistent – Euskaltel will just be hoping one of their leaders has the form to grab a respectable overall placing or even a stage.
On the hunt for stages, there is Roberto Laiseka – the only surviving member of the original Euskaltel team from its inception way back in 1995. While clearly devoted to the cause and in it for the long haul, Laiseka is known for his lax attitude to training. Still, the veteran warhorse roared back into the spotlight last year with second overall at the Euskal Bizikleta and third at the Tour of Catalunya. Probably most remembered for a gutsy 2001 Tour stage win at Luz Ardiden which delighted home fans, Laiseka still has a shot at a mountain stage in the Giro, but at 35 - and he'll reach 36 during the second week of the Giro - you’d have to say he's past his best.
Another wily old campaigner is Alberto Lopez de Munain. Like the majority of Basques, he is a solid climber, but his persistence has not been rewarded with results in recent years. Still, like Laiseka, he will be one of the olds hands on board to steady the nerves of the younger riders.
One of the surprises of the season so far for Euskaltel – though there’s hasn’t exactly been much to shout about for the squad – has been David Lopez. After two years spent with Café Baque, Lopez was signed to increase the squad numbers, but he’s actually been one of the best riders of the spring for Euskaltel, with seventh overall at the Vuelta a Aragon, eleventh in the tough Classika Primavera as well as twentieth at Tirreno-Adriatico. Though I bet his team wouldn’t half mind a Cunego-esque prodigious-rise-to-prominence story from this young climber, it looks likely that Lopez is riding the Giro for grand tour experience as much as anything else.
Unai Etxebarria – Courtesy of Bart Hazen
Samuel Sanchez and Unai Etxebarria have been two of the most successful Classics riders for Euskaltel in recent years, as both usually help to stave off the critics in the early season – Sanchez has had two top six performances in Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2003 and 2004, while Venezuelan – the only “foreigner” on the roster – Etxebarria was second behind Aerts in Fleche Wallone three years ago. However, the Spaniard has had injury problems this year and had no results to speak of in the Ardennes Classics this time round, and Etxebarria has also done precious little. With Sanchez making the difficult transition from “promising hopeful” to “established performer” at 27, he needs to finish here to steady his season for an Autumn assault. Both should be helpful domestiques here, while still also being long shots for breakaway glory.
The two other young guns racing at the Giro for the team are Igor Anton, drafted in as a late replacement for Haimar’s brother Joseba, and Gorka Verdugo. Verdugo is a latecomer to professional cycling last year at the age of 26 when he joined from top amateur outfit Caja Rural, and has few results to speak of. Both should be along purely for experience; another other result will be a bonus. Still, 22 year old neo-pro Anton could put in a solid performance overall, as he’s adapted well to the world of professional cycling and has the makings of a good little climber after several respectable finishes, most recently at the Tour of Romandie.
Euskaltel-Euskadi – Giro Lineup
Igor Anton (Spanish, 22 years old)
Unai Etxebarria (Spa, 32)
Aitor Gonzalez (Spa, 30)
Roberto Laiseka (Spa, 35)
Alberto Lopez de Munain (Spa, 33)
David Lopez (Spa, 24)
Samuel Sanchez (Spa, 27)
Gorka Verdugo (Spa, 26)
Haimar Zubeldia (Spa, 28)